Calm in the Time of Covid


Days that feel like weeks that feel like months—it’s a deeply unsettling and uncertain time for everyone. Hence, the idea of a newsletter was born. I hope it will offer a balm to you: to your body, soul and spirit.


If there ever was a time when calm seemed impossible to access it would probably be now. The news, the reports, the messages…all of it creates low-grade anxiety and maybe even some panic and dread as well. For some, there is grief, new and old, bubbling up to the surface, as well as regrets and sorrows of all kinds. I think we can expect ‘all the feels’ to show up at some point and maybe all at the same time. There are likely to be some tough days. 

At the same time, we can also take some comfort in knowing that everyone is going through the same things and experiencing the same feelings. Our shared humanity and basic compassion for self and others is what will see us through these dark, scary times. 

So that was the philosophical part, but now I’d like to get more practical…

In this newsletter, I’m suggesting a couple of resources to help with anxiety and panic:
First, a checklist for hitting all the known and well-researched tools for anxiety management
Second, a practice that I am doing that really seems to be helping i.e., the use of rituals.


Basically, to calm your mind, the body must be calmed first. 

The limbic system (back brain) is very primitive and when it senses a threat of any kind, it pushes our whole system into fight, flight, and/or freeze (also, to tend & befriend for some folks). You cannot shut this system down by willing it to go away. It’s a survival mechanism that’s trying to keep you safe. 

But there are definitely some ways to change up the intensity. That’s where the following checklist might help. You will be familiar with most of these but I thought the basics could help the most.

(Note: If you want to use the list below as part of your day-to-day, I’ve created a printable page at the end of this newsletter for use as a checklist). 


  • Belly breathing: deep from your belly and not from your chest
  • Exercise and water: dance, walk, yoga, move your body
  • Be social: be as connected as you can
  • Mindfulness meditation: sit with feelings; don’t dismiss them and build up toxins
  • Body love: touch others if you can and nurture your body
  • Purpose: set a goal for the day and do it
  • Meaning: do something that has value to you, something that will solve a problem, help someone out, eventually (or currently) contribute to a goal
  • Create: any kind of art-making; it’s soothing and therapeutic
  • Nature: get outside & be very sensorial
  • Beauty: notice it and let it soak in
  • Order: clean, sort, organize
  • Learn: focus your brain on something just difficult enough
  • Spirit: pray, centre your soul with a mantra, read and/or write poetry, be still, be grateful
  • Supplements: Omega 3; Vitamin B; magnesium, etc.

If you were only going to do a couple of things on the checklist, I would recommend you begin at the top of the list and work down. However, you are the expert on yourself, so do what helps the most. If curling up in a fetal position in bed is the only thing that helps, then do that…but not for too long or too often. This is the ‘freeze’ part of the fight-flight-freeze mechanism and you want to stay out of that cortisol-pumping zone whenever you can.


Some days are really tough, so I have been creating some rituals to serve as anchors in my day. 

Context: I have deep worries about my family getting sick, so it is no surprise that I sometimes wake in the night with a feeling of dread and sadness brought on by the fear that I will never see my grandkids or kids again. The feeling will wash over me and linger in my consciousness so painfully that I have to get out of bed to get rid of it. I started to fear waking up with the feeling just as much as experiencing the feeling itself, which, of course, made me wake up more often.  Le sigh. Anxiety is so spirally.

One thing I have found helpful in the past has been to create rhythms, rituals, and habits, so that’s what I turned to first to reduce anxiousness. To subvert the waking-up problem, a ritual was needed, so I chose a habit that was already ingrained into my daily life: breakfast in the morning.  

First, some definitions because they might be helpful:

Ritual: a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order 

Rhythm: a strong and consistent action or pattern 

This is a detailed (read: boring) of how I developed and used a ritual.

Rhythm: breakfast in the morning

Most mornings I will get out of bed in a stupor, make coffee and toast, read something, and gradually wake up. 

Here’s how the habit morphed into a ritual:

Ritual: breakfast in the morning

The ritual now is in making of the pour over coffee and the toast mindfully, enjoying the series of practices and doing them in a very prescribed order. Then, I look out the window to the little bit of water that I can see and sit on the couch with with my face to the light coming in through the window. Next, I remember that I am well and that all will be well, and I allow my soul and spirit to settle into that declaration. I listen to the birds (I promise: I’m not making this shit up. Birds are awesome.). Then I read something that doesn’t distress my barely-there consciousness and sip and sup until I can face the rest of the day.

(Note: if you have children who wake up at the butt-crack of dawn and this seems impossible and your eyebrows are up somewhere near to your hairline right now…please choose another habit that makes way more sense.)

For the solemnity of a ritual…this part comes about by creating and performing a series of small, deliberate practices. None of them are random and all are necessarily meditative and sensorial (i.e. using the five senses). It’s about noticing and staying present and quieting your soul and spirit into any peace and beauty you can access.

And so, my plan to subvert the waking up problem: when I wake up in the night with the feeling, I go through the breakfast ritual in my mind and visualize it in rich detail.  It comforts me somehow to know that there is another day to live into and that my loved ones and I will be okay. Of course, I don’t know for sure that anyone will be okay but I do know that I will wake up and I will have something pleasurable to do to anchor me for whatever the else happens.  

This is the helpfulness of rituals; the storms come but the anchors keep us grounded and afloat.

Developing A Ritual

I would encourage you to develop your own rituals in a similar way and let them anchor you when life gets choppy and rough.  Start with a rhythm or habit you already have; then add in detailed actions and some sensory qualities. Breathe in all the peace and wellbeing possible. Repeat.

Finally, as you go forward in the coming days…

Be as generous as you can, as kind as you can, as safe as you can. 
Help others and let them help you when you need it. 
Access all the resources that you can but take some time out if that’s what’s needed more. 
Connection, community, creativity, and courage will see us through. 

Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC

So Many Emotions


Hello fellow humans! It seems we are transitioning into the new normal amid a global pandemic, one that is likely to stick around for a while and we are creating new rhythms and routines amongst all the weirdness. 


Some people have been experiencing unexpected emotions surfacing.
LOSS: this feeling is understandable—we have all lost a great deal in this pandemic and some have even lost loved ones. We may be ANXIOUS and WORRIED about ourselves and our friends and families. We could be DISCOMBOBULATED and FRUSTRATED by the changes. We may be LONELY for human touch or OVERWHELMED by the sudden 24/7-life with family or roommates.  

For some, there may be the days of ENNUI (restless boredom) and ACEDIA (spiritual malaise or existential doldrums). I am also hearing from clients and friends about DEEP GRIEF unrelated to the current situation and RESENTMENT. Understandably, it can be unsettling or exhausting to deal with this.

As the above title states, emotions are burbling up to the surface, so many of them.  Maybe it’s because have more time to think, less busyness to distract us. Or maybe it’s because we have lost our typical markers for time and structures. What day is it? What month? What’s there to do?

When both our minds and bodies are less active, and we are less focused on our day-to-day scramble, the brain is more likely to consider this a good time to process stuff. We would probably disagree; this seems like the worst time with everything else we are trying to deal with. But if your amygdala has hijacked your thinking patterns, you are not alone and you are not at its mercy. 

In this newsletter, I’m would like to suggest an exercise using expressive arts and mindfulness meditation. It might help with any darker emotions that are pestering you, ones that you would like to process and resolve. Examples: RESENTMENT, old WOUNDS and emotions like SHAME or LOW SELF-ESTEEM. To give you an example of how this might work, I’ll discuss a common one right now—resentment—and outline an expressive arts therapy tool you might find helpful.


I describe resentment as a low-grade anger simmering away in the back of our mind.  Its cause can be varied but it is typically related to issues around justice and personal ethics.  Someone or some system has been treating us unfairly, disrespectfully, and/or dismissively for some length of time. Every new example or re-hashing of the memory when someone did this or said that is faithfully collected and put into a metaphorical pot that’s left on the heat to simmer. 

Resentment allows us to stew in the juices of our outrage and affront and stir the troubling conversation or experience over and over until it develops into a thick, habitual response. Our resentment can be covered up but it is also easily triggered into big bursts of emotional energy. The emotion is only the lid on the burbling pot, although that’s typically what we pay the most attention to. 

So, what do we do with the sudden bursts of defensive posturing or speech, eye-rolling contempt, or tears of frustration? I’d like to suggest a way to process this in a way that respects your pain but allows you to move through it into a more peacable, less agitated, state. 

Disclaimer: this exercise is meant to be helpful for working through an emotion like resentment. It is not meant to deal with or pass by actions against you that are unsafe or abusive. As always, never undertake any exercise that feels wrong or distressing to you.

Resentment-Be-Gone Exercise (10 minutes; repeated)
Mindfulness Meditation + Expressive Art Therapy

Goal: to be able to respect and process chronic low-grade, in-the-background emotions; to be able to clear our minds from emotions that have served their purpose but keep lingering in unhelpful or unhealthy ways.

Materials needed:

  • Glass jar or other transparent container or box
  • Strips of paper; something to make marks with
  • Quiet place 


  • Quiet your nervous system: Sit or lay down somewhere private and take a few moments (as much time as you need) to quiet your system.
  • Breathe deeply: use your belly and not your chest to inhale and exhale.
  • Bring the troubling emotion/memory to mind: Think about the emotion or situation that’s persists and is bothering you. 
  • Observe it and be curious: No evaluation, judgment, defensiveness or rehearsing wrongs. You are allowing only for curiosity, noticing, and awareness at this point. 
    • The difference between these two states is like the difference between a bird flying over your head versus a bird building a nest in your hair.  You are trying to keep the emotion in the fly-by category—noticing it but not ‘indulging’ it.
  • Notice what you are feeling in your mind and body. Do a body scan if that’s helpful.
  • Continue to breathe deeply
    • No shallow breathing as this indicates you’re in limbic system mode. If your breathing is coming from your chest or is uneven, return your focus to your breathing until it is regular and deep again.
  • Process the emotion using deep breathing. Sit with pain, think about it lightly, but don’t let it boss you around. Some emotions may come on very strong; your job is to control them through your breathing. Breathe it in and breathe it out. Emotions come and they go. Try to notice them and reflect with gentleness and compassion.
  • Allow the emotion to wax and wane, to pass. Let the feelings go after you have identified and experienced them. Visualize them riding waves or clouds moving across the sky. 
    • Sitting too long with darker emotions can lead to self-pity or increased negativity, not lowered emotional pain so be careful with this part of the exercise. If the feelings get too big, stand up and move around or distract yourself.
  • Breathe. After an emotional wave has crested and dropped away, continue to breathe deeply to return your nervous system to calm. 
  • Write about your process on a small piece of paper. Write a few sentences about what has been processed and what you would like to be rid of.  You could also draw the emotion or refer to any kind of healing you experienced or any softening of the emotion. 
  • Dignify and respect your emotion. Place the paper in the jar. As you do, thank it for telling you that something was wrong or out of order. Appreciate that it served a purpose.
  • Put the emotion away. Say out loud something like “I am putting this away as of today; I am letting it go. This last action is to remind you of the “evidence” of what has just happened. 
    • If you are later tempted to ruminate on the same offence or emotion, you can tell yourself firmly that you have processed the pain and there is nothing left to review and rehash. 
  • But…if the same thought or memory comes to mind over and over again, more emotional processing may be required. If this happens, you could complete the exercise again.  
  • Once the jar is full, or at any time, you can burn the papers or get rid of them some other way. This can be a great symbolic act, indicating how you are taking care of your emotional health.

Peace to you and your household,
Shari Van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC

Some other ways to stay in touch:



#febup2020 weekender week 4

Image: shari van Spronsen

Welcome to the Weekender edition of #febup2020!  

Every February I post some daily resources on IG that are related to a particular subject. Previous years have been about depression and anxiety.

For the first three weeks of February this year, the subject was Identity. But I’m switching #febup2020 to a new topic, anxiety, which is the second most requested topic by friends, family members, clients, and bartenders alike. Feel free to go back into the blog to find previous years and posts (see links below).

Obvious but important disclaimer: I am not a doctor or psychiatrist, so don’t take my word for anything in this post. Consider the source and the conclusions.

I watched a Netflix doc the other month about health and healing. One person spoke about how he assumed that once beginning anti-hypertensive meds he would always be on them and he was, for decades.  But, at some point, he questioned if this was true and looked into ways to reduce, then refuse the meds.  He was not supported in this decision, neither by his doctor or his family.  Not at all. But he did some research, made some changes, and was successful.

Then I thought about how this kind of belief relates to other chronic health conditions and, in particular, to anxiety. Once you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, are you destined to struggle with it forever? Where do these beliefs come from?

Some fast facts about anxiety:

  1. Etiology (origin): genetics (predisposition); developmental (trauma & other insults to body and soul); and, social/cultural (life worries, fears, stressors, & socialization). 
  2. Anxiety is generally activated/perpetuated in the Limbic System, our body’s interpretative centre for threats (flight-fight-freeze-tend & befriend mechanism).
  3. Standard treatments (medical model): meds & CBT (group & indiv.), which are largely problem-centred i.e., your body/mind are faulty/wrong, and brief.
  4. Co-morbidity: often correlated with depression and other mental health concerns.
  5. Growing concern: an epidemic in Westernized nations, with a rapid increase in diagnosis and medications, including children.


I’m planning a kitchen reno for sometime in the next year. Today, I drew out a rough plan as to how the cupboards and the stuff will fit since I’m going to try to include a lot of open shelving.

Coincidentally, organizing ‘all the things’ has really helped reduce the anxiety I’ve been having about looking at ‘all the things’—they WERE scattered around the counters and stuffed into every cupboard (spices in the linen cupboard…yup). Ta da! Today, finally, a forever home for the marjoram.

I’ve only lived in my current home for 5 months and already I’m editing. Sheesh! Clutter is not only evidence of my consumer mindset, it also speaks to my mental state, which was a hamster-wheel, work-crazy spin cycle this fall.

Turns out I’m not alone in finding clutter anxiety-provoking; research shows that dealing with all the things—organize, reduce, clean up, put away—makes our nervous system calm down. Our brains like things neater than messier, cleaner than dirtier. 

Basically, it’s a bit of structure and stability that tells our Limbic System that no threat—not even a stray spice jar—can disturb this tidy kitchen (and mind) today.

Do you find that just looking at a freshly organized cupboard/closet brings about a petite swoon—or is it just me?  Give it a whirl, if you haven’t before and let me know if it kicks off the anxiety nipping at your heels.


My face gets all scrunched up when I have too much to do and not enough time to do it.  It’s the face of someone who is so very tired but pushing past resistance to doing more, which is usually related somehow to realizing someone else’s best life.

I bought into the big corp mantra to do more, be more, work harder, push past pain, sacrifice the body (or soul or spirit).  There has been a lot of should-ing in my life.  From others, yes, but also from my inner critic.  “You should…do yoga, exercise more, eat better, raise your kids differently, serve, help, cook for, clean for, buy for….” Well, it all sounds a bit exhausting, doesn’t it? 

I don’t recommend being motivated by shame and blame for years (decades if you’re my age).  It leads to resentment, people-pleasing, and a scarcity mindset that convinces a person that there is never enough. Never enough energy, friendships, opportunities, hours in a day, years in a life. Or maybe that’s just me.

In any case, I decided a few years ago to rest and restore a bit more and find ways to deal with the shame demons in my head.  It’s working.  I do feel more rested, my work is as good as it was or maybe it’s even better.  My anxiety is fading and having more stomach lining and tooth enamel has felt decidedly groovy.

Well, that’s when I listen to a different identity story—the one where I am human with limits, no longer trying to be all things to all people (What was the reason for that, again?).  The hardest part of reducing my workload? Believing that prioritizing my health (all kinds) doesn’t make me self-centred. It’s about being well-centred.

How about you? What’s keeps you well-centred?


I used to mention in counselling sessions that ruminating is a skill and that if you’re really good at it, surely this handy-dandy skill could be used for good.  Nobody took me up on the offer to test that theory out, so I don’t know if it would actually help. 

I do know this: your brain likes to solve problems and it will gnaw on a metaphorical bone forever until a problem is resolved. An example of how this works: You are strolling down the street and suddenly think of the name of that restaurant you were trying to remember a few days ago. Even though your conscious self forgot the memory retrieval task, your brain did not; it was still grinding away.

Ruminating is one way the brain can keep a problem fresh and top of mind so you will attend to it.  Your brain introduces solutions, typically words and more words that play out in your head as conversations or scripts, all of them rehashing and repeating the microscopic aspects of the problem. It does this so the threat goes away and you can live in relative bliss.

But sometimes the problem is not resolvable and if people are exposed to many stressors or trauma, they tend to tread water in a holding tank of unresolved problems. A chronic elevation of the limbic system stays in reactive mode fighting it out with the problem, not allowing access to the prefrontal cortex, the analytical and reasoning mode. 

People often argue with me about this because they feel certain they’re using logic while incessantly thinking about the problem—but consider this: where is all the heightened emotion and anxiety coming from? Why hasn’t the problem gone away despite all the exhaustive thinking and beating yourself up? 


If you are stuck in a moment and you can’t think yourself out of it, you know that the limbic system is bossing you around. It’s trying to keep you alive by being a pest. It wants you to pay attention to the threat—perceived or real—but stuckness creates rumination and that creates cycles of frustration, worry, fear, and self-dislike. 

What if there is no resolution to the problem, no way to fix the haunting memory of that conversation or event from a week or decade ago, no way to go back and say or do differently, no way to predict a future outcome or response? 

Rumination gives us the illusion of working a problem out but it rarely delivers. A couple of ideas of how to get out of your head:

  • Calm your body, then your mind. In this order.
  • Create a visual of a container in your mind & lock up your thoughts for a while or place your worry and questions in a box, then put the box on a shelf.
  • Apply liberally: self-compassion & a healthy measure of shared humanity. 
  • Use distraction or thought-stopping techniques.
  • Let rumination dissolve under the tap of forgiveness, kindness, & generosity to self. 
  • Separate truth & what is known from the hyperbole, mind-reading, fortune telling, & catastrophizing.
  • Journal out your questions, trials, & troubles; create lists & plans for things you can do something about; accept what is left; continue on with what you want to do in your life.
  • Visualize the regret, shame, & sadness hopping on a leaf or cloud & watch it drift away. 
  • Not every thought you have is true; not every thought originates from you; not every thought you have is a friend you should invite for the weekend. Curate your thinking. Be strict.

A neuroscience adage: what fires together, wires together. Stoke the fires of possibility & actionable change and leave dead doubts and regret rubble behind you—for good.


When you think of what might be creating chronic anxiety, its source might be related to a narrative cycling in your head. This narrative usually includes a few gloomy beliefs: I can’t do this; I’m too much-I’m not enough; there is too much-not enough; people will think I’m foolish, weird, dumb; I’m overwhelmed; what if…; I’m scared; I’m not loveable; I don’t want to screw up; they might leave me; and/or, did I remember everything there ever was? 

Or, for some anxiety might show up as a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach, like a portent of doom, and it’s there every day, and you can’t identify it but it never leaves you (at least not completely) and it keeps gnawing at your stomach lining and your peace.

Have you ever thought to dig down and mine for the source(s) of your anxiety? Here are a few areas to pique your curiosity:

Energy: more sourcing from stress or renewal?

Growth: more drive for unfolding or folding?

Work: more effort in construction or deconstruction?

Belief: more authenticity or hiding?

Tasks: more listings for busyness or playfulness?

Mindset: more about problems or solutions?

Mood: more lightness or darkness?

Wisdom: more trust in authorities or inner knowing?

Orientation: more leading or following on the path?

World: more about journeys or enclaves?

Inspiration: more vision from copying or creativity?

This idea: to create a life fuelled by something other than anxiety is to start thinking about options, maybe doing some visioning, some experiments, and uprooting some weeds.

Krista Tippet: Acts of rebellion are the first acts of creation.


Imposter Syndrome: the feeling (or certainty) that you are just faking it/life, that everyone will eventually find out, which will then lead to a catastrophic humiliation event and loss, which means you can kiss your job, your Ph. D/job, or your lover goodbye.

Where does it come from? Possibilities: appalling or indifferent parents, social comparison and criticism, sexist socialization, leading to negative self-talk claiming you are a loser, an incompetent, unworthy, stupid, or unlikeable fraud. The I.S. mindset is likely rooted deeply in social anxiety, perfectionism, and/or low self-esteem.

Question: If people really knew you, would they still like you? Would they still believe in you, respect you, trust you, and adore you? 

Answer: It’s a sad truth that many people won’t care about you; they are full of themselves and their schemes, too full to worry about treating you well. Many will be puffed up with their own self-importance and posturing and will want to squash you while climbing the ladder of success. Many will not notice you at all.

Then again, there are at least a few people who love you as you are; they know about your ‘hidden’ foibles, and follies and they love you anyway. They have chosen you as their partner or friend. But in case those warm feelings/people aren’t accessible to you right now, here are a few ways to quell the anxiety:

  1. Stop the trash-talk in your brain. Change the negative nouns to positive verbs. 
  2. Be kind and generous to yourself. Be honest about what you need.
  3. Squelch the impulse to be perfect or to produce falsely.
  4. Focus on the good you’ve done/can do, not on the regrets & misses. 
  5. Become comfortable with not-knowing; adopt a beginner’s mindset.
  6. You don’t know what other people are thinking but I assure you, they’re really not thinking about you—at least not much—so don’t torture yourself with worrying.
  7. You don’t know what other people are thinking but if you really need to guess, come up with something life-giving.
  8. You really don’t know what other people are thinking, so why does it mean more than what your loved ones think?
  9. What could you do right now to boost your confidence and contentment? Please, go do that now and revel in your awesomeness. Repeat.

Authentic life is about embracing all the parts of yourself, changing what needs to be changed, and offering yourself respect, compassion, and forgiveness in the process. Start living into who you really are (your glorious self) and what you were made to do and take comfort in this: we are all trying to figure this life thing out.


Today, I woke up with a scary-wary feeling buzzing in my brain that I couldn’t identify. It was like a portent of doom with no discernable cause. Feeling very uncomfortable with this, I employed a few steps that typically help me in these situations. 

  • Threat System: the presence of buzz-jangle is the sign that my system is feeling threatened somehow. So, first I calmed my body to calm my mind, using breath-work (Today: limited success, so other ideas were required).
  • Structure: Work the lists and day-planner: What do I have to do and when? (Today: add, delete, and do some future planning. That helped a bit.)
  • Usual suspects: dig around & discern if anything is missing, is creating time stress, or is upsetting. (Today: I had forgotten to book my counselling office for this aft. Sheesh!). 
  • Filter: Realize again that the world’s troubles and terrors & social media can elicit low-grade anxiety. (Today: feed-fast for a few hours and remember that I am safe and loved.)
  • Nurture: talk to someone about the ‘feeling’ or in this case, the emotion since it was somatic. (Today: phoned my sister. Some support, clarity, and normalcy were stabilizing.)
  • Nourish: What is needed to restore equilibrium? (Today: eating and working were most helpful.)

By lunch today I was feeling a lot better (thankfully). I’ll keep working at it through the aft, trying out a few more ideas. In the meantime, I am curious as to what you do to help calm your nervous system. What would you add to the above list? I would love to learn a few more.

FWIW: I looked up the def of ‘portent’, which oddly means both of these: 1) a warning that something calamitous is about to happen; or, 2) an exceptional/wonderful person or thing. (Hmmm; scratches chin). Both seem to be present today.


Tired of this?

Being pressured into things, feeling obligated to do, do, do, do more, feeling afraid of your objecting voice, mired in the maybes, avoiding guilt-tripping family members, stumbling around with what-ifs, and should-y situations?

Introducing some stock phrases to practice in front of a mirror and then boldly go where no pressured, overwhelmed, anxious person has gone before (see cartoon). 

Practice saying these when the stakes are lower.  Build up your strength.

Accept and process the distress that comes with ‘displeasing’ people.

Affirm your self-efficacy, self-worth, and agency. Dance or sing your praises.

Rinse and repeat.
(True Story: it gets easier and your life will thank you.)

Anyone want to add to the phrase list?


Well, that’s a wrap for #febup2020. I hope you enjoyed the exploration and exercises.  See you next year for more of the same (but different).

Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC


IG account:

Previous FebUp posts: #febup2018; #febup2019
Current posts: #febup2020
For this web blog, use the search terms “depression” or “identity”

#febup2020 weekender week 3

Image: shari van Spronsen

FebUp 2020 Weekender
Week 3: (Part 1) Identity

Hey! It’s February y’all and that means another month of FebUp (#febup2020). 

Each year in this particular month I try to pick a theme that speaks to the mental health concerns of people I work for and live with. I post something on Instagram most weekdays with the hope that they will spark ideas, suggest practices, or create space for figuring life out together.  You can check it out @gottasecond.

In January 2020 I canvassed clients, bartenders, and friends about the two themes most on their mind. What would be most helpful to talk about? What were the questions people had? Turned out to be: anxiety and identity. This weekender blog will be a compilation for part of February Week 3, continuing with the theme of “Identity”.


It’s Family Day. 

Identity can come, in part, from our families—as rich or glorious as they are—or in spite of our families—as broken or bruised as they are.

Gleaned from family therapy sessions: most families have ‘rules’ that speak to values, norms, and ethics—whether stated/abided by or not.  Most families have an understanding about who the black sheep, the good girl, or the identified patient (wounded one) is. Also, most families resist change, even if there is rampant dysfunction.

Also, family identity is hard to transcend or transform. Generally, we have been swimming in the soup so long we have taken on its salty flavour. Ever notice your mature adult-self becoming your 10 year-old child-self when you visit your family?

Ever frustrated, embarrassed, or “tired” of your family, proud of your family, or glad to be one of the family? Are you one of a great many who long for a family or long to be re-parented or feel like an orphan after losing your parent(s)?

It’s complicated. But the hopeful part is that families can be built or rebuilt.  Committing to a group of supportive individuals can create a family, as can grafting into a new family, or forming your own. Starting a family give you a chance at stopping all sorts of family history or continuing a rich heritage.

One thing I hope—that we are known and loved by a few ‘believing mirrors’ (Julia Cameron). If some of them happen to be your actual family, that’s great but creating a new family and a new family identity is just as meaningful and wonderful.

I hope you are being enfolded into a family in whatever way makes sense for you. If not, start gathering the ‘mirrors’ and forge a new family group.


Discrimination: action based upon choices based upon what we think and believe. Harassment, micro-aggressions, benevolent sexism, prejudice, ostracism, genocide…there are so many ways to be hateful and violent.

A few areas where discrimination locates: 

  • Employment, Income, or Career Status
  • Gender and Sexual Diversity
  • Physical Features & Appearance
  • Singleness/Marital or Family Status
  • Age & Generation
  • Race/Ancestry/Place of Origin
  • Religious or Political Beliefs
  • Physical or Mental Disability
  • Systems and Institutions 

It’s hard to admit but I’m still working through this list, still wrestling with these things—privilege, socialization, dominant culture, experiences & fears, difference and indifference—I’m still working this out in ethical belief and practice.

It’s uncomfortable, challenging, and discouraging work to keep shoveling all the sh*t that keeps being dumped, but it’s not optional and it’s miniscule compared to what so many are smeared with every day. I have nothing to whine about.

Here are a few questions about discrimination and identity I am thinking about these days. Maybe they will resonate with you as well.

Who do you think you are? Who informs those thoughts? Who told you what you are or can be? Where are you located? What’s next to axe off your list? Who can support your work? Who will you stand beside and fight for? What deep and personal work is needed for change to happen?

I believe this even so: people are wonderfully and gloriously made, capable of great damage but also of great healing and restoration work. 

That’s a wrap for the FebUp2020 Week 3 theme of Identity. I’ll be switching to the topic of anxiety.  Look for it in the next installment of Weekender.

Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC


IG account:
Previous FebUp posts: #febup2018; #febup2019
Current posts: #febup2020
For this web blog, use the search terms “anxiety” or “identity”

#febup2020 weekender week 2

#febup2020 weekender
Week 2: Identity

Hey! It’s February y’all and that means another month of FebUp (#febup2020). 

Each year in this particular month I try to pick a theme that speaks to the mental health concerns of people I work for and live with. I post something on Instagram most weekdays with the hope that they will spark ideas, suggest practices, or create space for figuring life out together.  You can check it out @gottasecond.

In January 2020 I canvassed clients, bartenders, and friends about the two themes most on their mind. What would be most helpful to talk about? What were the questions people had? Turned out to be: anxiety and identity. This weekender blog will be a compilation for Week 2 of February with the theme of “Identity”.

EXP-EMP-EMB (Part 1)

“What should I do with my life?” “How do I decide?”

This post is a tough one because of the complex factors pertaining to the question so I’ve broken it into a few posts, the first of which is today.  This will be a simplistic framework (very, very simplistic) using three possible factors: Experiences, Employment, and Embodiment.

First, some proposed definitions as I will be using them:

  • Experiences offer us pleasure, happiness, can satisfy curiosity and dreams, and increase inclusion and diversity in thought and practice; they can also elicit social comparison and prioritize consumption over contribution, and elicit ennui, burnout, and angst.
  • Employment speaks to what we do to earn income and other rewards, including direction, meeting basic needs, security, and stability; it can also be soul-sucking, meaningless, exploitive, and exhaust resources—you, loved ones, community, earth. 
  • Embodiment offers full immersion into our current place and space: mind, body, spirit. It’s about finding and living into our ‘right fit’ and areas of wholeheartedness. It can show up as flow, mystery, spirituality, intimacy—in our senses, bodies, and intuitive knowledge.  The shadow side: overwhelm; numbing-out; rumination, cynicism; and, disconnection.

All three could potentially offer up what most of us want: happiness, fulfillment, meaning, and purpose…aaand…each is also capable of hoovering up everything in us until we’ve collapsed, which is why a balance of all three might be helpful. 

Today, consider how to bring all three of these areas together, with an expansive sweet spot in the middle.  The sweet spot is not going to be THE answer to “What should I do with my life?” but it could indicate a starting point.  

Some exercises you might consider:

  • Construct a Venn diagram similar to today’s post and determine how things are going in the three areas. Add in everything you are currently doing but also any longings, dreams, and possible directions.  
  • What’s missing? What area needs beefing up or slimming down?
  • Pull in some ideas from the VALUE post (Feb 4) and add them.  

EXP-EMP-EMB (Part 2)

I have thought a lot about the identity that I used to live out. It was not really ‘me’ but it governed me for a long time. I called it the ‘Culture of Nice’ (CON). There were systems and contexts that supported it and I trusted others to know what was best for me. Bad decision, it turns out. ‘Nice’ people are not necessarily the best mentors.

I found that the CON didn’t allow for much authenticity, engaging with diversity, or ways to heal its internal viruses.  It seemed like a difficult, confusing game I had to learn, with rules about how to cover up or ignore things that might jeopardize status, power, or comfort. 

Thinking back, I’m not proud of my time in the CON; I participated in it and even perpetuated it at times. There were penalties for resisting the game: labelling, shunning and shaming. But there were also costs to staying: people-pleasing and believing I was weird- or wrong-wired. 

So, how do you gather courage and bust out? For me, it was a slow process more about reclamation than reinvention. Some ideas:

  • It was easier to think about what I didn’t want to do/be. The opposite was often what I did want to be/do. 
  • Re/discovering my core values & beliefs meant I could re/orient around them. 
  • Small explorations created small shifts that created a different trajectory.  
  • Trying things on: What was less like me/more like me? 
  • Being gentle with myself in liminal phases & unexpected slips & slides. Old habits died hard.
  • Changing where I lived helped a lot. Changing how I lived helped even more.
  • Accepting that others could think different, do different, & not like who I was becoming.
  • Grieving the relational & opportunity costs was one part; believing in new opportunities and options was another. 

Obviously, I’m still working on this identity stuff and I’m in the awkward stage, again. And yet, I hope to never finish the job. Some security would be welcome but at what cost? Maybe identity formation is more about recognizing and participating in movement than it is about making the big jump and sticking the landing. 


After posting yesterday, I was starting to feel a little serious, a little down, a little too ‘in my head’.  There is a highly responsible part of me that often needs a gentle prod to lighten up. So, I went for a walk in my neighbourhood to see where I could find beauty.  Why a beauty-search and not just exercise? 

A few years ago, I created a list of core values for myself.  I knew that if I lived into that list as much as possible, a lot of the What? And How? questions would resolve themselves and I would experience the best possible setting for flourishing.  

Simply put: more list = more life.

My Current List of Goodness

  • Beauty
  • Creativity
  • Relationships
  • Light
  • Embodied practice
  • Adventures
  • Learning
  • Spirituality

Referring back to the List, a walk was more than just my exercise for the day.  It was also about beauty, creativity, adventure (a tiny one), embodied practice (sensory walking in my neighbourhood), and light.

And, so I went looking.  For a half hour, I traded being responsible to being response-able until I was restored enough to return to work. Sometimes figuring out the basics of what you need is enough of an identity statement to see you through all the different life situations you will find yourself in. 

My list has evolved through the years but the basics keep showing up.  If you were to boil things down to their most elemental essence, what would show up on your list? Keeping it short and vital will serve you well as a navigational aid.

Meanwhile…aren’t flowers glorious? I often marvel at how much beauty can be packaged into such familiar, but always original, creations. I want to always feel this way about people, too, because relationships are high on my List of Goodness, along with beauty. 


This morning, I woke.  Not in the cool way (one day) but in the jarring way of nightmares and twisty toss/turn cycles of sleep, all of that ending via a noise outside my bedroom window.  Awake, but not present. I needed grounding and coffee. And birds.  

I ate some toast, drank coffee, watched a design show.  All things I don’t do in the morning. I watched a robin couple fly around my balcony railing, the water that I adore as their backdrop. I mused. I meditated. And, gradually, I came back into my body. My mind lost its tilt and bobbed back into its usual place. 

Today, I contemplated changes in identity; its effects and what this about. This is stuff of my recent nightmares and angst. Knowing your truth is one adventurous overcoming; living it out is another. 

It requires heaps of courage. Fears lurk in the bushes; doubts dangle; tongues wag and nag. I can feel the collective squirming of others in my brain. I am not a brave person.  I am not a full-faith person. But I walk another step.

Changes in identity are not simple or easy; they are arduous and ongoing. This morning I worked through them in one way. I have other strategies and I suspect you do, too. 

Today, I won’t be offering an exercise or question. Instead, I extend to you the deepest compassion and en-couragement I can muster and I hope you can feel the warm vibes resonating in the space between us. 

Don’t give up.  Gather what you need around you and keep on truckin’ for truth.  It’s worth it. For yourself and for all the others around you cheering you on, and for all the small boats in the big sea buoyed up by the rising tide. 

I’m off now for art therapy i.e., painting in my studio.  I haven’t done any for a while and there is a hollow place in my soul.  Peace and love to you and your household today. 


“How do we follow our heart? 

First, I’d like to propose a couple of simplified (read: simplistic) scripts I’ve heard. Maybe you have heard a version of these too. 

  • The goal in life is to live up to your potential: be productive & efficient; pair up & be committed to one person and one job/career; have kids, a career or both; maximise earning potential; climb up the success ladder; retire in comfort and security. 
  • The goal in life is to live into your portfolio: live your best life now; pursue multiples of experiences (including relationships); follow your passion; you can do/be anything so don’t settle or sell out; value travel and time-off over extra work and pay.

Both scripts are generative and oppressive in some way; both can be fulfilling and limiting. Both cannot provide us with THE answer to the question above. 

So, what is the answer?

I don’t know. 

I know, I know…how very not-helpful of me. But, to be fair, your answer will be about YOUR heart, your preferred future, and you are the expert on your life, not me. 

I’ve changed my mind a few times on this but I’m wondering if identity is more a by-product of a life well-considered and well-lived and less a following of a rigid script or a role. Maybe it’s more about knowing in your ‘knower’, listening to your heart, a gut feeling, intuition, sixth sense…yes, well, all of that is pretty hard to nail down into a plan so here are a few love-handles to grab onto:

  • Draft a ‘preferred future’ manifesto. Include as many vital parts as possible.
  • Create some life goals for all areas of your life. Break them down into next steps. Then, get going on at least one of them. 
  • Ask others to weigh in. But choose mentors wisely & avoid the plague of amateur expert-knowers. 
  • Set intentions but adapt, reconsider, & recalibrate as you go. Don’t let doubts or difficulties stall you out. 
  • Make the most of what you have and exercise gratitude. Avoid soul-sucking comparison.

That’s the only way I know how to do this right now (subject to change).  


Remember that the map is not the territory and that detours and failed experiments are a part of the plan, as are surprises and serendipity. Change happens. A lot. Some of it good; some not-so-good. Identity formation is a fluid, flexible finding out or we become stagnant and drift off into the Land of Nod.

That’s the full weekender edition for #FebUp2020.  You can follow me on my IG account for daily posts on all sorts of subjects related to counselling: 

Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC


IG account:

Previous FebUp posts: #febup2018; #febup2019
Current posts: #febup2020
For this web blog, use the search terms “anxiety” or “identity”

#febup2020 weekender week 1

Hey! It’s February y’all and that means another month of FebUp (#febup2020). 

Each year in this particular month I try to pick a theme that speaks to the mental health concerns of people I work for and live with. I post something on Instagram most weekdays with the hope that they will spark ideas, suggest practices, or create space for figuring life out together.  You can check it out @gottasecond.

In January I canvassed clients, bartenders, and friends about the two themes most on their mind. What would be most helpful to talk about? What were the questions people had? Turned out to be: anxiety and identity. This weekender edition will be a compilation for Week 1 of February. We will be discussing Identity Formation.

Welcome! Ready for a long read?  I hope so.  This topic is vast!
First a bit of a framework for the posts ahead.  


How do you navigate the paths and pivots of re/discovering what you are all about?
How do you figure out what to do with your life?

Some context: For many, many people, this is a question they never get to ask. Their lives are more about securing shelter, safety, and food. So to be clear, this is a privileged question. Nevertheless, I think it’s still valid if we can transcend our bent toward self-absorption and ensure our journey does not oppress or ignore the voices around us. So, identity exploration, yes, but also locating your real self in real community.   

First up is VOICE. 
Become familiar with your own VOICE amongst the others in your head. 
Lovely, but what does that even mean? 

Plain speaking: Shut up the inner critic and the “should be/believe/behave” echolalia, silence the voice of that family member or teacher who clearly wanted you to be different, and start to listen to the other voice that is typically quieter but keeps stubbornly telling you what you really know about yourself and what you feel and want. You’ll be able to tell the difference because your real voice is the encouraging, affirming, compassionate, welcoming one. 

Here are a few questions to try:

  • What voice(s) are you listening to and why? (I learned to recognize my inside voice and I kicked out a few negative informers. More on this later.)
  • What is your ‘inside voice’ instructing you to do? (This was less ‘woo-woo’ and more solid and practical—active listening.)
  • Are you afraid to trust your own voice over the voice of others? (I trusted people and thought they wanted the best for me. Turns out many were self-focused and wanted the best for them.)
  • How did you learn how to be who you are now? We have all been socialized within contexts and systems and cultures. What did your influencers teach you? (I began to examine my beliefs and values and see if they fit me anymore. Many of them had never fit me but I hadn’t been paying attention.

An extra exercise for VOICE:

Get ready:

  • Set some time aside for some brainstorming and dreaming. Get yourself ready. You’ll need some blank paper and a writing tool. 
  • Sit and breathe deeply until relaxed. This is, oddly, a mildly stressful exercise—it’s unfamiliar and it’s little risky. 
  • Push past any fear and crankiness and move toward curiosity and awareness.

Then, try this:

  • Doodle randomly on a page or two to loosen your brain and hand. 
  • Set a timer for 5 minutes and then start writing words—write whatever comes to mind. Try not to lift the pen from the paper.  If you don’t know what to write, doodle or create random words and phrases or pictures of your emotions. 
  • Don’t edit, criticize your skill or process, think about your thinking, try to be profound or anything else (no thanks, inner critic), filter out bad thoughts and ideas, or try to force anything. 
  • Instead, be playful and curious and interested in your self. Ask your voice to come forward because you are ready to hear it (sounds weird but it works). Ask yourself a question if you need some structure. But be careful with this. You are not interrogating; you are curious, you are creating and you are imagining. Big difference. 

Some questions to consider while you’re writing: 

  • If time and money were no object, what would I do tomorrow or next week? 
  • If I woke up tomorrow and everything was exactly how I wanted it to be, what would be different?

Do this exercise 5 minutes a day (minimum) for a week (minimum). After a long while, gather up any recurring ideas, themes, complaints, emotions, and stories. Please don’t do the cataloguing too soon. You’ll kill off the dreaming stage and the inner critic will re-emerge, as strong and nasty as ever. 


Life narratives could be understood as memories entwined with structures of plot and theme: they can be dearly loved or hated, fragmented, buried, changeable, re-told and re-membered.  They are identifiers of why and who we are and where we’ve been, and how we fit into the bigger narratives of history and culture. 

Where do identity stories come from? 
Lived experience, sure, but also family, media, peers, work, culture, and context. And we don’t always know the truth-claim or the origin of the story: Was that our lived experience or were we told the story so many times it has became that? Likewise, did that story really happen or was it a dream? What identity stories are we moving into or out of?

Are all your identity stories true? 
Our stories can shape-shift over time as we remember them through the current lens. We sometimes live into labels, adding them into our stories without much conscious thought. Unfortunately, people will foist stories upon us for self-indulgent reasons. Stories are not always accurate; our own version can be skewed or truncated.

Who has the story-telling rights to your story? 
I am challenged by this question often, especially when wrestling with oppression, colonization, and my own privilege (This will rightly be a forever challenge.). But I want to challenge the viewing lenses for my personal stories as well, realizing that other people had a vested interest—whether for good or not-so-good—in shaping those stories and deciding which ones were allowed to be held and told.

How do you re-author an identity story?
Re-telling, re-membering, collecting narrative fragments (especially with trauma), and shifting “thin” narratives into richer, multi-voiced stories: this is the work of re-authoring. The process allows us some space to consider who and what we are really about and to creative a future narrative we want to live into.

For me, the basic structure of re-authoring looks something like this: write or record your primary identity stories; apply some critical thinking, some objective reassessment, and a deeply compassionate lens; then, rewrite the story from the perspective of your innate ‘inner knowing’.  

If that seems inaccessible (and even if it doesn’t), gather wise voices around you. Let them inform your stories and fill in the gaps with graces, the hollows with reassurance, and the horrors with witness and presence.  Allow yourself to craft a revision, an altered landscape that allows you to heal and flourish. 

The process in four words: awareness; allowing; re-claiming; proclaiming.

That means getting more comfortable with the shy, intuitive, and scaredy-cat side of you that wants to believe what you know but is worried that you might create some fabrication.  No, that has most likely already happened.  Your inner ‘knower’ is not going to let that happen.  

Some questions you could reflect on:

  • What do your stories say about you?
  • Who first told you the stories of who you are?
  • What stories need to be re-written?
  • Whose voice is missing in your story?
  • Who are you listening to? Who is listening to your stories?
  • Are there chapters needing a rewrite or an ending? 
  • When you are asked to share a story about yourself, what comes to mind?


When I turned 53, I was quite enchanted by words describing my relationship to time. So many were combative (killing time) or locked into scarcity and productivity models (out of time; spending time). Today, when thinking about how identity intersects with time and time of life I remembered I had some poems on the subject.

If it makes sense to you, read through the poems and see if any words resonate; explore their connection to your context and season of life. I’ll add a few TIME questions in today’s IG story and post them again in the Weekender version of #febup2020.

Haiku (1)
I am fifty-three. 
long past my long future
butterfly kisses.

Haiku (2)
fifty-three years old
learning how to act my age.
tangled in time zones.

Poem: It’s About Time (revised 2020)
Today, I pause to think about this time.
I have time; I don’t have the time. 
This is the exact time, all the time I need.
I’ll give you some of my time.

This is your time. You don’t say.

Be on time; keep in time; inhabit the time.
Those were the best of times, the only time, the right time.
Time flies, it creeps, it fleets.
It passes; I pass it.

Well, would you look at the time? Please do.

Being time. I live into the time: minutes, hours, flying by. 
Keep up; hurry up; move on, fast forward. 
I’m running out of time; I’ll add more time, bonus time.
I’m sifting and shifting all the time in this time.

Slow down, for God’s sake. Take your time.

Time slips and sticks in fingers and memories
thin wafers—brittle, fragile, mean
fat pockets—expand, fill, sighs.
The plurality of time is exuberance.

Hey, what time is it? Are you ready?

Some STORY questions to ponder:

  • What are you discovering about time, now and in your life-time?
  • What/who governs the use of your time? Would you be willing to change that relationship?
  • Do you want to make time for something? Does that mean giving time or taking time?
  • How do you pause and suspend the demands of time?
  • What is readiness-time for you? Is ii different from time-keeping? Is time a liberator or a tyrant?


I have struggled with depression on and off in my life, but it was never so bad as when I was living in opposition to what I call my ‘true self’ (yup-just dropped a woo-woo word.) When I tried to live into other people’s expectations and scripts, my soul withered away to a stump and at one point, I wanted to give up on living. 

My authentic, true self is not my public self that is trying to be someone else.  It’s not the one that’s managing the expectations of others in ways that diminish who I am. It’s not the self that follows along blindly or unwillingly. It is the full expression of how I was created to be.

How did I learn this? You’re probably going to dislike the answer…but I learned almost everything through trial and error and a lot of running around in circles on the wrong track. It took a lot of grieving, self-awareness, reflection, and some hard decision-making over a long period of time.  There was a lot of deconstruction and a lot of discards strewn behind me.

I had the ‘opportunity’ to try again a few decades ago. I shovelled my way through piles of crap and pissed a few people off in the process.  But, although some preferred the old me, they got used to the new me, which was actually the old me (confused yet?). The new-old me feasted on rediscovered values, beliefs, and interests. I made new friends, unearthed some deep desires, and planted some life-giving practices.

The identity formation process was long…embarrassingly so and it’s not over. Long because of the powerful voices and belief systems I was immersed in, because I lacked the courage to act on my convictions, and because I had little support for the process at the time. 

I hope that things are different for you and that you are not struggling with these same things, but if you are, gather up that tiny kernel of courage and begin wherever you are. It’ll be hard, very hard, but oh-so worth it. Take little bites and chew them for a while.  Spit out what doesn’t taste good.

Live into your true, glorious self y’all!

Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC


IG account:

Previous FebUp posts: #febup2018; #febup2019
Current posts: #febup2020
For this web blog, use the search terms “anxiety” or “identity”

Making Change: Habit with Reinforcements Kind of Change

Trite: Change is hard.
Real: Change is hard but keeping old habits is actually harder than creating new ones (counterintuitive, I know).

There is no right way to do it but if you are in the mood to create some change and you like to…
try out change, can set up reinforcers to keep you motivated, and like to do things within a community (as compared to individually), this way might be for you.

Peace to your household,
Shari van Spronsen, RCC, CCC
IG: @gottasecond

Making Change: Short-Term Gains with Rewards

Trite: Change is hard.
Real: Change is hard but keeping old habits is actually harder than creating new ones (counterintuitive, I know).

There is no right way to do it but if you are in the mood to create some change and you like to…
try out change, want to break things down into very small, manageable parts, and you find frequent rewards to be very motivating, this way might be for you.

(Ideas inspired from a book by Martha Beck, The Four-Day Win.)

Peace to your household,
Shari van Spronsen, RCC, CCC
IG: @gottasecond

Making Change: A Structured, Science-y Approach

Trite: Change is hard.
Real: Change is hard but keeping old habits is actually harder than creating new ones (counterintuitive, I know).

There is no right way to do it but if you are in the mood to create some change and you like more structure, and having goals, and a science-y approach, this might be the way to begin.

(Ideas inspired by the book by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit.)

Peace to your household,
Shari van Spronsen, RCC, CCC
IG: @gottasecond

Refreshing Self-Esteem

Maybe self-esteem is less about piling up affirmations or trying to shore up a struggling self-concept and more about discovering who and what we esteem. And, then, doing the things we value with and for the people we value.

It’s just a thought I had today.

Peace to your household,
Shari van Spronsen, RCC, CCC
IG: @gottasecond

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