Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

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DV Literacy

When this blog began I was working as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence or “DV” in Chicago. DV is a topic I’m passionate about both as an advocate but also on a personal level, both as a child witness of DV and as a survivor of DV myself in my teen years. As I considered my next topic for the blog I was stunned to realize that I’ve never discussed DV in any of my past posts! I feel I’ve been remiss in leaving out a topic that has resonated for me for so much of my life. And one that seems like “required reading” for being a human in 2017 if you want to be aware and responsible for recognizing the signs of DV.

First, some disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: For the sake of writing ease, I will refer to survivors of DV as “she” or “her” and will refer to perpetrators of DV as “he” or “him”. Please know that I am very aware that males also suffer at the hands of DV perpetrators as well as there being abusers who are female. Statistically, the majority of DV survivors are women. Give me a break as a writer and try to go with it ;)

Disclaimer #2: I prefer using the word “survivor” rather than “victim”. We’ll get into this more over the next couple of posts, but the short answer as to why that is would be that I prefer “survivor” because it is more empowering and less blaming. Empowerment is especially important for any survivors reading this.

With that all said, let’s talk DV.

What is DV? How prevalent is it?

“Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling behavior that can include physical abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, sexual abuse or financial abuse.” -National Network to End Domestic Violence

“Domestic violence involves a continuum of behaviors ranging from degrading remarks to cruel jokes, economic exploitation, punches and kicks, false imprisonment, sexual abuse, suffocating actions, maiming assaults, and homicide. Unchecked, domestic violence usually increases in frequency and severity. Many victims suffer all forms of abuse. Verbal and emotional abuse may be subtler than physical harm, but this does not mean that it is less destructive to victims. Many have said that the emotional scars take much longer to heal than the broken bones.”Barbara Hart, National Expert on Family Violence

As for frequency, DV is currently the leading cause of injury to women ages 15-44 in the United States—more than car accidents, muggings and reported rapes combined. That means that the number one reason for ER visits is… DV. The number one reason!!

The fact is that 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Not all go to the ER, sure. And this does not include the men who will experience DV in their lifetimes. That’s A LOT of people being affected by this thing we call DV.

Many are injured physically by DV and some are killed. One-third of female homicide victims that are reported in police records are killed by an intimate partner. Think about that next time you hear about a “crime of passion” on the news; take a minute to translate what that likely means, the crime likely involved dynamics of DV.

Let’s be honest, someone can be a “jerk” without being domestically violent. Someone rises to the level of being a perpetrator of domestic violence when they are motivated by power and control over someone else, typically a romantic partner though not always (see Power and Control Wheel below for more on this). Curiously enough, abuse can happen without laying a finger on someone. A huge takeaway here: not all DV is physical in nature! In fact most DV is verbally and emotionally abusive in nature! Make no mistake that those who show up in the ER for DV-reasons likely arrived there after a period of verbal and emotional abuse. Physical violence tends to occur as DV dynamics in the relationship escalate (see Cycle of Violence below).

Why don’t we hear more about it?

DV has been called the “silent epidemic”. Vice President Joe Biden called domestic violence a “public health epidemic” that requires urgent attention. Biden created VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) which funds domestic violence services across the USA, though President Trump has taken steps to strip this crucial funding.

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Yet, abuse is not always obvious.

Many survivors say “I never thought this would happen to me” or “how did this happen? I swear my partner wasn’t like this when we first met”. Indeed, abusive behavior often shows up in sudden and unexpected ways—often in a relationship that started off loving, fun, magnetic.

I think we all would love to believe that abusiveness is always obvious and could never hide in plain sight because then we could feel more certain in the belief that it could never happen to me—we tell ourselves we will see it and definitely avoid it. The idea that relationship-wrecking, dangerous abuse could somehow not be obvious scares us. But it’s true, not all perpetrators of abuse exhibit tell-tale signs from the beginning. It’s not as tidy a spectre to detect as we might like to assume. At least not right away. And physical abuse is only part of domestic violence, as we have seen. Many perpetrators slowly groom the person they are abusing using emotional abuse, verbal abuse and control. These other forms of abuse are much more subtle to notice, especially out of context, yet can result in lasting, if “invisible” damage to the survivor.

Watch stereotypes and victim-blaming.

People of all races are equally likely to be abused by a partner. DV occurs in all communities, amongst all races, socio-economic statuses, in all regions and to people of varying religious background and sexual orientation. Yet, when people are asked to picture a survivor of DV most people call to mind a woman, she’s likely Caucasian and maybe she’s crying with a broken bone and a black eye. The next thought is often “why didn’t she just leave? Couldn’t she see that her partner was dangerous before this happened?” Essentially, most of us want to assess how much she contributed to her own plight; surely some of this outcome was within her control? She could have avoided it better? Right? That is victim-blaming. People victim-blame, often unconsciously, in order to reassure themselves that the world is safe, that if they were in that situation they would see it; they would get out. Wouldn’t we? It’s scary to think that we could possibly be blind to danger or not as in control of a situation the way we believe we are. Leaving an abusive situation is not so simple and not always safe to do without a plan. Click here to learn more about the barriers to leaving a DV situation.

Learn how to spot potential abusiveness. Power, control and cycles are key.

That all being said there has been lots of research done showing that there DO exist concrete signs, predictors and patterns to the behavior of perpetrators of abuse.


Abusive behavior never looks exactly the same in every case and yet there is a common thread, a pattern indicating a particular motive driving the behavior… that is the biggest clue; the motive and desire to maintain power and control over the other person. Though, noticing the “common thread” of behaviors, indicators, dynamics across situations is not always easy either. And so. We come to an area of ambiguity when it comes to what is abusive.

Typically, when working with survivors of DV I help them understand how a desire for power and control over others can motivate the perpetrator’s behavior and that, as it plays out, certain behaviors can be abusive. As I educate the survivor about what is known about dynamics of abuse, in general, the survivor often begins to connect what they had experienced in the relationship to what they now recognize is unacceptable treatment or “abuse”. They often notice what things, if any, resonate or are true for them in their own relationship. Letting the survivor come to this knowing on their own is key since they have likely been controlled in the past.  I always want this to be a moment of free will and choice, of recognition, illumination.

As I help the survivor learn to identify patterns of behavior that are in fact abusive, we examine how abusive behavior might be hurting the survivor and how behaviors of the perpetrator can function in keeping the survivor “stuck” in the situation. Many survivors I work with  recognize that a “pattern” or “cycle” keeps repeating in the relationship with their partners. Abuse is a cycle as you’ll see below:



If these behaviors happened once or twice I’m unsure I would come to the conclusion that what is happening is DV. It’s the continual cycle of power and control that’s the real problem. The problem is the fact that the reconciliation period never lasts. Research shows that the severity and lethality of abuse worsens over time as the cycle continues.

Is anything more confusing than the person who says they love you also hurting you? DV survivors deal with a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity.

I think part of what’s so difficult for many survivors of domestic violence is the sense of uncertainty and ambiguity about their situations.  You probably think being physically assaulted or verbally abused would be pretty obvious, so what the heck am I on about exactly?  Allow me to explain: as a person in an abusive situation becomes more aware of the abusiveness from their partner it can get very confusing; what they “should” do becomes more cloudy or ambiguous. At this crossroads, there are often competing values that come strongly into play when thinking through what to do next, values such as: “families stay together and work through conflict”, “I don’t want my child to grow up without a father”, “I don’t believe in divorce” vs. “the children and I deserve to feel safe, both physically and emotionally, in our own home”, “those who love you don’t harm you”, “I want to teach my children what a healthy relationship looks like by being in one myself”. How do you get safety for you and your kids when your partner is displaying a pattern of abuse that makes you feel unsafe? How do you accomplish that safety AND remain living together and in the relationship together? What if you want to leave but there’s no money to do so? Not so simple, huh?

So, CAN perpetrators of DV actually change?

A common hope survivors have is that perpetrator of abuse might be able to change their behavior… and then they would be less abusive or even non-abusive! I agree, that would be great! There has been extensive research showing how likely it is for perpetrators of abuse to change and become non-offenders… First, there is the consideration of HOW the abuser is going to change and become less abusive. The answer has historically been getting the perpetrator into “perpetrator intervention groups”. And… guess who hates attending these groups? Perpetrators! (“Me? I’m not a perpetrator, she just won’t do what I want sometimes and she gets mad. Why should I have to go to an expensive group because she won’t do what I want?”) Thus, the numbers of perpetrators who go to group are extremely low. In fact, most groups are made up of 100% court-mandated perpetrators. Of those who do attend group to “learn to change”, the majority go on to re-offend as well. I’m sorry to say, it’s pretty dismal! Click here to read more. Let’s say you were going to place a bet on whether a perpetrator of abuse will change and become a non-offender for the rest of his life… what would you bet would happen? Ok, now picture that you are placing that bet and depending on if you are wrong or right, women and children could get hurt or killed. No pressure at all. For more on lethality predictors of DV click here.


I talk with survivors at length about whether perpetrators of abuse–in general–can truly change or not. And then we talk about whether their specific partner can change. I like to focus on what we know about people in general changing. What are the steps one would take to effect a huge change in how they see the world, behave, and react in stressful situations? It’s not typically achieved through willpower alone but through the help of a professional, with a focus on introspection, a willingness to acknowledge one’s contribution to the problem and an investment in the goal (no abuse).

That being said, it’s typically a very tough moment for a survivor to recognize the chances of her partner changing are very slim. I’m not saying people can’t change just that you should be fully aware of how likely it is for someone to change and make your choices accordingly. What “should” a survivor do? Wait out a potentially dangerous situation in hopes of change? Or should she get out ASAP? 

There are no shoulds, there are only choices. 

I like to help my clients think through the possible outcomes of a variety of choices and then support them through those choices. Family members of survivors tend to take the path of “why don’t you leave already if it’s so bad?”. That brings us to the other reality, if a person being abused does choose to leave the situation (yay, that’s what we were all rooting for!) it is THE most dangerous time for her, the time she could most likely to be hurt or killed. The survivor is the expert in her abuser’s behavior; she knows best when it is safe or not-safe to leave. I encourage survivors to trust their gut on what to do, when to leave or not at this time or that time, etc.

Leaving is also a time of uncertainty and confusion for any children involved. It can be extremely difficult for the survivor, not just because of danger and the emotions of choosing to escape abuse, but also difficult in the financial sense. Many abusers exert control and power through monitoring or restricting access to money or forbidding her to work. If a survivor wants to leave she often has to do so with little to no financial resources. If she tries to leave and “fails” financially, the perpetrator of abuse is often around to welcome her back; one way the cycle continues yet again. Financial hardship or lack of access to funds is the number one barrier to survivors leaving.  Many who realize that what they are experiencing is indeed abusive and finally want to get out find it difficult to form a plan to leave because of money and logistical aspects involving moving out, no access to transportation—all of which involve money.  Thankfully there are free programs in every state that help survivors gain access to housing, food, transportation, legal advocacy, counseling and money management classes. Just like the one I worked at for 5 years. Click here to donate to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.


In closing, I hope you remember to check at the door victim-blaming, stereotypes and assumptions when considering what survivors of DV go through. I hope I’ve given you plenty of food for thought regarding  the complexities of what constitutes domestic violence. And I hope you are more “DV literate” than when you started reading :)

DV survivors often seek counseling at a time when they are at the most vulnerable and confusing part of their journey. It is my honor to be part of the survivor’s path toward healing and hope. I am now in private practice and working with survivors of DV is one of my specialties. And, yes, I always welcome referrals, especially working with survivors. Thanks for reading!

current music faves: lady gaga, sharon van etton, mazzy star

current show faves: love, life in pieces, snl

see what’s going on at my practice at www.erynsmithmoeller.com


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What if I told you one of the easiest, most versatile and affordable tools you could adopt for your “coping toolbox” for being mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy was… journaling.  Yes, that old chestnut. A favorite go-to of angsty teens everywhere turns out to be a remarkable tool for life-long self care.

I share my enthusiasm for journaling both as an avid journal-keeper myself as well as a therapist. Personally, I love going to coffeeshops and journaling. I sit down and “check in” with myself, see what’s *really* going on with me. Sometimes I doodle, sometimes I embroider quotes with colorful markers and pen. Sometimes I vent. Sometimes I stare out the window and then back at the empty page; permission to “just be”. If there’s a problem that I’m trying to tackle, I typically review all the variables, projected possibilities, pros and cons until an answer begins to emerge. Sometimes there is no “answer”, especially around things that are not in my control, but acknowledging the emotions I’m feeling makes me feel a little better.  And that, my friends, is something useful to know how to do! Keep a journal long enough and you have a record of your subjective experience across time, which is pretty neat to look back at later.

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Regular journaling often leads to more easily putting together the puzzle pieces of seemingly unrelated experiences into a more cohesive whole (pssst, that helps with meaning-making, problem solving and with feeling more “in control” of one’s life). Just writing down a description of what exactly you are experiencing during a given day… recording your thoughts, noticing your feelings and then perhaps following the bread-crumb trail to where those feelings began, studying and notating your own behavior… this can be a powerful tool that can help you in a multitude of ways.

As a therapist, I encourage people to allow themselves to be more curious. And perhaps try to record this curiosity.  Pull out pen and paper or, your phone if you prefer, and ask yourself questions about you, your life, your day, your process.  Be curious about why or why not you did something and why you did it the way you did.  There’s almost always a reason, a motivation, a pull, a purpose, a function… hiding in plain sight. Being curious about yourself is “fine-and-good” but doing it alone in your own head only gets you so far; it will only get you so much benefit. It’s kind of like doing a math problem in the air, we all get lost pretty quickly. So, it’s helpful to write all this complicated stuff down so you can work with it in a more “hands on” way!

Being curious on paper, now that’s a lot like a conversation! Or, perhaps like keeping detailed notes in a field experiment. Journaling is a safe place where you can say anything, a place to “try on” different ideas, solutions or to envision various possibilities… all to yourself, right where you can benefit from it by putting solutions into action.  If you want to.  Journaling might even help you realize all the excellent reasons to NOT act right now.  Understanding the why or why not can be comforting, illuminating, a relief.  It gives you more power and insight over your own existence.  Journaling can help you develop the super-power of self-knowledge… and that leads to personal growth.

So, Why Journal? How Does It Help Exactly?

Journaling has been studied extensively and been found to be beneficial in many ways.

  • Journaling has been shown to lead to long-term improvements in mood, reduced depressive symptoms, lower blood pressure

  • Journaling helps you discover patterns in your life or your behavior through “self-observation”. Journaling helps you document your experience for future reference or analysis. You could treat your journal like they are the field notes of a scientist studying and observing an interesting subject (you!) in the wild, noticing what happens in sequence and noting the results, being curious about how things might have gone had one variable been different or a different approach been taken.

  • Journaling helps  develop more understanding, compassion and gratitude towards others, yourself, your problem solving, your struggles, and the ways you cope with life. Journaling can help you learn to listen to yourself and pay attention to your own needs and desires, like a friend gently comforting you when you are freaking out. Here is a wonderful series by Kristin Neff on how to enhance self-compassion.

  • Journaling helps you sort through moments in life that are uncomfortable, ambiguous or uncertain.  It’s a primary tool to help tolerate sitting with ambiguity (which you know the soft animal of my body loves :)

  • Journaling can be used as a coping tool to get relief during difficult moments. It can reduce ruminating thoughts by serving as a container and space to organize thoughts.  Once you’re familiar with using journaling it can feel like an oasis, an access-point to feeling empowered and free in the midst of situations that may be disempowering or when you are feeling trapped.  Journaling is like a transporter in that way.  (Tip: try asking yourself “would writing help me right now?)

  • Journaling can be used to clear away the “cobwebs of the mind” or for “daily maintainance” of self care. Writing daily has the reported benefit of “clearing” the mind and giving relief to the writer in a way that could be useful if you are wanting to alleviate your mind of worries, “mental clutter” or stress.  Journaling is an opportunity to face problems head-on daily instead of letting them pile up.

  • Journaling cultivates curiosity and problem solving skills. Curiosity leads to insight, personal growth, gain perspective about self otherwise difficult to attain –

  • Journaling helps improve self esteem and self love.  Journaling helps you process/ notice destructive thinking or destructive circumstances, it helps you examine irrational or cruel ways of regarding yourself and practice being more self-loving.

  • Knowing yourself is one of the best ways to improve future relationships. Journaling helps you know yourself so you can be a better in each of your relationships.

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How to Journal… like, specifically, HOW do you start?

There are numerous approaches as to how to approach journaling.  There is no one right way to do it (thank goodness!) so think of it as a no-fail, low-risk situation we already know has numerous benefits.  First start with some guidelines:

Keep It Simple – don’t feel like you have to go out and get some fancy leather-bound journal–in fact if you know you’ll be tempted to keep that beautiful journal pristine and therefore not use it then skip getting the most gorgeous journal in the world.  Using a spiral-bound notebook like the kind you used in school may feel uninspiring or remind you of unpleasant homework.  I encourage you to use whatever is readily available, is utilitarian and that you like on some level (but maybe don’t love).  Sometimes when I’ve forgotten to bring my journal with me I’ve used post-it notes, scraps of paper, etc. and tape them in my journal later.

Let Go of Perfection – no need to manage your grammar here, let yourself write without censoring, let go of correctness or even making sense or having your words be legible (to everyone anyway). This space is for you, so let yourself go. Some find that focusing more on the quantity vs the quality of writing helps banish the critic.  If your goal is to write non-stop for 10 minutes you will focus on that task instead of how good what you write is, and that’s good.

Have Courage – please know that writing takes courage, vulnerability. It’s not always easy to “open up”, even to yourself. But as Brene Brown reminds us, vulnerability is a strength. With great risk comes great reward; writing is worth the risk because of what you’ll gain in insight, personal growth and cultivation of a handy coping skill.

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Then there’s the HOW of journaling techniques, of which there are many:

Start with just writing about your life – use journaling as a way to capture, document and describe in detail what is going on in your life right now. Capture your life “as is” and without judgment. You could use pictures, clippings from magazines or scrap-book paper, draw, make lists, use different colored pens or pencils, zentangle, write a poem, list what you ate, what you saw, what you read, favorite quotes, end your entry with naming what you’re thankful for at this very moment or with an affirmation that’s resonating with you.

Maintain a log of successes –  Begin by writing big ones you can easily remember and then try writing down small successes that occur during the week.  As you pay attention, the list will grow and serve to inspire and ground you.

Stream It – Dump It – Time It – Trying a variety of approaches to journaling often keeps the practice fresh and stimulating.  “Stream-of-consciousness” or dump-writing are easy ways to get journaling quickly and without judgement tripping you up.  According to Samara O’Shea in her beautifully written book Note to Self: On Keeping A Journal And Other Dangerous Pursuits, she describes stream-of-consciousness writing:

Stream-of-consciousness writing is mental anarchy and spring-cleaning all in one.  It’s like going into the basement, turning the tables over, breaking the records in half, cutting the stuffed animals open with a sharp pair of scissors (and feeling much better afterward), then putting it all out just in time for the garbage man to collect.

To get started, O’Shea suggests beginning with any word (which will inevitably lead you somewhere); picking an emotion that’s been overwhelming you lately or one that you haven’t felt in a long time; or asking yourself a question.

Dump-writing is, essentially, what Julia Cameron of “The Artist’s Way” recommends.  She calls it doing “Morning Pages”.  You can set a timer for 10 minutes or decide ahead of time that you’ll write 3 pages longhand without stopping.  She emphasizes doing this exercise first thing in the morning which provokes claity, comfort, prioritizes your mind and synchronizes the day at hand… clearing out the “cobwebs” of the mind.  The nice thing about dump writing is there’s no wrong way to do it.  They are not high art.  They are about anything and everything that might cross your mind.  They are for your eyes only.

Change your writing style to match your mood – If you are angry, maybe scratch large red words there, if you are feeling uncertain or scared, maybe write tiny words in a spiral shape. You could also write using colored pencils or pens and see what colors you are drawn to or which match the emotion you are feeling.

Guided Journaling Often Gets You Thinking– There are TONS of writing prompts out there. Some examples to try:

  • How am I feeling? How do I want to feel?
  • What does my soul want me to know?
  • What would an ideal day for me look like, sound like? How can I make such a day happen in the next month?
  • What do I want to learn about myself?
  • What do I want to change about myself? What would I never change about myself?
  • Describe the room, describe the people in your life, describe yourself.
  • Describe the aspects of your life that you are pleased with and those areas you’re displeased with.
  • What questions would inform the work you are doing?
  • What intuitions do you notice?
  • What are some of the forces driving you?
  • What fascinates you?
  • What is your particular understanding of yourself, your past, your family, your purpose?
  • What do you hope for in the future?
  • What is being revealed to you?
  • What puzzles you?
  • What questions might you ask of yourself and of your work?
  • What is it you have been given to say?

I also like the book “The Creative Journal” by Lucia Capacchione.  It’s a book full of guided prompts around certain personal growth topics such as “Where You’re At, Where You’re Coming From”, “Who You Are”, “How You Are With Yourself”, “How You Are With Others”, “What Your Higher Self Knows”, and “Where You’re Going”. The prompts can be used using writing, drawing, art-making, poem-making, or whatever medium you like at the time with a goal of self-exploration.

Get Inspired Using the Words of Others – Write down lines from a poem or quote that inspires you or copy quotes in fancy lettering.  Let yourself doodle with eyes open or eyes closed.

Write with your subdominant hand – Subdominant hand writing helps access your unconscious mind. You can start a dialogue with your inner child by writing with your subdominant hand. Try answering with your dominant hand.  What issues emerge?  This kind of writing can also be used to tap into or develop your intuition.  For example, your could write down concerns or questions you have for your “higher self”.  Take a deep breath and listen for a response. Let yourself write automatically.If you don’t get an answer right away, look and listen for signs between journal sessions.

Tap into a new perspective by using the third person – Try writing about yourself in the third person and you’ll find it helps give you distance from the problem and gives a different perspective.  Afterward, write down what you learned about you.  This is especially helpful if you are struggling with something that’s disturbing you.

Starting to see why journaling is like the swiss-army tool of coping?  If not, maybe try journaling about it…

current music faves: phantogram, tori a (as always), florence and the machine

current show faves: the oa, this is us, american crime story

see what’s going on at my practice at www.erynsmithmoeller.com

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Aside from living in extremes, there are subtle ways we throw ourselves out of balance.  One that comes up a lot is when things get increasingly uncertain, unclear or ambiguous. 

When stakes are high, sitting with ambiguity can feel especially unbearable and most of us will try to push it away.  It’s normal to feel a bit uncomfortable with a high level of uncertainty.  It’s also normal to do a bunch of stuff–like try to control everything and get all grumpy–as a way to combat the anxiety that comes with sitting with so much ambiguity.

When things aren’t moving as fast as we would like it can be tempting to start pushing.  Hard.  We may really come out of the bag with our Sthira-selves:  controlling, pushing, busying, holding-on and efforting ourselves into a frenzy.  We overburden ourselves with tasks, we do all the things we think might make us feel more certain and then think of more things. 

Some of us drink the workahol down, yum.  And then we start to break down.  Because our bodies, minds and spirits are tired from all the effort.  And look!  The highly uncertain thing we can’t-control-but-want-to is still there, unchanged!


There’s a saying, “you can’t push the river.”  Sometimes things are going to go the way they’re going to go, even if we pull out all the stops.  Sometimes trying to control forces that are bigger than ourselves is useless.


Letting go is about giving yourself permission to ease up.  It’s about seeing that it is actually better to let go than hold on.  Sometimes holding on is hurting you more than helping you.  I’m reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago about hoarding.  Hoarders hold on to so much stuff that it can get to the point where their holding-on is making them sick or threatening their housing.

We need to wake up when holding-on is hurting us. 

We need to cultivate curiosity about how we might be using something to hold onto in order to feel a sense of control in world that feels out of control.  When we allow ourselves to really see the reality that we are safe, that attachment is an illusion, that the present moment is all there is, we let go.  Or on faith, not knowing these things… we let go and learn.

Letting go is part of the course-correction system that can bring us back to life, back to balance.

current music faves:  the national, pixies

current show faves:  real time with bill maher, once upon a time

Visit me at www.erynsmithmoeller.com

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Now that we’ve explored Sukha (easing up, letting go) and Sthira (control, effort), let’s explore what being out of balance looks like and how to not live in extremes.

It is interesting to consider the imbalance created if one were to live life in full-on Sukha-mode. With only ease, relaxation and softening we may cease to accomplish much of value, atrophying while we sit on the couch, allowing Netflix to auto-play the next binge-watched episode into infinity.

In contrast, in full-on Sthira-mode: only effort, control, pushing and holding on, we may become tyrannical workaholics, dogged in our ambitions and achievement-orientedness. Relentless in pursuit of exact outcomes or expectations of self or others we stay busy but lose soul.  Exhaustion sets in but you don’t notice until you fall over because your body says “no” when you won’t.

Living in either extreme tends to become out-of-balance and feel unhealthy after a while. Eventually we notice and try to correct-course.  That being said, it isn’t easy to regain balance.

For example, someone seeking employment for months on end would understandably exercise Sthira a lot with efforts toward improving their station in life and generating income on which to live. Certainly a logical goal. Finding work does indeed require the effort of Sthira. But even in the context of job searching, one’s tireless efforts can become obsessive and cause suffering. Even the job seeker needs balance, I would argue, to be the most effective candidate. She or he needs to be well-rested, relaxed, pulling from her Sukha-side, yet confident and skilled and strengthened in their area of expertise, bringing her Sthira-best; balanced.

Another example might be someone doing online dating and hoping they will meet the partner of their dreams. They have put in the effort of creating a compelling profile, responding to inquiries over email, working on improving their appearance perhaps; putting forth effort to achieve the desired outcome (rocking the Sthira effort stuff). In this case, finding the partner of one’s dreams is not an especially controllable outcome (despite excellent efforts). Isn’t it funny how things happen when people stop looking? Maybe sometimes Sukha or letting go of control and expectation could be key to the goal itself in the end? Though, it is good to note that not putting a dating profile up at all would not necessarily help the goal (must have the Sthira effort along with the letting go of Sukha).

 Together, steady efforts of Sthira (in yoga or in life) along with the softening and allowing of Sukha creates balance.  Grace Duckworth beautifully states the need to balance both Sukha and Sthira:

In asana practice, when we push ourselves 100% we lose track of our breath because we can no longer control the pace – this is all sthira, only steadiness or effort. On the other end of the spectrum when we find something that is comfortable – like practicing the same posture the same way over and over without challenging a new approach – this is all ease or surrender. We have to find balance between the two. When something is challenging we cannot only push, we have to release somewhere; and when something is easy we search for a way to bring more to the posture or our practice.

“Just find balance” sounds cliche, I know.  But it’s kind of awesomely helpful putting it into practice.  Sukha/ Sthira offers a deeper way of looking at this truth, perhaps inviting it to take root more fully in your life. 

These new ideas can bring new awareness to when we might be pushing too hard or it may help you notice when you might not be pushing hard enough.  Balancing ourselves is hard but noticing when we’re out of balance and trying to do something about it is a great start.

For me, I struggle more with too much Sthira, too much doing and not enough easing up. I began to notice when I was overdoing it. I gave myself permission to ease up, let go, let myself not work so hard, and guess what?  I was okay! I didn’t even feel guilty, I felt an opening up of possibilities and confidence that things will be alright, even if I’m not putting forth effort all the time.  I learned that my working hard is great and all but there’s a limit at which it begins to backfire.  There’s a point at which ease, relaxation and letting go is MORE beneficial than working even harder.

By allowing ourselves to be more gentle, more relaxed, more open while putting forth effort and doing awesome stuff, that’s when true growth happens and we find balance.

current music faves:  brandi carlile, sia

current show faves:  extant, hollywood game night

Visit me at www.erynsmithmoeller.com

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Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring the theme of balance in a series I’m calling Hacking a Yoga Sutra:  Balance, When to Push Harder and When to Let Go.

We begin with defining balance and it’s components according to a yoga sutra.  Look for parts 2 and 3 (how not to live in extremes, regaining balance) in the coming weeks!

~Namaste!  Thanks for reading,




How do you know when you are out of balance?

Do you only notice when you start to snap at people, when you’re feeling sluggish at work, when you’re binging on ONE category of life (only working, only partying, only eating, only sleeping etc.)?  Or maybe when you find yourself compulsively trying to control things around you.

What is “balance”, anyway?

Balance is defined as the equilibrium of power between opposing forces or the point between two opposite forces that is desirable over purely one state or the other. Most of us try to return to a constant state of stability, to re-balance when thrown off (think homeostasis of a self-correcting system). Yet, how balance is created, regained or maintained over time is a bit more murky: often there’s a lot of new age talk about self-care and moderation in all things.

In whichever context, regaining balance is easier said (or cleverly placed in a meme) than actually done.  You know, lived out and achieved. Balance is the stuff of acrobats, yogi gurus and nutritionists.

How do everyday people find balance?

In a yoga class recently (where I have been learning physical balance on the mat), the instructor was talking about yoga sutras and the ideas therein about effort, ease and balancing the two.  Apparently, these sutras have long defined and suggested underpinnings of balance. It’s in the context of successful yoga poses, sure, but I detect usefulness on a universal level.



The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Chapter 2.46  contains the phrase “Sthira Sukham Asanam” which refers to a yoga posture “being firm yet happy, steady yet comfortable.”  T. K. V. Desikachar describes the state of satva (equilibrium or balance) as “attention without tension, loosening-up without slackness.”

Sukha is the ease and softness needed in a yoga pose while Sthira is the effort and steadiness required. Together they interplay to create a pleasantly balanced pose.  Sukha and Sthira are dialectical opposites, yet complimentary:

Sukha                                            Sthira
Ease                                         Steadiness
Relaxation                                  Alertness
Letting Go                               Holding On
Allowing                                Pushing Oneself
Release                                         Strength
Surrender                                       Effort
Softening                                      Firmness
Vulnerability                                In Control

The literal translation of Sukha is “having a good axle hole.”   Ha, ha, right, “if only my axle hole were better, I would feel more at ease.”  Seriously though, maybe my axle hole is kind of difficult at times…

Sukha is a unique way of envisioning being at ease, open, surrendering to what will come.  Many people resist “letting go”, assuming it may be followed by things falling apart!  We like to feel we are in control so, often, we cling to things in an effort to allay anxiety.  As Americans, our focus tends to be very do-do-achieve-think-make-it-happen Sthira-focused.  But what if letting go didn’t have to be synonymous with things falling apart? 

Perhaps letting go allows things to fall into place.


current music faves:  new tori amos, silversun pickups

current show faves:  breaking bad, revisiting the wonder years

breakfast today:  pineapple coconut greek yogurt with granola, everything bagel

Visit me at www.erynsmithmoeller.weebly.com

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Recently a lot of things happened to me.  I won’t go into it all, but a lot of gut-wrenching, confusing, ugly things piled up in the span of about 3 weeks.  Tears were shed, I noticed my shaking voice and shaking hands as I tried to compose myself and make sense of what was going on with this pile-up of misfortunes in one area of my life.   Maybe there is a “reason” that these things are happening… to get my attention about something.

So I started wondering:  what does shaking “tell us”?  What about being shaken up by events in life?

When We Shake Because of Life

Why do we tremble or shake sometimes?  There might be vibrations, agitation so deep it’s involuntary; equilibrium is being disturbed somehow.  I know my arms start to shake in yoga if I’ve held downward-facing-dog for too long.  Shaking can be a sign of your muscles working so hard they are threatening to give out.

Sometimes when I tremble it’s because I’m emotionally thrown off or upset and my body is trying to cope.  It’s a sign I’m attempting to adapt to what’s happening around me.

As a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma, I also know that shaking can be part of the trauma response, even years after the actual event has ended.  Often there is pent up “fight-or-flight” energy stored in the body and, when finally discharged in therapy, can come out in a physical release, including shaking, crying, etc.

Of course, most people think it uncivilized or inappropriate to shake, cry or flail–all of which are the body’s natural pressure valve, the way the body normalizes following a trauma.  So, let yourself feel, let yourself move, allow yourself to let go.  Trust you are shaking for a good reason.  Listen for what that reason might be…

I know anxiety, anticipation, fear of uncertainty may be present for me if I feel myself start to shake.  Our bodies often give clues as to what’s going on for us–there’s a physical sensation that “goes with” an emotional or psychological phenomenon.

When Life Shakes Us Up

Let’s contrast here, what about feeling “shaken up”?  How is that different? 

Feeling shaken up is often more about things happening that are unsettling, things going wrong in some big ways followed by an Aha! moment.  Maybe we are shaken out of a place of being stuck, dislodged from a place we may not have even been fully aware we were at a full-stop, unmoving, or not growing. 

Sometimes you might be shaken up and realize you need to get out of a familiar-but-abusive relationship or a work-place.  But leaving the familiar means opening to a non-abusive yet unknown place.  Sometimes it’s a wake up call to look to the bigger picture and what really matters.  Being shaken up can be an opportunity, even a blessing, to awaken to the previously hidden realities of a harmful situation.

Whether physically shaking or emotionally waking up to stagnation in our lives, the data we get from these experiences can increase our awareness of what’s really going on and invite us to ask ourselves what we want to do about it.  It can be an opportunity to be curious about how our overall equilibrium was disturbed (is there a status quo you are no longer “ok” with, one that needs to change, needs to be thrown off perhaps?). 

Are you working too hard for too little gain?  Are you staying in a toxic situation when it no longer makes sense to do so?  Have you grown complacent to a bad situation you’ve refused to acknowledge is growing toxic?  Or maybe you know it’s toxic and just haven’t found the time to DO anything about it?  Your body, your mind, hell, The Universe may be tugging on your sleeve to  w  a  k  e    u  p!

Maybe it’s time to listen deeper.  Maybe it’s time for a change.  The Shake-Up may be trying to say ‘Trust and be open to the unknown’ or ‘You are worthy of a better situation, don’t waste another minute here!’.  If life has shaken you up, maybe even try shaking your body and see what it feels like!  Shake and awake!  Connect with this shake-up situation and invite the wisdom in.

Pay attention to the trembling self, to the shaken up self. 

Sometimes you need to shake off the things you can’t control, or take control of the things that are no longer serving you. 

Awaken to the reality you are allowing in your life. 

Make the most of the things you can control and find a way back to the big picture of what brings you the most joy.  Trust the shake up!


current music faves:  sharon van etten, icona pop

current show faves:  the good wife, silicon valley, grey’s anatomy

breakfast today:  sausage, egg and cheese sandwich, iced tea

Visit me at www.erynsmithmoeller.com

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If you haven’t heard of Brene Brown yet, she is a hot TED Talk speaker and psychological researcher specializing in the study of vulnerability and shame.  Here is one of her TED Talks that captivated me recently:

I just love her ideas.  So much of what she talks about in terms of the strengths of people who are willing to lead with vulnerability and authenticity line up with the sister-ideas around the value of accepting and sitting with ambiguity.  In fact, Brene Brown notes that “Vulnerability is not weakness (and the myth that it is is dangerous).  Being vulnerable means taking emotional risks, risking exposure, embracing uncertainty“.  She believes ones’ willingness to be vulnerable is “the most accurate measurement of courage”.  Wow.
People who have a sense of worthiness, belonging and being loved believe they are worthy of it.  According to Brene Brown, these people have in common:  the courage to be imperfect, to have compassion (kind to others and themselves), and end up being in better connection with others as a result of their authenticity.  She calls this whole thing being “Whole-Hearted”, to love with your whole heart even though there’s no guarantee of not getting hurt.

I just picked up her book Daring Greatly, named after a quote from Theodore Roosevelt:


“It is not the critic who counts; not the
man who points out how the strong man
stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could
have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is
actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust
and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly;
who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error
and shortcoming; but who does actually
strive to do the deeds; who knows great
enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends
himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph
of high achievement, and who at the worst, if
he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

I am loving it… with my Soft Animal Body.  I just had to share these ideas with my fellow Whole-Hearted ones out there.

current music faves:  lana del ray, tuneyards

current show faves:  downton abbey, shameless

breakfast today:  everything bagel and laughing cow cheese

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