Shark Tooth Hunting Through Life

DSC_0007 (2)Life and hunting for sharks’ teeth are a lot alike. How? Well, for starters, both take patience! Have you ever hunted for shark teeth? It’s something I began learning about a few years ago. Historically, I am not a beach person. You must step up your sunscreen game, sand gets where it should not, and who really knows what is in that water at this very moment. Oh. You also must find a swimsuit you like. I was more interested in a comfortable pair of jeans and a good hike…..Then I became a parent.

Parenthood changes everything. My husband wanted to visit the beach, so I reluctantly agreed. My child loved it! Let’s be honest. A lot of moms sacrifice their own desires to foster their children’s unique identity. This was one of those moments for me. The beach has become a tradition. Along with this tradition, my appreciation for the beach and the ocean has also grown…. but not a love for swimsuits. I guess you really cannot win them all.

DSC_0377During our time at the beach, my husband began to look for shark teeth. At first it was hard. Through our adventures we happened to befriend a local couple. The wife grew up at this beach and has a rich family history of fossil hunting, which includes shark teeth. My husband would comb the beach then sit with our friend to sort through what he found and decide if there was anything of value in his stash of treasure. The shark teeth were obvious. Other fossils were more intriguing since you must examine them more closely.

In the beginning, I would make sure our child did not get lost at sea while my husband went hunting for fossils. A couple of years ago I decided I would try to share my husband’s interest in finding shark teeth. It was boring. I never found any while he continued to announce his finds. I became frustrated with the process. Then….

I found my first tooth!WIN_20191203_16_27_10_Pro (2)

Even after finding my first tooth I was frustrated and impatient. I found that tooth by accident. By chance. By…. I have no idea. I randomly picked up a black spec and there happened to be a shark tooth attached. My husband and everyone I talked to said it would get easier now that I knew what to look for…except that I really had no idea. I was not about to fess up and tell any of them I was still clueless as to what I was looking for in the sand. My impatience continued. Aren’t vacations supposed to be relaxing?

This year was a little different. It was a record year for finding shark teeth, and I even found a part of a mastodon tooth! As I walked the beach looking for shark teeth, one just appeared at my feet clear as day. I snatched up my find and hoped for an easier year. Another one “appeared”. My hopes rose. Then, of course, my child began running down the beach and I was off to chase her so she would not be lost as sea. Motherhood strikes again! We continued this start-stop routine for more than a mile to the infamous inlet where fossils and shells take refuge during low tide.

WIN_20191203_16_29_31_Pro (2)Talk about aggravating! Well, aggravating for fossil hunters. My treasure box had very little to boast. Throughout the week I continued to look for opportunities to search the beach. I decided to make a commitment to pick up everything I saw that resembled the color of shark teeth when I searched. My eyes needed to be trained in what to look for if I was going to be successful. A lot of junk ended up in my bag. More teeth ended up in my bag too!

Searching allowed time for my thoughts to drift toward how life is like the search for shark teeth. When we have experienced broken attachment, abuse, loss, traumatic childhood experiences, or other types of distress it can be difficult to know what we need to gain, or regain, a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. If a healthy lifestyle has not been modeled for us during our formative years, we may not even know what a healthy lifestyle looks like, or even that our lifestyle may be destructive to our long-term mental or physical health. Finding what we need can become just as overwhelming as my search for shark teeth if we are uncertain what we need.

DSC_0691Looking for shark teeth during high tide versus low tide can also parallel day-to-day life challenges. High tide searching can often be more discouraging or stressful than low tide searching, even if high tide may bring more teeth to us. High tide brings in tumultuous water that requires us to be more vigilant for the roaming teeth and have quicker reflexes to snatch them up before the next wave washes them away. Implementing coping strategies during the stressors of life may mirror this fleeting behavior. Before you are able to snatch up the shark tooth, the window of opportunity is gone.

When the waters are churned up, you must have a quick eye and reflexes to snatch up your treasures. These churned up waters are synonymous to traumatic events, childhood abuse, unhealthy relationships, unhealthy thought patterns, etc. The shark’s teeth are much like the coping skills, identity, self-advocacy, self-esteem, etc. that we need to keep ourselves safe, align with our worldview, or be true to ourselves. When there is too much chaos in our lives, we struggle to hang onto these things before the storm washes them away again.

WIN_20191203_16_27_29_Pro (2)When we begin therapy, there can be an expectation that we instantly get what we need and are able to put it into practice. Unfortunately, the process of therapy is more often like the search for shark teeth. We may need to learn and relearn skills until we internalize them. We may not be able to access our skills right away. It may feel like throwing something at our circumstance until “something sticks”, just like my picking up anything that resembled shark teeth until I trained my eye. There is a lot of error before there is success. There has been a lot of missing my teeth before the window of opportunity closes. But…..eventually……I grasped the knowledge of what I was looking for and acquired less junk in my treasure chest.

The same is true for learning skills in life and in therapy. As the saying goes: don’t ever give up! Each miss is one step closer to understanding what to look for and hang onto.

What’s in Your Cup??

DSC_0805The cup is often the focus of some pretty interesting, if not cliché, metaphors in our society.  Is the cup half full or half empty?  You can’t pour from an empty cup.  Does your cup runneth over?  We also see the cup used for things like disguising the taste of something else: alcohol, poison, medications, etc.  The cup seems to represent many things in our life, which begs the question: What’s in your cup?


DSC_0812To get started with this activity, I
recommend buying a silicon cup if you do not already have one.  Amazon has a nice selection of silicon cups if you cannot find one at your favorite store.  I personally have silicon beakers and an approximately 16-ounce silicon cup.  You may also want a silicone mat of some sort.  You can find one in the baking aisle if you need one.  You will also need: construction paper, flour, water, and a whisk or blender bottle.  You may prefer glue instead of flour.  You decide your preference.  Both works.


First, select the construction paper colors that best represent you.  This could be favorite colors, colors that match your personality, colors that represent your predominant emotional states, etc.  The sky is the limit.  Tear the paper into paper mache size pieces.  Not too big.  Not to small.  Just right, like Goldie Locks.


DSC_0806 - 1Second, combine flour and water until you create a thin paste, or 1:3 ratio for water and glue.  The best way for me to do this is to get a blender bottle and add the water first.  Slowly add the flour a couple of tablespoons at a time until your thin paste forms.  Keep what you are not using in the cup so you can shake it up as needed.  Find a small bowl to pour some mache paste into.  A glass prep bowl that holds a cup or two of liquid is perfect for this. Using glue instead of flour will make the colors turn out more vibrant and provide a different sensory experience.


Third, soak the paper in the paste briefly.  You only need to ensure the paper has absorbed the liquid and is thinly coated.  Then, you turn your silicon cup upside down and begin to cover the outside of it with the paste-soaked paper until the entire outside is covered.  Let dry for 24 hours.  Gently use a flexible tool to loosen the paper from the silicone cup.  This takes some patience as you work toward not ripping the paper in the process.  A silicon cup allows you to bend the cup away from the paper until it is loose enough to slip right off the cup.  My tool is from a kit that is used to make resin products.  See picture for a visual.  You may also want to coat the paper with modge podge and let that dry before removing your paper cup from your silicon cup.


After you have removed your paper cup from your silicon cup, you can begin the process of defining what is in your cup.  Think about all the different aspects of your life.  What is in your cup?  Write these things down on paper and place the pieces of paper in your cup.  Example are: past events that affect your life now (traumatic experiences), attitudes, values, emotions, recurring thoughts, things outside of your control, coping skills, dreams, hobbies, things you are growing in, things that make you laugh, things that you love, etc.  Again, the sky is the limit.  If you have more than what fits in your cup keep writing them down.  You can pile them on top of what you have in your cup and/or set them beside the cup if needed.


If you have more pieces of paper than what your cup can hold, your first action is going to be to determine what is actually in your cup and what are things you wish were in your cup.  If you only wrote down what was actually in your cup and you did not have more than what will fill your cup, your first action will now be to identify things you wish were in your cup and are not there.  Next, identify the things in your cup that you do not want to be there.


DSC_0813Are you ready for a metaphor?  I hope so because we are jumping in now.  In the United States of America, we have a pretty good water treatment system anywhere you go within the country.  That does not mean water will not taste different from place to place.  Afterall, we are quite fascinated with bottled water!  Still, the water is safe to drink due to well documented protocols for treating water to make it potable.  That is not true in every part of the world!  In fact, when I was in Africa several years ago, I experienced the truth in drinking unhealthy water firsthand.  I was so sick!  Fortunately, I was traveling with a team of physicians as well.  The experience was quite eye-opening.  We collectively agreed that what happens in Africa stays in Africa since there were many such experiences among our team.


So, what is in your cup?  Is it toxic? Do you have unforgiveness in your cup?  Do you have anger in your cup?  Do you have unprocessed traumatic experiences that give you nightmares in your cup?  Do you have financial stress in your cup?  Do you have fear in your cup?  Do you have loneliness in your cup?  Do you have isolation in your cup?  Do you have rejection in your cup?  Do you have negative thoughts about yourself recycling through your brain in your cup?  Do you have grief in your cup?  Do you have things in your cup that are trying to cover up, mask, hide, or negate other things in your cup?


DSC_0808How are the things in your cup impacting your life, daily and long-term?  Research demonstrates that stress can be deadly.  Look at the group of things that you wish were in your cup and the group of things you wish were not in your cup.  How can you start filtering what is in your cup?  What treatment process do you need to make what is in your cup healthy for your body?  Do you need to rebalance your nutritional intake?  Exercise more?  Take a break from electronics?  Take a vacation?  Seek therapy from a counselor trained in helping individuals who need help in the areas you need help with or healing from?  How do you start filtering out the toxic things in your life and start adding healthy things from your wish list into your cup?


Water is the most essential nutrient for our body, hence the cup for this activity.  The things in your cup are essential for the life you are leading or want to lead.  Are you filling your cup with the essentials to get you to the life you want to lead?  Are you filling your cup with clean water or contaminated water?  There is no shame in asking for help with filtering what is in your cup.


The Birth of Therapeutic Java

Coffee Ceremony 6Some might see my blog title and think I am a coffee addict.  While I do love my morning coffee routine, and meeting friends for coffee, the title “Therapeutic Java” does not come from an addiction to coffee.  The title was birthed out of the symbolism of coffee in multiple cultures around the world.  It also represents aspects of my worldview.

Coffee Ceremony 2In 2012, I participated in a counseling trip to Ethiopia in Africa.  Our role as counselors was to be available at medical clinics to provide emotional support to woman and children, who are especially marginalized in that area of the world.  The clinic was also open to men at various locations.  This experience is particularly important to the title of my blog since Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee.  Coffee originally comes from Kaffe, Ethiopia.

Coffee Ceremony 1Ethiopia values coffee so much they have a ceremony for it.  During my two weeks working with the clinic, I was honored to participate in several coffee ceremonies that took place in different contexts.  My first experience was at clinic headquarters.  In a coffee ceremony, you grind the coffee beans by hand.  Next, you use a special coffee pot to brew the grinds.  Third, you add sugar to special coffee cups, then poor the coffee over the sugar.  Milk is rarely used.  During a coffee ceremony food is served while frankincense burns.  The importance of this ceremony is relationship.  I also participated in the ceremony at a young woman’s house in an impoverished area of town where it was served along with kolo (roasted barely), a staple food item.  The third place where I enjoyed this ceremony was after a meal at a local restaurant in town.

Coffee Ceremony 3Coffee has a place for building relationships in our culture as well.  We often meet for coffee when we want to catch up with family or friends.  We serve coffee around mealtimes, especially decaf after dinner.  The warmth of coffee helps to organize our brains through sensory input.  It provides emotional comfort as we hold a warm cup of joe on a cool morning or as we watch the sun rise.  Coffee sometimes builds community in the kitchen when we make fancy coffees.

Coffee Ceremony 4My counseling practice is grounded in the therapeutic nature of authentic relationship, much like we experience with a friend or family member while enjoying a cup of coffee.  Through the interpersonal process, I provide authentic reflections, insights into behavior, and therapeutic, corrective relationship experiences.  I also use the language of childhood, play, to restore identity, improve interpersonal skills, and heal emotional/mental health injuries across all ages. 

It is my hope that my office space makes my clients feel as comfortable and safe as they would sitting down to a cup of joe with a trusted person in their life.  In other words, my desire is to provide care that feels like a therapeutic cup of java.

If this approach feels like something you need, please reach out.  Maybe we will even talk about it over a cuppa.


Coffee Ceremony 9


Basics of Boundaries

Talking about boundaries is quite popular these days.  When I see clients that want to work on issues related to boundaries, I often find that they have focused on either, what I call, reactive boundary-setting or they have taken a rigid approach to boundary-setting.  My approach is different.  I have a strong belief that boundaries start within us, not as a response to external demands.  Boundaries should also have a certain amount of flexibility, though not so much that they undermine their purpose.

If we set reactive boundaries it becomes increasingly difficult to be consistent with our boundaries when we are tired, hungry, anxious, or overwhelmed by our circumstances.  It also becomes difficult to be consistent when we set boundaries based on how we feel in the moment.  If today I feel energized and able to deal with a little more stress, so I remove a boundary, the other person will likely be confused, hurt, or angry when I set a firm boundary on a day when I am not feeling so well.  This can lead to a whole host of negative feelings toward ourselves or others that really are not fair to either of us.  This is a system that sets both people up for a failing relationship.

If, however, we set our boundaries based on our core values, we are able to be more consistent in setting boundaries for ourselves and others.  We are able to set boundaries that protect us from entering into situations we later regret.  A good place to start learning how to set boundaries for yourself is to ask yourself:

What is important to me? What things am I drawn to?

After you make a list (or write an essay if that’s your style) for the things that you value, you are ready for the next to continue with the rest of the steps for this project.

Steps to figuring out your boundaries:

1.      Use an 11”X14” piece of paper, or larger, to create a collage, picture, mural, expressive art piece, or whatever you would like to call it that represents your life thus far.  Make your project comprehensive, not just the things you want to remember.  This part of the project needs to be accurate.  Accuracy might make you uncomfortable, though it is essential to a successful exercise.

2.      Use a three-step activity to interact with your creation from step one.  Create a list of things from step one that you want to hold onto.  Create a separate list of things you would like to let go of or change.  Make a third list of things you want in the future.

3.      Use step two to create a list of goals for yourself.  Set your boundaries where they help you achieve your goals and honor your values.

Refer back to your list of what is important to make sure you are being congruent with your values and goals.  Sometimes we make goals based on family traditions or other external factors.  Maybe our values do not match up with these traditions or factors; these can cause anxiety or discontent in working toward our goals.  Checking your goals against your values fosters authenticity.

Unwrenching the Heart

WIN_20180920_16_03_21_ProWhen someone is significantly injured by either repetitive smaller offenses, a single gigantic offense, or repetitive gigantic offense, the left and the right sides of our brain can become “offline” from each.  We stew in our hurt.  We ruminate in our anguish.  We repeat the story of what happened or what continues to happen, and we get on a mental loop.  Sometimes it feels like “if I just tell the story one more time I’ll find some new revelation to fix, repair, restore, or stop the damage”.  “If I just said it enough time, the person will realize how they have hurt me and fix it, repent, become sorrowful”.  Or, “if I say it enough times I’ll suddenly find the answer to feeling better”.

This is the point when people usually find themselves in my office, or a colleague’s office.  I have some bad news.  I do not have a magic wand!  Wouldn’t that be lovely though?  My colleagues don’t have a magic wand either.  Sorry to disappoint.

The good news is that I have an activity that typically helps individuals break the looping behaviors they find themselves experiencing.

Step 1:

Draw a heart, preferably on a red piece of paper, and cut it out.


Step 2:

Write all the things that were in your heart before you were injured on your paper heart.


Step 3:

Tear up your paper heart.


Step 4:

Put your heart back together with band-aids.


Step 5:

Write what you need to put your heart back together on the band-aids.


Reflection Questions:

  1. Does your heart look the same as it did when you first drew it? How about as it did when you wrote on it, before tearing it up?
  2. Does your heart work the same as it did in the beginning of the project?
  3. What happens when you have surgery? What is an important aspect in the healing process post-surgery?  (think about scar tissue and it’s role in future pain)
  4. Did you give up before you put your heart back together? Is that how you typically handle your relational heart in your day-to-day life?

Positive Behavior Reinforcement

Positive Behavior Log:

Attached is a “Positive Behavior Log” that I created to track positive behaviors your child/student has engaged in between visits with their mental health counselor.  The WIN_20180919_12_10_08_Propoint of this assignment is to highlight positive interpersonal experiences initiated by your child.  Children who have been referred to a mental health counselor, or consistently receive disciplinary action at school, often hear a lot about what they are not doing well, and what they are doing well typically takes a backseat.  This log is intended to highlight the good things your child is doing and to reinforce the behaviors adults in their life are trying to teach them.

Commonly children who are continually given attention for undesirable behaviors will internalize a negative self-concept.  Focusing on their positive behavior can alter this negative brain mapping, turning their identity to a more positive self-concept.  With an improved self-concept, a child is often able to develop increased flexibility in how they think about their behavior and their identity.  More flexibility in their thinking often leads to the child being able to more readily separate behavior from identity.


Reinforcing Positive Behaviors:Yellow Die

One of the things we know about reinforcing behaviors is that random reinforcement is more effective than incremental reinforcement.  Rather than setting a weekly target for a certain number of positive interpersonal interactions, it is better to vary the frequency a reward is given.  As humans we typically fall into patterns.  We like patterns.  An easy way to combat this tendency is to roll a die.

In my office I have a big, six-inch yellow die that I use for all sorts of activities.  In this particular case I roll the die to determine how many days in a row the client must have one or more positive peer interactions.  The first goals are small.  For example, an initial goal may be to simply say “hi” to peers.  A second goal may be for the client to ask a peer “Did you do anything fun (last night, over the weekend, etc.)?”  In some cases, I back up the goal even further to an activity the client completes with their school counselor to build a foundation on which the client has the ability to say “hi” to a peer.

As the child improves their interpersonal skills more complex reward systems are put in place.  After basic social skills are mastered, the child will have short-term and long-term goals.  This allows the client to continue mapping positive neural pathways while continuing to challenge the child to build stronger neural pathways.  Did you catch that?  Build the pathway, then strengthen it while continuing to grow the pathways.  This takes dedication!  Eventually, the shorter-term weekly goals will increase the number of weeks between reinforcement, then months.


Short-term Reinforcement:

Short-term reinforcement is a smaller scale reward.  Examples include: 20 minutes of gaming, one 20-30-minute TV show, choose the next movie for family movie WIN_20180919_11_50_42_Pronight, select the next game at family game night, 20 minutes of free-choice time, 30 minutes of craft time, etc.  These activities should be things that may be distractions for your child when completing necessary tasks, like homework.   Short-term rewards should be instantly gratifying yet contained.  The rewards should also be consistent with your house/office/school rules.  The sky is not the limit.


Long-term Reinforcement:

Long-term reinforcements should be things that require more effort to earn.  These rewards will change over time as your child’s self-regulation improves.  Long-term rewards should begin with weeks and move toward months.  These are things that would require more investment from the adult/caregiver overseeing this project.  Examples include: dinner out, selecting a favorite homemade meal, receiving a desired toy, going out for a movie, completing a project at the pottery shop, buying a comic book, shopping for crafting items, etc.  The reward in this category should stir up motivation within the child to pay more attention to what is going on within themselves and with others.  This is a difficult category of reward because it’s like Goldie Locks.  It cannot be too hard or too soft.  It needs to be just right.


Tips for Reinforcement:

*       Highlight the line for which the reward will be given.

*       Roll a die to determine the number of days before a short-term reward.

*       Roll a die for the number of weeks before a long-term reward.

*       Start with short-term rewards until they are met with consistency, then add in short- and long-term rewards.  The final step is to provide only long-term rewards.

*       Create a reward jar full of popsicle sticks with agreed upon incentives.  Let the child decorate the jar.

*       As the child improves self-regulation WIN_20180919_11_54_37_Prothey may not want to redeem a reward right away.  This is great!  Create a reward currency, such as using a one-inch hole punch and cardboard or use marbles (or other safe item) and let them fill a container with the reward currency and choose when they would like to redeem the reward.  This will improve the child’s ability to know their limits and honor their window of tolerance.  It also helps you know when to increase the difficulty of the reward.

Disclaimer: This system can be applied to a myriad of behaviors, not just interpersonal skills.

Positive Behavior Log

Emotional Friendship Bracelet Activity


The first step to this activity is to set up the bracelet that will be used to direct this activity.  Follow the steps below to get started with your bracelet.

1.    Select a sturdy material, such as cardboard, to create a circular cut out.  I used a disposable cup to cut my circle.

2.    Cut 12 slits in the circle, preferably evenly spaced.

3.    Cut equal lengths of your 11 colors of embroidery thread, or other similar thread material.WIN_20180712_18_01_05_Pro

a.    Green = growth

b.    Blue = sadness/depression

c.    Orange = confusion

d.    Purple = anxiety

e.    Grey = frustration

f.     Red = anger/rage

g.    Pink = love

h.   White = peace/faith/spirituality

i.     Yellow = joy/happiness

j.     Black = fear

k.    Brown = clear as mud emotion

4.    Line up the ends of each thread and tie a knot to hold them all together.DSC_0364

5.    Attach a charm to one of the threads, if desired.

6.    Use a pencil to punch a hole in your cardboard circle and gently thread your colors through the hole.

7.    Separate your thread and anchor each color in its own slit.

Now you are ready to begin your journaling.

The first thing I recommend is to pick a charm that represents what you want to anchor your journaling experience with.  In my office I often use an anchor charm or a have my clients find a charm that represents their safe or healing place.  Thread the charm onto the emotion you want your anchor to be attached to as you complete this activity.  Examples are: growth, peace/faith/spirituality, love, joy.  Pick a DSC_0366positive emotion.

You can decide on the pattern you want to use to create your bracelet, as long as you at least move every other string.  I recommend your first bracelet move every third string.  As you pick up a string, journal about the emotion associated with that color.  Spend a minute with each string everyday for a total of 11 journal entries until you get used to the process.  Use the following questions to guide your work:

·        Green = what is something I am growing in?

·        Blue = what is something that makes me sad or feel depressed?

·        Orange = what is something that is causing me, or has caused me, confusion?DSC_0368

·        Purple = what is something that makes me anxious?

·        Grey = what is something that I find frustrating?

·        Red = what is something that makes me mad?

·        Pink = what is something that I love?

·        White = what is something that gives me peace or strengthens my faith/spiritual practice?

·        Yellow = what is something that gives me joy?

·        Black = what is something that causes me fear?

·        Brown = what is something that makes me feel an emotion I don’t know how to name?

 DSC_0372Each week or month change up the question by changing the stem of the question to answer the “wh” questions and how.  Who, what, when, where, why, and how.  As you address each question for the colors, you can search for charms that represent your experience with each emotion and thread it onto that color.  You could also thread charms that represent nurturing or strength as you work your way through this activity.  The sky is the limit when it comes to the charms you may add!  Try to make the charms something that helps you grow in your journey or honors an important memory/milestone.

As you observe your bracelet growing, or help your child observe their bracelet, notice the following things:

1.    Is there a pattern emerging?

2.    Do the colors look separate or intertwined?

3.    Is each thread stronger or weaker than before it was woven together with the other colors?

4.    Are there any colors you did not like?  How do they look woven together with the other colors?

5.    Do you notice how you put positive and negative emotions through the circle (healing place) and something beautiful was created?  It took the good stuff and the bad stuff to create your beautiful bracelet.

Some of you might think: This is great….if I wanted to make a bracelet.  Rest assured that you can modify this activity to meet your lifestyle.  You can use this activity to make a bookmark, wall hanging, or whatever holds meaning to you and can provide reminders of what you need, where you’ve been, or where you want to go.


NOTE: This journal activity utilizes a friendship bracelet technique that can be found on social media or other internet searches.  What makes this activity unique is the interaction between the bracelet and the journaling directives.