As we enter into a new year, the pandemic continues to challenge many of our previous ideas regarding certainty. To cope, many of us are turning to light hearted sources of escapism, which can be a genuine source of comfort during these unusual times. Indeed, several therapeutic modalities - including dialectical behavioral therapy - count moderate distraction as an effective way to tolerate distress. One of my favourite go-to’s for a dose of certainty, a genre that’s reassuringly consistent well into the new year, are made-for-TV holiday movies.

In case you’re not familiar with the format, here are the ingredients for this comforting staple:

i) the protagonists meet each other, usually when they least expect it. Oh and by the way, they’re totally not right for each other (big wink).

ii) Adorkable, eccentric best friend pushes the protagonist to take a romantic risk.

iii) After some hesitation, the protagonist takes said risk, then proceeds to clumsily fall/have an allergic reaction/burn some holiday cookies/charmingly make a fool of themself

iv) Protagonist enters a short period of self-criticism and self-sabotage before eventually dusting himself/herself off and trying their hand at love again.

iv) light conflict ensues between the two leads until they eventually end up bonding over a winter beverage while wearing aspirational yet attainable winter wear.

v) after realizing their affection for each other (to the surprise of no one) they ride off into the sunset, with the backdrop of twinkly lights framing their happy ending.

There you have it! The suspense - if any - is minimal, and most viewers can rest assured that any predictions made in the first 5 minutes will come true (it’s not exactly Dickens here). Although the storylines are simplistic, in these uncertain times, it makes sense that this comforting movie genre extends beyond Christmas and well into the New Year.

Last week, as the new variant started to make headway in my neck of the woods, I perused my Netflix queue looking for some predictability. I came across a delightful-looking film called “Love Hard” that, on the surface, seemed to tick all the right boxes. Within the first 10 minutes I was confident that I had successfully predicted the outcome, and joyfully enjoyed the familiar hijinks of a formulaic holiday classic. Thankfully, I was wrong. *Spoilers ahead!*

‘Love Hard’ stars a young woman - Natalie - who is searching for love via online dating. After several ill-fated matches, she eventually connects with her seemingly perfect match: Josh. Everything about their pairing seems ideal - until they meet face-to-face. It turns out that the man on the other side of her chats was using a fake photo to present himself in a more “positive” light. Together, the two leads face the ups and downs of confronting each other’s flaws and qualities, all while getting to know the real person beyond their profile. Overall, it’s a fun, low-stakes story about two people getting to know each other authentically while rapidly dismantling their social masks with comedic flair.

So what can we learn about the therapeutic process from this lighthearted, made for-TV, holiday comedy? Although the therapeutic relationship is necessarily different from a personal relationship, two themes stood out as relevant to consider when approaching the counselling process:

1. It takes time to find the right fit

The therapeutic relationship is a strictly professional dynamic, but it’s one that involves one-sided disclosure of very personal and vulnerable information. Research shows that the quality of the therapeutic relationship is a key factor for the improvement of client outcomes. As such, many therapists encourage clients to consult with several counsellors via free consultations to ensure a good fit. While it can take time to discover the right ‘match’ when it comes to your mental health care provider, finding a clinician that you feel comfortable with is well worth the effort.

2. Therapy involves removing your ‘perfect’ mask

In social interactions, most of us want to make a good first impression (therapists included!). However, therapy often involves disclosing some uncomfortable information that threatens the social mask of ‘perfection’ many of us hold.

In ‘Love Hard’, the character of Josh literally uses the image of someone he deems perfect to hide behind. Over the course of the film, this mask eventually slips and Josh’s true self is revealed. However, this process is hard won. Josh (like many of us), experiences several instances of shame, loneliness, and embarrassment before he finally comes to accept and celebrate his authentic self. Indeed, it’s only after removing this mask of perfection, that Josh is able to experience genuine interactions with his family, and lean into his passions and interests. Josh’s character arc is a poignant reminder that revealing our true selves is an arduous, and often messy process. Yet, choosing to be vulnerable in a safe environment, can eventually lead to experiencing authentic relationships and experiences, allowing us to be free in our perfectly imperfect selves.

By the end of ‘Lovehard’, Josh and Natalie’s true personas are revealed, beyond their initial masks of perfection. While the ending may seem predictable, the journey to both character’s ‘happy ending’ is filled with the ups and downs we all go through in order to discover our authentic selves.

In the midst of these challenging times, I hope you’re able to spend time getting to know yourself, and when it feels safe, opening up to healthy personal and professional dynamics where you can be seen for who you are. And while you’re on this roller coaster journey of self discovery, don’t hesitate to turn to the comforts of a familiar formula. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Wishing you a healthy and safe start to the new year!

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I've had a knack for the outdoors for as long as I can remember. I grew up going to a summer camp with all the traditional campy things: canoeing, kayaking, swimming, nature hikes and campfires. I remember going on canoe trips and gazing up at the starts, marvelling at the vastness of the universe (A sight which still inspires awe in me today). It felt amazing being out in nature. It's no wonder that as I grew in to my teenage years I was captivated for some time by Christopher McCandless (AKA Alexander Supertramp). For those who don't know, Chris was a man who had an idea to leave his life behind and go live entirely off the land, and his life was portrayed in both the novel and movie "In to the wild".

Like many teenagers, I was struggling to find my identity, feeling lonely and isolated, at times, and so what was there not to love about Chris' idea? Being out in nature all the time? Um, yup. Feeling a sense of satisfaction from living off the land, providing for yourself and not having to rely on others? Uh huh. Running away from any problems in your life and never facing them again? Heck ya! I fantasized about how cool this way of life could be.

The trope that Chris represents of the uber-independent individual who needs no one but him or herself can be found in countless places, and particularly arises in narratives in western culture. It was an alluring idea for me, and obviously an alluring idea for many based on the success of the movie and novel. Chris embodies this ideal in the scene where he is leaving his family:

"I will miss you too, but you are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. God's place is all around us, it is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things."

Chris held strongly on to this idea that human relationships are not the source of happiness and connection. Independence, self-sustaining, nature, and new experiences were what did it for him (apparently). Needless to say, this idea is not something that I held on to (Disconnection Counselling just didn't have the same ring to it), but I can certainly see the allure of this way of thinking.

In Western Culture especially, we place a high value on independence, individual accomplishment, and self-love, while placing a lesser value (and sometimes even deride) dependency on others. Independence is held to high esteem, while dependence is frowned upon, sometimes associated with words like clingy and needy, which carry a negative connotation. This is not the same for all cultures. Many cultures are more collectivist in nature, placing a much higher value on community and relationships, and not stigmatizing the need to depend on others for emotional and physical needs. Not so in Western culture. Even turn to the DSM (what clinicians use to diagnosis mental illness) and you’ll see “dependent personality disorder” but no “independent personality disorder”. Although there are certainly problems that can and do arise from being overly dependent on others, there are also costs to being overly dependent on our selves.

Let's come back to Alexander Supertramp. So how does our hero's story end? Well, he travels the Country, does a bunch of cool stuff, meets interesting people, but ultimately (Spoiler alert*) he ends up dying of starvation, unable to live off the land as he intended. In the movie, he etches out some of his last words “Happiness is only found when shared” shortly before his death. Happiness is only found when shared. This man who sought out to become one of the most independent individuals alive, in the end, could not shake the truth that human connection is a necessity for survival.

Now let’s consider another story. Wisdom can be found in many places, and I have been amazed at the pithy insights I re-encounter as I read old children’s books together with my niece. One in particular: "The missing piece meets the big O” describes this "piece” (A triangular cut out of a circle) that feels lonely, isolated, and is looking for someone else to make him/her feel complete. This piece goes searching around, finding circles with chunks missing and keeps trying to fit in, to no avail. The piece spends some time on its own, but this also, does not bring happiness. In the end, the piece finds “the big O”. This "Big O" is a complete circle with no pieces missing, and the big O encourages the missing piece to roll on its own. With the big O’s support, nurturance and encouragement, the missing piece gains the strength and courage to lift itself up and gradually flip over and over. Over time, the missing piece’s rough edges begin to smooth, and the two begin to roll together, side by side, supporting each other. One could look at this as yet another story emphasizing the self-love, prizing independence above all else narrative, however I think it is deeper, and more real than this. I believe the Big O represents a healthy, encouraging, loving friend, without which the missing piece could not have realized its independence. Independence first requires a dependence on another.

To me, this story is the perfect metaphor for healthy, human connection and relationships. Whether you see yourself in the piece as it is striving to find an individual to latch on to and fuse with, losing yourself in another's identity, or you see yourself as the one wanting to roll out on your own with no one, it may be time to consider, instead, rolling alongside a supportive other. A relationship (friendship, romantic, family) is most healthy when we feel safe, comfortable, allowed to try and fail, allowed to be ourself, allowed to depend on each other, AND allowed to do our own thing. This is what psychologists call the concept of a secure base. It is the kind of healthy relationship that children need from their primary caregiver. It is also analogous to a healthy romantic relationship. And I would assert that this applies to friendships as well. Fostering these relationships around us allows us to have more love for our self. Interdependence fosters independence. They are the yin to each others yang.

A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, (Even) when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them

-David Whyte

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  • Daniel Alexander

This blog explores some hard topics related to family relationships. It may bring up some difficult feelings. It also offers hope and strategies in coping with the holidays, and the difficult feelings that may come up. Trust your wisdom to know if this is something for you right now.

In the best of times, the holiday season can already be filled with an array of complex emotions. Throw in a global pandemic and many more will unfortunately be in for a very challenging holiday season. For every child falling asleep on Christmas eve, anxiously anticipating what Santa will bring them the next morning, buzzing with joy and hope, there is a child that is hiding, frozen in their room, protecting themselves from the sound of their parents fighting in the kitchen downstairs, desperately hoping that when they wake up in the morning, there will be calm, peace, no fighting, for once.

For every reconnection of a parent and child, after months, or even years of estrangement, beginning to repair the hurts of the past and move forward in a new direction, there is someone carrying the grief, the hurt, the pain of their childhood trauma, doing what they need to do to set firm boundaries with those who hurt them, knowing things will never be what they want them to be. There are many, many more experiences all the way in between what has just been described, and navigating these relationships is incredibly difficult.

I don’t say these things in any way to discount the joy, happiness, and connection that the holidays can bring. I say these things to acknowledge the deep diversity of experiences that exist within our humanity. Both the pain and the joy. The elation and the suffering. And as much as a space needs to be made to celebrate the good, a space needs to be made to acknowledge the hardships that come with this season as well.

The holidays can trigger intense hurt from our past. Many individuals carry the pain of very difficult childhoods, parents who were unable to show or give the love that was needed. As these children become adults, they begin to navigate how to heal these hurts, how to maintain, or not maintain, these parent child relationships. I want to stress that THERE IS NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL approach to healing from wounds of our childhood in adult life. Sometimes maintaining these relationships, despite the hardships and struggle, is what is needed. Sometimes, cutting one's self off from these relationships is the best thing for them. AND, just because what works for us now, does not mean this will always be what we need. What is needed to heal can change over time. Family relationships are complex.

I hope this blog can help you know that you are not alone in these difficulties. The experience of having a parent struggling with alcohol abuse and the impacts that can have on children is unfortunately all too common. This is just one example. If you are struggling with these wounds, know that you are not alone. Of course that will not make the pain go away, but perhaps it can help to make it bearable. Think about the others that may be reading this, that may resonate with how you feel, that may understand what it’s like to carry the grief, the feelings of unworthiness, unlovability, and disconnection from those who were supposed to offer just the opposite. Perhaps just take a moment to pause, and to send your compassionate energy to them. Sending a message of love and acceptance. Notice what that feels like for you to send out to these fellow humans. Now, see if you can extend that same energy to yourself. It may be harder, it may not be something you’re used to, but you deserve it. You do. Just let that simmer, and notice how you feel. Extending this compassion to self and others reminds us of our common humanity. To continue this experience, consider following this link: a meditation on the commonality of suffering:

For the next part of this blog, I’d like to expand on ways to cope with the difficult emotions that may come up this holiday season. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but consider using it as a starting point, or adding to what you already know.

Here are some other ways of wading through these complex feelings in the holidays season. I am going to break into 2 categories: 1. Emotional processing. 2. Shifting attention and direction.

1. Emotional processing means creating space for us to feel what we need to feel. To begin to take the lid off the jar of emotions we have been tightly sealing. To let ourselves be sad without judgement. To let ourselves be angry without judgement. Even to let yourself judge yourself...without judgement. Here are some ways of doing this this holiday season:

-Journalling: Name the feelings that you feel. If you name it you can tame it. Putting the thoughts and feelings that are in our mind on paper can be a huge step towards calming the chaos inside. Note the language you use. Shifting from "I am sad" to "I am feeling sad" can in and of itself create some distance from the feeling, help us interact with it ore easily. After having written what you feel, what’s going through your mind, write a second entry. This time, write this letter in response to what you just wrote. What would you want to say to yourself? How might you respond, if you were responding to a compassionate friend? What would they want to hear?

-Talk to a friend. Holding feelings inside can be incredibly difficult when we do it all on our own. Having the space of a compassionate friend can somehow incredibly lighten this load.

-Meditate. There are a number of types of meditation. Meditation allows us to learn to experience our difficult emotions, to learn to not be as afraid of them, to move from “I am overwhelmed” to “I am feeling overwhelmed, in this moment in time”. Here is just one app that you may consider exploring:

2. Shifting attention and direction. Sometimes, the emotions are just so big that it can be too much to sit in at that moment. This is when I often use the analogy of a water tap. Emotional processing is slowly letting out the water (emotions) but sometimes we need to close it to not feel so overwhelmed. When we do this, it’s important to tell the part of ourself that is feeling overwhelmed that we will be back to give it space and love. Here are some strategies:

-Gratitude practice: What do you have to be grateful for? Get specific, it doesn’t need to be big. Look around you. In this space right now I can name 5 things: I am grateful to have the ability to write and share my thoughts with you in the hope it may help. I am grateful to be able to look out a window from the comfort of my desk. I am grateful for the peace that comes with sipping my morning coffee. I am grateful that I can open youtube and throw on virtually any song that I want as I write. I am grateful that I do not need to worry about where my next meal will come from. I am grateful for rest over the holidays.

-Do something that brings you a sense of accomplishment: wash some dishes, fold some clothes (note to self, I know what I’ll be doing after this), go for a walk, listen to a podcast, whatever it is, doesn’t need to be big, in fact, start small, those small steps are what creates the momentum for even bigger shifts.

-Exercise: Unfortunately, this is not possible for everyone, both due to Covid, and not everyone is able bodied. However, even with these limitations, ask yourself, what can I do to get my heart rate going? Maybe it’s a walk, maybe it’s running up and down the stairs. Maybe, if these things aren’t possible, it’s doing what we call “progressive muscle relaxation”. This exercise involves tensing the various areas of our body for 5-10 seconds at a time, and then relaxing them. Although not quite the same as exercising, this does work out our muscles in a similar way to weight training, and can bring a sense of calm and comfort.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and I want to emphasize that the goal here is not to completely alleviate yourself of suffering. If there are wounds that you have, they will be painful sometimes. I hope that these thoughts can help you bear these difficult emotions in a new way, so they do not overwhelm. I hope they can provide some reprieve, as you navigate both the difficulties, and the joys, of this holiday season.

Sending compassion to all this holiday season.


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