Monthly Archive: November 2015

Empathy and Sympathy – A world of difference

We’re heading toward the traditional time of offering goodwill towards our fellows. It’s also a time of enormous expectations – that we put on ourselves and that others put on us. During this time, it’s so important that we not only have empathy for ourselves, but that we show it, as well, towards ourselves.

I was talking about this with a friend the other day, and was using the words “empathy” and “sympathy” interchangeably. My friend challenged me about discovering the difference between being sympathetic about a person’s circumstances and having empathy for them.  When I did some soul searching and some research, I discovered there is a world of difference.

Turning first to my quick source of all things these days – google – I looked up their definitions. Sympathy is defined as feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

Sympathy separates us from the circumstances of another – it’s another’s misfortune we observe, not ours; there is no sense of a shared experience, or even of one person connecting with another.  Empathy connects us in our shared experiences.  Sympathy is about difference and isolation; empathy is about similarity and connection.

Empathy is about true, intimate, compassion, and includes compassion for ourselves as well as for the other.  Who better than Pema Chödrön to enlighten us on this.

Ms. Chödrön writes and speaks tirelessly about empathy.  She sees it as the root of all true intimacy. In her article in Lion’s Roar, The Natural Warmth of the Heart , she refers to empathy as a ‘natural warmth’.  It’s something we can only learn about through personal loss. In her own words :

 “We go along for years moving through our days, propelled by habit, taking life pretty much for granted. Then we or someone dear to us has an accident or gets seriously ill, and it’s as if blinders have been removed from our eyes. We see the meaninglessness of so much of what we do and the emptiness of so much we cling to.”

When we experience personal loss, it does something to our ability to open our hearts to others, and to truly connect. Then someone enters our lives who reminds us of a past time of personal sorrow, and we have a choice – either to open or close – to show empathy or sympathy.

Ms. Chödrön has a way of connecting to our own vulnerability when we face that choice.  It’s called Tonglen meditation. This meditation is all about connecting with all others who have felt, or feel, the pain you feel ; it reminds us that we aren’t alone. Here’s how to practice Tonglen meditation.

Tonglen has three levels of connection.

First : when you feel a moment of pain or discomfort, think to yourself ‘Other people feel this’.  Taking this step and meditating on it is enough, in itself, to connect and open your empathy toward others.

Second : if it feels genuine in the moment, think ‘May we all be free of this’, or even more deeply, think ‘May this become a path for awakening the hearts of all of us’. Think of all the people you know, all the people who may have felt what you feel, and include them in this thought.

Third, the deepest level of courage : Think Since I’m feeling this anyway, may I feel it so that others could be free of it.’

This is the tru spirit of empathy, the tru spirit of tonglen

Brené Brown – Empathy and Sympathy

Quote of the Week

If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the peoplewho drive us crazy, can be our teacher.
― Pema Chödrön


At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us.  As a registered psychotherapist and stress coach, I offer individual one-on-one consultations.
For more information, visit my website or contact me directly at

Living with Challenge

I have an illness that is debilitating at times. It interferes with what I want and feel I need to do.  It scares me. It has drastically changed the way I live.

It’s only a few years old, although when I look back, I can see signs that began long before then. It’s hard not to blame myself for it, reviewing past decisions to see what I could have done better.  That’s really a waste of energy.  So my focus is on what I can do today to help myself and my loved ones live well with this added challenge.

This isn’t my only challenge, but I think it’s been my biggest teacher. It’s taught me to pay attention to what’s real, and important, and not worry about anything else.  It’s taught me to value my relations and friendships. It’s taught me to be grateful for every moment.

I was inspired recently by an amazing woman I met who suffers from another illness that is not really understood, Beth Nguyen, founder and head of WSCTF (Worldwide Syringomyelia & Chiari Task Force).  The mission of this organization is to educate the rest of us about this debilitating and life-threatening disease, and to offer support for sufferers and care givers. Clicking on “WSCTF” will send you to their very informative website.

It helps to regard our major life challenges as the raw material for metamorphosis, because every one of them changes us in a way that is irreversible. Martha Beck suggests that it’s very much like what happens when a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly.  First they shed their skin and become an almost formless pulp, then gradually they begin to evolve into a brand new wonder, the adult butterfly.

Here are the stages:

Phase 1 – Dissolving.  The challenge that has brought us to this point forces us to change – it’s new and we stand facing the unknown. It’s frightening, because we need to learn new ways to deal with this new situation.  Whatever worked before probably doesn’t work anymore.  Our world might feel as though it’s dissolving around us. For me, doing something physical – like karate or hiking – was my go-to; I can’t do that anymore and need to find a new and good alternative. During this phase, it’s critical that we care for ourselves. It’s also important that we grieve the passing of what we had, making room for something new and different.

Phase 2 – Imagining. This can happen once the trauma of our new life situation has passed. We’ve had to simply put one step in front of the other at times, confused and frightened.  Now we’ve achieved some knowledge, understanding and balance with our new situation.  And this gives us the needed room to imagine new possibilities.  How can you best support the circumstances you find yourself in? What do others who have already traveled your path have to say?  For me, I began to alter the way I lived to support my particular situation, and also began to turn to less strenuous physical activities that were, in themselves, fulfilling, and supportive.

Phase 3 – Re-Forming. This is the experimental phase of testing and challenge.  Everything is new so we can expect that not everything is going to go smoothly.  It’s also a time of testing our own limits, and offers us an opportunity for deeper learning that otherwise would never happen.

Phase 4 – flying.  When we’re able to spread our newly formed wings and fly – when we regain the confidence and reached a comfort level with our new life.  No matter what our situation, this is a time of celebration, because without this new major change, we could not have grown.  Enjoy it, because as long as you live, life offers up challenges, and opportunities for growth and gratitude.

Steep Your Soul – Meet this Amazing Guy, Chris

Quote of the Week

“A trap is only a trap if you don’t know about it. If you know about it, it’s a challenge.”
― China Miéville, King Rat


At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us.  As a registered psychotherapist and stress coach, I offer individual one-on-one consultations.  For more information, visit my webpage or contact me directly at

The Impact of Anger

There are many times in our lives that we have the right to be angry. Politics, being the victim of someone else’s abuse, being passed over for a raise or a promotion, someone’s child is bullying our child…there are plenty of good reasons to justify our anger. And there is certainly a time and place to be angry. But what happens when that anger defines who you are?

Last week I received an email from a client. She was upset because a friend, whom she has known for a long time, called her to discuss my client’s new boyfriend. During the conversation, my client’s friend said to her “You finally seem happy. All last year your Facebook posts were so angry that it was making me resent being your friend.” WOW! What a wake up call, right!

My client was hurt and upset. She had no idea that she was not only being perceived as an angry person through her social media posts, but how this perception was making friends really not like her during this time-frame. Not only this, but she had no idea that she was even appearing to be angry!

Holding on to anger will alienate you from friends, coworkers, children, family and people on the street. Anger also negatively impacts your health! So, how do you tell if your anger is taking over your life and impacting yourself and others?

Ask yourself these three simple questions?

1. Do I feel like I have to prove myself to the world based on my past?

2. Do I constantly find myself in conflicts with people over small, silly things?

3. Do you find yourself overly upset over other people’s injustices and getting involved with their problems – even if they are small?

Anger can kill you. Anger will alienate you. When we are justifiably angry, we have to deal with productively and then let it go. Want to schedule a free consultation with me to discuss anger and its impact within your life?

If so, click here:

Retraining ourselves to focus when we’re overwhelmed

There are many reasons for feeling overwhelmed.  One of them is fear of losing.  When I’m working on a project, I begin by listing everything I need to do or have done that will make the end result a success.  Then I prioritize, making sure those things that must be done, or done first, are highlighted.

So far so good.  Then I dig in, delegating whatever I don’t need to do, or that could be done better by someone else, if I can afford it.  Now, all I have left to do are a few major priorities.

Still good. And this is where things begin to unravel for me. For you, it might be a different spot in the process.  Wherever it is exactly, will be that point at which we begin to worry about the outcome. Why?  Because we are at this point diving into uncharted territory.  Because even after paring down our part of the do-do list to what seems manageable, there’s still too much to do.  Did I mention the rest of my life that continues with or without the project? If you don’t happen to have a project, you still have a life, and with today’s super-fast and super-available ways of sending us demands, requests, appeals for some of our time, there is always too much to do. And if you’re like me, after a while, I begin to panic that I’ve bitten off more than I can handle and it’ll all come crashing in on me any second.

The one thing we lose when we get overwhelmed is our ability to focus, or in Martha Beck’s words, we become attentionally blind.

We need to redevelop our search imaging ability.  When animals in the wild search for food, they do it by attending only to a particular search image that helps them ignore anything else that might otherwise get in the way.  We do that too.  Remember the last time you fell in love? Then for the next few months found it remarkable the number of people resembling your new love? In today’s packed world, we have too many choices; and if we allow any number of them to make space inside us, we lose our ability to focus, and end up attentionally blind instead.  When that happens, we simply stop and sink into overwhelm.

Last week, I shared 5 things you can do to avoid overwhelm.  Today I’m going to expand on one of them: focus. To relearn this major survival skill, I suggest you take yourself somewhere away from your computer and smart phone, from the usual elements that demand your time.  A coffee shop, or local event. Even a local shopping mall. Somewhere filled with competing demands that you aren’t particularly tied to.

You can think of this exercise as a kind of mindfulness meditation – in fact, a concrete application of mindfulness, with the element of fun added.

  • Close your eyes: Sit down, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing for a few minutes.
  • Chose and focus on a search image: Once you feel your heart rate slowing, and your breath slow and even, chose one thing to focus on – blond heads of hair, the color red – anything that simply takes your interest. Notice the numbers of things that fill your vision that are blond or red, and that everything else fades.
  • Chose a second search image: close your eyes once more, and focus on your breathing for a few minutes. Then open them and find a second element to focus on – women with children, or single men, for instance.  Notice how these then become prominent, and everything else fades. If you find you’re getting distracted with other things going on around you, relax and repeat the name of the search image to yourself – “women with children”, “single men”.
  • Now chose a practical search image: if you’re a good driver, you’ll know that it’s largely because you know what to look out for while you drive. This time, do it consciously – looking out for anything that moves.
  • Apply it to your particular problem: At home or at the office, chose your focus.  For me, that would be dividing the new priorities into small bites. That way, they go from overwhelming to doable. Then really putting everything non-critical in the rest of my life on hold till I get what needs to get done, done. I can give myself a level of comfort about this by letting my friends and family know what I’m doing, so that they don’t begin to worry about my absence. In other words, I’ve freed myself from anything but what I need to focus on.

If you aren’t convinced that your power of focused attention is huge, watch the next video.

Selective Attention

Quote of the Week

He was swimming in a sea of other people’s expectations. Men had drowned in seas like that.
― Robert Jordan, New Spring


At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us.  As a registered psychotherapist and stress coach, I offer individual one-on-one consultations.  For more information, visit my webpage or contact me directly at

5 Steps to Stay Calm

It’s Friday. Are you thinking about the weekend and Monday already? Many people are. They are using their weekends to catch up, not relax. We need more calm moments in our life. I know, easier said than done – right? Not really. There are 5 simple steps that you can do right now to induce more calm moments in your life. Want to know more? Follow these steps and then book your free consulting session with me by clicking here:

#1. Know that it is OK to be overwhelmed! You are not a super hero. You’re human. You will have human moments. You’re not weak because of this. Don’t try to hide it, embrace it and then seek help if you need it.

#2. Put your hands under warm running water for a while two minutes. If you have to set your iPhone, do so. Running warm water over your hands and wrists actually helps to reduce anxiety. Don’t believe me? Try it!

#3. Drink a bottle of water slowly. When you have to focus on something, it is hard to become overwhelmed with all that you have on your plate. Plus, water has many health benefits and helps your body gain more oxygen.

#4. Practice smiling in a mirror for a minute. This is used at UCLA Hospital in California. Many studies show that moving the face, especially smiling, actually reduces anxiety!

#5. Wrap yourself in a heated blanket. These blankets are available at your local home goods and housewares stores. Heat helps to calm the nerves and makes people feel more secure. On hard nights, or after a bad day at work, sitting in a hot blanket is enough to start to calm the gitters!

Sexual Harassment & Stress

I received a great question, via LinkedIn, yesterday. A woman wanted to know how to deal with stress at work when it is the result of sexual harassment. First, sexual harassment is illegal. When you don’t report it, you fail to allow your company to take care of the issue. You take on the weight of the issue allow and it will likely continue. You should always report any type of harassment in the work place and give your employer the opportunity to address the issue on your behalf.

Uncomfortable and illegal situations are always going to cause an increase in stress. No therapist in the world can remove this from you or make it go away. But, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or that it is not real. Sexual harassment is unfortunately a common occurrence in the workplace. It can take on the form of verbal or physical conduct. When it occurs, it is difficult to experience, and it is important to learn the ways to effectively deal with it.

After you go through the proper steps to report the harassment, there are three different cycles of stress.

1. Retaliation stress. This is when you worry about making your life at work harder after reporting the issue. It is also when you’re caused stress because you might feel the company will terminate you for being proactive.

2. Survivor’s stress. This is when you feel guilty and overwhelmed for turning in the guilty party. Yes, they have a family. Yes, they have bills. Yes, they should’ve known better than to harass you at work and cause the situation. Depending on the degree of the harassment, this could last up to six months after the incident. It is normal to have these stressful and guilty feelings.

3. Uncomfortable stress. When is stress not uncomfortable? This type of stress is the stress that happens during social times at the job. Perhaps there is a potluck or birthday celebration. People start joking around and then become silent when you walk in. They don’t want you to take anything the wrong way and it becomes obvious, noticeable, and socially stressful. While there is no getting around office gossips and the assumptions as to what may have happened between yourself and another party, you can directly address this type of stress by clearing the air (if you’re legally allowed to talk about it) in-front of everyone.

I do offer FREE counseling consultations and I am willing to discuss stress-related issues. Please email me at to setup an appointment or to further discuss this topic with me.


5 things you can do when you’re overwhelmed

The endless refrain of the overworked, stressed-out, modern-day man and woman. It produces in us a feeling of emotional overload, of being overwhelmed. In fact, it’s so prevalent, that society has adopted a new noun to cover it – overwhelm.

I live in Toronto, a fast-paced city loaded with the chronically stressed.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen or done the crazy driving, running between appointments. Knowing that this is crazy, and doing it anyway.

When we feel overwhelmed with too much to do, we often end feeling anxious – attempting to do something that’s actually impossible – pleasing everybody by wanting or trying to somehow miraculously get everything done. And done well!

In fact, what happens is – if we get everything done, or even if we don’t – we do a mediocre job and it isn’t appreciated. That leaves us feeling not only anxious about any future possibilities, but depressed about our present circumstances.

Overwhelm leads directly to anxiety, mediocrity, and eventually depression.

Erika Andersen and Marie Forleo suggest this:

  • Do only what you can. Too often we spend valuable time on activities that someone else can do equally as well.  And that’s assuming the task is important. Learn to delegate when you have a full load.
  • Learn to do things only once. How often have you left an hour-long meeting and then rehashed it all over again later that day or week.  Or discovered that the person you’re meeting with isn’t prepared. Really a waste! Ask yourself: how would I feel if I knew that every meeting I go to will either be productive or rescheduled? Relieved, I bet! This is something you can learn to expect of yourself and of others.
  • Focus on what’s important. It’s a fact that we spend more time that we know doing things that don’t matter.  Some of that time is necessary – we need down time, need to rest our brains.  The rest of that time we aren’t even conscious of.
  • Take time out.  Speaking of down time, make this deliberate.  It may seem like a foolish thing to do if you’re busy, but even 10 to 30 minutes – a walk, meditation, making lunch and enjoying it, will do something that mimics sleep: consolidation and integration.
  • Learn to say “No”. Everything takes more time than you think. Is it a priority?  Can someone else do it? Is even thinking of it exciting or draining?  Inside each of us is a voice of wisdom that knows when to say “No”. Source that inner voice and learn to use it.

Then, when you say “Yes”, you can give it your all.

Juan Felipe Herrera – What to Do When You’re Overwhelmed

Quote of the Week

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.
– Dan Gilbert

Overworked & Under Paid

It is very possible to be overworked. Most people start to feel stressed after working somewhere for 9 months. Now, imagine working somewhere for 9 years (or longer).  Stress is a part of life and knowing how to deal with not only the stress of deadlines, client interactions, and boss pressures- we also have to handle interoffice politics, personal challenges, and – in many cases- kids!  Not being able to handle bills or not making enough money also adds to the surmounting pressures of our daily lives.

So, how do you deal with being overworked and under paid? Well, first you have to consider your environment. Is the job’s stress too much or are the people at work causing more stress than needed? Once you start to look at your environment, you can look at the issues behind your stress and where they are truly coming from.

I don’t ask people what is stressing them out to identify the root of stress at work or personal stress. Instead, I ask them 3 very direct questions. I am listing these questions below. It is my hope that you write each question down on a piece of paper and then really hand write the answers. Being it is Friday, tuck your answers and the paper away for the week and schedule yourself to revisit it at this time next week. You’ll have a fresh perspective and it will help you determine if your overworked stress issues are job-related or people related, which can help you then identify how to approach the issue with a positive solution.

1. Are you not as nice as you want to be or use to be? Really think about how you speak to people and what your body language says. Are you truly being nice? If not, why?

2. Are you always attending your own pity party? Yes, we all do this from time-to-time. We have internal conversations about how we have been short-changed or passed over. But if you do this more than once a month, it is time to consider why these internal conversations are so frequent.

3.  Your mind can’t jump into any other activity. You may find yourself at your child’s soccer game, but maybe your thoughts are with deadlines at work or what that peer said to you in the break room. If you can’t break free from conversations or drama at work (deadlines included), why is this? You should be able to go home or to other events and not have work or work-related stress on your mind.

Until next week,

Maryanne Nicholls with The Joy of Living

Past Life Trauma, Present Day Problems

Today, while in the grocery store, I overheard two women arguing over if a past life problem with a man was leading to her current “dry spell” when it came to dating. They were depicting if traumas of the past could impact today. Well, Yes! Trauma of any sort can impact (for both good and bad) how we behave in and respond to our current environments.

Holocaust survivors and their children (even grandchildren) have reported a phenomenon called Memory Cell Imaging. Yes, trauma from their lineage can actually be seen on a grandson’s MRI brain scan! It is very possible. Here’s a link to more reading on this subject:

So, while it may seem a bit silly regarding what the females were arguing over, trauma from your past (no matter what lifetime) molds who you are today. How you respond to acknowledging this data is what counts! Most of us are not prepared to deal with trauma on our own. We self-medicate, we isolate, we turn to unhealthy relationships to distract us from the real issues at hand, and so forth.

Moving forward and understanding your environment and how you respond is the key to healing and preventing your trauma from being passed on to future generations. No, there is no pill to bypass the work, only lessen some of the featured symptoms.

If you feel like you have been on the wrong side of trauma, contact me. I do offer FREE consultations to see if we are good match to work with one another and to let you see if you agree with some of my theories and philosophies. Want to know more? Please click here to schedule your free session,

Risk is Scary!

Risk is scary, especially today when we feel, for the most part, so insecure.  Few well-paying jobs, more real unemployment (no matter what the GOP tells us – their measurement methods are outdated), more and more old enough to retire and unable to, or young enough to wonder how to continue to live reasonably well with shrinking opportunities.

For some who have secure jobs, it may seem they have it all; but secure jobs come at a price, and that price might be more than they’re willing to pay.

And yet, these days if we want to live well, more than ever, we need to take risks.  It takes courage to take a risk – older person, younger person, secure job person – because it means stepping into the unknown.

I’m thinking of a friend who left a cushy joy to do something that means a great deal to her.  Of another friend who lost all his savings and in his 50’s, chose to begin a venture that would not replace what he’s lost, but would make him feel he was contributing to making a better world. Of a young woman just starting out, willing to live with almost nothing in order to pursue her art.

What can these people teach us about taking a risk?

Free yourself up for change – time spent working and living could take up all the energy you have.  Before you go ahead with the change, make time for it.  Take a look at how you use your time and see what can go, then dedicate that freed-up time to your pursuit.

Small steps – taking a risk is stressful – you are stepping out into who-knows-what, so none of your former learning can help, or so you think. Most new things can be accomplished in steps. For instance, when my friend lost all his savings, he chose a new venture by first preparing while he continued to work, then trying it out nights and weekends.

Re-purpose what you have – Just because you’re taking on something new doesn’t mean all the skills and wisdom you’ve accumulated, and that have supported you so well in the past, won’t work in this new situation.  They probably will!

Don’t do this alone – You don’t have to! When you invite others to join you in whatever capacity, you’ll be surprised at the response.  That young woman had the support of her family and community. It made a huge difference to her.

Stay true to your dream – or what moved you to make this leap.  You may need to adjust things and try different routes before you get to where you want to go. And for those of us beginning something new later in life, be kind to yourself – you aren’t 18 anymore and to start something new means you aren’t the expert.  Be willing to start as a newbie. It’s all part of the journey.

3-minute Meditation
This meditation was developed by John Kabat-Zinn to help you get through a tough moment, wherever you are.


Quote of the Week

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
-T. S. Eliot
For a set of free 3-minute mindfulness meditations, visit my website . Each one focuses on one of the 7 pillars of mindfulness. It’s a great way to start or end your day.I’m re-opening enrollment to my program, Burning the Candle at Both Ends this Fall, and working hard on planning a webinar, also in November called Three Brief and Unusual Ways to Live Stress-Free. I’ll keep you informed as things unfold.