Extravagant

Been thinking a lot lately about things that stand out. Personalities. Hair styles. Cars. Life styles. Behaviors. Words.

I grew up thinking that something that was extravagant was a negative thing. Superfluous. Not necessary. Excessive. As a result, on some level, whether intended or not, I believe I sought to fit in, not stand out. To be average and not too much or too little. To fly below the radar as much as possible.

So it was rather annoying that the bulk of my childhood I received comments often about my smile and my cheerful expressions on my face. Even earning the nickname smiley at one point. It bothered me that people commented on my smile. I did not want to be noticed. To stand out.

A number of years ago, well into adulthood I read a book with the word exuberance in the title. The author told a bit of biography of Theodore Roosevelt and his love for and passion for forests and national parks and how he fought valiantly for their preservation and protection during his presidency. And I found myself nearly captivated by his drive and determination and his unwillingness to be derailed despite others views or scoffing at his hopes and expectations. He was not only passionate but he was exuberant. Which the dictionary defines as “the quality of having energy, excitement or cheerfulness”. While reading I found myself inspired and even impassioned, by his zest for life’s purpose that felt contagious.

Perhaps excess isn’t always bad.

Today I was listening to a song entitled extravagant, in which it described a love that didn’t make sense, that was unthinkable, above and beyond. I couldn’t help but pause.

If something that is extravagant is unnecessary and excessive. If exuberance is above and beyond expected, superfluous. Then wouldn’t something like extravagant generosity or exuberant expressions of compassion be encouraged, even celebrated?

Perhaps the goal should never be to blend in or fly below the radar. Not to say ones goal should be to be center stage or on display. But perhaps a more candid and honest expression of ones self should be encouraged. Less filtered. Perhaps when it comes to love and compassion, extravagance could be modeled, and portrayed as what it could be in full expression, beautiful.

I don’t think I’m advocating that extravagance be expected or demanded. But what if it were modeled on occasion. Without being magnified or downplayed. But simply seen. And felt. Witnessed. Experienced.

We have new neighbors in our neighborhood. And when they moved in they hung these brightly colored aerial swings in their large tree in the front yard. The first time I saw them I thought it was unique and strange and perhaps a bit dramatic to have multiple very colorful swings in their front yard tree. However I soon discovered that most evenings when I went walking I saw their daughters hanging and swinging in those swings. Night after night. Laughter abounding. Creative expression visible.

Extravagant? Maybe. Exuberant? Definitely. Negative or a bad thing? Not a chance.

Perhaps what felt unfortunate for much of my childhood turned out to be fortune after all. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t really adapt my facial expressions without really modifying my outlook on life in a negative way. So as quietly as possible, I owned my facial expressions. And I smiled often. And I smiled even more when someone commented on it. Cause that was me being me. For it just was what it was. And it seemed the sooner I accepted that. The sooner I was able to just be me. Sometimes too much. Sometimes not enough. But always true to myself.

Now that I have a daughter who openly prances around the neighborhood dressed up as a princess or a warrior or hula dancer or a magician, I find myself encouraging her self expression and her unique flare. I don’t ever want to stifle that. If exuberance comes natural to her. I pray it always will. Without encumbrance or shame.

I’m sure there are some who still describe me as over the top or unnecessary. Perhaps even excessive at times. But I feel okay with that now. At least I’m channeling my energy toward generosity and compassion and not resentment or judgement. A decision I would make and will make, again and again.

Chelsea Bliss Ward

Why I listen

I have often filtered blank or confused stares along with comments of bewilderment when I share what it is that I have chosen to do as my life’s work. Having wanted to be a therapist since early on in grade school, I never even doubted for a moment that I would find meaning, intrigue and joy in the work.

I have felt for a long time that many do not understand what it is that I do, let alone why it is that I continue to choose each and every week, to engage in the very personal art of talk therapy. Today I sat down at my desk hours before my first client would arrive, after doing some house keeping, finishing a cup of coffee and steeping a cup of tea for warmth and comfort, I wanted to write a little piece about why I choose to listen.

I am fairly certain that in my younger years as I dreamt of becoming a psychologist that I had no clear picture of what that would actually be like. Sure, I had an idea of what it would look like “me in a chair and my client in another or better yet a couch…” But with regards to what it would feel like, what the work would actually entail and the emotion that would be involved, I’m certain I had no clue. I loved to listen to my friends, I loved to hear their life stories and for some reason I cared deeply about their homes, their families, their relationships, their stressors. My heart would ache when there was pain or heartache. My soul would dance when there was success or accomplishment or joy. My mind would swirl when there was confusion or loss or unknown chaos. I was naturally curious. I was naturally right there, in the thick of it. Heart and soul.

By the time I had made it to my undergrad and declared my major in psychology, I was deeply rooted in relationships of all kind and my own study of people and human interaction was alive and well. In all honesty, I felt my degree had very little to do with that, if anything it discouraged me from wanting to follow through with getting the degree. It was heavy. It was dark. It was unpacking the nature of well-being and disintegrating it into sickness and dysfunction and it was disillusioning. It became all too easy for me to focus on the disease and the lack of health and absence of well-being and become consumed by diagnosis and how to treat each and every one and what ones could not be treated (according to the research at that time). I needed something more hope filled. I needed something to hold onto and not let go of, I needed to know that health and wholeness was possible, even for the most dysfunctional and diseased individuals. I had no desire to discuss those who could not get better; I simply did not adhere to this belief.

I could share many years worth of my own data on relationships and communication, both the formal and informal education that I received and I could tell of my own ups and downs along the way as I moved toward my career goal. Sparing the unnecessary details, I will share that I made it through grad-school, not without bruising and scars that still remain, but I survived and lived to tell about it. All I mean to say about that is that becoming a therapist is somewhat akin to participating in therapy. You get to become all too familiar with your own story, where you came from, what you learned, and how you carry all of those experiences and realities along with you today. It is an arduous journey. It is not for the faint of heart. It is emotional, it is taxing, it is messy and it is absolutely beautiful.

I became a talk therapist because I believed that people needed to have someone to share their life’s story with. Someone who was unbiased, unattached and unconditionally accepting of the process which one goes through to find one’s self, one’s purpose, one’s individual journey and the meaning within it.

I want to simply blast the stereotypes out of the water. I want to smother the noxious fumes that remain of misunderstood psychobabble. I want to instill a hope and a strong belief, backed up by scientific research, that people can and do change. Everyday. Through hard and meaningful work. The act of diving into psychotherapy, of being willing to look back in order to understand present and decide about the future, is stunningly beautiful and it is not to be ashamed of.

Each and every one of us, healthy, unhealthy, functional, dysfunctional… we all need to understand where we came from in order to figure out where we’re going. Somehow we need to start having the conversation about psychotherapy as preventative medicine, as holistic balance in a world that is out of balance and confused about priorities and health. There is no shame in doing the work of telling your story and integrating your past, present and future. It is powerful and life altering work and it is a privilege for me to guide in such a journey. I will go on choosing to do this work of listening, this art of living and loving and sharing in the beautiful stories of others. I am proud to participate in such a gifted kind of work.

Chelsea Bliss Ward

Beautiful Chaos

I have the morning off today. I slept in. I went out for a walk. I got coffee. I sat by the river near our home. Thoughts swirling through my mind. Like they usually do. But this time with a long enough pause to articulate some of them. 

I recently watched a modern day Sherlock Holmes episode in which he described his experience of sensory overload by vividly articulating the cacophony that he hears at any given moment in time. It resonated with me deeply. 

I previously wrote a post on why I listen. And this morning I was thinking about why I share. I voraciously listen. To books. To articles. To TEDtalks. To clients. To friends. To family members. To politics. To religion. To nature. To silence. I soak it in like a dry and brittle sponge. Daily. Hourly. 

When I listen. I learn. I grow. I expand. I create space within myself for another. Another person. Another belief. Another emotion. Another story. I become inspired. I become thoughtful. I become curious. And ultimately I become connected. 

In all the listening. To all the noises around me. I simultaneously feel a sense of chaos and of beauty. Of overwhelmed and of purpose. Of cacophony yet intricately woven within, of meaning making which becomes euphony. 

The more I listen. The more I want to share what I hear with others. Ask anyone who knows me, friends and clients alike. They will tell you how I share. Songs. Articles. Book titles. TEDtalks. Comic strips. Sermons. Art work. Experiences I’ve had. I share. Because I can’t help it. It’s in my DNA. 

As I get older I am becoming more comfortable owning who I am. How I function and what makes me tic. And in my own experience of blossoming, I am finding that I can’t help but invite and even challenge others to do the same. A bud must eventually open. Or it dies all closed up tightly and never having expressed itself. That is tragedy of the most offensive kind. A life unlived. 

It is in the nature that is chaos all around us that we are able to witness beauty. I don’t know that we would honestly see beauty as we do, if it did not exist alongside and within the chaos that enshrouds so much of our life journey. That has given me such a profound sense of hope and healing in my own journey and this is yet another reason why I share. How could I not share hope? How could I keep that to myself? It would be the equivalent of the bud that never opens to blossom. 

I sit with clients each and everyday, listening to their stories. Their hurts. Their confusion. Their longing. Their loses. And my heart leans in toward all that chaos. Cacophony. And then there is a pause. A long, meaningful pause. A sitting in silence. An honoring of heartache. And then I cannot help it. I feel a sense of hope within my being that I cannot stifle or contain. It’s tiny bubbles effervesce. Sometimes in words. And often times in a simple presence. 

I believe that we all contain within us the capacity for chaos. We also contain the propensity toward rigidity. And often times life compels us to dance between these two poles. We swing between our chaos and our rigidity in attempts to control life’s happenings and circumstances. And for most of us, we reach sheer exhaustion at some point. Which necessitates pause and often times seeking of support or outside perspective. 

It is most often the case that we utilize all our resources. We expend all the energy we have. And we reach out only in desperation. Grasping for something to hold onto. We recognize our interdependence as a human species. We acknowledge our fragility. Our vulnerability. And it is within that moment that we become susceptible to change. Perhaps it is our desperation that creates the opening. Whatever the origin, this is where the real work commences. We’re ready to acknowledge our real desire for our situation to change. And without our knowing it we embark on our personal journey of changing ourselves within the safety and connection of another. 

This is why I listen. This is why I share. 

We forget this in our modern day self sufficiency that compels us to function as independently as possible. We ignore our inner longings for intimacy of being known by someone else. Of being seen and heard for who we are. Of experiencing a connection that provides a literal meaning for breathing. 

Connection is so vital to the human heart that it will literally stop beating in its absense. Relationship research has shown us that the most vulnerable among us, children and elderly alike, literally give up the will to live and their heart eventually stops beating in sheer protest of isolation and lack of human connection. 

For many of us we have experienced pain and the raw tragedy of being hurt by another human being. And in our self protection we withdraw. We pull back and we attempt to live life with protective armor. But we don’t realize that we do not function healthfully in isolation. We do not thrive in isolation. We slowly begin to lose hope and identity. We cannot blossom without connection. This can be argued philosophically. But in actuality it cannot. The science is simple. We need an other. 

This is why I listen. This is why I share. 

I simply cannot imagine a life lived any other way. 

Chelsea Bliss Ward

Joy

I picked up my daughter this evening after work. I was subtly surprised by her poise and how much sense she was making as she talked about her day and about how she felt. She seemed so grown up all the sudden. She seemed to have independent thoughts and strong emotions that weren’t just temper tantrum driven. She seemed convicted of what she believed and how she felt but not for the purpose as rebellion as it usually seems. She seemed confident. No reason not to be. 

When we got home she crafted a plan and invited daddy and I out onto the trampoline. I needed to change my clothes. She said she would wait. She wanted to jump as a family. She wanted to sing. She giggled and grinned. She was in her element. Leading the pack. Orchestrating her symphony. And for once I didn’t feel bossed around or commanded. I felt invited to participate in something of joy. Spontaneous combustion. 

I was online later and saw a painted canvas referencing Elizabeth Warren standing up on the senate floor. Persisting. She was warned. Repeatedly. Nevertheless she persisted. And I felt myself swell with pride. And then I thought of all the times I have banged my head against the wall as My daughter pushed back at my ideas, at times ignoring my requests altogether. How she often commands her own agenda and stays her course regardless of the consequences. I thought of how many times I have driven to break that in her, describing her as stubborn and unruly and difficult or impossible. 
The irony was not lost on me. 

Somehow present in the moment that this evening brought, connections in the car over the day of a 5yr old, followed by squeals of laughter on the trampoline and wrapped up by singing in the dark as she went to sleep “I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck” I found myself caught up in the joy of life. The little moments that make up the big themes. The small lessons that create life’s calling and dreams. 

She teaches me more and more each passing day. About adventure and creativity. About persisting. And becoming. About determination. About love and acceptance. About getting wrapped up in joy.

I am inspired to stand beside, encourage and only gently challenge. To not hold her back or stifle her desire to soar. To recommit to being a guide, to accepting her for all that she is in her determination and exuberance for life. To open up to again to spontaneous joy and self expression. To choose grace and gratitude for this journey. 

Chelsea Bliss Ward

To know and be known

Reflecting on my week, there is a natural pause, a quiet honoring of the stories I heard and the people I sat with. The aches, pains and longings, the hurt, confusion and loss… The joys, the celebrations, the gratitude, the tears. There are moments I am overcome with my own emotions and questions around how to be present in a way that encompasses compassion, respect, and gratitude that I am privy to these stories and wisdom that would allow me to provide insight.

There are honest and raw moments of grief. As my heart aches on others behalf, and honestly, how could it not? The human experience is one of struggle. There is beauty of course, amidst the chaos and rubble, there is sheer joy and moments of happiness… yet alongside that, there is often a counterpart of fear, worry, sadness, anger, doubt- and at times, we can become weighed down, weary and even frozen.

As I walk into and alongside more and more stories, I become more fully aware of our connectedness as human beings. How powerfully similar we all are in our need for connection, to be known, to know, to share our story with another person who cares- unconditionally and without judgement. We are so desperate for it, we lose our mind without it. We spiral into anxiety, worry, fear. We plummet into doubt, even despair. We seek fillers, sometimes in desperation we are willing to fill that gaping hole with literally anything.

We grapple. We are uncertain of many things and constantly seek insight, validation, confirmation, signs that we are not alone, that someone else feels like this too, and that someone else gets it. I believe that we really come to know ourselves in the presence of others. We see ourselves, we explore who we are in our multi-faceted parts, in the company of others who are doing the same. Sometimes we like what we see, other times we do not and are forced to dig deep and explore our own strengths and weaknesses. There is inherent need for time to ones self, to pause, to be still, to reflect, to check in, to listen to our own voice and not get caught up in all the other voices. However that does not change the reality that we grow, and learn and explore and even heal in community. But we really struggle to accept this.

We both love and hate the need to connect with someone else. When we feel a deep sense of connection and things are going well in relationships, we crave them, we rest in them, we believe in their significance. However when a connection has been broken, lost, destroyed, we become aggressively defensive of our own self and our desire to be alone and not allow anyone else in or near. It is primal to protect ones self. It is how we survive. However I also believe that is can be how we die. We can isolate so well, insulating ourselves from hurt and others, that we can suffocate in silence.

We grieve. Individually. Collectively. Sometimes alone and sometimes in pairs or families or even communities. And eventually it passes, the acute grief that is. But there is residual grief and questions and longings… that we do not know what to do with, so we set aside, and we move on. We keep getting up, going to work, doing our thing, all the while, there is a nagging sense of desire. A desire to share our journey with someone who cares enough to listen, to notice and hold a space for us, to love us.

Over the past couple of weeks I made it a point to slow down, to notice the people around me, to make eye contact and not be so hurried and focused on my task or my multi-tasks, that I don’t see others. It has been a powerful experiment for me, as I look into the eyes of gas attendants, waitresses and waiters, baristas, receptionists, even those I walk past. I have seen people who are hungry for interaction, for connection. I have exchanged more smiles, more conversations and a more genuine sense of presence for the world around me, and I have been amazed.  I have seen peoples faces light up with surprise. I have heard a snippet of their day or their job duties and gotten a sense of their world, and I have had respect for them. What I have seen is people who long to be seen and who shine when they are.

We are so distracted, busy, hurried and absent minded so much of the time, we are missing out! We are missing out on seeing people around us and realizing we’re not alone. We are missing out on opportunities to share in our journeys. We are missing out on brightening someones day by looking into their eyes, by seeing them! We are missing out on a chance to show another person value, by validating their presence next to us or right in front of us. And we are missing out on giving ourselves the gift of being present where we are. Which is a powerful gift, in a world where we are often pulled in multiple directions by multiple needs/responsibilities and are often overstimulated with noise and to dos… We need to pause, slow down, see and be seen. Its not really optional. We need each other.


Chelsea Bliss Ward

What if you had to

A few weeks ago I started a new workout class entitled “willpower & grace”. The title stood out to me, intriguing me enough to look up the class description and see if I wanted to make it in to try it out. The description was simple and noted that it was a barefoot class, focused on both endurance, strength and flexibility, coupled with being as “philosophical as it is physical, where functional workout meets sports psychology”.  So naturally, I had to attend.

During the first class I was on the fence as to whether this type of class was a good fit for me, hundreds of squats, plies, arm postures and dance moves, all while attempting graceful poise (which has never been a strong suit of mine). Halfway through the class the instructor launched into a bit of the philosophy behind the class, essentially describing the intention behind the practicality and basic function of its movements, and then she posited the question “what if you had to?” We were to each fill in the blank for ourselves, of what we were capable of if we had to, or what we would do if we had to. Suddenly I was all in.

This is what I have made my life’s work all about. The study of human behavior, of brain cognition, and the overarching scope of relationships. Positing the question “what if you had to?” feels as natural to me as “how does that make you feel?”. My mind is often consumed by pondering of interpersonal interactions, questions of meaning and purpose, motivation and challenge. I put a great amount of thought into the practical applications of psychology and what makes people tic and what people need in order to survive, and perhaps on good days, what makes us thrive.

Anais Nin, a well known author, famous for having said “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”, gave us beautiful and honest insight into the human condition. Her words have been quoted and shared for inspiration, used in motivational speeches, in workplaces and schools, giving powerful insight into the human experience. Yet it is a statement that I believe requires deep reflection, even pause, for personal application for each of us.

Tonight as I wrapped up a full day of clients, I found myself pondering this question “what if you had to?” and Anais Nin came to mind as she so eloquently laid out the stunningly devastating reality, that there is both pain in remaining a tight bud and pain opening up to blossom… for they both involve risk. The duality of life is that there is pain in the journey, regardless. So what is it that pushes some of us to the point of blossom? And what about those of us who keep tightly bound as a bud? Does one naturally imply exposure while the other implies protection? Why would anyone willingly expose themselves? Perhaps the risk becomes a matter of survival…

The longer that I am in practice and the more people that I work with, the more strikingly convinced I am becoming that we human beings need each other. We do not function well in isolation. And we do not function well when we have been hurt. We act out. We lash out. We become addicts, we form habits, we isolate, we withdraw, we sink into despair, we scratch, claw, pull, push, cry, scream, all in protest to be seen, to be heard, to be known. By somebody. Anybody…

If we can dig deep, it is with bravery, that we take the risk to slowly begin to open up, to unfold one little layer at a time. All the while devastatingly aware that we could break a petal, fall from our place of security and yet we willingly open ourselves to the elements around us. Why? It is only within this brave moment that we are capable of letting someone else in… of connecting. Does it require naked vulnerability? Yes. Is there a high likelihood that we will get hurt? Yes. Will it require patience and heavy doses of grace? Yes! Is it ultimately worth it??

Anais spoke boldly and reminded us that life is risk. All of life. It is inevitable. So we are left with a daring choice… to lock down, tight like a bud, blocking out all light and potential for life, or to open up, expose ourselves to the light and other life and blossom.

Chelsea Bliss Ward

Swimming at night

Two weeks ago I was in a car accident. An accident that I was at fault for. It took me a few days before I was able to talk about it. I have learned that I do not deal with failure well. This to me was failure. Though I made it many years into my life before an accident, causing one felt unforgivable in the moment. I wanted to rewind and undo what had been done by my absence of presence in the moment. I wanted to be able to share a story where I “almost ran into someone” when I wasn’t paying attention. Not that I did check out for a brief moment only to be jolted back into reality as I smacked into another vehicle.

I was ashamed. I spiraled a little for a day or two. Asking questions like “what kind of person runs into another person?” “What if I had hurt someone?” “What if my daughter had been in the car?” “Do I have to admit to others that I was taking such a license worthy task and treating it cavalierly by barely paying attention?” “Why on earth was I so absent minded and distracted, how embarrassing?!” The questions went on and on. Sleep was lost. Headaches ensued. Back spasms and sciatic nerve pain crept in and threatened my comfortable and quiet life.

Life kept going. Despite my emotional and physical setbacks, life resumed immediately. There were clients to see, errands to run, a toddler to nurture and life to engage. However I felt stunted. Blocked. Jilted. Damaged.

I needed a moment to collect myself. A few moments perhaps. I needed to own my mistake. I needed to own my absent mindedness and I needed to reflect on what needed to change. Because something needed to change.

For starters, the phone needed to move to airplane mode and be relegated to the glove box where it belongs. I need to be where I am, paying attention, eyes fixed, not checking a map, listening for reminders or answering calls. Multitasking at stop signs and lights or traffic jams needs to no longer be an option. How stupid to ever think any of these items were acceptable while controlling the wheel of a 1 ton steel vehicle capable of murder.

Secondly. I need more sleep. I max out my days. I qualify all of my hours. I quantify its meaning and purpose and I push on the gas. Breaks are more for crisis. Not slowing for necessary cautions and road blocks. I heed little to warning signs. I have things to do and little time or attention for long pause or reprieve. Perhaps some realities smack hard and leave bruises in order to get their message across…

Thirdly, I need solo time. Time by myself. To think. To be creative. To write. To breathe. Alone. A rare luxury with a 3yo and a thriving private practice. I needed a reminder that this is not a luxury for me, but an ingredient to a stable and grounded life. Without it I become flighty, distracted, irritable and stupid.

Fourthly, holistic health. By this I do not simply mean exercise and less sugar or caffeine. I mean whole body wellness. I have been a runner since I was 12. A yogi since I was 23 and an all around cardio junkie since at least 16. I love exercise. I need exercise. But I also need wellness. Presence of mind, relaxation, mental clarity. These requires rest and restoration. Meaning to restore. Time set aside to restore health. A chance for muscles to actual stop contracting in some form or another, and for anxiety and cortisol to stop dripping like a life line into my veins.

Lastly but nothing of lesser value than the others, I need my soul to feel nourished and fed. To take time to find inspiration, to dig into the recesses for purpose and meaning, to reach out and reach up for strength and stamina and a renewed sense of why I do it all… As a mom, as a business owner, as a wife, as a daughter, as a sister, as a friend…. What keeps me going, giving, believing, receiving… To connect with this resource, to be still and know, to find focus and purpose I must prioritize my time.

This past week I took a few days off. I put on the brakes. I quieted the cell phone, turned off the tv, put away my laptop and made no plans. I went to bed earlier, I got up earlier, I picked up a book or two, I opened my journal, I paused… And believe it or not I found the greatest gift, and it just so happened to be swimming at night. I am not a swimmer, i’ve never been good at it, but i’ve always wanted to be. Between back spams and nerve pain and ongoing headaches, I found my way to the hot tub multiple nights in a row and while I was there I found myself slowly doing laps in the gently heated pool next to it.

One night, on my back, most of my body and head under water, slowly crawling through the water with a backstroke, i looked up at the sky and locked gaze with the clouds and single star amidst and for a brief moment I totally lost all space and time and I believe i found what it means to be restored. Perhaps it won’t surprise anyone who knows me, that i found my rest and restoration while in motion… but i was awestruck and filled with gratitude. Who would have known that swimming at night, under the stars and clouds could provide such a deep sense of reprieve, of purpose, of poise, perhaps of grace.

I have found my way to the pool again multiple times this week, renewing my commitment to intentionally pausing, to slowing down, to making time for stillness and quiet and less commotion. No doubt I do not always find just what i’m hoping for, but I do find a renewed belief in myself to begin again, to start fresh and to be intentional about how I spend my moments, the precious and the many…

Chelsea Bliss Ward