The Autumn of our Lives: Making Meaning in our Middle Years

Seasons provide powerful metaphors for our mental, emotional, financial and spiritual states. The end of Summer portends the end of young adulthood while Autumn symbolizes the turn toward the mature years of mid-life. More specifically, the Fall season represents a time of harvest; we hope to reap what we have sown. Likewise, in our middle years we hope to reap the rewards of our hard work.

In our young adulthood, we invested in our education, slogged and strived in our careers, labored to raise our children and nurtured significant relationships. In our Autumn years, we hope to yield returns. We reflect on what we have gained and what we have lost. As we look around, our financial harvests or our children's successes often bring us pride. However, we’re also quite humbled by our aging bodies and we begin to pay a little more attention to our mortality.

Jungian scholar and analyst, James Hollis, states in his book The Middle Passage, “During the Middle Passage it is useful to see how one’s successes have also been imprisoning, constrictive to the whole person.” Our time in Autumn may bring outward success, yet we may also notice boredom, sadness, terrible disappointment and high anxiety. That is why this time is often referred to as a mid-life crisis.

In mid-life, we symbolically grieve the end of summer. The sun doesn’t seem to shine as brightly as it did in young adulthood; wrinkles, high blood pressure, fatigue, age spots, eye glasses, and children’s graduations all remind us that summertime does not last forever. Moreover, the fear that we may have chosen a seemingly inescapable path is a common anxiety as we mature. During this transitional season, Hollis encourages us to consider any disheartened or worried states as profound invitations from our soul to ask meaningful questions about how our life has unfolded: What childhood dreams may have been lost? What hopes were never realized? Do I enjoy the identity that I have formed for myself? What is missing from my life?

Mid-life tempts us to run back toward Summer at full speed; sports cars and affairs, face-lifts and Botox, divorce, younger spouses, alcohol and substance abuse are common seductions in our middle years. Instead of making meaning out of our present circumstances, we attempt to avoid or replace our current reality. When Autumn has arrived, however, we can’t simply bring Summer back. Temperatures drop, leaves fall and we are reminded of the wisdom of preparing for Winter.

But how can we enjoy Autumn when there is so much to fear? It will take courage. But the joys that come as we embrace a new chapter reward that courage. The challenge is to stop running toward Summer and to savor this new season. Grief may come, but as it does, something powerful and empowering occurs: as we take personal responsibility for our life choices, our desire to return to youth transitions into the longing for – and search for – purpose and substance. Mid-life can be an awakening! The Autumn of our lives can be a time to honestly examine what will truly nurture our souls. If you are willing, the harvest of Fall can be a bounty of self-forgiveness, self-compassion, authenticity and joyful meaning.

-Brenda Gesell, Ph.D., MFT

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Seasons of Growth: Learning from Nature

 For those of us who live in Southern California, where it seems as though we remain in a perpetual state of Summer, it’s easy to ignore the coming of Fall; we must, at times, imagine turning leaves and merely envision Nature’s colorful displays. Even in Southern California, however, the nights lengthen, the days get cooler and festive holiday displays appear. With the Fall season arriving, I decided to put some thoughts on paper, to see if we can learn something from Nature’s changes that could help us with our personal growth.

Our modern way of living, with steel and concrete all around us can create the illusion that we can rise above and conquer nature. When nature is confined to planters and golf courses it can create a false sense of reality wherein we begin to believe that the laws of nature do not apply to us. Change — in nature and in human development — however, is inevitable; it is a given. We must adhere to the laws of nature whether we like or not. We are constantly growing and aging. Embracing Nature and its inevitable change can feel painful but it can also lead us toward incredible psychological transformations. Avoiding and denying it can ultimately lead to painful stagnation. 

But growth is not the simple concept we often wish it to be. A healthy struggle is a part of growth and a vital component of developing our emotional and spiritual maturity; we can see that struggle in every plant that sprouts from a seed and strives to move toward the light. Our modern way of life can unfortunately create an illusion that growth may be achieved quickly — without pain and suffering. We have become addicted to short-term investments and solutions, whilst hoping for long-term gain. I must admit that there is a part of me too that wishes for an easier path, and sometimes I indulge in that fantasy.  

No matter how strong the fantasy is, however, Nature wins and reality sets in — we cannot avoid healthy struggle. We all must grow up and face our own natures. We must embrace the reality of changing seasons in our lives — the times when our old leaves have to fall so that new leaves can replace them. Attempting to avoid change is like trying to hold on to dead leaves. We often try desperately to hold on to the past because it feels comfortable, even if it does not serve us well anymore. Standing bare, bereft of our defenses, and facing the Winter sounds miserable. There is no glamour in it — no sparkle. But such struggles are part of life, no matter how much we may wish them away. Very often we need help letting go of old leaves and weathering the storms that Fall and Winter bring. The process of change and transformation usually takes time, and we need to surround ourselves with people who can help us facilitate that growth. Sometimes, seeking professional help is necessary.

I wish us all courage: courage to face the changing seasons of our lives; courage to transform into thriving and authentic individuals; courage to help us learn to be grateful for the opportunities for growth and change that life’s challenges bring. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

- Andrey Antonenko, M.S., AMFT

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The Truth Will Set You Free Review

“The damage don't to us during out childhood cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in out past. We can repair ourselves and gain our lost integrity by choosing to look more honestly at the knowledge that is stored inside out bodies and bringing that knowledge closer to our awareness.”  — Alice Miller

Alice Miller’s The Truth Will Set You Free is an incredibly written piece on early-childhood mistreatment and the dangers of mindless obedience to parental will. From my first read of Miller’s (Drama of the Gifted Child) to this one, I appreciate her consistent personal tone and willingness to shed light on the darkness that so often overtakes the young soul. Miller brings in both her clinical work and latest research on brain development to demonstrate the effects of spanking in correlation to denial and emotional blindness. She presents her argument that the humiliation experienced through the act of physical discipline significantly effects both childhood and later adult years. Miller is passionate about ending the generational cycle of physical force to ensue obedience with the alternative to nurture a child’s authentic self through the art of emotional acceptance, safety, and respect.

She invites individuals to take courage in finding their own truth. Cycles can only be broken once we become aware of them. Miller’s book, The Truth Will Set You Free, sets the stage for illuminating the darkness and promoting emotional connection to your authentic self. She is riveting throughout, challenging to the core, and willing to take the reader where most deem forbidden. I would recommend reading with caution as she will challenge so much of what you may know to be held as truth.

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Reviewed by: Amanda Schubert, MFT

The Allegories of Autumn: The First Day of the Fall Season has Arrived 

Though the weather may still be quite warm in Southern California, the calendar has alerted us that the first day of the Fall season is here. Quite literally this means that kids will return back to school and the days will gradually become shorter. The brightness and lightness of summer will transform into cooler days and darker autumn nights. Like all seasons, a transition is slowly beginning to take place. 

As psychotherapists, we understand these seasonal transitions are not just literal but also highly symbolic. Each new season breathes a poetic metaphor about our psychology and what it means to be human. Greek philosopher Heraclitus waxes, “the only thing that is constant is change”. At times, that truth is a comforting reality. At other times, the inevitably of change causes frustration or even feels cruel. Seasonal transitions acknowledge the existential truth about the seasons of life: life plans and conditions can steadily and subtly move along or sometimes violently and harshly metamorphose. With this symbolic sensibility in mind, Gesell Psychotherapy plans to honor the figurative messages that each season offers throughout 2018 and 2019. 

Each clinician in our group plans to submit a clinical take on how a new seasonal change may embody developmental transitions and significant life experiences. Please check back on our blog throughout the year for meaningful, fun and artfully crafted posts from our talented team of psychotherapists. They will be highlighting the many ways seasons can illuminate our psychological processes. 

And for now, we begin with the Fall season. The next several blog posts will examine the allegories of Autumn. A season emblematic of adulthood. The end of youthful summer turns us toward adult responsibilities. In September, we grieve the end of youth. In October we honor reaping of harvest (i.e. emotional and physical investments that are now paying off). Holidays like Halloween remind us of the demons that still pester us within and the ghosts of our past that still haunt us. November brings gratitude and thanksgiving; an opportunity to reflect on our blessings. As summer ends and fall begins we invite you to consider what this transition may represent on a deeper level. 

You find a flower half-buried in leaves,

And in your eye its very fate resides.

Loving beauty, you caress the bloom;

Soon enough, you'll sweep petals from the floor.

Terrible to love the lovely so,

To count your own years, to say "I'm old,"

To see a flower half-buried in leaves

And come face to face with what you are.

-  Han Shan, circa 630 CE  (Translated by Peter Stambler, Cold Mountain Buddhas) 


-Dr. Brenda Gesell

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The Body Keeps the Score Review

One of our favorite books is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk. 

Van der Kolk is one of the world's leading researchers on trauma and its treatment. His book is all about how our bodies react to trauma. He explains that trauma is not just a problem of the mind; it’s physiological. 

Trauma is anything that threatens your emotional or bodily integrity. Traumatic stress is commonly triggered by war and combat, physical violence, sexual abuse, childhood abandonment or prolonged illness. It affects our minds and our bodies in dramatic and powerful ways. 

The Body Keeps the Score helps people who have experienced trauma identify what is happening in their bodies. The fight or flight response can cause panic attacks, night-mares, out of body experiences, flashbacks, hypervigilance, insomnia, depression, and rage. Van der Kolk explains how we can learn to identify signs of nervous system arousal and nervous system relaxation. His clinical experience and research brilliantly demonstrates that talk therapy doesn’t always effectively treat trauma. 

Many trauma sufferers need to engage in some type of somatic work such as yoga, martial arts, Rolfing or EMDR. The Body Keeps the Score will challenge, encourage and bring great hope any trauma sufferer or clinician.

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Reviewed by: Dr. Brenda Gesell

Welcome to the Gesell Psychotherapy Blog

I founded Gesell Psychotherapy because I believe that therapy isn't just about eliminating your psychological issues. Rather, our psychotherapy practice understands and accepts that there is value in our psychological symptoms. Your suffering is calling you to grow and expand. Painful symptoms  (i.e. fear and anxiety, depression and hopelessness, unexplained somatic issues, anger or rage) are powerful unconscious messages informing you that there is an imbalance in your life. Psychotherapy offers you the opportunity to deeply examine your life and reflect on your relationship patterns and life choices. Are you living an authentic life that is truly fulfilling or are you living out someone else's image of an ideal life? Often, it is the latter. Deep anxiety, sadness, anger and helplessness often emerge when the priorities of our lives are not truly our own. So often we are unconsciously living out someone else's life dream. Symptoms can awaken us to that reality. Therapy can help us make sense of our symptoms and motivate us to live a more fulfilling existence. Gesell Psychotherapy is a group of skilled clinicians who would like to help you listen more deeply to yourself - and to help you live more meaningfully and authentically. - Dr. Brenda Gesell

 
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“There is value in your psychological symptoms. Your suffering is calling you to grow and expand”.


-Dr. Brenda Gesell