Paralyzed by Powerful Emotions? Here’s How to Break Free

Have you ever been so overwhelmed by your emotions, it was next to impossible to take action to solve your problems?

If so, you’re not alone. This “emotional paralysis” is one of the most common problems that Judi Phillips, MS, LMHC, sees in her counseling practice.

“This is something I talk about with my clients all the time,” Phillips said. But she tells her clients that no matter how stuck or trapped they feel, “there is always something you can do; there is always a way forward.”

During a recent conversation, Phillips, a pastoral counselor with the Pastoral Solutions Institute, outlined exactly how she helps her clients get off the emotional treadmill so they can take practical steps to move forward.

 

Recognizing Emotional Paralysis

Anxiety is one of the most common ways that people get paralyzed by their emotions—in this case, fear and worry. But the problem can crop up in other contexts, too. College students might feel so overwhelmed by everything they have to do (especially at the end of the semester), they don’t even know where to begin.

Emotional paralysis shows up in relationships, too.

When Phillips does marriage counseling, for instance, her clients often want to begin by describing the problem they’re having with their spouse. But it is usually fruitless to address the surface-level conflict without first addressing what’s going on inside each person: guilt, anger, sadness, grief, and so on.

“I say to them, ‘Okay, I understand. But let’s go back to what’s going on within you. You know, what are you feeling?” she said. “What do you have to do to help yourself so that you can effectively communicate to the other person?  You know, if you’re angry or sad or overwhelmed or whatever it is, you have to first acknowledge that, because if you’re not able to acknowledge that, you’re going to continue to put the problem out there on (the other person). And you’re going to continue to spin around and feel powerless. And that’s not at all where God intends us to be.”

 

God Gave Us the Tools We Need to Move Forward

The fact that God doesn’t want us to get trapped by our emotions is revealed in Scripture, of course, but also in the Theology of the Body. (The Theology of the Body is based on a series of lectures given by Pope John Paul II that explored how God’s design of the human body reveals his purpose for us.)

Phillips said that the dual functionality of our brain—its emotional side and its reasoning side—demonstrates that while God intends for us to experience emotions, he doesn’t want us to be held hostage by them. The brain’s very design allows us to use our intellect, will, and reason to understand and manage our emotions.

Consciously naming what we are feeling enables us to begin addressing them, taking concrete steps that will move us toward the way we would prefer to feel.

People who are trapped by their emotional state often believe that once they feel differently, they will be able to take action to address their problems, Phillips said. “We say something like, ‘If I only felt…, then I would….’ But the truth is, we have to act first, and then the healthy feeling will follow.”

 

3 Steps for Breaking Free and Taking Action

Here are the three steps Phillips uses to guide clients from emotional turmoil to empowerment:

  1.       Identify your feelings. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?” This step is crucial for acknowledging your current emotional state. At the same time, you can also name how you would prefer to be feeling.

“You’re honoring yourself in the way that God created you,” Phillips said. “And when you do that, you’re able to get more clarity about what is going on.”

To take the college student example, you might say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and anxious because I have so much to do, I don’t know where to begin, and I am afraid I won’t get everything done on time.”

Bonus points if you write this down: the act of writing engages the brain more holistically.

  1.       Understand the cause. Ask, “What is it that’s causing this feeling?” Only by identifying the real-world cause(s) of your negative emotions can you begin to take steps to address those causes.

Continuing with our college student example, you might sit down and write out every single thing you have to do by the end of the semester.

  1.       Take action. This step has two parts:
  2.       First, figure out what you need to do to regulate your out-of-control emotions. There are many ways to do this, but one method Phillips likes involves listening to the rosary sung in Gregorian chant; the rhythm of the chant helps to re-tune our own internal rhythm, she said.
  3.       Make a plan, then act. Finally, ask, “What steps can I take to help me feel better?” Identify what specific actions you can take to move you toward your preferred emotional state. The college student, for example, might create a calendar or schedule that lists how she will tackle the tasks she needs to get done.

Phillips asks her clients who suffer from anxiety to write out all their worst-case scenarios. Then, she has them write down a plan naming how they would respond in each situation.

 

A Spiritual Practice to Boost Your Well-Being

Anyone who is familiar with the spiritual practice of the daily examen, also known as the Ignatian examen, might recognize some similarities between the method described by Phillips and the examen.

Like the examen, Phillips recommends checking in with yourself several times a day. As a spiritual practice, this works just as well with positive emotions.

“If I’ve been out in nature, walking, and it’s just a beautiful day, and I ask myself that question, ‘How am I feeling right now? I’m feeling really joyful.’ And what is it that’s causing that? The beauty of nature.

“Then: ‘What can I do to help myself?’ Well, there isn’t anything I really need to do to help myself, but I’m just going to acknowledge it, and by acknowledging it, I’m honoring myself in the way God created me to be.

“And then, thirdly, ‘What do I need to do about this?’ I don’t need to do anything other than offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God. I’m going to just acknowledge it, appreciate it, and thank God for the beauty of his creation.”

Incorporating this practice into your daily routine can significantly enhance your mental health and quality of life. Phillips notes that her clients who consistently apply these steps quickly gain self-awareness and change the way they tackle the problems life throws their way.

“It’s life changing,” Phillips said, “because you realize, first of all, I can always understand myself. Secondly, because of that, I can always find a way forward.”

If you would like more help with this or another mental health topics, reach out to Judi Phillips or another pastoral counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

How To Walk On Water

Guest Post by Jacob Francisco, MA, LMHC – Pastoral Counselor, CatholicCounselors.com

Anxiety and fear are primal emotions that we all experience to some degree, in big and little ways. The nature of fear and worry is to draw our attention to the object of the feeling, whether inside or outside our head. When we are afraid of something we are alert for that thing and we sometimes see it where it is not actually present. If I am afraid of monsters in the dark, everything in the dark room becomes a possible monster. My perception becomes focused on finding the monsters, so I see them even in ordinary things. If I am worried about an upcoming event, the thoughts about it might be so strong that I stay up at night dwelling on those worries. It can be very difficult to think about anything other than the object of my worry or fear.

Because these emotions take our attention and focus we often cannot see how to deal with them. We become wrapped up within the thoughts and emotions so much that we cannot sleep, have trouble relaxing or find it difficult to think about anything else other than the worry or fear. We may become so paralyzed in a given moment that we are unable to act at all. Maybe we can never think of the right thing to say to our boss or our spouse when they are angry with us. Perhaps we find it difficult to socialize with people in the same room, so we say nothing. Some may have unwelcome and unwanted thoughts come into our mind that take our peace or cause a whole chain of strong emotions and regrettable actions and we become distraught that we cannot seem to be rid of the thoughts.

Recall the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water. (It is Matthew 14:22-33 if you want to read the whole thing). The disciples in the boat see what they think is a ghost walking through the wind and across the water. Peter calls out to Jesus, walks on the water, and then sinks.

Now here is the key: when Peter “saw the wind” he was afraid, and began to sink. It was fear that caused his sinking. Why? It is precisely the moment that Peter gives attention to the wind that he is no longer focused on Christ. When his focus was on Christ, he could walk across the waves. When he was focused on what brought fear, he sank. He moved towards the object of his gaze. When he took those first steps towards Christ, nothing happened to the wind and the waves. Those remained as strong as ever. His focus on Christ allowed him to move beyond the fear that they instilled.

The disciples were in the boat and very much aware of the wind and waves. So we begin by acknowledging our fears and worries. The avoidance of what causes our fear or worry is a natural strategy for managing these feelings, and we do it because it works for a time. The reality is that this only increases our anxiety over the long term. This becomes a cycle which can get out of control. We must see and acknowledge our wind and waves.

Then we turn our gaze to the healthy thing. This new object of focus can be internal or external. Internally, we can focus on a comforting Scripture verse, a mental image of God or His saints, or some other holy thing. Scripture encourages us to “Set your minds on things that are above” (Col 3:2). When we are confronted with the thoughts and feelings of fear or worry, we need to turn our gaze, or set our mind, on Christ in this way. This is not an easy thing to do. Your attention will wander. The fear or worry will make every attempt to regain your attention. This is unavoidable. Peter was unable to walk all the way to Christ on his first attempt.

Because this can be so challenging, we often need to begin on a more natural level and work our way up to the mental strength to hold an image of Christ in our minds. God created us with a body, and our body is good. We were made to interact with the world in a physical manner. God communicates His grace to us through physical reality every day. The Sacraments and sacramentals convey grace through physical means. Physical things are easier to focus on amid anxiety and fear. If I am having strong unwanted thoughts in my mind, turning my focus to the things my five senses tell me can be very effective. If I am focused on my senses or what my body is telling me, it helps me to move through the thoughts by allowing me to not become overwhelmed.

Each step we take in life, whether spiritual, or emotional, or physical, needs to be with the awareness of grace. God is constantly pouring out His love and grace, that we might be overcomers and conquerors of sin and evil. We have to accept this grace, allow it to fill us consciously so that all our actions move with the strength of that grace.

The next time that you feel afraid or worried, remind yourself of the presence of God’s grace, focus on the healthy thing and take a step out onto the water.

 

To learn more about Jacob Francisco’s work, visit CatholicCounselors.com

Three Tips for Better Time Outs

What do you do when little Johnny decides that using his tongue to shoot corn across the dinner table is so funny he just can’t (or won’t) stop, despite your repeated requests?

What do you do when your tween daughter’s rage crosses a red line and she starts throwing things around the room?

If you’re like most parents, you probably give those kids a “time out.”

 

Time Outs: A Short History

The idea of giving kids a time out was first proposed in the 1960s by psychologist Arthur Staats. After extensive research, he concluded that briefly removing children from the place where they were misbehaving was much more effective in helping them develop self-control than the all-too-typical parenting approaches of the time, yelling or spanking.

Done properly, a time out removes the child from the circumstances that are causing the problem behavior (corn and an audience, in little Johnny’s case) and gives him or her a chance to focus on regaining self-control. As an added bonus, it gives frustrated parents a break, allowing them to cool down and figure out some productive next steps.

But parents and kids only reap those benefits if time outs are used appropriately. Dr. Staats taught that the technique needs to be applied consistently, and that children need to be warned of the consequences of their behavior in advance. Most importantly, time outs work best in the context of a positive parent-child relationship.

While many research studies have shown that time outs can be an effective approach to helping kids self-regulate, too often, well-meaning parents and guardians deploy time outs in ways that are ineffective, at best.

 

One Tool Among Many

Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak include a chapter on time outs in their parenting books, Parenting Your Kids with Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace. Tellingly, though, those chapters come late in the books, because they are preceded by other chapters aimed at cultivating strong, resilient parent-child relationships. Time outs have their place, but they should be only one of many “tools” in a parent’s toolbox.

 

Three Tips for More Effective Time Outs

Here, then, are some tips for using time outs effectively.

1. Nurturing a vibrant, resilient parent-child relationship comes first. Parents who use time outs as their only discipline method are likely to be disappointed with the results. A better approach is to focus on strengthening your connection with your child using methods such as collecting, “time-ins,” virtue prompting, positive reinforcement, coaching, team building, do overs, and family rituals, to name a few of the other techniques the Popcaks highlight. These practices make time outs less frequent—and more effective when they are needed.

 

2. Time out is about taking a break, not punishment. The main purpose of a time out is to help kids bring their emotional temperature down to a place where they can actually think straight. Once they feel calmer and more regulated, they are in a better place to deal with whatever problem or provocation set them off in the first place. (The Popcaks prefer to talk about “taking a break” with older kids and teens.) The discipline method developed by St. John Bosco, as well as the Theology of the Body developed by St. John Paul II, both point to the real purpose of discipline: helping children realize their full humanity in the image of God. The goal of a time out isn’t punishment; it is creating a space where parents can help kids be better people.

 

3. Make time for coaching or collaborative problem-solving, too. A common misstep is to release a child from time out without any follow up. But if the purpose of time out is to help the child be a better human, then once everyone is feeling calmer and more regulated, the next step is to sit down and do some coaching or collaborative problem solving.

 

In this post-time out phase, the focus is: What is a better way of handling this situation in the future? In other words, how can your child or teen meet his or her real needs in a way that respects you and others? In the case of little Johnny, you might agree that it’s OK to have a corn-spitting contest on the grass outside after dinner—but that it’s disrespectful of others at the table. In the case of your tween daughter, the follow-up conversation might be more involved, but the basic goal is the same.

For much more about effective parenting strategies rooted in Catholic wisdom, check out the Popcaks’ parenting books, Parenting Your Kids with Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace. Better yet, join their vibrant community of Catholic parents at CatholicHOM.com.

How to Turn Your Anger Into Healthy, Holy Action

Should Christians get angry? And when they do, how should they handle it?

Attempting to answer those questions on a recent episode of the More2Life radio show, Bill Donaghy, senior lecturer at the Theology of the Body Institute, pointed to a scene near the climax of the Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace.

Two Jedi knights are battling the evil Sith Lord, Darth Maul. Their lightsaber battle rages through a power plant until a “laser gate” suddenly closes, separating the two sides. As they wait for the gate to open, the Sith warrior paces back and forth like a caged animal, twirling his double-bladed lightsaber and glaring angrily at the Jedi. One of the Jedi reacts very differently, though: he falls to his knees and closes his eyes in a kind of prayer.

The scene illustrates two very different ways of handling anger, Donaghy told Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak, and points to a key Christian insight about anger. Feeling anger isn’t sinful: “Be angry, but do not sin,” St. Paul told the early Christians (Ephesians 4:26).

Instead, it is what we do with our anger that matters.

Anger vs. Wrath

“Anger is meant to be a gift that calls our attention to an injustice and motivates us to act in proportionate, appropriate, and productive ways so that we can heal whatever that injustice might be,” Dr. Popcak said.

Anger that is appropriately channeled into setting things right—“righteous anger”—is better than unreasonable patience with evil, St. John Chrysostom, a doctor of the Church, once said: “He who is not angry when he has good reason to be, sins. Unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices.”

Wrath, on the other hand, is sinful. Wrath is “anger that is inappropriate, disproportionate, and unproductive,” Dr. Popcak said. While righteous anger aims to restore and heal, wrath seeks to destroy.

If anger is a gift from God—a signal that something is wrong that needs to be put right—then how do we handle this powerful emotion in a way that serves the good? Here are a few tips.

 

Don’t React; Instead, Step Back

The key to handling anger well is to avoid being reactive. Instead of launching into a hasty response fueled by the chemicals flooding your brain, pause, step back, and consider what is really driving your anger.

Is it really the thing in front of you that is provoking your anger, or is the thing in front of you stirring up old wounds? Is your child’s whining the real problem—or is the deeper problem that you are hungry and exhausted?

Understanding the real source of your anger is critical to addressing it in a proportionate, productive way.

 

Sublimate Your Anger to God

As you are collecting your thoughts, pray for the grace you need to handle the situation well.

“Anger isn’t so much a call to action as a call to prayer,” Dr. Popcak said. “Without prayer, anger can cause us to feel stuck, powerless, and perpetually outraged with no solution in sight.”

“We have to stop and say to the Lord: ‘Lord, I’m a mess,’” Lisa Popcak added. “’Everything is dysregulated inside of me because I feel like there’s an injustice happening. You went through the worst injustice possible. Show me what to do with this.’”

In the language of the Theology of the Body, your goal should be to sublimate your anger to God. Sublimation is not about repressing or denying your anger, Donaghy said; it is about “lifting it up to God, giving it to God and asking God to come into it.”

 

Learn to Express Anger Constructively

Righteous anger focuses on setting things right and finding solutions. In other words, it has a constructive purpose.

Setting boundaries for a respectful discussion can help. In a conflict with your spouse, for example, you might agree that each of you has a right to express their thoughts and feelings, but that it is not acceptable to express those thoughts and feelings in a disrespectful or destructive way.

Similarly, constructive anger focuses on finding solutions that address the concerns of all parties involved. The priority ought to be healing, restoring, and strengthening relationships, not “winning,” which only fosters resentment and fuels the cycle of angry conflict.

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help

Sometimes, dealing with anger —yours or someone else’s— requires some extra help. You can find Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s advice about handling anger in many of their books, particularly Parenting with Grace (for handling kids’ anger), Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart (for anger as a gift from God), How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love (for handling anger in a marriage), and God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People (self-explanatory, really).

And for more in-depth, one-on-one help, reach out to one of the many pastoral counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Boost Your Spiritual Growth: Try the Eulogy Accountability Challenge in Your Marriage or Friendship

When you go on a long trip, do you prefer to travel solo or with a friend?

Regardless of your usual travel preferences, when it comes to our spiritual journey, it’s good to have a companion who can help us find our “true north,” overcome obstacles, and get us back on track when we get lost. In fact, the Catholic Church insists that none of us comes to faith alone or is saved alone; we need one another, because our three-in-one God made us for relationship.

We can work for one another’s good in lots of different ways, of course: providing emotional support, lending a helping hand, worshiping together, and so on. But here’s a way that Christian couples (or close friends) can be more intentional about working for one another’s good—and strengthening their relationship at the same time.

This exercise from chapter 2 of Dr. Greg Popcak’s book, God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People can help us do just that. Dr. Popcak didn’t give this exercise a name, but let’s call it the “Eulogy Accountability Challenge.” The name is appropriate because this exercise is anchored in your idea about who you want to be at the end of your life. To put it another way, what personal characteristics or qualities do you want to be mentioned by whoever delivers the eulogy at your funeral?

“The key to working for your own or others’ good is discovering the kind of person you want to be at the end of your life and supporting each other as you struggle to become that person­,” Dr. Popcak writes in the book.

Together with your friend or spouse, work through the following steps. You’ll each need at least one sheet of paper.

 

1. Envision Your Ideal Self

Begin by prayerfully considering the qualities you wish to be known for at the end of your life. Be specific. For example, you might aspire to be:

  •  Loving
  • Wise
  • Understanding
  • Empathetic
  • Truthful
  • Responsible

List these qualities on a sheet of paper. Invite your spouse or close friend to do the same.

This list may change over time, but it should represent your best sense right now of what it means for you to become most “fully yourself”—that is, most fully the person that God calls you to be.

 

2. Identify Challenges

Now think of a situation that causes you to act or feel toward one another in a way that doesn’t align with your desired qualities. For example:

  • Maybe you are unpleasantly snippy and curt first thing in the morning.
  • Maybe you always shoot down your friend’s or your spouse’s suggestions.
  • Maybe you lose your temper when you get into a disagreement.
  • Maybe you don’t follow through on responsibilities, leaving them for the other person to take care of.

Whatever the challenge is, write it down.

 

3. Apply Your Ideal Qualities to the Challenge

Next, reflect on how you might act differently if you were to more fully embody the positive qualities you listed in the first step.

Be specific. How might your words, tone of voice, or actions change? For instance, would you be more patient or understanding? Focus on your own behavior and how you can align it more closely with your spiritual ideals.

Don’t offer your partner suggestions about how to complete this step!

 

4. Share Your Aspirations

Share your reflections with your spouse or friend. Make a commitment to help one another practice the positive qualities that each of you listed—not just in the particular challenge you named, but in other aspects of daily life, too.

 

5. Respectful Accountability

When you notice your partner or friend acting in a way that seems inconsistent with their stated spiritual ideals, gently remind them of their goals. For example, you might say, “You mentioned wanting to be more patient. Can you help me understand how your actions help you become a more patient person?”

Obviously, the key here is to be as respectful to the other person as you would want him or her to be toward you. After all, this is a two-way street: you’re each helping the other, so at some point, your partner will be giving you a gentle nudge toward your best self, too.

Done right, this exercise should help each of you along the path to becoming the person God calls you to be—and deepen the intimacy of your relationship.

For in-depth, one-on-one help strengthening your marriage or other relationships, reach out to a Pastoral Counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

 

­­How to Say ‘No’ with Confidence

Listen, before we start this article, would you mind getting up and grabbing me a sandwich? Liverwurst and onion on rye, with a little bit of that fancy mustard…?

If you even thought about saying “yes” to that request—or if you find yourself often saying “yes” to things you later wish you hadn’t—then you need to keep reading, because we’re going to talk about how to say “no” when you need to…without the guilt.

 

How to Know When to Say No

Most of us don’t like telling people “no” when they ask for our help. We humans are wired to cooperate with one another, after all. In general, we want to be helpful!

But the reality is, it’s not always good to say “yes.” For one thing, if we said “yes” to everything that was asked of us, we wouldn’t have time to fulfill our primary responsibilities in life. And sometimes, saying “yes” to someone causes more harm than good. Consider these examples:

  • After taking her kindergartener to his classroom, Sandy gets stopped in the hallway by the president of the PTA, who begs her to help coordinate the fall fundraiser. Sandy feels pressured to agree, despite already having a full plate. As she drives away, she finds herself fuming with resentment and frustration.
  • Jenny doesn’t want to alienate her adult son, so she frequently agrees to his requests for help, even though he has a serious drug addiction. When she refuses his requests, he accuses her of “rejecting” him, so she keeps helping—even though his situation keeps getting worse.

The hard truth is that sometimes it’s more generous and loving to say “no” to someone, even when it makes us feel uncomfortable or makes the other person feel let down.

And that’s the key to knowing when to say “no,” says Dr. Greg Popcak, founder and executive director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. Instead of basing your response on how we feel (guilty, empathetic, pressured), focus instead on the more objective question of what kind of response will lead to the best outcome for both you and the other person.

“When somebody’s asking something of us, especially when they’re pressuring us, the question to ask ourselves isn’t, ‘Do I feel like doing this or not?’ Or even, ‘Would they be upset with me or not?’” Dr. Popcak said recently on the More2Life radio show. “The question to ask ourselves is, ‘Is there a way to say “yes” to this request that is good both for me and the other person?”

By basing your answer on an objective assessment of what is going to be good for both you and the other person—rather than on the shifting sands of emotion—you set yourself up to resist pressure and shed feelings of guilt.

Even better, your answer is grounded in genuine love for the other person. Prior to becoming Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła wrote a book titled Love and Responsibility. In that book, he argues that Christians are not only called to love, but to love in a way that actually achieves the good of the other person.

Rachael Isaac, a pastoral counselor at the Pastoral Solutions Institute, encourages clients to evaluate decisions by checking three key indicators of well-being: “I always ask my clients, ‘What is going to lead towards greater meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue in your life?’” she says.

If saying “yes” creates resentment and burnout, it’s not the most generous response: “It doesn’t allow us to work for their good or ours if saying yes breeds resentment or frustration.”

 

Another Option: The Qualified Yes

It’s good to remember that there’s often a third option besides “yes” and “no,” says Lisa Popcak, vice president of the Pastoral Solutions Institute and a certified family life coach. She calls it the “qualified yes.”

A qualified yes involves saying “yes” to the what of the request, but placing conditions on the how and when.

In the example above, Sandy might tell the PTA president, “I’d love to help out, but the only time I have available in my schedule right now is Monday afternoons from 2 to 3:30. Is there another job I could do that would fit in that time slot?”

In the second example, Jenny might say to her son, “I love you and I want to help you, but I can’t help you harm yourself. When you’re ready to enter a treatment program, I’d be happy to pay for it.”

“You’re attempting to meet their need,” Lisa Popcak says, “but it’s within the boundaries of what will work for you without demeaning you, diminishing you, leaving you exhausted, or distracting you from all the other responsibilities that God has given to you.”

 

Let Your Yes Mean Yes…

Christians should remember that even Jesus said “no” sometimes, said Andy Proctor, another pastoral counselor at the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

“Jesus certainly said ‘no,’ sometimes forcibly, sometimes even to those closest to him,” he said. Delivered with prudence and humility, “no” might be what the other person really needs to hear, he added.

And if you need any more encouragement, just remember that Jesus himself calls us to clarity and integrity of heart in the commitments we make to others: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one,” he says (Matthew 5:37).

For more advice from Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak, tune in to the More2Life radio show every weekday between 10 and 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time, or catch it on your favorite podcast app. And if you need more help setting healthy boundaries in your life, you can connect with the Catholic counselors at the Pastoral Solutions Institute at CatholicCounselors.com.

4 Questions to Help You ­Discern the Next Chapter of Your Life

The heroes of the Bible had it easy, didn’t they? Anytime God wanted to communicate his will to them, he sent an angel or a burning bush or a prophet or a patch of wet wool (see Judges 6:36-40 for that last one).

For the rest of us, discerning major life decisions can feel a lot more difficult:

  • Should I marry this person or not?
  • What field of work should I study for?
  • Should I take this job or not?
  • Is it time to end this relationship?
  • Where am I going to put my time and energy during my retirement?

Most of us wish God would just telegram us with the “right choice”; Instead, he invites us to engage in a richer, more dynamic conversation with the Holy Spirit.

Fortunately, he has also given us some basic principles to follow as we have that conversation with him. Drawing on those principles, here are four questions that the Pastoral Counselors at the CatholicCounselors.com suggest you ask as you prayerfully discern your next big life decision.

1. What will bring you closer to God?

It’s tempting to focus on the immediate consequences of a big decision, but it’s important to always prioritize our ultimate destination.

“The end goal of every decision we make needs to be directed towards one thing: knowing and loving God more,” says Jacob Francisco, M.A., LMHC.

A prerequisite for good discernment, then, is that we’re trying our best to lead a good and holy life: staying connected to the church, receiving the sacraments, and basically trying to do what God wants in the decisions of our daily life, said Dr. Greg Popcak.

For Christians, this also means respecting the “guardrails” that God provides to keep us on the right course.

“God’s never going to ask us to do something that’s contrary to the Ten Commandments or the teachings of the Church,” Dr. Popcak said. Those teachings are part of a 4,000-year-old conversation that God has been having with his people. “He’s not going to just randomly say to us, ‘Well, I’m going to make an exception for you.’”

2. What is your heart’s deepest desire?

One common misconception is that following God’s will means denying our own happiness—but that’s just not the case, says Jacob Flores-Popcak, M.A., L.P.C.

He sees a lot of Catholics assume that if they have two options, “it’s the one I don’t like that’s probably the one God is calling me to in order to help me grow in humility or holiness or whatever.”

It’s true that God may call us to do something difficult or unpleasant for the sake of our own long-term well-being. Exercise can be tough, for example, but in the long run, it makes us stronger.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the hard, unpleasant thing is automatically the good thing. “God is not asking you to just randomly seek out crosses to nail yourself to,” Flores-Popcak said.

Keeping in mind that God wants our happiness, we can begin our discernment by reflecting on the deep desires of our heart, said Anne Brunette, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.

“God will put a desire on your heart before he calls you to it,” Brunette said.

The principle that the deep desires of our heart can help us discern our course in life is a key feature of the discernment approach developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius taught that our problem wasn’t desiring too much but desiring too little. In other words, we need to move beyond our petty, superficial desires and instead pursue the desires that lead us to the bountiful life God wants for us.

3. What leads to more meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue?

And what does that bountiful life look like? Dr. Popcak suggests that the life God wants for us is always characterized by meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue.

We lead a meaningful life by using our gifts to be a blessing to others and to make a positive difference in whatever we do, he said.

Intimacy is about fostering deeper relationships with God and others. When we’re prayerfully discerning a choice, then, we can ask: What allows me to make my relationships healthier, stronger, deeper, and more honest?

And virtue, the third guiding principle, is about seeing every situation as an opportunity to become a stronger, healthier, holier person—that is, more fully the person God made us to be.

“So, in discerning God’s will for our lives, we’ve always got to ask, ‘How can I use the thing I’m going through right now to become a little bit more of that whole, healed, godly, grace-filled person I’m meant to be?” Dr. Popcak said.

4. How does God want me to move forward?

Finally, it’s good to ask God not just what he wants us to do, but how he wants us to do it, Dr. Popcak said.

For example, it’s pretty clear that God wants us to share his message of good news with the world. But how we do that matters; we need to approach that task with love and respect, taking into consideration the circumstances of the person in front of us.

The same is true of our big life decisions. We might be called to end a relationship, for instance, but we also want to prayerfully discern how we can do that in a way that leads to the best outcome for the other person as well as ourselves.

Looking for more discernment advice? Check out The Life God Wants You to Have: Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail by Dr. Greg Popcak. And you can get one-on-one guidance from any of the Catholic counselors at the Pastoral Solutions Institute by reaching out at CatholicCounselors.com.

Apocalypse Always: How to Stop Catastrophizing

In the classic children’s book Wemberly Worried, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, a little mouse named Wemberly worries about everything, big and small: cracks in the sidewalk, noises in the house, taking a bath—and, especially, starting school. No matter the situation, she constantly assumes the worst will happen.

Her constant worrying about what could go wrong is a hallmark of catastrophizing, where the focus is on the most catastrophic outcomes rather than on more likely, benign possibilities. Catastrophizing is an example of what therapists call cognitive distortions: unhelpful “scripts” that we pull out of our subconscious mind to help us interpret our experiences.

Some other examples of catastrophizing:

  • You find a strange mark on your skin and stay up late researching skin cancer. By the morning, you’re a wreck.
  • Your spouse is running late and not answering their phone; your mind starts fixating on the possibility that they were in a serious car accident.
  • You decide you need to leave your dysfunctional workplace, but you’re so focused on the worst possible outcome (not finding a new job, or finding a new job that is even worse) that you can’t take action.

It’s not that these worst-case scenarios aren’t real possibilities: you might have skin cancer, your spouse might have gotten into a serious car accident, you might not get a better job than the one you’re leaving. But are these the only possibilities? No, and they are not even the most likely possibilities. But catastrophic thinking leads us to focus almost exclusively on the worst-case possibilities, causing stress and anxiety without doing us anything good.

“Catastrophic thoughts like these represent Satan’s way of causing us to spend all of our energy on imaginary problems so that we don’t have the strength to deal with the real problems in our lives,” says Dr. Greg Popcak in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 

Dealing with Catastrophic Thinking

So, what can you do if you recognize yourself catastrophizing in certain situations? Because cognitive distortions are deeply rooted in our subconscious minds—and often related to bad memories of similar situations—it usually isn’t going to work to simply tell yourself to “stop thinking that way.”

If catastrophizing is causing significant problems in your life, you might want to reach out to a therapist for help; you can find many Catholic Pastoral Counselors who draw on psychology and the wisdom of the Catholic tradition at CatholicCounselors.com. Another option would be to work through the process outlined in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy! or Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, also by Dr. Popcak.

Either way, you’ll be led through a “cognitive restructuring” process that is aimed at challenging and altering negative thought patterns to promote healthier thinking. Here’s a brief outline of what that process might look like:

  1. First, you’ll identify the type of events that trigger your anxious, catastrophic thinking.
  2. Next, you’ll name what this type of event means for you—why does it matter? What does it “say” about who you are, or how others see you?
  3. Then you’ll identify the memories of past experiences that provide the basic template for your catastrophizing way of thinking.
  4. Next, you’ll begin to develop a more helpful way of thinking to replace the unhealthy, unhelpful, catastrophizing script. For people of faith, this involves carefully listening to what the Holy Spirit is whispering to our heart.
  5. Next, you’ll make a conscious connection between this new way of thinking and experiences you’ve had that reinforce the truth of this new script.
  6. Finally, you’ll develop some practical strategies—physical, mental, spiritual, and relational—that you can take to further strengthen your mind’s connection with this new way of thinking.

You can find an abbreviated version of this approach in another post on our blog, “Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This Journaling Exercise.”

Changing old ways of dealing with stress doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t mean we’ll never have another worrying thought.

But remember: God doesn’t want you to live with constant, overwhelming stress. And with the right support and an openness to God’s grace, you don’t have to.

Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This 3-Part Journaling Exercise

In a previous post, we discussed types of self-talk that only make stress and anxiety worse without addressing the root causes. (See “10 Ways of Thinking That Sabotage Your Life.”) Now, let’s look at one strategy for breaking the habit of unhelpful self-talk so that we can practice ways of thinking that actually reduce stress and anxiety.

 

Start by Identifying Old, Unhelpful Scripts

First, a quick review. “Self-talk” is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of our experiences. Unhelpful or harmful self-talk is often a “script” rooted in memories of experiences from our past. When we encounter a similar type of experience, our unconscious brain pulls out the old script and runs through it as a way of making sense of the new situation.

The problem is that the old script doesn’t give us a good handle on the new situation. The old script is what cognitive behavioral therapists call “cognitive distortions,” so named because they distort our perception of reality.

Dr. Greg Popcak explains how to identify the ten most common types of unhelpful self-talk in his book, God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy! A few examples include mind-reading (assuming you know what others are thinking without having sufficient evidence), catastrophizing (expecting the worst-case scenario to happen and seeing it as inevitable), and polarized thinking (viewing situations, people, or yourself in extreme, all-or-nothing terms, without recognizing any middle ground).

But once you’ve identified an old script that’s keeping you from achieving a happier, healthier life, what do you do next?

 

A Journaling Exercise for Rewriting Old Scripts

One option is a three-step journaling exercise that helps you take apart the old script and rewrite a more helpful one. Here’s a summary of the process as Dr. Popcak explains it in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 

1. Vent about the stressful situation 

Start by writing a single sentence that describes what happened. For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back.

Keep it pretty straight-forward, focusing on the bare facts of whatever is causing you stress and anxiety.

Next, vent! Write down what this event means to you. Why is it stressing you out? For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back. This is the fifth job I’ve applied for where they never even called to set up an interview. I thought I was a perfect fit, but they obviously don’t think so. I feel worthless, like a complete failure.

 

2. Identify the distortions

 Next, re-read what you wrote as if it were written by a friend; your job is to sort through each statement and separate facts from distortions. Make notes in the margins classifying each statement. For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back. (That’s a fact.) This is the fifth job I’ve applied for where they never even called to set up an interview. (Also a fact.) I thought I was a perfect fit, but they obviously don’t think so. (Distortion: mind-reading,) I feel worthless, like a complete failure. (Distortion: polarized thinking, i.e., all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking.)

 

3. Write yourself a helpful letter

Finally, continuing in your role as a helpful friend, write yourself a letter that responds to the facts of the situation in a way that grounds you in reality, puts things in perspective, and offers practical steps that might actually help address the situation. Here’s an example:

Dear friend,

I know job hunting can be discouraging and demoralizing. But don’t make it harder than it is by listening to negative thoughts grounded in faulty thinking! The reality is, there are many possible reasons why these employers didn’t get back to you, including reasons that have nothing to do with you—so stop “mind reading!” And the fact that you didn’t get these jobs doesn’t make you a “failure”; it means you didn’t get those jobs, and that’s it. Plenty of successful people experienced way more rejection before finding success.

Here are three things you can do. First, take some time to pray, and just rest in the assurance of God’s care for you. Second, get some professional help with your job search process: hire a job coach, or take an online course to spruce up your resume. Third, ask around about a Christian job support group you could join, or start one yourself. Getting some friends to support you on the journey will help you keep going.

As you write this letter to yourself, avoid any “empty talk”: platitudes, pep talks, or encouragement that isn’t backed up by evidence. Focus on putting the facts of your situation in a more realistic light and naming practical things you can do to move forward.

This exercise can help you get on top of your stress and anxiety, but for a more comprehensive, one-on-one approach that takes your faith into account, reach out to Dr. Popcak and the therapists at CatholicCounselors.com.

Does Jesus Want Us to be ‘Nice’ to the Difficult People in Our Lives?


“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Jesus couldn’t have been more clear that following him means imitating the Father’s radically generous, unconditional love. He didn’t just preach this love; he embodied it through his death on the cross, and he expected his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

Over the centuries, those words have inspired countless Christians to heroic acts of love, sometimes to the point of sacrificing their lives.

Unfortunately, too many Christians also take Jesus’ teaching to mean that they ought to patiently put up with bad behavior from difficult—or even abusive—people.

But as Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak frequently point out to callers on their More2Life radio show, that’s a serious misunderstanding of Jesus’ call to radical love. In fact, such an approach may not be loving at all.

 

Jesus Wasn’t Always ‘Nice’

To see why Christian love sometimes calls for us to stand up for ourselves, set healthy boundaries, and in some cases, even end a relationship, we need to get a fuller picture of who Jesus really was.

Jesus dealt with “difficult” people all the time. Sometimes, those difficult people were even his closest friends! Other times, they were religious authorities who had it out for him.

Did Jesus quietly tolerate problematic behavior in the interest of “being nice”? He certainly stood up to the religious leaders who opposed him, often in forceful terms that left no question about their need for a change of heart.

Nor did he let his friends off the hook when they went astray. He famously rebuked Peter just moments after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 16:23).

At the same time, Jesus met known sinners with tenderness and mercy: think of his encounter with Zacchaeus or the woman caught in adultery, for example.

 

Real Love Works for the Good of the Other

Each of these very different approaches had a common motivation: Jesus’ genuine love for the person, tuned to achieve the good of the person he was encountering. As St. Thomas Aquinas would later put it, Christ-like love “wills the good of the other.” Christian love cooperates with God to help the other person become fully the person God desires them to be.

At the heart of our love for anybody, then, is the question: “What do I need to do to help this person achieve the good that God wants for him or her?”

In a healthy relationship, the answer would begin with the needs and desires of the other person. But in the case of someone whose problematic behavior is causing real, ongoing harm to us or other people, the bar is a lot lower. In these cases, really loving the person begins with not letting them mistreat you or other people. Instead, it begins with helping them become a better person.

Usually, the first step is to engage the person in a respectful, cooperative conversation about how to change the problem behavior. In God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace with Difficult People, Dr. Popcak outlines a five-step process for doing that.

If a person isn’t open to cooperatively working on the problem, then the next step might be setting limits or boundaries on the relationship. Ideally, these boundaries are targeted at the problem behavior and don’t cut off the relationship completely.

Sometimes, though, it is necessary to end the relationship entirely, especially if your life or health are in danger. As the Church teaches, we have a duty to care for our own life (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2264).

 

The Love of the Cross

At this point, you may wonder how Jesus’ call for his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” fits into the picture of Christian life. After all, plenty of saints have suffered, and even given their life, for the sake of Christ.

What distinguishes the sacrifice of the cross, though, is that it served a higher purpose; Jesus sacrificed his life to save all humanity. The sacrifices of the saints and martyrs participated in that sacrifice. For instance, saints such as Maximilian Kolbe, Gianna Beretta Molla, Oscar Romero, and Maria Goretti sacrificed their lives in order to save another life, or to stand up for truth and justice.

Each of us has everyday opportunities to practice this sort of sacrificial love: quietly putting up with a spouse’s annoying but harmless habit, getting up with the baby so your spouse can get some much-needed rest, ignoring a stranger’s rudeness out of charity.

But if you’re dealing with someone whose behavior is causing real problems, then ask yourself: Is putting up with this behavior really the best way to love this person? Does it serve Christ and the Kingdom of God?

If the answer is “no,” then it might be time to imitate Jesus’ other ways of loving difficult people.

For much more on this topic, check out God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! And if you need professional, one-on-one help navigating a difficult relationship, reach out to one of the Catholic counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.