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.





Taming the Green Eyed Monster

 by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW


I’ll never forget chatting with a woman in a social setting some years ago:   She and her husband were billionaires.  She wore diamond earrings that could have knocked out a cat in free fall.   The budget for the estate they were having built was in the 50 million dollar category… yet I wouldn’t have changed places with her for the world. 

 Her drug addicted, behaviorally disturbed son had just run away from a treatment center.  All the money in the world could not protect her from the living hell of parenting a self-destructing child.  This experience was a real reminder to me about what is actually important (the health and wellness of those we love), versus what I find myself wishing for (a Japanese garden complete with Koi pond, for instance). 

 It’s so easy to tell ourselves stories about money, fantasies that center around the theme of “if I had more money I could do this and have that and life would be so great.”  

 Yet lottery winners, one of the few insta-rich, something-for-nothing examples in our society have a nasty habit of suddenly dying from heart attack.  Single people who come from family wealth often hide the fact from others, fearful of being used for their money instead of liked and loved for their true self.  The plethora of choices that abundant money presents can paralyze and tear apart relationships:  witness how according to stress measurement scales, a remodel is as stressful on a marriage as an immediate family member’s death. 

 Somehow deeper, more important and more universally available attributes such as kindness, calmness, a sense of humor, generosity and creativity fail to inspire the urgent cravings that perfect breasts or a Rolls Royce do.   I’d love to hear someone say they are jealous of another person because the other guy is so kind.    

 From a mental health perspective this is like grabbing for holographic pennies while stepping on real dollars.  We cannot all be stinking rich, or be lifelong beauties like Sophia Loren.  There is only so much room on the zenith of any mountain and a few names pretty much occupy the top.  Financially and physically, most of us are relegated to living and dying somewhere below the top and above the bottom.  

 So where should we invest our focus instead?  Here’s a heretical notion:  How about thinking obsessively about the areas we can actually impact?   Focus on the things where interest and effort can result in improvement for everyone.    For instance we can all enhance the quality of our lives by striving to improve our communication skills, being willing to try new things, working towards an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, by cultivating gratitude and generosity.