By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW, MSW

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One of my clients recently got their dream job and promptly had a full on freak out.  Another who had been desperately lonely fell in love and started having panic attacks. Another sold their start up for a significant amount of money and was haunted by the burden of managing it. If these folks sound unusual, they are not. Change pretty much sucks. Even good change, wanted change, positive change is weird and leaves us all a little spooked and sleepless.

During times of change and the resulting teeter-totter roller coaster it places us on, I try to remind myself that I am a collection of thirty trillion cells seeking homeostasis. On a cellular level, we crave stability and continuity, but on an intellectual and emotional level, we crave personal growth.

What’s a human to do? Do we capitulate to our biology and remain stagnant for maximum efficiency? (Hint: Oh.Hell.No!) Or do we tell ourselves that change is good AND frightening? (Um… as well as inevitable so you might as well stop fighting it).

When we are in times of change we need to expect discomfort. It helps to name it something friendly like “growing pains” and to greet that pain with all the compassion, faith and patience we would show our best friend if they were going through that very thing.

The Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz as well as the American poet Mary Oliver wrote some wonderful poems about this aspect of life that can be taken like medicine via a careful reading. Unlike many psycho pharmaceuticals, side effects of poetry-as -medicine include feeling better and becoming a more interesting person.

Journaling is ALWAYS a good idea, but especially when we are in transition because it provides a format to check in with ourselves.

Mindfulness practices like meditation and prayer provide another way to calm the inner turmoil during times of change.

Reaching out for support from a friend, family member, and/or professional support person such as a therapist, doctor, coach or just some kind and available person you happen to connect with can help provide you with time and space to think out loud (particularly crucial for the extroverts) and figure out your next steps.

Any way you find your way back to equilibrium, as long as it doesn’t involve addiction or arrest (because anything that gets you in trouble is not in service to equilibrium), I say make like a certain athletic footwear logo and go for it.


By the way, if you are a therapist in the Seattle area, I will be presenting at the November meeting of the Seattle Counselors Association on social anxiety disorder:

Hope to see you there!


“Well…Back In My Day” (Sound of Spittoon Being Used)

By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW, MSW


I’ve been chatting with young people lately, thinking with them about the future and how to negotiate finding their own place within this big changing world economy. First a disclaimer: I don’t have a clue what it is like for today’s young adults.  Five million years ago when I attended university I had a salaried position working for the state lined up two months prior to graduation.

It seems like achieving financial and professional independence is happening later and later in life and this creates tremendous stress for all parties involved.  Young adults want to feel like they are contributing and not just taking from society. They want the satisfaction of traveling in a professional direction with a future. The parents of young adults want to relax and stop worrying about where their adult child will land.

The unprecedented rate of technological change has left many of us scratching our heads (Me, when I first got a cell phone and was talking with a client, at the end of the conversation: “Um…I don’t know how to hang up.”). The economic collapses of Enron, the mortgage crisis, the dot com bust, the housing bubble, Lehman Brothers, the bankruptcy crisis in Greece and Iceland etc…etc…means the landscape of our economy is volcanic and absent an oracle or a direct line to Warren Buffet it’s hard to know what to expect.

Add to that the overly fawning parenting culture we have entered, where talented children are told they are geniuses instead of told they must nurture whatever native skills they have with diligent effort for the rest of their lives.

I haven’t come up with any sweeping conclusions for my young adult clients, but I have a few principles I’d like to share:

  1. Don’t take out student debt for a hobby. A hobby is any major that is unlikely to support you. Creativity is a vital part of a rich and meaningful life, but rarely a reliable source of income. You can double major or minor in things like art, dance, and writing.
  2. Everything we learn is additive. It’s easy for me to assimilate new information about mental health theory and research because I have a lot of knowledge in that area. The more we learn about anything, the more easily we can learn.
  3. The world only wants your gifts if they benefits people/institutions outside of yourself. Discover that being of service is in itself a gift and not a burden.
  4. Be tech savvy unlike me. Don’t really know how to expound on this one except to say I feel like the smoker telling their kids “don’t smoke! It’s bad for you!” Technology and its endless iterations looks like it will be the major employer for the foreseeable future.

Also I just want to say: adulthood is delightful.  Sure you’ll have more responsibilities and less free time, but in exchange you’ll deepen your connections to other people and to your community at large and you will get to have amazing experiences like decorating your home and falling in love and throwing a successful dinner party and the quiet satisfaction of contributing to the greater good.

Home Improvement

by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
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Its spring and I’ve been rearranging furniture and repainting walls and futzing about with things like a maniac.
I actually steamed the living room curtains (!!!) so perhaps I’ve been possessed by the spirit of a 1950’s clean-aholic housewife. Note: if I start cooking with aspic, someone please stage an intervention.

My latest project has been fixing a long-broken outdoor fountain. It seemed like an impossible task. I replaced the pump: it didn’t work. I reinforced the connection between the pump and tubing: nothing. I then replaced the tubing: still no.

Finally my buddy Grant, a retired engineer, came by with his bag of tools and a mechanical aptitude I can only imagine. Within five minutes he had figured out what the problem was: gunk had built up on the inside of the nozzle. I cleaned that out; we reconnected the thing and viola! A fully working fountain now burbles happily in my back yard. As I write this, a bird is having his own private pool party.

We are not meant to do the hard parts of life on our own. Today, I am grateful for my community and the opportunity to draw on the wisdom of others.

A New Experience

Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW


This weekend I am on a wonderful writing retreat in a vacation rental house along Lake Washington with a couple therapist friends who, like me, are always too busy working/parenting/living to get to our writing.  The house is exquisite: original art on every wall, a water view out the window, gorgeous red hardwood floors, blooming Camellias in the back yard and all of it just steps away from Seward Park, one of the best parks in all of Seattle.

What a startling contrast to my original experience of the south Seattle area.   When I first moved to Seattle in 1997 I took a job in Child Protective Services in the Rainier Valley. I worked like a fiend: coming in early, staying late, and returning on weekend mornings to catch up on paperwork. But no matter how hard I tried, it was never enough. Trying to figure out what was really going on in the homes of abused children was a little like playing Russian roulette. Some abused children lied to protect their parents and to maintain their families. Some parents lied to protect themselves and to keep the children that they loved, even as they abused them.  Some referrants (the people who called CPS to make the reports) lied because the mother had made them mad and they were trying to get even. Some foster parents provided foster homes not out of compassion for mistreated children but as a way of turning vacant bedrooms into sources of income.  Some parents lied about the abuse to keep their kids because they simply wanted to maintain their welfare check. It was a heart-breaking job because even if I did it perfectly (which let me be clear: I did not) I created real misery in many children I was trying to protect.

It was in this very same neighborhood that I was now lounging in a custom lake front house with my ergonomically designed keyboard and a cup of high quality Tazo tea. We just returned from boutique shopping (very important for the writing process). 

When my clients move from a generalized anxiety condition such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to a new and integrated, calm self, it’s much like my experience at my writing retreat: the neighborhood is the same, but the emotional reality is completely different.

Being anxious served me well when I worked for CPS. I was able to detect facial and verbal cues that indicated someone was not telling the truth. I could work long hours without break. I could keep myself safer in drug dens by keeping my body between the other person and the door.

In private practice now, working with people who are voluntarily spending time and money to heal, those skills are—thankfully–no longer necessary.  I am involved in the lives of people who have invited me to do so, who usually express gratitude to me and are delightful to work with.

Oftentimes our anxiety circuits—the parts of our brain responsible for scanning for general danger and zeroing in like a predator on a pray animal when specific danger arises—can become stuck “on” and fail to take in new information such as “the threat is over and I am safe now.”  

Therapy aims to help people notice what is true NOW: to differentiate between past and present circumstances, and to take back our current-day power instead of continuing to surrender it to a once-upon-a-time powerlessness.  It’s helpful to know that this differentiation is something we all struggle with from time to time. If you have ever felt yourself burning with resentment over something that happened a long time ago, or feeling ashamed about a painful experience you had no control over, this might be a memory in need of some healing. From where I sit, next to a two story view of the blue sky I am grateful for this new experience of south Seattle.


Me, Skillfully Demonstrating What Not To Do

Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

An unnamed twelve year old year old boy I happen to share DNA with has entered a phase that can only described as Complains-about-Every-Single-Thing.

This morning for instance, he complained that the cookie bar I packed for his lunch was larger than yesterday’s cookie bar, clear proof that yesterday I robbed him.  He complained that he had to do his morning chore as per usual instead of yesterday when I let the boys skip their morning chore due to the challenges of waking up early for daylight savings.  When I drove the kids to school so that they wouldn’t have to carry their musical instruments three blocks, he complained that I stopped the car directly across the street from the school instead of entering the parking lot round about.

All this, before 8:30a.m.

It was at this, third-ridiculous-complaint breaking-point that I let out a shriek and used two words I do not recommend in anyone’s vocabulary. “Shut up!” I said. Okay… I yelled.

When I pick my children up from school today I have some repair work to do. First I will apologize for losing my temper and for saying “shut up”– words I do not allow them to use. Then I will ask for forgiveness.

We all make mistakes. We make them in interpersonal relationships, in school or work, and in large and small ways throughout our entire lives. It is vitally important that we remember: we all make mistakes.

Emotional wellbeing is not the result of achieving perfection or personal excellence. Wellbeing comes from loving ourselves totally enough to accept our imperfection, which then allows us to love and accept those imperfect beings all around us. Self love and acceptance of imperfections supplies us with both the capacity for and the moral obligation to take responsibility when we make mistakes.

This is the heart of repair: By taking personal responsibility for our mistakes, we show up in our relationships, in our jobs, and in our lives as humble, teachable humans. We acknowledge what we have done wrong, ask for forgiveness and move on. We make new choices the next time a similar set of circumstances occur.

And one thing we can rest assured of: those circumstances, the challenging, finger-nails-on-the-chalkboard moments in which we made the mistake to begin with, WILL reoccur. The universe is really generous in allowing us to rinse and repeat a lesson until it’s good and learned.

Which means tomorrow or next week or next month, my kiddo will be complaining about something I find utterly ridiculous. And I will get the opportunity (Please God help me!) to calmly say, “Can you notice something positive instead of complaining?”

Left Brain, Right Brain, Balanced Brain

by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

I think I’m turning into a zombie because I just can’t get enough brains!

I don’t want to shuffle through town with a chain saw or munch on them though.  I want to study and understand and stimulate their healing.

The psychiatrist Don Kerson, MD in his wonderful, sprawling book “Getting Unstuck: Unraveling the Knot of Depression, Attention and Trauma” discusses disassociation as a left/right hemisphere brain disorder and makes a compelling case for the following idea:

The left brain, our logical, thinking, planning, organized self is like the captain of a ship.

The right brain, our emotional, experiential, doing self is like the deck hands. 

The captain can’t possibly do everything himself, so he orders the deckhands about. The deckhands do the work, but with a willing spirit only if they respect and are treated well by the captain.  If not, they rebel, ignore, act out and just generally thwart the captain’s plans.

The captain’s command style is based on how our parents talked to us when we were children. What Dr Kerson neglected to include is that our left brain “captain” is also based on how our parents’ role modeled their own self-management skills, meaning their attitude towards getting their own life tasks accomplished. If our parents used patience and humor—even some of the time—we can access and channel a left brain “boss” who is empathic and warm.  If our parents managed the business of life with minimal complaints we develop a competent, matter of fact self managing or captain style.  If parents complain constantly, children develop a fear of effort. If parents are abusive or neglectful, children develop a left brain boss who is controlling, angry, and uses only fear (such as self talk such as: “You’ll never amount to anything” or swear words) to motivate action. 

Under abusive (this includes emotional, physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect) conditions, the deckhands or right brain doing part, goes one of two ways:  we either become hyper organized, obedient, little soldiers–you know, the kinds of folks who split their day into fifteen minute increments even when they are not at work in order to maximize productivity–or we become total slacker self indulgent pleasure-seekers–the folks who can’t seem to ever get their lives together because exerting consistent goal oriented effort is just too hard.

Integration between the two hemispheres can happen in many different ways: with mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Repatterning) therapy, hypnosis aimed at integration of the selves, ego state therapy, and NLP or Neurolinguistic programming.  It also happens with the cultivation a benevolent spiritual belief system (note: fundamentalism does not gentle the captain), use of positive affirmations and mantras that uplift and enhance our internal kindness, as well as when we parent our own children and pets with love and joy.

My goal as a therapist is to help my clients develop a way of internally and interpersonally relating that is respectful, collaborative, supportive, productive and fun.  When the deckhands or right brain self are in rebellion they might be having fun but they are not being productive.  When the captain upbraids the deckhands as lazy scallywags (okay I wrote this whole blog post just so I use that word) he might get their attention and obedience but he surely won’t get their collaboration and good ideas. 

Our right brain is literally brimming with fantastic and brilliant ideas, but we will never notice them if we don’t provide space for both parts of us to talk to each other.

We need silence and space for this to happen.  And if we are new to listening to our deep inner right brain yearnings, it doesn’t happen smoothly. The first time I went away on a weekend yoga retreat my twins were two and a half years old. I wanted to run away and never go home because I couldn’t figure out a way to get my neglected emotional needs met along with meeting my family obligations. I was so accustomed to letting my important but joyless left brain planner/analyzer make all the decisions that when I felt the absorbing healing of unity consciousness, the unadulterated feeling state of my right brain, I wanted to protect it at all costs.

We don’t have move to the Himalaya’s and chant for the rest of our lives to make room for our right brains. But we do have to protect time to chill out and imagine and play. Personal growth is a commitment and like all commitments, it costs us time and energy. My self-care and emotional health goal this season is to listen to my right brain by making more time for day dreaming.