Author Archive

The Problem of Blame

Monday, October 1st, 2018


We see it creep into our language at an early age, tend to notice it in others more than ourselves and, though it takes on many forms, at one point or another we’ve all done it… So what is it exactly that makes our tendency to blame others for our poor behavior so tempting?

A quick survey of the first few chapters of Genesis shows us that the problem of blame can be traced to the origin of man – literally! Not long after God created everything, including man, and set them all in perfect relationship with one another, mankind opted to declare independence from God by choosing to believe the serpent over God and disobeying the one rule of Eden. This is known as the Fall of Mankind – when sin entered the world. One of the immediate, destructive results of sin on relationships was displayed when God questioned Adam and Eve about their rebellion. Adam’s response to God was, “Eve gave me the fruit,” and Eve’s response was, “The serpent deceived me.” Neither was willing to take personal responsibility for their choice to disobey and, instead, decided to point fingers at everyone else involved.

As a marriage counselor, I often hear some version of the message, “If my spouse wouldn’t ___________ (yell, drink, work so much, ignore me, etc.), then I wouldn’t __________ (give the silent treatment, throw things, go over budget, nag, etc.).” So, essentially, “Because I believe my spouse is in the wrong, I am perfectly justified in my ugly reaction.” Sound familiar?

When we blame others for our behavior it has at least two incredibly harmful consequences. First, it communicates to the other person, “You are the main problem here.” It is an accusation that puts the blamer in a position of superiority, essentially saying, “I am better than you and would never have done that if it weren’t for you.” Blame is a form of contempt and nearly always incites defensiveness in the one being blamed. Researchers have identified this cycle of contempt and defensiveness as the single most destructive communication pattern in relationships.

We often justify blame by telling ourselves that in order to help our partner understand the significance of the problem, we must point out all of the ways they went wrong in a particular situation. However, because it puts the accused on the defensive, it rarely produces the desired result. It is incredibly difficult to stay calm and think critically when someone we love sends us the message that they’re only willing to look at our flaws and ignore their own. We instinctively want to point out their weaknesses as well or convince them that they’ve misjudged our character, which only fuels the destructive cycle.

The second harmful consequence of blame is that it sabotages personal growth. Blame is tempting because it is an easy alternative to the hard and often painful work of humbly looking in the mirror and taking stock of our own shortcomings. If we are unwilling to honestly take accountability for our actions, then it is nearly impossible to learn from our mistakes. The only way to become more of the person we each desire to be is to honestly admit where we’ve fallen short and make daily course corrections.

At this point, you may be asking, “What do these course corrections look like in the midst of relationships?” The following are a few strategies to help you avoid the blame trap and spur you on toward personal and relational development.

1 – Begin by admitting your part in the conflict. This is not about “taking the high road,” which again is a position of superiority. The goal is to genuinely acknowledge where your thinking or behavior may have contributed to the overall problem. It may sound something like, “I’m really sorry for the way I began our conversation, I can see how you would have felt ambushed by my comments.”

2 – Find common ground. Instead of focusing on the perception that the other person is being unreasonable or immature, the best way out of the contempt-defensiveness cycle is to look for the understandable part in what the other person is saying. Relationship research strongly supports the principle that if we want to receive understanding, we must first give understanding.

3 – Offer assurance and affirmation. The best way to repair some of the damage left by past accusations is to reassure the other person that you are not looking at them through a judgmental lens. For example, saying something like, “I’m not questioning you because I don’t trust your judgment; I truly want to understand your thought process and need your help with that.”

4 – Prioritize mutual respect. The goal is not to ignore or minimize your own feelings or desires but to give each person equal regard. This involves a willingness to listen to both sides even when you strongly disagree. This mutual respect reassures each person that we are not willing to win the argument at the expense of the relationship.

If you go on to read the rest of the story that began in Genesis, you’ll see that God’s plan for redemption was to send His perfect son, Jesus, to redeem mankind. When Jesus walked on the earth He displayed all of the attributes necessary for healthy relationships. When accused, Jesus did not blame others but was willing to humbly speak the truth in love. Not surprisingly, when we look at the relationship research, it points to the very same behavior patterns. Instead of blaming others, the best thing we can do is acknowledge our part in the problem and commit to be part of the solution.


Wednesday, November 1st, 2017



The #metoo campaign has brought a very important and often taboo topic to the forefront recently. What started on social media is now fueling dialogue over dinner tables, happy hours and therapy sessions. As a counselor, I’m thankful for opportunities to give expression to traumatic events that have lurked in the dark because that is where healing begins. However, as with any issue that has spent so much time in the dark, once it’s open for discussion, the pendulum can swing in both helpful and unhelpful directions. All you need to do is peruse the comments of those who have shared via #metoo to see that this is a vulnerable, complicated and even divisive topic.

There is no way that one article (or even one conversation) could cover all of the nuances and complexities involved in these issues. That said, I think it is helpful to start by defining terms. The American Psychological Association defines sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with those who perpetrate it using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims who are unable to give consent.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Coalition defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

The #metoo campaign was intended to shed light on the ludicrous number of individuals (not just women), who have lived through unwanted and unsolicited sexual traumatization. Whether in the form of rape, incest, molestation, intimidation, or manipulation; sexual abuse and harassment are heinous crimes and should not be tolerated under any circumstance. The #metoo platform has great potential to educate, create solidarity and initiate proactivity.

However, after numerous conversations with family, friends, colleagues and clients, I can see how it could also be contributing to stereotypes, misinformation and division rather than garnering the solidarity it intended.

The Good and the Bad

The social, relational, emotional, vocational and even financial costs that result from bringing sexual abuse and harassment to light have, understandably, kept many of the offended quiet. My hope is that heightened awareness of this issue will help those who fear retribution or stigma to speak the truth and bring perpetrators to justice. I hope they will know they’re not alone and will be taken seriously. (And I hope that they will!)

However, the flipside of that issue is tricky. In our endeavor to honor our brothers and sisters who have been injured by sexual abuse and harassment, we also need to be discerning in identifying offenses. Please hear me when I say that some offenses are flagrant and need no further scrutiny. But, when something falls within the grey area of our subjective assessment, I hope that we will not automatically assume malicious intent. I fear that an overinflated sense of political correctness could lead to people becoming unwilling to even flirt or express interest in someone. Again, there are appropriate times and places for these exchanges, and I hope that this dialogue can help to inform ways we can honor each other in the process.

Many of those who have come forward in this campaign talk about regretting not having said something sooner. As I’ve said, there are many very compelling reasons to keep quiet. However, my hope is that as a culture we can begin to assert our boundaries proactively whenever possible. Of course, if someone forcefully overpowers you, there are no words that can change that. But in cases where someone makes what you would define as a crude or inappropriate comment, the best thing you can do is let them know that.

Asserting your boundaries is different than attacking someone’s character. A simple, “here’s how that came across… was that your intention?” may be enough to shut down unwanted advances. As ridiculous as a comment may seem to you, people often have very different ideas of what is appropriate, professional, or flattering. If you let someone know that what they are doing is unwelcomed, then it is easier to hold them accountable going forward. I know this does not apply in every case, but may be especially helpful in cases of harassment.

Sexual abuse and harassment can carry with them a heavy burden of shame. I absolutely believe that the best way to heal and eliminate this shame is to bring it into the light, give it voice, acknowledge that you’re not alone, work through the grief and pain and move forward. Saying “me too” is a wonderful entry into this process, however, it’s not the end.

Moving Forward

I fear that #metoo may be contributing to solidarity regarding victimization rather than mobilization. The story doesn’t have to end with the trauma. The trauma is real, and awful and needs to be addressed. But I hope that the story also includes healing, growth, redemption and all the rest of life that contributes to each person’s individuality. I hope those impacted by these atrocities will recognize that this offense does not define who they are or their value. Maybe we should consider something like, #metoonomore.

Some have questioned the campaign for encouraging those who have been violated to make their stories more public. Of course, that is a matter of choice, and no one is required to share at all. But for those who decide to share their experiences, my hope is that their bravery will encourage others to be more intentional about caring for each other.

I hope that we don’t read these stories with judgment or blame, but with compassion and a desire to impact change where we are able. If you read each story as if it happened to your best friend, it might encourage you to say, “How can I make sure I never put someone in that kind of situation?” or, “How can I be protective of those who may not be able to protect themselves?”

Of course this is not an exhaustive list of all of the ways that #metoo could be interpreted or applied. But my hope is that we will use this as a platform for “seeing” each other, honoring each other, and being more intentional about our own words and actions as a result. Let us not use the bravery shown by those who’ve given voice to #metoo to divide us, but to strengthen our collective efforts toward respect and value for each other.





After the Storm

Monday, September 4th, 2017


It has only been a week since the peak of Hurricane Harvey, but for those of us in and around Houston it already seems like much longer. Now that more of the roads are passable and we can begin to take in the full impact, it is surreal. Many have described the scene as a war-zone, and with the constant buzzing of military helicopters overhead, piles of debris and rubble lining numerous streets, and many people still displaced and in shelters, it really does feel that way. Whether you are one of those who watched the dirty water infiltrate your home and infect all of your belongings, or one who watched the news from the safety of your dry home knowing that your friends and family were struggling all around you and feeling totally helpless to stop the deluge, we’ve all been impacted.

 The past many days have stirred a wide spectrum of emotions from grief and despair to joyful appreciation to guilt and frustration. I have had the honor of walking into the homes of complete strangers to aid in the tearing out of drywall and boxing up what little, if anything, was untouched by Harvey’s influence. I’ve watched volunteers at the George R Brown Convention Center (shelter) exhaust themselves out of a deep desire to help those impacted in any way they are able. I’ve stared into the tear-filled eyes of a woman who lost everything and was completely speechless when she asked me, “what do I do now?” And I’ve felt the strange sense of guilt when questions like, “why was my home spared when so many others’ homes were not?” come into my mind.

 As a mental health professional, I expected this to be hard on everyone. But now that I’m walking around in this “war-zone” and talking to the people impacted and hearing their stories, the reality of the loss is truly registering, and it is overwhelming.

 Please know that no matter what degree of impact you’ve endured through this storm, it would benefit you to look through these resources and make sure that you’re still practicing the self-care necessary to ensure that you can persevere throughout this cleanup and rebuilding effort. It is going to take months and even years, so please refer back to these resources throughout the next many months and share them with others around you. Everyone in Harvey’s wake will benefit from practicing these strategies for self-care and resiliency. 

Suffering Redeemed

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017
by Annie Higgins – MA, LPC

As I sat across the counseling room from Diana, who had lost her daughter in a tragic accident four months prior, she said something I’ve heard from so many others in the midst of pain. She said, “If I just knew why; if God would just show me how He could possibly use this for good so that I could be confident my daughter didn’t die in vain, then I could move forward.” I believe that her pain and grief are completely justified and I could certainly identify with the question. Who hasn’t shouted “Why?!” in the midst of despair?

The truth is, no answer exists that would remove the pain. But we’d all like to believe there might be one that would help us to see a grander purpose within what often feels arbitrary and unfair. Sometimes, by God’s grace, we are able catch glimpses of the redemption of our suffering. Parents of children who overdose can do remarkable good by raising awareness and preventing similar destruction. Couples who once teetered on the edge of divorce can testify of stronger marriages because of their willingness to do the hard work of forgiveness. Athletes with career-ending injuries realize that life is better when they can devote more energy toward their families. Though I’m incredibly thankful for these types of examples, I propose this is a limited view of how God redeems our suffering.

For a more robust perspective, I look to 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, which says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” There are several promises here that we can cling to during our trials. Notice that Scripture does not say if we suffer, it assumes we will have troubles. When we do, our “Father of compassion” has promised to comfort us in all of our troubles. This means that whether we are suffering because of our own bad choices or because of something that was completely out of our control, the same God will see us and comfort us when we allow Him access to our hearts.

The second promise from this passage cannot be overstated. When we receive comfort from our Heavenly Father in our trials, it enables us to provide others with that same life-giving comfort when they are in despair. That is the essence of redemptive suffering. Redemption means making a bad, unpleasant, or evil thing better, acceptable, or justified; therefore, the very act of God using our suffering to advance hope and healing in someone else makes it redemptive. It doesn’t even have to be that we’ve gone through the same circumstance for God to use our pain as an instrument of healing for someone else.

Humanity will forever be marked by brokenness and suffering. If we live long enough, most of us will deal with loss, betrayal, rejection, or grief of some nature. Yet, this brokenness actually enables us to be a people marked by compassion. The same God who comforted a daughter during her abusive relationship can use her to comfort a son during his battle with cancer. Our brokenness leads us to compassion if we allow God into those broken places and trust in His goodness to redeem it in whatever manner He sees fit.

My intention is not to minimize Diana’s real pain, or to sugarcoat your own personal tragedy. It is absolutely appropriate to desire that God use these circumstances for good. My encouragement is to broaden your perspective of how God may be inviting you to use your personal healing process and the comfort you’ve received, as training that equips you to extend relief toward others as they work through their brokenness.

Pillow Talk: Talking about Sex with Your Spouse

Monday, February 6th, 2017
by Annie Higgins, LPC

Sex. It’s one of the top three things that couples fight about within marriage. Why? I can think of at least two major contributing factors. The first is that sex is deeply personal and vulnerable. And the second is that very few people are actually taught how to talk about this sensitive topic in a healthy manner. If the couple happens to be Christian, then the chances are even slimmer that they’ve learned how to communicate their sexual desires or concerns to one another. Many of us who were raised in Christian homes are told that sex is bad and not to be discussed or even thought about until we are married. As if all of the sudden a switch within us flips and we go from seeing sex as “bad” to appreciating it as “good and God-honoring” the moment we say “I do.” – WRONG!

In order to talk about such a vulnerable topic, I believe it is absolutely vital to establish a foundation of safety and trust. Without that, all of the “tips” in the world will not be helpful. God’s original design for marital intimacy was that we would be “naked and unashamed” (Genesis 2:25). Intimacy means a “deep knowing” and we can develop a certain level of this deep knowing with family and friends. But God reserved the deepest, most vulnerable, two-becoming-one type of intimacy for the marriage relationship alone. Because sex is so incredibly personal and vulnerable it is never neutral; it carries a power that either strengthens or destroys connection. Sexual intimacy is beautiful and soul-quenching when it is treated with the honor and dignity God intended, but it can easily be misused and abused if handled wrongly. Within the protective hedge of a covenant marriage, a couple can say to each other, “I love and accept you – imperfections and all – so you have nothing to fear. You can trust me and even lose yourself within our sexual union.” I believe that this kind of security is the basis for the best sex anyone could ever imagine!

The type of safety and security I’m talking about here is cultivated over time. It starts during courtship when the couple takes the time to ask questions of each other, show genuine interest in what each other thinks or dreams about, and uses that information to demonstrate care and commitment. It is refined in the fires of grief and heartache and perseverance, and is maintained within a marriage by recommitting each day never to use the knowledge you’ve gained about each other against each other. That is the only way to be emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and physically naked and unashamed with each other. This is hard, but the alternative is much harder!

Once you’ve committed to honor each other in all of these ways, talking about something as vulnerable as sex becomes a little easier. If you believe you and your spouse have already achieved this level of safety, count yourself very blessed. However, if you know that you have some work to do in this department, here are a few practical ideas to help you strengthen your communication regarding sexual intimacy.

  • Normalize: Talk about God’s design for sex and how it is good and honoring to Him within your marital union.
  • Establish expectations: This may sound something like, “I know we haven’t really talked about what we enjoy sexually before but I want this to be an area of trust and safety, let’s agree that whatever we discuss will be respected and considered without judgment or criticism.”
  • Discuss terms: Talk about positions, preferences, and body parts in a way that both of you can agree upon and feel respected. If you want to use proper terms for body parts that is fine. If you’d rather refer to Song of Solomon and the more poetic terms such as fruit, garden, flowers, wine, etc. that is also fine. The point here is to develop your own safe (and playful) sexual language.
  • Affirm: After being sexually intimate, make sure you let your spouse know that you truly enjoyed being together. Even if one or both of you didn’t reach climax, let your spouse know what you enjoyed about coming together sexually. If you’ve already set the stage with an affirmation then it makes the ‘debrief’ less intimidating.
  • Debrief: After sex ask each other questions such as, “What was your favorite part?, Was there anything you’d really like to do again, or anything you’d rather not do again?” Yes, these are sensitive questions, but if the goal is deeper understanding and to love each other well, then you’ll want this information and won’t take it as a personal slight.
  • Lighten up: It does not take away from the sanctity of marriage or our sexual union to be playful in our discussions of sex with our spouse. Just make sure you talk about it in a way that is respectful and honoring to you both.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but will hopefully shed some light upon ways you and your spouse can continue working toward being truly “naked and unashamed” with each other.

Does Porn Really Change My Brain?

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

Annie new headshot

by Annie Higgins, M.A., L.P.C.

Do you consider any of the following to be innocuous? Human-trafficking, objectification of women, violence, rape, incest, infidelity. I’m guessing the vast majority of us would answer that question with a resounding, “NO!” So why do so many people still believe that pornography, a behavior that often precipitates, accompanies, or fuels these atrocities is “harmless” or “okay in moderation?”

For those questioning my premise, let me remind you that pornography is prolific. Globally it is estimated to generate more than $90 billion annually (that’s billion, with a B!). Thankfully, empirical research is catching up to what many have known intuitively for years: finding that pornography is toxic on multiple levels—relationally, psychologically, physically, and socially. Though all of these deserve ample attention and education, the scope of this article is focused on one facet of the physical: the impact pornography makes on the brain.

In a recent publication by journalist Sam Black, entitled “The Porn Circuit” (available on, a website dedicated to Internet accountability and filtering), he describes the specific implications of pornography on the user’s brain chemistry. Black explains that the attachment created between a user and the pornographic image is incredibly strong because “masturbation and orgasm produce a fireworks display of neurochemicals, and repetition builds neural pathways that strengthen these behavior patterns.”

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in our brains that transmit signals from one brain cell to the next. Most people are familiar with the idea that behavior and emotions are affected by neurotransmitters, but it was not until recently that science has been able to track which specific brain chemicals play a role in this process.

When a person (male or female) uses pornography in combination with masturbation, these are some of the neurotransmitters and resulting behaviors and/or emotions that are involved:

Dopamine is the “feel good” hormone that focuses attention and propels people to action, and without dopamine we would not feel motivated to do much at all. Unfortunately, repeated porn use can short-circuit this process so that the only thing we feel motivated to do is get the next “fix” from porn.

Testosterone increases sexual arousal and desire in both men and women, but men have higher levels. This neurotransmitter is slower to dissipate in men; therefore, men who regularly use pornography can cause their own chemical imbalance.

Norepinephrine triggers sexual arousal and “burns” emotional experiences into our memories, whether it is a rewarding sexual experience with one’s spouse or an illicit sexual image. Therefore, repeated porn use can make it difficult to stay engaged with a real-life partner.

Oxytocin and vasopressin are both called “bonding hormones” because they make us feel close and connected with our sexual partner. However, with pornography use, these chemicals can cause the user to feel more connected to an image or fantasy situation than to their real-life partner.

Serotonin is released after climax and stimulates feelings of calm, wellbeing and satisfaction. This is also part of the reward circuitry of our brains and produces the “release” that so many people associate with orgasm.

This is not an exhaustive list of all of the neurochemicals involved in the “fireworks display” that reinforces the porn user to keep going back for more, but it’s clear that the impact on the brain and emotions creates quite a potent and enticing elixir. I believe that this “elixir” is a God-given gift within a marriage because all of the neurochemicals involved in the sex act lead you to feel more connected with your spouse and to desire frequent sexual intimacy. However, porn use totally hijacks this magnificent gift by taking it outside the confines of marriage and actually leads to a litany of problems, including decreased sexual satisfaction within marriage.

Scientific research has also concluded that ongoing porn use can damage the cingulate cortex, which is the part of the brain that helps to control ambition and willpower, as well as moral or ethical decision-making ability. (William Struthers, Wired for Intimacy).

Additionally, Delta-FosB, a protein that accumulates in the brain after repeated exposures to stimuli, affects the nucleus accumbens of the brain, which helps regulate pleasure responses. This is the same protein that makes cocaine addiction so powerful and difficult to overcome. Recent research has found that repeated porn use creates a buildup of Delta-FosB, which stimulates genes to intensify cravings for porn. It can take as many as eight weeks of complete abstinence to flush the entire amount of the protein out of the brain. The Delta-FosB protein can lead to lifelong damage to one’s genes, to the dopamine system, and lead to greater susceptibility to addictions in the future. (

Though the neuroscience behind porn use and “addiction” is compelling, it is not a hopeless battle. Far from it! My hope is that the “take away” from this message is that porn use can (and often does) lead to many of the same types of issues as a chemical addiction, so it needs to be dealt with in a similar fashion. What does that mean? It means that it is nearly impossible to do it alone! You cannot “will” your way out of porn use any easier than you can “will” your way off of a drug. It is vital to find safe people who can provide support, guidance, and accountability to help you end the destructive cycle that porn creates. It is a battle that is worth fighting, but must be done with help!

If you, or someone you know, struggles with porn use, please do not hesitate to contact one of our skilled professional counselors to help break the cycle.

Knowing Your SELF

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016
by Annie Higgins, MA, LPC

In all of my experience as a psychotherapist, I can honestly say that I have never encountered a client who was not wrestling with some aspect of intimacy. Intimacy means a deep knowledge, which facilitates understanding and connectedness. Whether the client’s presenting problem was focused on decision making regarding career development or coping with extreme trauma, each person I have worked with has had to explore their knowledge of and connection to self and others. In order to establish healthy intimacy with another person (interpersonal intimacy), it is absolutely vital to have a healthy level of self-knowledge (intrapersonal intimacy).

Dr. Daniel Glaser, Program Director at the New Orleans Institute, developed a model for understanding the levels of intimacy, which is called the PRAISES model. Please note that each of the levels applies to both intrapersonal and interpersonal intimacy. However, for the purpose of overview, this article will focus on intrapersonal intimacy.

Physical: The ability to be alone without feeling lonely. This involves the ability to self-soothe when dealing with discomfort, to practice appropriate self-care, and to enjoy simply “being” rather than distracting from “being alone.”

Recreational: Balanced living. This involves, composing a “pleasure inventory” of activities you can enjoy doing solo. It is helpful to include some activities that do not require spending money and some “stretch” activities that require you to step out of your comfort zone a bit (between 5-7 on the anxiety scale).

Aesthetic: Create and environment around you (at home and work if possible) that stimulates positive sensory experiences. Decorate your living space in a way that is a positive representation of you. Let your home be your sanctuary. Aesthetic intimacy also includes an ongoing willingness to identify physical and personality traits of yourself that you can appreciate.

Intellectual: Assess self-talk. What messages are prominent in your mind? Practice identifying self-defeating messages and ending internal dialogue from a wise mind. Critically examine external messages before accepting them. Also assess and develop your problem solving skills. Define problems behaviorally and analyze what would lead to a workable resolution.

Spiritual: Evaluate whether your lifestyle is congruent with your core values. Determine your top 5 priorities in life and develop goals that are aligned with those priorities. This involves working toward owning your story and eliminating self-shaming messages.

Emotional: The ability to recognize and tolerate the full range of emotions. Understand and identify what triggers the emotions and develop a repertoire of options for healthy expression of the full range of emotions.

Sexual: When you have established healthy PRAISE (the first 6 levels), then you are ready for healthy sexual intimacy. You must be able to say “no” in order to say “yes,” or it is addictive and compulsive behavior. This should be self-honoring and self-respecting. The goal is connection, not just sexual gratification, and it should contribute to a sense of wholeness and self-awareness.

It is vitally important to develop healthy intimacy with self before you can really endeavor to develop intimacy with others. For, if you do not know yourself, how can you share that self with someone else?

If you would like to explore this concept further in terms of understanding yourself or in applying it to relationships with others, please do not hesitate to contact one of the counselors at Anthology Counseling & Wellness.

What Does It Mean to Own Your Own Story?

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

by Annie Higgins, LPC

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, then you know that I’m a huge fan of the work of Brené Brown, a social scientist at the University of Houston. Her newest book, Rising Strong, is the culmination of much of her research on shame, vulnerability, and resiliency. The tagline of the book is, “if we are brave enough, often enough, we will fail. This is a book about what it takes to get back up.” In her manifesto of the brave and brokenhearted, Brown mentions that owning our stories is one of the key elements to living more connected and fulfilled lives.

So what does it mean to “own your story?” In a nutshell, it means to be honest with yourself about the reality of your life: the good, the bad, and the ugly. It means refusing to make up stories to justify mistakes or protect oneself from guilt. It also means accepting responsibility for mistakes without owning things that don’t belong to us, or sinking into shame. It means rather than playing the victim or hero role, allowing ourselves to be human, accept our imperfections, learn from failure and continue becoming more and more of who we were created to be.

I appreciate that she uses the term own because it connotes possession as well as responsibility. Rather than denying or avoiding the fact that there are aspects of ourselves that we are not proud of in an effort to hide or shirk responsibility for them; when we say ‘yes, this is a part of me,’ we bring these things out of the dark, look them in the face and can choose to do something different. We cannot change what we deny or hide.

When we own our stories they take on a redemptive nature. Redemption means paying a price to return something to your possession. The price associated with this type of redemption is the painfulness of looking at your weaknesses or broken places long enough to heal and learn from them. But the reward is that you can then integrate that part of your history back into your personal narrative without letting it haunt you. I believe this is what Brown is referring to when she says, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we run from struggle, we are never free. So we turn toward truth, and look it in the eye.”

When we attempt to keep our failures or imperfections hidden they become chains around our hearts so that we cannot let others get close for fear that they’ll see what we are hiding. In my nearly ten years of experience as a therapist, I have witnessed over and over the power of this phenomenon. When people are brave enough to acknowledge their weaknesses as opportunities for healing and growth, that is when real vulnerability and connection take place. Once we realize that we have locked our skeleton-laden closet from the inside, we have the power to bring our struggles into the light and pursue wholeness and true connection.

If you are reading this and thinking, “sounds great, but I have no idea where to start or how to do this,” I would encourage you to start small. Find someone trustworthy, maybe a counselor, or a pastor, or a close friend, that you can share some of the aspects of your history that keep you awake at night (or would if you acknowledged them), and allow this safe person to speak the truth and affirmation that comes from a resounding “me too” or “welcome to humanity.” This is not to minimize the significance of the perceived weakness or failing, but to help you experience the freedom of not allowing that choice or event to enslave you any longer. If you know of no such person, please reach out to one of the therapists at Anthology and we would be happy to help you begin this process.

Stress-Reducing Communication

Monday, January 18th, 2016

by Annie Higgins, M.A., LPC

One of the most commonly touted techniques of standard marital therapy is known as “active listening.” In this technique each person is asked to listen to the other’s perspective to the extent that each can repeat back what the other said. The goal of active listening is to hear each other in an empathic and nonjudgmental way. It can be a very useful technique, except when it is most commonly prescribed… during conflict. When this type of communication is used to air grievances against each other, it can be incredibly difficult and painful. However, this type of communication can be extremely beneficial if you are discussing something other than your partner.

In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman discusses using this technique to facilitate what he refers to as the stress-reducing conversation. It is what most people think of as a, “How was your day, dear?” discussion enabling reconnection at the end of a long day. However, this type of conversation can easily increase stress if one partner feels that the other is not listening or offering empathy. That is why using active listening is so important. The primary rule here is to talk about whatever is on your mind aside from your relationship. This is not the time to discuss conflicts between the two of you; the goal is to connect with each other by offering emotional support.

Here are a few other principles to keep in mind when having the stress-reducing conversation:

-Take turns talking (you may want to have a 5-10 minute time limit per person).

– Do not give advice unless it is requested.

– Communicate genuine interest in what your partner is saying.

– Express support, even if you do not agree with your partner’s position.

– Show appropriate affection.

– Validate the emotions that are being expressed.

This type of communication will not necessarily put an end to all of your marital conflicts. But, if you and your spouse make this kind of connection-focused dialogue a habit outside of conflicts, you will likely feel more understood and valued by your spouse even in the midst of a dispute.

Overcoming Shame

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

by Annie Higgins, M.A., LPC

In June of 2010, Brené Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher from the University of Houston, gave a TED talk ( entitled “The Power of Vulnerability” that went viral. The central message of her talk is that in order to establish connection with others we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Throughout her research, Brown found a common thread among those who were able to let themselves “be seen, really seen” by others, which was her definition of vulnerability. What these people shared was the belief that they were worthy of love and connection combined with the courage to be imperfect. She summarized her talk by saying that if we could each believe “I’m enough”, then we would be kinder and gentler to ourselves, which would enable us to be kinder and gentler to each other.

In a follow-up TED talk, Brown elaborates on the second aspect of her research: shame. Her main message is that in order to be vulnerable we must overcome the shame-based messages we believe about ourselves. Brown said that these messages usually come in the form of “I’m never good enough” or, if we are able to move past that thought, then “Who do you think you are?” becomes the gremlin that keeps us on the sideline of life. She makes a very important distinction between shame and guilt. Guilt says, “I made a mistake,” whereas shame says, “I am a mistake.” Guilt is very adaptive because it motivates us toward behavior that is more consistent with our value system. Shame, on the other hand, is destructive because it motivates us to hide ourselves for fear of rejection, and ultimately leads to isolation.

I am so encouraged by Brown’s research and attention to these very important topics. However, I cannot read and reflect upon it without feeling that it is incomplete. Brown’s final charge to her readers is to believe they are “enough” in and of themselves. This may work for some, but when I try to muster up that belief in myself, I fall incredibly short. For me, I need something outside of myself to which I can anchor this belief. And for me that is the Gospel. I know that I’m treading on sacred ground here and that it is extremely difficult to summarize the entire Gospel message. However, I believe that one of my favorite Bible teachers, Tim Keller, is able to capture the essence of what I believe when he says, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

I come face to face with the fact that I do not always think or behave according to my values on a regular basis. I believe this is what drives those tapes in my mind that say things like, “You’re a fraud; you’ll never be good enough! Why do you even try?” And if all I had to go on was my own effort at being a good person, the cycle would continue: set goals to “be a good person,” fall short, beat myself up for falling short, hide the shameful aspects of myself from others, set stricter goals, fall short, beat myself up worse, and on and on…

But if I anchor my worthiness to who I am in Christ, then I understand the process of sanctification. I understand that I am deeply loved in my fallen state. It’s not about trying to earn my way into “enoughness” but knowing that because I am anchored to the One who lived a perfect life and died in my place, I can give myself grace when I fall short and at the very same time let that motivate me toward loving myself and others better. This is the understanding that I’m a work in progress and I will make mistakes in this life. But instead of letting my imperfections keep me isolated in shame, I can let them motivate me to look to the source of love and experience the freedom of being truly known and fully loved at the same time. I believe that if we can get this understanding deep down in our core – that the only One who sees us to the bottom loves us to the top – then we’ll have the courage to embrace our imperfections and combat those shame-based messages we’ve been telling ourselves for years.

Whether or not you believe the Gospel, I would encourage you to think about the research presented by Brené Brown and ask yourself these questions: To what is my worth as a person anchored? How secure is that anchor?

About Anthology

We are a group of professionals dedicated to promoting health and healing in the whole person – body, mind, and spirit. We believe that healing occurs more effectively and more efficiently when each facet of a person is addressed.