Choice Solves Chaos


By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

The holiday season is upon us. I haven’t even finished shopping or inviting guests over and I’m already fatigued. I have social engagements for five out of seven evenings this week.  I’m also trying to bake a vat of coconut maple granola to give away.

Between going out for dinner with friends, dragging my kids to wholesome seasonal activities that they grudgingly tolerate, and generally attempting to trip the light fantastic, I will be sucking down a nontrivial amount of caffeine to counterbalance the exhaustion of social overstimulation.  Technically I don’t have to socialize like a Hollywood coke fiend or bring the kids to hear a sixteenth century Viennese Pianoforte, see zoo lights and visit downtown for the gingerbread house display. I want to do all these things.

A friend once told me about a little known category called an “ambivert” which is a person with equal extroverted and introverted traits.  That pretty much sums me up, as well as a lot of folks I know. On vacations, my favorite part is hanging out at the hotel room with my sweetie, a book and a cup of tea after sightseeing and before dinner.  I wouldn’t want to spend the whole day cooped up inside, but the counterbalance of explore-retreat lends adventure a cozy perfection.

Here I am in middle age and I still haven’t figured out the whole-life pacing thing, but I am starting to understand my need for variety and balance.  In my work as a therapist I’ve noticed that we course correct all the time. Work too much and you miss your kids. Work too little and you lose your sense of contribution. Exercise too much and you get obsessed and become rather boring company. Exercise too little and you become lethargic (and rather boring as well.)

Mental health is noticing when and where we are out of balance, and to GENTLY bringing ourselves back in alignment with our obligations, energy, and interests.  Gently means not talking meanly to ourselves, while still being honest and affirming choice. In truth, have too many plans this week, but I still have choices: I can enjoy it or just deal with it or I can cancel/reschedule/leave early. When we assert choice (I want to do all these things) we are less likely to fall into resentment, irritability or self pity.

Now I have to go. The granola baking/gift wrapping/hair curling requirements of this evening’s festivities hum an urgent tune.




All of Us

Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

I’ve been thinking about freedom versus connection and how we are continually trying to live in balance between the two states of being.  Freedom is the ability to experience personal power; to act on our own behalf and make choices without the burden of consideration of others.  Connection is security: its being part of something larger than ourselves, being important to another person who is equally important to us, as well as expanding our understanding of the world via other perspectives and ideas.

To be our healthy we need both freedom and connection. In relationships we need to recognize that our own balance is not going to be the same as our partners.  My friend S tells me about how her husband listens to baseball on his transistor radio.

“I get mad at him because he’s not available when he’s listening to the games.”  She wants more connection and he wants more freedom.

Another friend tells me how her husband wants her to retire like he has so she can be more available to him but she doesn’t want to give up the stimulation of her work.

“I don’t want to sit around watching TV.” She wants more freedom while he wants more connection.

This happens in non-intimate relationships as well and to make matters still more complex, different people connect in different ways.

My friend K loves to chat on the phone.  I would rather get together than chat on the phone, but because K is a dear friend and I know her preferences, I will call and talk.  She would prefer we talked more often, and thinks of the phone as a valuable tool to enhance connection.  I prefer to use the phone as a tool to make plans to get together. Both of these are types of connection, but they are different.

There’s nothing inherently superior about freedom or connection.  There’s nothing inherently superior about the phone versus the coffee shop.  We all need to find ways to negotiate getting our own needs met interpersonally as well as individually and also-just as important-we need to expect that other people will have their own formula for this same balancing act.

It’s not all about you and it’s not all about me—it’s about all of us.

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.