10 Nov What’s Your Bliss? Episode 1 with Valentina
Welcome to What’s your Bliss – a podcast on what’s coming up in gender, sex and relationships, directly from our couch! Each episode our therapists will share stories, ideas, theories, perspectives and questions, intended to feed your curiosity about what brings you Bliss!
For our first episode, Valentina Messier describes how she uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in relationship and sex therapy! Considering multiple perspectives and the situation, anchoring yourself, and knowing your individual and relational values can be helpful tools that support your communication and the level of intimacy you share in your partnerships.
LISTEN TO THE FULL EPISODE:
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
Jess: Hey there! I’m Jess and this is What’s Your Bliss.
Jess: Welcome everyone to our very first episode of What’s Your Bliss, hosted by yours truly and on behalf of Bliss Counselling + Psychotherapy in Uptown Waterloo. What’s your Bliss is a podcast on what’s trending in sex and relationships, directly from our couch. I’ll go ahead and disclose right away that I am not a therapist, however I am a sex educator and activist and I have been working for Bliss for about 3 years now.
When I started at Bliss, I was a Client Service Team member. I would sit at the front desk and chat quite a bit with our clients and then of course, our therapists. In probably about a minute or less I would learn so much about each of our therapists, who they are personally and professionally. I was then able to share some of these ideas with our clients calling in, which helped so much when they were looking for a therapist who could be a really great fit. At the time, when I first started working for Bliss, we probably only had about 8 therapists on our team. But, over the past few years we have grown into a roaster of about 30.
Despite the challenges that COVID brought, our team somehow still has the same, if not deeper sense of intimacy that comes with being a small clinic. And now that there is more of us and we have so many more opportunities to connect (which I’ve got to say I am so grateful for!), there’s also a lot more ideas to share.
I hear you asking, “Why am I not doing what I was doing before, why start a podcast and bring all of you into it.” Well, I’m no longer on the front desk. We’ve actually hired some new and wonderful people who are now flourishing and making that a role of their own. And while, I am still connecting with our therapists regularly to witness and to learn so many valuable insights from them – like a true educator or maybe even a really oddly proud parent, I have this idea or this need to share with all of you the stories, ideas, theories, perspectives and questions about sex and relationships that I hear in a day.
So keep in mind that these are super informal conversations. We are not doing therapy here! But, our chats are intended to support your connection and to feed your curiosity about what might be your bliss. However, if you might like to speak to one of our therapists, give our office a shout! Those wonderful folks that I was mentioning before they would be super happy to help you out with finding someone on our team who could be a really great fit.
So I guess with all that being said and out of the way with – are you ready for our first episode? Because I sure am! I have been waiting on this for a few months now. So let’s get this thing started with our very own Valentina to learn more about her bliss, which is the use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a therapeutic tool or approach. So Valentina, maybe we could kick this thing off with you telling us a little bit about you first. Aside from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy what else is your bliss?
Valentina: Yeah, so I can tell you about myself. I guess the obvious is that I am a Registered Psychotherapist here at Bliss. Um, but outside of work, I am also a cat-mom, I am a mom to be and I consider myself, creative. So I love like incorporating that in almost everything that I do. Whether it’s like cooking or um, doing some creative writing. Uh yeah…
Jess: I didn’t know you got into creative writing.
Valentina: I do yeah, it’s more just for myself as a means of expression, it’s not really anything I share with other people, but…
Jess: Totally! So we’ll edit this out, you’re like, “Do not talk about my creative writing.” But that’s so cool. Like, what kind of things do you write about though? Just out of curiosity, I’m just being nosey now.
Valentina: Yeah, so for me a lot of it is poetry. I like the word play component and…
Valentina: I usually try to draw from like feelings. So…
Jess: Cancer right?
Jess: Yes! This is um my partner, she like absolutely loves poetry and I feel this for anyone who either writes poetry or like really loves reading poetry is that they get like such higher, I don’t know how to say this, it’s like this higher vibration of thoughts. And she just gets so intentional with the words, like even with song lyrics and everything too, like…It’s so incredible.
Valentina: Yeah, that’s like the first thing I pay attention to when I hear new music is like the lyrics and what story is being told. So.
Valentina: That’s interesting
Jess: And I’m sure that’s really like the perfect segue too because I’m sure that’s a lot of the skill that you bring into your therapy sessions.
Valentina It is! It is and I think that in general, I have a curiosity about people and their stories and I try to bring that into our therapy sessions and I like to have a person centred approach and a strengths based approach when working with people. But, I also love to explore thoughts and feelings and get to know more of the context around a person and their life. So…
Jess: And is that like… is that what drew you to ACT as well or? Like how does that fit in?
Valentina: Definitely! It is something that has drawn me to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Um, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy looks a lot at context. Um sometimes the things that we do in one situation might not be appropriate in another situation or the thoughts that we have during one period of our life may not be the same thoughts that we have later in life. And so, I just love looking at the big picture and how everything fits into that um … and looking at which factors in our lives motivate us. Whether it’s the feelings, whether it’s life circumstances and what that motivation leads to as far as what action we’re taking. And how that fits into the life that we want to create for ourselves.
Jess: Yeah, if I’m understanding correctly, just like, ACT can help somebody almost not to think so black and white maybe.
Valentina: Definitely! I think a lot of times when we find ourselves thinking black and white, we miss a lot of what’s actually happening. So I do encourage people to kind of explore that grey area, in between the black and white and ask questions like, “Well, what purpose does this thought have in my life or this behaviour have in my life?”; “How is it serving me?”; “What about my situation right now is leading me to feel the way I am feeling or act the way I am acting?”
Jess: Mhmm. So you can really hear that piece around the values coming in, like “What are my values and is that actually in line with my values?”
Jess: Umm… Is this something that you feel as though comes up with like premarital sessions that you do?
Valentina: One thing I notice with couples, when it comes to communication, I catch people having these mental rules. Um, sometimes one partner feels things have to be run a certain way or be done a certain way and the other partner has a completely different mental rule for themselves and for how things need to be taken care of. Um, so it can be so useful to come back to values and ask what is the shared vision for the future of this relationship and what are the shared values that you both have and is sticking to these rules or clinging tightly to them, serving that shared vision, serving the relationship. Once we build awareness around our own thinking or these mental rules, it’s a little bit easier to let go of them and realize “Okay you know what, maybe I have these rules because of my own upbringing and the things I was exposed to myself. My partner has different rules because of their upbringing, their context and we don’t have to let that divide us. We can connect over something that is more meaningful and more important for us.
Jess: I suppose though, I am curious if it, if ACT comes up with sex, but I also don’t know if that’s been coming into your sessions at all.
Valentina: So I think that ACT can play a role with regards to issues around sex, I think a lot of times we get caught up in our head and that can take away from being fully present when we’re trying to sexually engage with a partner. Sometimes building awareness around our own thinking and realizing we might be having thoughts like, “My partner should be the one initiating” or “I don’t feel attractive” um, then we can better understand like what our barriers are and what’s getting in the way. And with ACT a big component is actually mindfulness practice. So learning to detach from some of those thoughts a little bit and shift your focus with some flexibility more towards the experience in the moment and one way of kind of detaching from those thoughts that might not be serving you in the moment when you’re trying to be sexually intimate with a partner is simply noticing and naming – which seems pretty um I guess simplest, but by saying I’m noticing my mind is having the thought that I’m not attractive or I’m noticing my mind is making a judgment about my partner. Even that moment of time where you’ve stepped back and noticed your thinking, that provides you with an opportunity where you can be conscious about what happens next. So if we bring it back to values, if sex is important to you because you value that connection with your partner, then you can ask “Is buying into this thought or buying into this judgment bringing me closer to that?” Or should I give myself permission to let go of that and try to focus in on what will actually bring me closer.
Jess: And so what would you say could be the differences I suppose between ACT, CBT, DBT.
Valentina: Yeah, that’s a really good question. With ACT, CBT, and DBT, there are some similarities. Like all of these approaches examine behaviours, thoughts, feelings but there are some differences. Um, one of the most notable differences between ACT and CBT is the way that we approach our thinking. So in CBT a lot of times what we are encouraged to do is challenge the content of the thoughts we have. So, I”ll give an example, if you have a thought, “I’m not good enough” and I think that’s a pretty common thought most people can relate to. CBT might encourage you to look for evidence that you are good enough and to try to counter that thought or to change that thought into something different. Um, whereas with ACT the aim is rather than assessing the content of the thought, we look at the function of the thought. So for some people, CBT can be helpful they’re able to kind of disprove their thought and they feel better but sometimes that’s not enough and they still find themselves feeling not good enough. With ACT if you’re looking at function rather than asking if this thought is true or is this thought false, what you’re doing is asking, “Is this thought helpful for me?”; “Is this serving me?”; “Is this bringing me closer to who I want to be or the life I want to have?” Regardless of whether or not it’s true or false.
Jess: Yeah, yeah, I can absolutely see that and especially in the examples you have given now. If I’m feeling like, maybe that low self-esteem, body kind of feeling and I’m judging myself I might try to change my thought pattern to be like, “Well, I can see my partner is really enjoying this, so it’s okay!”
Valentina: Exactly! So you’re looking for evidence like, “My thought is false clearly, like my partner is liking this so they must be attracted to me.” And so those are instances where CBT can be helpful but sometimes though it has its limits, where even when somebody is recognizing that the brain is pretty powerful and will say, “Well that doesn’t mean that your attractive.” It will kind of mess with you a bit.
Jess: Exactly! That’s what I was going to say, it’s almost like there’s a lack of validation in it of being like, that thought is also okay, right?
Jess: But does it actually serve what I’m trying to do here or the goal that I’m trying to achieve, essentially. So is that where ACT gets its name from…? Like Acceptance and–
Valentina: Commitment Therapy. It is related to that. ACT is a third wave cognitive behaviour therapy. The first wave of cognitive behaviour therapy was the behaviour component and then the second wave was the cognitive component and now this third wave focuses on acceptance. So we shift away from trying to get rid of unwanted feelings and broaden our focus to incorporating more meaningful action and accepting those feelings in our life and I want to clarify that a lot of people don’t like hearing accepting unwanted feelings, but what I mean by accepting is acknowledging that they are part of our reality not necessarily approving of them. Like clearly, they are unwanted- you’re not approving of them but recognizing when we have no control of that. Most of us might wish we had like a delete button in our brain where we could just get rid of thoughts we don’t want or get rid of feelings that are bothersome to us, but we don’t have that power. So a lot of our control actually lies within our actions which is part of why we call it ACT and um, part of letting go of that struggle is accepting, the acceptance part, um what the reality is and then we commit to values guided action. So it is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Jess: Yeah! Um. Who do you think could benefit from ACT? You know? Like I know we’ve talked about um folks in relationships or doing premarital counselling or folks who it sounds like, may be having some challenges with sex and intimacy with their partner. Uh…who else could be like a really good fit for ACT?
Valentina: Yeah so, I may be biased because I love this approach, but I think that most people would benefit from ACT. And the reason why I think this is because so much is based on function. Like all of us have the capacity to ask ourselves how things are working in our lives. Um, and we all have the capacity to explore our personal values and those things that add a sense of meaning to our lives. Um, sometimes when we utilize like a thinking sort of approach where we’re sort of examining our thoughts we might get the feedback that, that sort of top-down, using the tops of our brains and trying to move down approach doesn’t work for people who are experiencing trauma or trying to get through post traumatic stress. However, with ACT there is this experiential component as well, which is that mindfulness piece where we get in touch with the sensations of the body. Um, so I think even for those individuals, ACT can be effective. So it’s kind of both a top-down and a bottom-up approach.
Valentina: I love using it, when I am working with individuals who have anxiety or depressive symptoms. I also find it helpful when someone’s had like a big transition in their life or if they’re trying to make a decision like, “Do I stay in this relationship, do I leave?”or “Do I stay in this job or do I look for something else?” Um, I think if you’re feeling like you’re struggling to kind of have your actions align with where you want to be in life then ACT would be a great approach for you.
Jess: Yeah, so anyone who is basically feeling kind of stuck – a little stuck right now.
Valentina: Yeah, it’s great for that for sure.
Jess: Oh, well I can buy into that! Um.. Oh actually that was something, when you were mentioning the piece around um it either being like top-bottom or bottom-up or bottom to top, and that there’s like an ability for like using ACT to regulate emotions, is that… was I understanding that correctly?
Valentina: Mhmm. Yes.
Jess: Okay, so something that I think heard a lot with ACT is dropping Anchor!
Valentina: Yes, yes. I love this concept of dropping anchor. It’s also known as grounding, but I like calling it dropping anchor too because it kind of conjures up this image of a storm, like an emotional storm and you are dropping anchor to steady yourself. You’re not getting rid of the storm, you’re just dropping anchor to keep yourself steady. You’re not getting rid of unwanted things, but you’re able to manage in that context and so dropping anchor is essentially is getting in touch with your senses. So it might involve on the movement in your body as you’re breathing it could involve sounds around you or visually what is surrounding you. I love focusing on points of contact or like the feeling of my feet against the floor or my back against the chair. The reason why we focus on these things is because they are all happening in the here and now and they’re easily accessible. So it can really be something that is useful when we find ourselves in a storm and uh, there is research behind mindfulness as well with regards to changing brain structures. So, actually if you practice dropping anchor with some consistency you can reduce the size of the amygdala in your brain, and that’s kind of that survival response centre.
Valentina: So that results in less intense anxiety experiences for people.
Jess: Absolutely – I had no idea that it could reduce the size of the amygdala! That in and of itself is really incredible. Holy!
Valentina: Yes, I love incorporating dropping anchor and any sort of mindfulness practice for that reason.
Jess: I bet and that was the thing… what appealed to me with this dropping anchor idea is that it’s one of those handy tools where you can take it anywhere with you.
Jess: You know, what I mean? I’ve heard of folks who um, use it line at the cash and they are starting to feel impatient or frustrated in that moment and then they’re like, “Okay, this is a moment when I need to drop anchor.”
Valentina: Oh yeah! Or when you’re like stuck in traffic and finding yourself frustrated,
Jess: Oh God yeah, I could have used an anchor today. Absolutely! You know I’ve heard of, I’ve heard of ACT being used as you’re saying like we’ve gone through individual and now we’ve talked about relationship sessions – it’s also been used in groups right?
Valentina: It has been! And I actually co-facilitate a group with one of my colleagues. Um, and there are some unique benefits of group work versus individual. So of course in an individual setting when you’re using ACT with a therapist, you get that full hour of air time, you get to explore on a deep level some of your own life experiences and your personal values, which is wonderful. Uh. A group setting however, has a lot of benefits that you don’t necessarily get in the individual group. When you’re working with a group you have this gift of different perspectives so it allows you to more easily see things in a new light. At the same time, hearing from other people, you start to recognize that you have a shared experience. Where before you might have felt alone in your experience now there are these other people who are sharing with the group that they also resonate with those same feelings so it can be a really validating experience to be working with a group. I think it’s also the preference for some people who don’t necessarily feel comfortable having all of the air time, they’d rather be a listener at times and then share when they feel comfortable, um, so that’s another perk of working in a group. There are some differences as well with the group, my colleague and I, we have an agenda for each week and there’s a psychoeducation component. We do start each session with a mindfulness exercise and then we allow for some various exercises around values and some discussion so it’s a little bit more structured than what you might find individually. Ideally, doing both would probably cover all the bases and be great.
Jess: That’s incredible! And does anybody need anything to prepare for the group? Is there any homework they should do before jumping into a group setting?
Valentina: So we usually have a 15 minute consult with people who are interested, where we talk about what to expect with the group. There’s not really any homework that needs to be done, Sheila and I – my colleague and I, we’re pretty prepared and we guide people through it so there’s nothing really to be afraid of.
Jess: Oh that’s incredible, so me, if I don’t know my values and I’m feeling stuck – I’m all set to go? I can jump right into this course?
Valentina: Right! We’ve got some tools to help identify values.
Jess: Amazing! Well thanks so much Valentina for doing this with me!
Valentina: Yeah, thanks so much for having me!
Jess: And thank you all so much for joining us and for listening to our first episode here with Valentina. Like I said at the very beginning if you are looking to book an appointment either with Valentina or with another one of our therapists here at Bliss or to join in on some of our group therapy sessions that we’ve got going on, please give us a call at the office or send us an email. I hope that you all have a blissful rest of your days!
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