Archive: Psychotherapy

Confronting Mirrors


Have you ever been so committed to an idea or issue or movement that you have a hard time seeing any point of view but your own? I have, and am right now.  I want a particular person to be included at a big event next week because I believe he has something important to contribute. I believe this so much that I’m finding it almost impossible to hear the view of any nay sayers.

How could these people not see what I see? …  It’s so obvious! … I say to myself.

Then at some point I realize that I’ve done nothing but talk to myself, even if I talked to the others who I’m convinced won’t agree with me. Why? Because I’ve filtered what they’re saying and hear only what agrees with my foregone conclusions.

I miss the chance to really hear what they’re saying. It might be that they believe there’s simply no room for an extra person; or that if this person comes then so should their friend. It might even be that they  agree with me. Or that I caught them on a day their dog got lost.

Not missing what is on their minds means I can allow their concerns to register, mirroring back to them what they’re saying, and offering them a chance, in turn, to mirror my concerns back to me.

Confrontation can happen in one of two ways: either to win over the other person, or to take the conversation to a new level. The first is like a one-way mirror; the secnd like a window into each other’s soul.

From Martha Beck: Don’t be the light. Be the window.


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Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at .

Who do you feed?

If you haven’t heard the story about the 2 wolves, here it is: It’s an ancient Cherokee legend.

A boy comes to his grandfather for advice because he’s raging inside over a fight he had with his friend.  His grandfather tells him there are two wolves inside him. One is good and is joy, peace, love, hope, kindness, generosity, truth, compassion – all the things that give our lives joy; the other is evil and is anger, envy, regret, greed, guilt, resentment, doubt, false pride – all the things that make us miserable.

The boy thought for a minute, and then asks his grandfather which wolf would win.

Grandfather replies: The one you feed.

Which is good and which is evil isn’t always so easy to figure out. Here’s another, more modern, story (you may be familiar with some version of it):

A woman – Jane, let’s say – is faced with a choice, and can’t decide which is the better one. She’s just been offered the promotion she’s coveted for over a year, but it would mean relocating.  That’s OK for her, but not so OK for her son and husband, who like where they are and friends, colleagues and great prospects that they’d lose if they moved.  She would feel great. They would feel terrible. What should she do?

She might talk herself into one choice or the other, without ever really being clear about what motivated her. After all, if I were to be offered the job of my dreams, I’d be pretty hard-pressed to turn it down, and might rationalize my way into going, only to discover my mistake when it was too late. Or, she might avoid that mistake by imagining that it had already happened – both alternatives.

Alternative 1 – moving with her husband and son.  Imagine a typical day living in her new place – being honest with herself, how she’d feel getting up, how it would be between herself and her family walking through the whole day like that.

Alternative 2 – turning the job down and staying put. Imagine this typical day in the same way as she’s imagined the first alternative.

Which feels good? Which doesn’t feel good?  Which choice gives her peace and joy, and which doesn’t? Martha Beck refers to something like this in her book Steering by Starlight. She calls it “Find the Feeling”.

Sometimes knowing which wolf we’re feeding takes some effort, but the pay-off is worth it.

Peace of mind.


Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at .

The Psychopath Character Structure


In the first part of the 20th century, Austrian Psychoanalist Wilhelm Reich developed a theory explaining how we respond both physically and emotionally to the challenges we meet in life, especially in early life.   For the past few weeks, I’ve introduced you, in broad terms, to Character Structures in general, and to the Masochist, or Endurer, the Oral, the Schizoid, and the Rigid.  This week I’ll introduce you to the Psychopath body and character type, the 5th and fnal main type.

The Psychopath, or Challenger, structure is most often triangular – broad shoulders, puffed out chest, narrow hips. Like Superman, or even Wonder Woman.

The main issue with the Challenger is trust: where their self-expression as a child was either not enough or too much, resulting in being put down or idealized. As with the other character types, parents do this unintentionally for the most part, but done during a given developmental period, it will likely result in the child armoring themselves in a particular way – in this case, by way of the Challenger. This child learns quickly to produce a false self that is designed to please others and manipulate them, and never or rarely reveal their true self.  The Challenger is the one with his back to wall, in a position to survey all who enter.

At his worst, he truly is a characature, puffed up in self-protection and self-importance. At his best, he is a natural leader, and if he is able to learn how to trust and reveal his true self, is a positive influence on any group he belongs to.

For the past few weeks, I’ve introduced Character Structures very briefly. If you find this series interesting, and want to know more, I along with my friend and colleague Jane Mactinger will be holding a workshop on Character Structures in the near future.  Stay tuned for a date and time.


Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at .

The Endurer


In the first part of the 20th century, Austrian Psychoanalist Wilhelm Reich developed a theory explaining how we respond both physically and emotionally to the challenges we meet in life, especially in early life.  From his studies.

Last week, I introduced you, in broad terms, to Character Structures – what they are and how they develop.  This week I’ll introduce you to the Edndurer body and character type; also known as the Masochist type.  In the diagram above, the Endurer is depicted as someone who is somewhat heavy-set with slightly rounded arms and a solid base from the waist down. While this isnt always so pronounced in this character type, it’s generally so.

Why is this body type called a Masochist, or Endurer (I will use these 2 terms interchangably)? Because the person who armors in this way does so by holding in instead of expressing their displeasure or discomfort. They hunker down, waiting out any nlslaught that comes their way. They keep their opinions to themselves – and they have a lot of their own opinions.

In fact, if this kind of person doesn’t find a way of expressing to the rest of the world what’s on their mind, it begins to eat away at them, and they grow angry.  But because they never express themselves, this anger comes out in surrepticious ways – often cruel and petty ways – like biting remarks, leaving someone waiting, not showing up.

On the positive side, Masochists are powerful thinkers and doers, often chugging along when everyone else has long since left the scene.  They are reliable. Atlas carying the world on his (or her) shoulders.

The primary challenge of the Masochist is to speak what is on their mind, without anger.  This is a challenge, because the longer something is left unsaid, the more it’s laced with anger.  Often this means learning to speak up in stages: first speaking up to a tree or to nature or in your car, letting out all the anger – no holding back.  Then speaking up to a trusted friend, with the understanding that this is to help you learn to re-empower your voice and nothing else. Finally, speaking up once more to the world, re-owning that voice that somehow got silenced.

Next week, I’ll introduce the Oral character Type.  If you find this series interesting, and want to know more, and I along with my friend and colleague Jane Mactinger will be holding a workshop on Character Structures in the near future.  Stay tuned for a date and time.


Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at .

Non-Striving, one of the 7 pillars of mindfulness

The pillars of Mindfulness are Buddhist principles that help us live in beauty and peace.  One of them is non-striving.

I’m the kind of person who is always striving. Stiving to learn something new.  Striving to figure things out.  Striving to get somewhere. Striving involves incredible focus on whatever it is we are striving for,  which means little or no focus on anything else. That focus is on the future – some plan or future goal we’ve developed that is important to us.

If you’re like me, then you know that this practice and habit of striving means we miss a lot that is happening before our eyes. We miss that moment of tenderness or beauty; of connecting to that person beside us and with the world around us.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ll continue to strive for what gives my life meaning and purpose. Striving has its place. But striving sometimes hides dissatisfaction with what is, and can be a way to avoid what we think is, because unless we take a moment to look around us, whatever we believe is simply a thought in our minds.

This last point is important because we have such a huge capacity for self-deception. When I focus on something that engages me – say going for a hike in beautiful surroundings, or participating in a self-improvement course – I can lull myself into believing I’m into self-growth.  But if this is done at the expense of what I need to attend to – like, for instance, a failing relationship – then it’s really me striving to avoid seeing what I need to see.

So, if you’re like me, perhaps it’s time to take a breath, and simply look.

I first read of the 7 pillars of mindfulness in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book on mindfulness Full Catastrophe Living. These pillars are Buddhist principles that help us be present and mindful in our everyday living. The 7 meditations I offer to anyone who signs up on my website are based on these, and I use them in my own meditation practice.

Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at .

Fidget Spinning

Fidget Spinner

Have you noticed when you get anxious wanting to find a diversion that lets your mind keep going and that keeps you semi-occupied at the same time? I think that’s why solitaire is so popular – it’s kind of mindless and at the same time, engaging.  It helps us use up some of the nervous energy we generate when we’re stressed or heading into overwhelm.

What’s happening on Facebook and in anxiety support groups is the introduction of toys called Fidget Spinners and Fidget Cubes.  These gadgets are supposed to help people calm down through diversion – because playing with these gadgets requires a certain amount of focus and attention. Even if a person doesn’t manage to calm down, they may at least contain their anxiety by engaging in Fidget Spinning.

Fidget spinners are three pronged devices that can be hand-held, with a centre bearing that, when pressed, makes the spinner spin. Sounds incredibly simple, and it is; so simple, in fact, that there are disputes among many inventors who simultaneously came up with these toys – virtually all in response to their own need to control stress.

Even though they’ve been around for a few years, they really only gained in popularity when kids started using them and trading them. That’s when teachers began to notice both their benefits and problems. Yes, they served as a distraction, reducing anxiety, but they also became an addictive pastime – much like solitaire.  Solitaire isn’t addictive if what we’re doing engages us; but give us endless lists of things to do that are gruelling, and solitaire becomes incredibly attractive.  Just so with Fidget Spinners – to the point that schools are considering banning them.

The interesting questing for me is: How can these and similar devices be used to help someone through stress, and when are they simply adding to the problem?  I believe the answer to both parts of this question lie in what it is that’s causing the stress.  If it’s something important to us and we’re nervous about the end result, then distracting that kind of nervousness with something like a fidget spinner seems like a good thing.  If, however, we are engaged in tasks that don’t inspire and that generate in us a sense of powerlessness – like, for me, having to sit through hours of algebra – forced to do something I have no interest in just because someone else thinks I should do it.  In that case, eventually the spinner is gong to take over, and it isn’t such a good thing.

In my own life, I play solitaire when I watch TV; sometimes what I’m watching is engaging and worthwhile for me; and sometimes it’s interspersed with what I don’t love – like violence. It’s easy to block out the violence if I have something like solitaire to turn to.

Fidget spinners may be new, but the idea isn’t. Think of worry beads, or balling up Kleenex and endlessly rolling it between thumb and finger, or chewing gum, or knitting.  The list is probably as long as you want to make it. Bottom line: fidget spinning may prove more useful in highlighting a pre-existing problem than in solving one.  Either way, it’s worth considering.

Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at .

Mindful Intimacy

Mindful Intimacy

Almost a year ago, I attended a conference on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, sponsored by Harvard University.  I was going through one of my all-too-frequent periods of physical challenges, so all I could manage was to get myself to the lectures in-between resting in my room.  Fortunately it rained a lot, and the friend I’d planned on meeting had to go elsewhere, so resting in the cool darkness of my room was perfect! I’m glad I made the effort; the quality of the talks and their speakers made it all worth-while.

One of the speakers was Willa Miller, Founder and Spiritual Director of Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston.  She began with a stretch, and then a meditation, so that we could be supported in being present for what she wanted to share with us. A beautiful, and highly meaningful way to share her talk on Mindful Intimacy with us.  This isn’t, after all, a topic that can be truly appreciated without bringing the audience along. She lead more meditations during her time up there (I can’t recall how long she was up there – it felt like no time, but was probably an hour and a half). With each one, she spoke of and demonstrated the intimacy of solitary meditation.

How so? In 5 ways, we all shared the moment:

  1. Learned from a teacher – Ms. Miller was up there, leading us all one meditation at a time – something we all shared in as a result;
  2. Our relationship to the breath – since this was her focus, it was also ours;
  3. Our relationship with the present moment – there is no intimacy without presence, and being mindful is all about being present;
  4. With our immediate senses – similar to breathing together, we were, each of us, aware of hearing her voice and feeling our breathing;
  5. With our mind’s content – because she was teaching us as we meditated, we had something to focus on and think about, while at the same time, being fully present.

This kind of meditating practice is often called Relational Meditation. Its surprisingly intimate, and perhaps for this reason, energizing.  I left that lecture feeling well for the first time in a week.  I’m not claiming it was the meditation, but we do know that connection heals; that connection is, indeed, essential for human growth and wellness.

And so I leave you with this suggestion:  experiment with meditating by yourself and in groups, then note how you feel energetically.  I’d love to hear your feedback, and invite you to leave a comment below.

Common Trauma Misconceptions

I’ve been speaking this month, quite often, about trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There are many misconceptions associated with PTSD both in the medical field and everyday society.

Rashish, a healthy living website, recently published the story about Rebecca, a 23 yr. old who never suspected she had issues related to trauma. The article states, “Before her diagnosis this past summer, Rebecca says she didn’t know much about PTSD. “I knew it was something serious that veterans dealt with, but I never had a reason to research the subject,” she says. “I thought there was some scale or level of degree of trauma that caused PTSD. I didn’t think my issues were comparable to a veteran’s, so I thought I was just weak.” Rebecca had struggled with depression and anxiety before, but she knew she was dealing with something else.” You can read the entire piece here:

I think what bothers me about misconceptions of trauma and PTSD is that we always think of someone ready to “snap” versus the daily struggle. Most people with trauma are like Rebecca. They feel anxious. They have panic attacks for that they think as “no reason”. They feel like laying down in bed all day or they can’t bare to stay home, they have to stay busy.

People deal with trauma in many different ways, often thinking they are fine- and often suffering from a multiple of subtle symptoms. Not everyone with trauma and PTSD is sitting at home, shaking, hallucinating, are being directed to commit a crime. Those cases are very rare. In fact, trauma victims are usually so confused about the subtle ways they feel, they end up being more of a harm to themselves than society- which is where I feel the misconceptions are birthed.

Another misconception is the cause of trauma or PTSD, which is often (and correctly) related to sexual abuse as a child or war. Well, these are not the only causes. Falls or sports injuries, Surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life),
the sudden death of someone close, a car accident, the breakup of a significant relationship, a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, or the discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition can all lead to the same feelings of anxiety, depression and withdrawal.

So, what are some of the more subtle emotional and psychological symptoms of trauma or PTSD:

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
    Anger, irritability, mood swings
    Guilt, shame, self-blame
    Feeling sad or hopeless
    Confusion, difficulty concentrating
    Anxiety and fear
    Withdrawing from others
    Feeling disconnected or numb
    Insomnia or nightmares

Of course, this isn’t the complete list. People respond to different circumstances with a combination of these symptoms or symptoms not listed above. I can tell you that if you have been feeling anxious or depressed for the past three months and you find a life event on the causes I listed above, you should start to speak with someone about not only how you’re feeling, but how you’re coping.

I also offer free consultations and a free 7-Day Mediation program, which you can find here:

Post-traumatic growth – how resilience can recharge your life

This is in honor of my friend and colleague Pat Comely  the other day and was reminded of her work with caregivers, and how critical that is; Pat helps caregivers build resilience into their lives after they begin to burn out.

Jane McGonigal talks about resilience in a unique way, arguing that games can do it for you. Games are her passion, and more importantly, she invented a game to help her battle depression when she was bed-ridden after a serious accident.

It’s a simple game, yet it worked so well for her that she put it out there for others and called it Superbetter. The response she received astonished and delighted her – from terminal cancer patients, people suffering from ALS, people who were in need of exactly this.

These players ended up feeling stronger and braver, better understood by their friends and family, and they even reported feeling happier even through many of them remained in pain.

The science behind what she and others experienced is called Post Traumatic Growth; it’s what happens to some people after experiencing a traumatic event who manage to use their trauma to get stronger and happier.

McGonigal looked at what trauma victims who grow through Post Traumatic Growth report and compared them to the 5 top regrets that the dying have.  They are pretty much directly opposite.

The 5 top regrets of the dying:

  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard;
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends;
  • I wish I’d let myself be happier;
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self; and
  • I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me

5 top traits resulting from Post Traumatic Growth:

  • My priorities have changed, I’m not afraid to do what makes me happy;
  • I feel closer to my friends and family;
  • I understand myself better, I know who I really am now;
  • I have a new sense of meaning and purpose in my life; and
  • I’m better able to focus on my goals and dreams.

This is so encouraging! And it’s where resilience comes in. Resilience can be defined as a person’s ability to properly adapt to stress and adversity.  Scientists discovered that people who grow through experiencing trauma develop 4 specific kinds of resilience – physical, mental, emotional and social.

McGonigal suggested 4 kinds of activities anyone can do that, if done daily, can help us develop those resiliencies.

You can do all of them in less than 5 minutes.

  1. Either stand up and take 3 steps, or make fists and raise your arms above your head for 10 seconds. This creates physical resilience; the key is to move rather than stay still.
  2. Either snap your fingers 5 times, or count back by 7, starting at 100. This generates mental resilience because it demands focus, willpower and determination to complete the task, even though it’s really very small.
  3. Either find a window and look out, or find a window and look in (and if there aren’t any windows, google your favorite baby animals). This generates emotional resilience, provoking powerful positive emotions when they’re most needed. If we can experience 3 positive emotions to one negative one daily, our health dramatically improves.
  4. Either shake hands with someone, or send a message to a friend, gainingsocial resilience. We gain strength from our connection with friends, family and community, feeling grateful for those connections. Gratitude, especially when communicated by touch (like with a hand shake or hug), raises our levels of oxytocin, sometimes called the trust hormone.

One bonus from all this is, if daily practiced, these simple activities can increase our lifespan by 10 years.  She did the math, and if you’re interested, listen to her Ted Talk .

Resilience Art

Quote of the week

She stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her away, she adjusted her sails.
– Elizabeth Edwards


3 Signs You’re Depressed

You don’t have to sit in bed all day, wearing a worn out robe, to be depressed. There are many cases of “walking depression” among the general population. People tend to have a skewed view of depression, too. They think it causes you to sit in a dark room for hours on end without showering. While this can be true, the noted symptoms aren’t aligned with walking depression.

People who are truly depressed and functioning throughout life may not realize they are depressed because they are functioning throughout life. They may feel like they are going through the motions and faking it- when, in fact, they are walking around depressed.

Loss of interest is a sign of depression. Now, you may not love going to work everything – that doesn’t mean you’re depressed. But, let us say that you love to bake, and suddenly you don’t feel up to baking… well, this could be a sign. Not feeling engaged with activities you love to participate in can and may be a problem.

Anxiety is a sign of depression. Yes, anxiety can be its own diagnosis but it can also be a symptom of something bigger going on- like depression. Women tend to have more anxiety symptoms than man when it comes to depression. Men react differently. Research shows that in addition to irritability men may display symptoms not typically associated with depression, like escapist or risky behavior, substance abuse, or misplaced anger.

Emotional issues. Yes, if you’re happy and sad and then angry and then sad and then happy and then angry…. well, the fluctuation can be caused by depression. Don’t forget, depression does impact the chemicals within your brain and can cause issues when it comes to your emotions. You can be depressed without being in a state of flat sadness all of the time.

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