Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. - Jalaluddin Rumi

Category: Mental Health

Articles on my mental health and what I am doing to improve my mental health.

I am hearing voices

This is my Mum. Sarah McLoughlin. She is 82 years old. She recently had a mastectomy in Vancouver. I had planned to be with her for a two-week recovery.

During this time, my son informed me that he was “eloping.” Surprise! It was happening Sunday, right in the middle of my Mum’s recovery!

How exciting! He had found his fiancé at a Christian Mission training event in Vietnam the previous January. This past year, they had been hanging out together in Kelowna. They had decided to get married! This is great news!

However, this meant I had to pivot to be present for the wedding in Kelowna while at the same time still watching over my mother’s recovery in Vancouver.

My sister volunteered to be with Mum over the weekend that I was away at the wedding.

As I drove to Kelowna, I felt confident that Mum was making progress. I could leave her for the weekend.

The wedding went fine! The couple was so happy. I met the father of the bride who flew out from Nova Scotia, especially to give his daughter away. It was a fine but small event, given the COVID restrictions.

Resting in the afterglow of the occasion, I got a call from my sister Margo. Margo was concerned about Mum.

It was Monday. Mum had not been drinking or eating for 48 hours. Margo could not find the care staff. Mum was comatose. Mum looked parched and emaciated.

Then there was a report of a COVID outbreak at the hospital. Two patients had tested positive in a ward adjacent to Mum’s recovery unit. Mum had tested negative. There was a staff shortage, though, due to self-isolation requirements.

Mum had received a sedative that was helping her sleep. However, without nursing attention, it had put her into a very vulnerable place. She was unable to feed herself. She did not have the strength to use the nurse call button, which had fallen on the floor. She could not even ask for a sip of water.

Now aware of the seriousness of her condition, my sister reported it to me. I dropped everything and promptly drove to Vancouver.

This was when I started hearing voices.

The first voice was the voice of my inner critic. It was telling me that I should have been with my mother on the weekend. That if I had been there, she would not have experienced 48 hours without food or water.

The second voice was the father in me, objecting to the inner critic. Your son’s wedding demanded your presence. Who was more important, your son or your mother?

A third voice chimed in, saying you should have asked your son to postpone the wedding until your Mum was through the recovery. Could he not have waited for two weeks?

All these voices started arguing with each other inside me.

So I called my pastor for help.

“What help do you need, Mike?” He asked.

Good question! I needed prayer! Can you please pray for me? He promised to do that!

Then I shared with him my inner dialogue. Should I have been with my Mum?

“STOP IT!” He said! In no uncertain tones! “Of course, you needed to be with your son!”

With the voice of “STOP IT” rattling around inside of me, I drove to Vancouver.

But the voices did not stop. They just got louder. Especially after seeing my mother and her condition and seeing how much she had deteriorated.

The COVID situation meant that we could only have one person visiting my mother. When I arrived, I became that one person.

The voices were arguing inside of me.  You need more control, Mike. Look what they did to her over the weekend! No, you need to let go of control, Mike! Trust the process! Trust the medical system!

Then the voice of guilt chimes in! “How could you let your mother down like this?”

Then I hear my Pastor’s voice again. “STOP IT!”

STOP second-guessing yourself, Mike! STOP doubting! STOP whining! STOP with regret! Come on, Mike, PULL IT TOGETHER!

I reached out to a buddy at my church! He listened to my story. He tells me that whenever he finds himself in difficult situations, he remembers what Jesus said, “My burden is light, and my yoke is easy.” If you are finding the burden heavy and the yoke hard, you are not trusting Him, Mike!

My friend led me in a prayer to “repent” of taking “false responsibility” for my mother’s condition. Now, I had another voice to add to the cacophony. “REPENT!”

I opted for some wine and a nice meal out at my favourite restaurant to take my mind off these voices. Just what I need to feel better, I thought! That worked until I stepped on the scale the next morning and realized I had blown up my 2021 resolution to lose 10 pounds! OMG! Another voice chimes in! “YOU ARE GETTING FAT, MIKE!”

I was feeling quite miserable and sorry for myself. How am I going to pull this together?

It was Wednesday. My mother was awake. The narcotics were discontinued. She was eating with assistance. She looked better.

That afternoon I had an appointment with my therapist, online.

She did not add to the negative voices. These were the “fix it” voices telling me to do things like take control or stop feeling sorry for myself. These voices were AGAINST me, constantly questioning me and undermining me.

Instead, my therapist stepped into my story with unconditional positive regard. She took my side! She was FOR me! She ruled all the negative voices as out of order and not helpful!

She understood that whatever I do, I do because it makes sense to me. After all, if something else made sense to me, I would do that. Therefore, she does not need to judge me or lay another story of Mike on me, a story she thinks is better for me. No, she just needed to be curious and compassionate and figure out the story I am telling myself and be curious about that story.

She told me to enjoy my food and drink. She said she was proud of me for taking responsibility for my mother. She affirmed my decision to be with my son at his wedding while acknowledging that it had put me in a difficult bind. She warned me about well-meaning spiritual advice that seeks to bypass the pain. She acknowledged my pain. She felt my sadness.

Through this process, she correctly identified what was really going on! I was grieving the loss of my mother. Even though my Mum is still here, her decline and her vulnerability meant I am losing her.

Grief has its own agenda, she said. It does not STOP even if you tell it to STOP!

I was entitled to grieve even if it meant offending my sister by stepping in, being persistent with the medical staff on behalf of my mother, neglecting to say a proper goodbye to my daughter in law’s family, ignoring my friend’s concern about “false” responsibility, and my pastor’s injunction to STOP IT!

What I really needed was some emotional support so I could grieve the loss of my mother.

I needed the pain acknowledged. It is real. As unwelcome as it may be, it is not going away.

The pain was underlying my negative voices. The voice dialogue was a way of me keeping that pain out of my conscious awareness. It was a way to exile my grief and prevent it from flooding me with emotion. Now, I had permission to feel the emotional pain even if that pain made me feel uncomfortable!

I welcomed it. I gave it a listening ear. I reflected to myself what I was feeling without trying to fix it. I was able to engage the sadness and the sense of helplessness. I was able to see it all but not judge it. I sat with it for a while until the emotional energy subsided.

As I thought about this process, I realized I had discovered a place inside myself where I could stand over and against the pain and the voices.

It is a place where I can draw a boundary and say NO to intrusive thinking, NO to negative beliefs and NO to the voices that are AGAINST me.

It is a place where there is no clutter of competing ideas or forced choices, or inadequate effort.

There is room for error. I can make mistakes, I am free to fail. But mercy triumphs over judgment, so it is a safe place.

It is a place where shame is banished. Here I have permission to be unabashedly FOR myself.

I am worthy, and I am valuable; I have a right to do what I am doing. I am acceptable as I am.

I have a space that I am entitled to as a worthy human being, a footprint that I can rightly occupy and fill up.

It is a place where I have my power, and I get to decide the outcome. It is a place where my truth is honoured, my story heeded.

In this place, I get to write the story of me for me, not for anyone else. I can reframe it to make better sense of it, a positive sense, a redemptive sense, as I am doing with this article.

It is a place where I can retreat for nurture and comfort. Here, I can believe in who I am and the choices I am making. I can trust me to be me because I know who I am.

It is a place where I can get my needs met. I can be seen, and I can be heard. I can be accepted.

This is a place of comfort for me—an empathetic place of warmth, of hopefulness, of compassion for myself.

It is a place where I have a voice, a confident voice, a wise voice, a joyful voice.

This is my secure base, my haven, my refuge, my strong tower, my centre.

Finally, it is my secret place. A sacred space where I can meet with God, I can love Him with my whole heart,  I can encounter Him in my own way, and I can take comfort in knowing that He too is unconditionally FOR me!

Kari Jobe sings about this place in her recent song, First Love. on the Album “The Blessing, released September 2020.

[Verse 1]
I’m returning to the secret place
Just an altar and a flame
Love is found here in our sacred space
I hear Your voice, I see Your face

You’re still my first love
You’re still my only one
You’re still my first love
You’re still my only one

[Verse 2]
There’s a table just for You and me
Break the bread and pour the wine
Perfect union, nothing in between
I am Yours and You are mine

You’re still my first love
You’re still my only one
You’re still my first love
You’rе still my only one


I feel my heart beating out of my chеst
I wanna stay forever like this
May the flame of my heart always be lit
I wanna burn forever like this
I feel my heart beating out of my chest
I wanna stay forever like this
May the flame of my heart always be lit
I wanna burn forever like this

You’re still my first love
You’re still my only one
You’re still my first love
You’re still my only one
You’re still my first love
You’re still my only one
You’re still my first love
You’re still my only one

I feel my heart beating out of my chest
I wanna stay forever like this
May the flame of my heart always be lit
I wanna burn forever like this

Oh, forever like this
Forever, forever, forever like this
Forever like this, forever like this, woah
Oh, Your love for me is great
Oh, Your love for me is great
Your love, Your love
Your love, Your love

[Bridge 2] X4
Your love is wild
Your love is wild for me
Your love is wild
Your love is wild for me
Your love is wild
Your love is wild for me
Your love is wild
Your love is wild for me

I feel my heart beating out of my chest
I wanna stay forever like this
May the flame of my heart always be lit
I wanna burn forever like this

Emotional Connection – My New Year’s Resolution for 2021

It is coming up on two years since I began therapy in March 2019. I think the pandemic has driven a lot of people into treatment. Good thing I got a headstart on it! This article is about my progress in processing my emotional pain and the importance of emotional connection in rediscovering my authentic self. You can read the complete article on my blog at

I have learned in therapy that family of origin issues are at the root of most therapeutic problems. I have discovered many interesting facts about my family of origin since I began this process.

My Grandfather’s Nickname

My grandfather and I standing outside his home in Chester Basin, Nova Scotia

My grandfather and I

One of the facts is that my grandfather had a nickname. He was a naval commander during the second world war. He captained a destroyer that escorted supply ships across the Atlantic to protect them from U Boat attack. He had quite the reputation with the seamen under his command. He was known as a strict disciplinarian. He wanted to keep up morale. The seamen referred to him as “Herr Pullen.” His staff experienced him as a formidable disciplined leader like a German U-boat commander.

He lived in a place called Chester Basin, Nova Scotia. I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia. I did not get to see much of him growing up. In the summer of 1977, I happened to be working a job in Nova Scotia. After the summer was over, I spent a week with him at his home. I was eighteen years old.

He liked to sail. He had a small two-masted schooner harboured at his place on the Atlantic Ocean. One afternoon, he invited me out sailing with him. I had learned to sail in high school, and I thought I was good at it, so I accepted his invite.

Two Masted Schooner - Venture


Sailing a Schooner

The boat we were sailing on was a least 40 years old. It was designed and built in the province of Nova Scotia. Made entirely out of wood, it was antique and irreplaceable. My grandfather was proud of his boat and how well he had cared for it. I think he enjoyed showing it off to his grandson. The name of the ship was “Venture.”

It was a breezy afternoon in late September 1977. The sun was shining when he took me out on his boat. He liked to bark orders at me. I managed to do most things even though I was unfamiliar with the ship. It was a special time to be with my grandfather. I was feeling proud to be at his side as he deftly maneuvered the boat around the bay.

After a fantastic afternoon, it was time to return home. My job was to help moor the boat to a buoy in the bay outside his house. Then we could clamber into a dingy and row back to the dock. I had in hand a boat hook. It was a long wooden pole with a bronze hook. I laid down on my stomach just back from the bow of the boat. I had the boat hook stretched out in front of me, ready to catch the buoy as we slowly glided toward it.

As we approached the buoy, I reached forward with the boat hook. I wanted to catch it the first try. Instead, I misjudged the distance and dropped the hook too soon. It fell out of my hands. The bronze hook plunged into the water and disappeared below the surface.

“You fool!” my grandfather shouted! It was a loud, angry shout. It was the kind of cry that he issued to a crew member who had fumbled a depth charge, nearly blowing a hole in the ship!

My heart sank! I had just ruined one of the most important afternoons of my life. I felt terrible! I groaned as I watched the hook sink below the water.

Then something strange happened. The wooden shaft of the boat hook reappeared from the water just enough for me to catch it. I grabbed it, pulled it up, caught the loop in the buoy, and moored the boat.

My grandfather said nothing. I said nothing. I felt terrible that I had dropped it. Even though I had recovered it, I felt I was in his bad books now. I felt his disapproval, and there was nothing more to do about it other than to bear it.

You Fool! – Two Words that shaped my Life

Two words! “You fool!” It sums up the source of so many problems in my life. I can trace my father wounds; my mother issues; my lack of self-esteem; my feelings of worthlessness; my people-pleasing practices; my anxious attachment style; my avoidance of emotional pain; and my numbing out through alcohol, overeating and sexual addiction back to those two words and the family system they represent.

My grandfather and through him, my mother, believed perfection was possible! They thought it was possible to live a mistake-free existence. Their standard was complete one hundred percent perfection. Anything less than perfection was unacceptable. No one in my family could ever achieve it, but that did not make it any less worthy as a goal. There was no grace for mistakes, no mercy for error. You just had to bear your shame.

As a little boy, if I behaved and were obedient, my parents would love me. If I acted out, I got emotional, or I misbehaved, I was disciplined and made to feel ashamed. My parents would often scold me that my bad behaviour reflected poorly on their parenting skills.

To err is human was not true in our family system. If an untoward event happened, you could curse your luck, make a fuss, and perhaps if you were loud enough and angry at yourself enough, you would get a meagre measure of sympathy. Otherwise, it would be best if you bore the ignominy of it in silence. “Suck it up, buttercup!” was our family’s form of empathy.

I am Impenetrable

Suffice it to say. I experienced a lot of emotional pain, much of which I still carry around today, as I have discovered in therapy.

I used to be a believer in the adage of never opening up that emotional “can of worms.” I could not understand why people needed to revisit their past and talk about their emotional issues. I felt pity for the therapist who had to listen to people complain about their emotional pain. That was a nasty business, and I believed it could be safely ignored, or so I thought!

Not until my business failed, relationships soured, strain in my marriage, my children suffered, and I was busted for being addicted to porn did I wake up to the fact that I had a problem.

I asked my wife what it was like to experience me as her husband. She took out a white paper sheet, drew a stick figure in the middle, and labelled it “Mike.” Then she drew a large circle around me and wrote the word impenetrable beside it!

She experienced me as disconnected and closed off from human contact. There was no way into me. I was a hard shell. Efforts to connect with me were impossible. I was impenetrable!

I was not surprised by this description. My family of origin was not known for its soft eyes or caring connection. Having lived various experiences of being vulnerable, making mistakes and being labelled a “fool” for them, I became accustomed to building a hard casing of emotional protection around my vulnerable self.

The Battle for my Identity

Growing up, I was in a constant battle for my identity. My father was controlling and critical. He had no sense of boundaries. He saw me as an extension of himself hence the concern that I behave. He wanted me to be like him. He was a lawyer: smart and dominant. He was the “Alpha male” in our family. Always in control. He never let his emotions show. He could not understand why I would make different choices than him. He was embarrassed by my frequent emotional upsets. Toughen up was his advice to me. Be a man! I felt like I was continually disappointing him.

I attended a boy’s private school. I was the youngest boy in my class. The bullying was without mercy. It was the way of the British private school system. I was the runt of the class. I was insecure. I stuttered. I got emotional when the boys picked on me. I took things personally. I waved my hands about when I talked. It earned me the nickname “Gibble.”

Whether it was at home or school, I was in a constant battle for my identity. With my dad, I was a disappointment. At my school, I was a Gibble. I learned to hide my emotional, sensitive side, my authentic self that desperately wanted to connect with friends and family. The echo of my grandfather’s “You fool!” reverberated through my life, keeping me closed off and distant from others.

Over time I developed coping mechanisms as a “thick skin” to manage the pain. I buried and suppressed all thoughts or feelings that made me feel vulnerable. I became “defended against vulnerability.”

In this state of emotional shutdown, I became self-reliant and independent. I worked for no one. I took orders from no one. I depended upon no one. I connected to no one. I refused to have others label me or tell me who I was. I was the one to decide that, and the way I did that was to attach myself to whatever external thing I was doing that gave me a sense of purpose or meaning. What I did was who I was. I was the owner and operator of my own business.

Lost in the Shuffle was my Authentic Self

This identification worked well enough until my business failed. My identity as an independent business owner lost; I lost a sense of self. My shell was hollow. I felt like there was a hole in my soul where my identity ought to be. I had always defined myself from the outside in. I had not chosen this approach. It was forced upon me by my father and by my school experience. It became how I lived my life. It became who I was.

Some cancer survivors have this saying. “I am not my cancer.” Their battle against the disease is so overwhelming and continuous that it comes to define who they are, as in, “I am a cancer survivor.” Unless they consciously realize what is happening and keep hold of their identity, they are at risk of losing it to the label “cancer survivor.” When they do survive cancer, they find it difficult to move on from that identity.

Unaware of what was happening to me, my struggle for independence from my father and freedom from a bullying school system came to define me. Always having to prove myself to others or my dad became my life purpose. I had to tick all the boxes of the system. Was I a man? Was I doing all the man things? Was I providing for my family? Was I faithful to my wife? Did I have status in the community? Was I a successful business owner?

Whenever I took on a new role in my career, I would think about how it would impress my father or show others my importance. I thought with this new role; I would feel confident I could form relationships. No one could doubt me because I had the credentials or I had the success to prove those doubts wrong.

Lost in the shuffle was my authentic self. Without an authentic self, my wife and my friends had no one to really connect to. I was all about the current role I was playing at that moment. I was cut off from my emotions and my inner world. My authentic self was imprisoned behind a protective system that had as its purpose the goal of keeping my emotions out of conscious awareness. To do that it had to exile that part of me that was my authentic self. I became depressed, isolated and lonely.

This was my state going into therapy.

Like it or not, the Pain surfaces

After two years of therapy and one year of pandemic, my emotional protective system has completely collapsed. “This has been the most painful year of my life.” That statement pretty well sums it up.

It is like I have these beach balls filled with emotional pain. I am trying to keep them all underwater. But it takes a lot of emotional energy to pretend I am okay, and I am getting tired. So I am letting go of the effort.

My pain is surfacing, whether I like it or not. Some of it quietly, Other parts are popping up unexpectantly. Triggers are a problem. I am overreacting to emotional stimuli. I can become sentimental about silly things. Then someone draws a boundary, and I push back on it hard only to realize they are right and entirely justified! Then I feel out of control. I feel I need to shut my emotions down again, or I risk further embarrassing myself.

I want to connect emotionally with my peers, but I fear the pain of abandonment, so I hide my vulnerability. I fear the judgment of my former business associates because I failed to meet expectations. Most of all, I fear my friends and family’s disappointment and those who depend upon me to set a good example as a son, a husband, a father, and a friend.

I have finally been able to open up to my wife. Now she is experiencing me as “connectable.” The circle is now penetrable! Her empathy is helping me.

Letting go of the Pain

When I was seven, I was playing with a bamboo cane. I impaled my index finger with a sharp splinter. It was excruciating.

My mother rushed me to the doctor. When we got to his office, he was busy, so we had to wait.
His partner could see us, so we went to see him. I was crying and making a big fuss. My mother was trying to settle me down. The doctor was talking to her.

I heard a noise from the adjoining room. I saw my usual doctor there motioning for me to come and see him. So I did.

He was hiding something behind his back. I climbed up into his lap to show him my finger. Suddenly, he grabbed it, whipped out a pair of plyers and pulled the splinter out of my finger. I was so shocked I hardly said anything.

I sat in his lap a while, feeling the pain. He let me sit there. After a time, I settled down. I felt like he cared for me. I felt like he understood my pain. When I felt like he understood, I could let it go. I climbed down from his lap, and I went to show my mother. She was surprised and glad to see the splinter gone.

There is No Quick Fix

I have lived 60 plus years with a large splinter in my heart. For this pain, there is no sudden removal—just a long slow process over time. I must plod through it to get to the other side of it.

I wish there were another way of dealing with it. I have tried to push past the pain with a quick fix or a formula or a positive declaration. More often than not, these fixes are a way of bypassing the pain or papering over it rather than removing it altogether.

So, for me, the goal right now is to “process” the pain, connect with it and sit with it awhile. Feel it. Acknowledge it. Validate it. Take a deep breath. Release it. Connect. Share it with others. Let it go. Then repeat.

I am listening to a song by JJ Heller. I connect with her words.

“Loved” by JJ Heller (Youtube Link; Spotify Link; iTunes Link)

Do you dream of a home you never had?
An innocence that you cannot get back
The pain is real, you can’t erase it
Sooner or later you have to face it down, down
You have to face it down

You are loved

Do you keep your thoughts inside your head?
Do you regret the things you never said
You have a voice, you have to use it
You have a choice, don’t let them shut you down, down
Don’t let them shut you down

You are loved
You are loved

Do you feel the ache inside your soul?
You know you’ll never make it on your own
Sorrow is too great for you to hold it
You’re gonna break, why don’t you lay it down?

Freedom comes in letting go
Open up the window to your heart
Freedom comes in letting go
Open up your heart

You are loved
You are loved

You are loved
You are loved
You are loved
You are loved
You are loved
You are loved

Time to give up!

“If you’re tired of starting over, stop giving up.”

Good intentions get you started, #COVID happens, and you give up.

I say, YES! do not give up on intentions like fitness and diet, etc.

Persevere with your intentions. Don’t give up. Keep trying.

For me, right now, though, it is time to give up on a failed business, my medical clinic.

Medi-Kel Walk-in clinic has been in business for 18 years. Now it sits closed and empty. COVID killed the walk-in medical business. Too many risks for people to randomly show up at a clinic for medical services. Patient numbers dwindled with the #stayathome orders. When I was in Quebec, the doctors left, and the clinic closed.

I believe in never giving up.  I stayed with this clinic much longer than a reasonable businessperson would have. I started it with my wife, a family doctor, in 2001. It was my baby!

#Nevergiveup can be a form of denial, though, it can be a way to avoid the pain and put off unpleasant decisions indefinitely.

The pain I am avoiding by not giving up my business is the loss of income, but also the loss of an external reference point for my identity. My business was my footprint in the community.  There is the disappointment of the failure and the shame of broken promises. Then there is an uncertain future. The familiar is gone. Finally, I experience second-guessing and self-doubt, haunted by the question, Am I going to be okay?

I can hide all this pain under the mantra of “never give up!”

Sure, I do not want to give up. But at what cost?

What is the price for people who pay for the losses or must cover the debts or have to clean up the financial mess?

Better to face my reality, suffer the pain and cut my losses.

The brave thing to do is to admit it is time to give up!

Now I get to practice what I learned about self-compassion in my last blog post.

This is me applying some self-compassion to my pain:

Dear Self,

I see you trying so hard. I am so proud of you! You have served your community with your medical clinic. Many people benefited from your sacrifices. I am so sorry it has come to an end like this. It’s okay to give it up now! Medi-Kel has served its purpose. It’s okay to feel sad about the loss of your business. It’s okay to feel angry that COVID happened! It’s okay to feel uncertain about the future. It is okay to grieve. Take all the time that you need to process the pain. You are going to be okay. You will get your needs met. You can trust the process. You will recover. Life will get better. Hope will return.

For more self-compassion scripts follow @Lauraduncanconsulting

A Lockdown Lesson in Self Compassion

Mike McLoughlin in his room in Quebec City

Mike McLoughlin in Quebec City

I spent the first eight weeks of Lockdown 2020 in Quebec City. I am sharing here what I learned about self-compassion that helped me through anxiety and the emotional pain of isolation. This essay is an updated piece from my Facebook post in May. For people’s comments and reactions please visit here. 

Stuck in Quebec City during Lockdown

We own a small condo on the edge of the old city just across from the train station. We visit La Belle Province every summer. In the winter, we rent to students. It needed an update, so I was there in March to complete a renovation during spring break

The day I travelled there, I heard some unsettling news that alerted me to the seriousness of the developing pandemic. The NBA halted their season. In Quebec,  Montreal looked terrible, but Quebec City appeared to be weathering it better.

We had a contractor to prepare the apartment for the installation of a new kitchen and bathroom. Everything appeared to be proceeding normally. Our contractor, with my help, had gutted the place. The bathroom had a new surround tub. There was no kitchen. Crammed into my bedroom were furniture, fridge, microwave and an unplugged stove.

Then everything came to a sudden halt. Premier Legault announced a cessation of all non-essential business activity on March 30th. The sub-trades left. The place was in a shamble.

This surprise came as a significant shock to me. The reno was half-finished. Thinking that it was going to be a short pause, my wife and I agreed that I would stay. But what I thought was going to be a three-week hiatus turned into a two-month stay under trying conditions.

The problem was that I was unprepared for an extended stay. I did not have groceries, and the messaging from public health was Stay Home Stay Safe! I tried to book a grocery delivery, but they were already overwhelmed, and it looked like I could not get delivery for several weeks.

The news on the internet was grim. Older men died from the virus more often. Some family’s lost their fathers and husbands suddenly in the prime of their lives. Here I was, alone in a clutter away from my family with little contact with the outside world. That is when my anxiety began to set in.

Ellen’s advice: “Be kind to yourself!”

At the start of the lockdown, I listened to an Instagram Live event sponsored by Brittney Andreesen of Wildfire Women. She was interviewing a Kelowna Life Coach, Ellen Reimer of Inspired Counselling & Coaching, about her advice during the pause in life activity brought on by the government’s effort to “flatten the curve” and prevent hospital overcrowding.

Ellen had practical advice about maintaining a routine and getting a good night’s sleep, etc. She also emphasized the importance of self-compassion. “These are unprecedented times. Life is not normal, so be kind to yourself,” she said.

Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the suddenness of the changes and the difficult circumstances, anxiety was a problem for me. My nervous system was telling me there was danger. Older men with a specific blood type and underlying health conditions were more at risk. I fit the profile. I have struggled with anxiety over the past year during my return to faith. Now it was back with a vengeance. Being kind to myself was a nice sentiment when life is predictable. My situation felt more precarious than predictable.

Fortunately, through the power of online tech, I was able to connect with my friends at our local church in Kelowna. Interacting with them via Zoom and then watching the online Sunday service was helpful. Kudos to Matti and Jodie Koopman, the pastors at New Life Centre Kelowna, who have poured themselves out being present online. It was a real lifesaver for me.

Sue (my wife) and I connected daily on the phone. We had a family Zoom call every Sunday. I had some “spiritual juice” during the weekly New Life prayer meetings and some encouraging words from the prophetic team as well as a prayer from Alexander’s Life Group. But overall, I felt I was sliding into a deep dark well.

Laura Duncan’s Story

Pastor Matti Koopman reached out to me and asked how I was doing. I told him it had been a rough time and that I was struggling with anxiety. He sent me a link to some YouTube videos featuring a woman named Laura Duncan.

Laura Duncan of Laura Duncan Life Consulting

Laura Duncan

Laura Duncan is from Redding, California. She has a life consulting business that helps clients get to the root of life problems. In a podcast at The Connected Life (episode 24), she shares her story (Spotify Podcast link).

The defining event in her story is that her 31-year-old husband contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease and died after 18 months. During her seven and half years married, they had produced four children. She shares her experience of his slow decline and death. It was a hard story but inspiring.

One point that particularly struck me was her emphasis on the importance of “processing the pain.” For her, there was the emotional pain of the sorrow of losing her husband. Then there was the pain of missing his presence in her life. It was the ongoing pain of loneliness. The memory of her husband and her life with him became wrapped in this pain of loneliness. Every time she came to reflect on his life, she felt the pain of being alone.

Getting through her pain of loneliness, was important not only for herself but also for her four children who had lost their father so early in their lives. Unless she could take care of her pain of loneliness, she could not appropriately memorialize him. Once she processed the pain of her loneliness, though, she could create space in their lives for the positive memory of her husband and the children’s father.

It struck me that emotional pain was a problem for me in a similar way. Over my 60 years, I have accumulated a lot of emotional pain. As a child, my parents did not teach me how to process my emotional pain. Emotions and the feelings that came with them were not welcome in my home. So I have always had trouble identifying and describing my subjective feelings. Without the ability to express these feelings, my emotional pain never got grounded adequately in a healing process. Alone, in a tense situation, I felt the weight of all my unresolved emotional angst. I needed to process my emotional pain.

Stuck in my emotional pain

Listening to Laura Duncan, I realized just how stuck I still was in my pain. Whenever I would think of connecting with someone, I would first check my “pain ledger.” If there were pain unaccounted for in that relationship, I would defer connecting with them to avoid bringing up that pain. In this way, I protected myself from further pain, but I also disconnected myself from essential relationships.

I remembered an incident in my family of origin when this all began. It was Monday, November 17th, 1975. I was 16 years old. A classmate named Charles Taylor had been killed in a car accident two days prior. It was announced at a school assembly the Monday morning. I brought the news to our family dinner table that evening. Since it was my mother’s birthday, my father told me to keep the news to myself so as not to disturb the event. I could not. I broke down, weeping at the table. All the accumulated grief of previous emotional experiences piled up, including another death of a classmate the previous year from leukemia. I made a scene, and I ruined my mother’s evening.

Later in life, when painful events occurred, this pattern repeated itself. An untoward incident happened. I became emotional, I told myself to control my feelings, but I was not able to, and when they erupted, I felt ashamed, so I stuffed my emotional pain.

Thus, I developed a “shutdown” reflex. This “shutdown” reflex was there to protect me from potential pain or embarrassment, but it also meant I did not have permission to have emotions nor feelings nor even needs since they all came wrapped in the shame of a potential meltdown.

This problem was playing itself out during my time in Quebec City. The emotional pain of my isolation and the loneliness had bound itself around me, such that I had difficulty reaching out for help. For those who could help me, each had their own “pain ledger.” This problem was the pain that I had not dealt with regarding them. To connect with them, I felt I had to deal with the pain first. But I did not know how to do that since I had trouble identifying and describing it, so I avoided asking for help.

Laura Duncan’s Big Solution: Self-Compassion

Laura Duncan’s big solution to this problem is self-compassion. She teaches her clients how to be kind to themselves. She helps people find a way to process their pain by practising self-compassion with themselves. According to Laura, self-compassion is how we are with our feelings towards ourselves. It is the ability to practice understanding, acceptance and love towards ourselves.

Self-compassion was a foreign concept for me. Honestly, I was ambivalent towards myself. I did not indulge in self-contempt, but I also was not enamoured of myself. I recently grew a beard so I could look different in the mirror. I felt I was looking more like my dad as I grew older, which was not a positive thing. He had always shaved, so I decided to change my look by growing a beard. Yet, seeing myself in a beard did not give me warm regard towards myself. I was kind of “meh” when I thought about myself.

Eleven year old Mike McLoughlin

Michael McLoughlin in Grade Seven

For people like me, Laura recommends getting a picture of yourself as a child. I found one in an old photo of my grade seven class. I was the youngest boy in the class, so I looked smaller in comparison with my classmates. I liked it because even though I was smaller than the other boys, I saw myself as “plucky.” The point is that seeing yourself as your child version generates a feeling of warm regard towards yourself that enables you to extend compassion to that younger you remembering your moments of disappointment, shame, and rejection.

Mrs. Westmacott my grade three teacher.

Mrs. Westmacott, my teacher in my Grade Three class

Next, you “visit” your younger self in the form of an adult you remember who was kind to you as a child. For me, this was my teacher in my grade three class, Mrs. Westmacott. She was a kind soul, always there to listen to me. She would say things like, “I can see you are trying so hard, Michael. Take all the time you need. I am so proud of you!”

A thought experiment in Self-Compassion

So, I decided to try practising self-compassion by using a thought experiment. I was going to see how Mrs. Westmacott would deal with a younger version of me who was experiencing the loss of his friend.

I imagined Mrs. Westmacott sitting at her desk in my grade three-room. I come up to her in tears. My classmate and friend has just died. I am so sad. She reaches out and takes my hand. She looks into my eyes. She says, “oh dear, I am so sorry for your loss, Michael. What a shock. Your friend has died. You must feel so sad,” she says. “He was my best friend!” I cry, “we were playing together the other day. I miss him so much.” “I understand, Michael,” she says. “I know it hurts. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to miss your friend.” I spend some time crying as she holds my hand. She quietly pats me on the shoulder and stays with me as I grieve.

With this thought experiment, I offered understanding and comfort to my younger self via the memory of Mrs. Westmacott. I feel validated in my feelings. I feel comforted. I feel understood. I feel like Mrs. Westmacott gets how I am feeling. I feel felt. And when I feel felt, I can let the feelings go. I can resolve the emotional pain. I can forgive. I can trust again. I can connect again.

This support is what I needed from my mother and father at that moment at the dinner table. They had no concept of the importance of the validation of emotions. Disconnected from their feelings, it is no wonder they were unable to attune to my feelings. There was no compassion at that table.

Now, however, I have a new memory. A memory I created to extend that compassion to myself. I still have the old memory and the pain associated with it. But now I have a new remembrance of how that pain looks when processed by a caring, compassionate person. The two memories overlay one another. The pain has been “grounded” by the compassion I was able to extend to myself through this process. This experience empowers me to release forgiveness to my parents, who wounded me in their need to avoid their pain. It unsticks me from the unresolved angst of that moment.

Soft Emotions versus Hard Emotions

Laura Duncan has a video on her Facebook page about blame-free parenting. Much of what Laura teaches on that video applies to general emotional triggers, not just those that children generate. She discusses the “hard” emotional reactions such as anger and frustration. It is common to react out of these emotions, but Laura counsels parents to resist responding emotionally. Instead, practice connecting to what is going on inside of you first. These are the softer emotions of feeling lonely, sad, and scared.

Getting to these soft emotions is what I was having trouble doing. As per my family of origin, I get triggered, I get emotional, and then I shut down. Being stuck in Quebec City by myself during a pandemic provoked my anger and my anxiety, and I felt shut down by it.

Following Laura’s instructions on how to process emotional pain, I asked myself what was going on inside of me. Recalling the compassion of Mrs. Westmacott towards my younger self, I was able to connect to that tender spot in me that was in emotional pain from previous traumas. My heart was telling me I was feeling sad, alone, and afraid.

What I needed and what I did to get those needs met

Once I knew what was bothering me, I was able to accept the current situation without being harsh or critical with myself. Acknowledging my feelings empowered me to do something about them. I asked myself what it was that I needed, and then how do I get those needs met?

My heart told me I needed to feel safe. I needed to feel comforted. I needed to feel I was not alone.

Understanding what my heart needed, I acted to address those needs. I stayed in my room so I could feel safe. I booked some Zoom sessions with my Pastor to receive his comfort. Then I shared my predicament on our church Facebook group page so that people could pray for me, which many volunteered to do.

At the start of my lockdown, I heard Ellen Reimer’s advice to be kind to myself, and I wondered how to do that. After listening to Laura Duncan’s story and her teaching, I learned how to do that with self-compassion.

Learning to practice self-compassion is a profound lesson for me. Without it, I would continue to be shut down by my emotional pain. Now there is hope for a way out of that pain. Through self-compassion, I have permitted myself to validate my emotions, to acknowledge my feelings and to give expression to my needs. This lesson in self-compassion is how I will process my emotional pain.

This lesson will change my life. I came to Quebec City for what I thought was a condo reno but has become a renovation of my interior life, an “update” I desperately needed so I can better connect with myself and bring healing to my emotional pain. It will also empower me to better connect with all the essential people in my life.

Postscript: Justin and Abi Stumvoll, who do the Connected Life podcast have an online course called the Compassion Project, I highly recommend it if you want an in-depth approach to learning self-compassion.

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