It’s never been easy to be human, but 2021 was particularly hard. We’re rounding out the second year of the pandemic. Vaccinations and public health measures are controversial. The media and politicians continue to stir up needless hatred and division. And almost all of us spent less time with our loved ones than we wanted to.
Many of us are struggling.
It’s important to acknowledge that life is more difficult than normal right now, but it’s just as important, if not more, to notice the glimmers of life going well. Without a bit of extra effort, the mind tends to gloss over the good. If you find yourself in one of those chapters where nothing’s working, remember to create something nice for yourself and to ask for help doing so if needed. This can be as simple as grabbing a breakfast burrito and going for a walk or as profound as reaching out to a friend or therapist.
As always, I’ll close 2021 with a review of the lessons, struggles, and victories from the past year. I’ve moved the annual book review (coming soon!) to its own post for better flow. If you’d like to see what’s changed and what hasn’t, you can read previous reviews here: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016.
What went well
1) I grew a beard (and got my shit together!) Settling into truer my path has been a long process for me. I knew that my life was off track in my mid 20’s, but I was afraid to do anything about it. To figure myself out, I started going to therapy in my late 20’s. From there, I started grad school when I was 32 and at 34, I got licensed as a therapist. Now, I feel like I’m in the groove; professionally, I get to focus almost all of my attention on providing the highest quality of care possible. That’s new for me!
But it wasn’t just the professional side of my life that fell in line this year. I started paying more attention to my appearance (I have a beard and long hair now!). I recruited help decorating my apartment. I (finally) upgraded my wardrobe. I doubled down on a few close relationships and let go of the ones that weren’t as heartful. At first glance, these may seem like small changes. But the end result is stunning: they leave me feeling like me.
The trick is that the changes came from the inside out. My heart knew it wanted to work in mental health. I used my head in service of my heart to support the big changes I needed to make. Along the way, I naturally began to treat myself better; failing to do so felt wrong. Without the inner work I started in my 20s, none of this would feel authentic. I could make all of the same outer changes, but they would be hollow.
2) Related – 2021 was another whirlwind of professional milestones: In addition to everything mentioned above, I:
- Completed a 2.5-year meditation teacher certification
- Opened a physical office
- Became a level 2 Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) therapist
- Collaborated with senior faculty in the AEDP institute
- Gave my first round of interviews as a therapist
- Helped facilitate a grieving circle during day of the dead
I loved my work in 2020. I love it more now. To the people I’ve had the privilege of serving, whether you were a reader, a student, or a client: thank you.
3) I fixed my sleep! Insomnia was such a pronounced feature of my life that when my brother has a sleepless night, he refers to it as a “Jason sleep.” Earlier this year I decided to work with a certified sleep coach.1 Now, most nights, I fall asleep in less than 20 minutes and wake up just before my alarm goes off. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I can lull myself back to sleep. More on the specific strategies I learned in the lessons section below. As far as investments in myself goes, this one had the highest ROI of the year.
What I struggled with
1) Elephant in the room for long time readers: I only wrote 3 articles this year. Woof. I’m still trying to figure out how writing fits into my life as a therapist. There are a few issues. First, my practice is my priority. Second, when I started writing, I craved the validation that comes with having a lot of readers. I thought it would somehow help me feel worthy (spoiler alert: it didn’t – outer validation doesn’t heal inner injuries). Third, writing responsibly about mental health is extremely hard. Guidance that may heal one person may retraumatize another. I still like writing, and I still want to keep it up. I’m just struggling to find the right balance.
2) Related: I’m still learning how to relax and take time off. Work is my default stance in life. I started working when I was six years old, doing magic shows around town. In my teens, I was doing as many as six shows a week while also attending school. In 2021 I routinely worked 12 days straight as I tried to balance training and clinic. During the year I took one full week off as well as a few days here and there. Though my focus and energy rarely waned in session, that’s not enough time off.
In 2022, I’m aiming to rest more. I’ve adjusted my training schedule so that I’m never working more than 6 days in a row. I’m planning to take a few weeks off. My sense is that this will be good for me and the people I work for.
3) I experienced significant turbulence in my personal life. Twice. While I won’t go into too much detail here, I also won’t pretend like I went through 2021 unscathed. Few of us did.
As always, the lesson is simple, not easy: we fall apart. It’s an unavoidable part of the human experience. It’s our job to use the pain and the fear in a way that helps us transform. To be better for the wear, not worse. I’m happy to say that life feels good now. The pain helped me grow into a truer version of myself.
1) More than anything else, it’s our relationships that matter. I come back to this lesson often. Though there were significant successes in my professional sphere, it’s the little moments of quiet connection that stand out. My guy friends and I talking to that weird guy in the umbrella hat in October. The peak moments with clients. Getting smoothies and sandwiches with M* and the puppy. Letting K* and his partner feed me tacos when life was too much to do on my own. Those are the moments that stand out.
I’ve let this inform my clinical practice too. I’ve started telling my clients how much I appreciate them and what an honor it is to be by their side as they walk down the path. Unsurprisingly, telling people that you care about them tends to deepen the relationship and speed up the process of healing.
2) Have the hard conversation. Earlier this year I was being passive aggressive to a close friend. To his credit, he said, “Am I imagining this, or have I done something to upset you?” It’s scary for me to have these conversations. I took a breath, and with as much compassion for my friend and myself as possible, said, “Actually, yes…” and explained what was going on.
I was nervous that honesty would damage our friendship. I asked, “What’s it like to hear me say this? Are we ok?” He explained that though hard to hear, he appreciated it.
Several months later, he and I were reflecting on that conversation, and he shared that his life was better because of our conversation. The experience of staying connected amidst conflict is a newer experience in many parts of my life and one that I cherish.
This example isn’t the first time I’ve appreciated the value of hard conversations. I’ve been working on this since 2016. But it was more vivid this year than any other. It paid off in my friendships, my relationship, my family, and my work with clients. The conversation – and its follow-up – was one of the more emotionally significant events of the year for me.
3) Training pays off. A lot. In multiple avenues. For the third year running, my largest expense across all spheres of life was training. I literally spent more on training than my apartment. And office. Combined.
When I reflect on how I practice now vs. how I practiced when I started, there’s no comparison. Present me is running laps around past me, and I intend to keep this trend going for my entire career.
And it’s not just the clinical outcomes where I notice the impact of continued improvement. I also see this in my business operations. I spent a bit of time getting my marketing and network dialed in in 2020. Since then, I’ve taken my attention almost entirely off business development. Instead, I focus on providing the best quality of care that I can. This strategy worked for me. In any given week my practice happily operates right around capacity – often slightly over.
A note for clinicians: both sides of this equation matter. Doing good work and staying in training is critical. But getting your marketing and network dialed in is important too. Don’t skip that.
4) More silence, more slowness, more relaxation. My natural tendency is to move fast and fill the space with thoughts and feelings. This is counterproductive to good therapy. It’s also sometimes counterproductive to sanity (at least according to my inner circle). Increasingly, I’ve learned to slow down and relax into the silence. Doing this offers access to countless possibilities and paths that rest just over the edge of the first thoughts and feelings. This has deepened my connection to myself, my clients, and my loved ones.
5) Sleep lessons: as mentioned above, I worked with a sleep coach this year. The most important lessons I learned from him:
- Wake up at the same time every day. I used to never set an alarm, just giving myself as much space to sleep as possible. While this makes sense in theory, in practice, it results in dysregulated sleep patterns. By getting up at the same time each day, my body knows what to expect and can clearly signal, “Hey man, time to go to bed so we can get enough sleep” when it needs rest.
- Don’t go to bed unless you’re tired. Before fixing my sleep, I used to go to bed whenever I was bored in the evening, not when I was tired. More often than not, this would result in me rolling around wide awake and pissed off. Now, I stay up until I’m tired. Because I wake up at the same time every day, my body can modulate how much sleep it needs. Sometimes I’m asleep by 9:30 or 10:00. More often I’m asleep at 11:30.
- If you wake up in the middle of the night, use a mantra (or some other strategy), to fall back to sleep. I used to wake up between 3a – 5:00a several times a week, mind racing with work and life. I almost always failed to go back to sleep. This was absolutely maddening. Now, I silently recite a mantra and drift back to sleep. It feels like a magic trick.
6) Instead of fighting the siren call of social media and other internet distractions, just use blocking software. I’ve had a steady meditation practice for well over a decade. Even still, reddit and Instagram pull at my attention a million times a day. For years, I would try to fight the urge – sometimes winning, often losing. These days, I use Freedom to block access to all social media. This has saved a huge amount of time, energy, and sanity for me. I recommend it to clients and friends constantly.
So that’s a wrap on 2021. My partner and I will be spending a few days over the new year on retreat. Our plan is to rest, reflect, and set intentions 2022. No matter how you’re spending the end of the year, I hope that you do something kind for yourself. You deserve it.