About Fig & Birch

Jennifer Messina, Ph.D. author of Fig & Birch is a clinical psychologist and mother of 3. Through her professional and personal experiences she has learned a lot about wellness, transitions, and strategies to become our most fully actualized and content selves.

FIGuring life out: Claiming your now, even if it isn’t awesome

11258042_1654750428089634_5707135923598967093_nI have had to take a brief hiatus from writing to deal with an unpleasant situation.

I am a big proponent of mindfulness, being fully present in the moment, and working to avoid ruminating about bad things that may or may not happen down the road. Mindfulness sounds so wonderful (and there is a lot of research that tells us it is actually good for you). But as it turns out it is quite a bit easier to practice mindfulness when your moments are lovely. It is easy to stay in the now when the now is awesome. But how can we do this when now isn’t quite so awesome?

I haven’t really figured that out yet. I spent most of my not so awesome moments in the past two weeks alternating between escapist fantasy (fueled mostly by amazing vacation photos that pop up daily in my Facebook feed) and catastrophic worry about the possibility that the unpleasant situation I was dealing with would go on and on and on.

So I can’t tell you from my recent personal experience exactly how to practice mindfulness every minute of the day. But, what I can tell you is what I learned from the recent challenges.

  1. Small things aren’t as big as they can sometimes feel.  When you deal with something difficult, it can put everything in perspective. The truly important things rise to the surface.
  2. No feeling lasts forever (not the really good ones or even the really bad ones). I re-discovered the fact that if you can ride the wave of your moments – rough stuff will pass, there are respites, pockets where things are ok. Realizing this fact does make it easier to claim the less awesome moments.
  3. It is the range of experiences that brings a richness to life. The lowlights enable us to really appreciate the highlights.
  4. Challenging experiences, like laughter, connect us. The shared experience. The enduring together. The gratitude for being on the other side of it….all of these things strengthen the fabric of the connected relationships in our lives.

So, although I am counting the minutes to my next phase of awesome moments in which to showcase my mindfulness talents – I am stronger for the last two weeks and full of gratitude for all that is good in my life…


50 Favorite Words – # 9 Quest

11193259_1644788485752495_8484246335348647505_n-2quest noun \ˈkwest\
: a journey made in search of something
: a long and difficult effort to find or do something

I am on a quest. I am on a quest to feel good in my own skin. To be able to accurately give myself feedback, while taking in positives and successes.  To have the people in my life see the wonderful things in themselves and to feel confident, happy.

It seems silly that this would even be an issue.  But in reality, most people are quite unkind to themselves. 97% of women have negative body thoughts, daily.  The women who I work with, who I am friends with, and related to all share one thing in common. They speak to themselves in a way that would be absolutely unacceptable if we heard someone else say such things to them.  Not just about their bodies, but about all sorts of things. It’s not just women, many men who I work with and know have lots of unkind things to say to themselves as well.

In the field of psychology we know a lot about the relationship between attributions (what you say to yourself) and how you feel.  It is not surprising then, that lots of folks spend lots of time feeling not so hot.  The problem with a lot of negative attributions that people make is they feel true – when often they are just old and familiar and that makes them seem true.

What we need to do is learn how to write a new script.  For some folks, the negative self talk is sort of a reflex – but they know better.  If this is you, all you need to do is pay attention to what you are saying to yourself and when you hear the negative come in replace it with a positive (accurate) statement instead.

For people whose negative self talk is more entrenched (maybe an internalized voice of a critical parent; maybe the manifestation of anxiety or depression) this task is more challenging, but still doable. In these situations it can be hard to come up with the positive thought to replace the negative one.  If this is your situation, I invite you to ask 3 people who you love and respect to tell you their 3 favorite things about you. Then pick the thing that comes up the most or really resonates and have that be the replacement thought (it will be harder to discount since it came from someone who you respect and therefore must be quite wonderful and wise).

What if the first step was that simple? Today, decide to say something nice to yourself. Something small and true, but kind.  Say it over and over and over until you believe it. Tomorrow, do the same thing.  Each day, be on a quest to make the proportion of kind self-talk greater than the critical, harsh inner voice. Notice how much better you feel….

50 Favorite Words – #8 Patience

I have a confession to make. I am not patient. In fact, I am markedly impatient. I obsessively check my phone when I am waiting to hear about something or from someone, I tap my foot when I am waiting in line, I check my phone when I am waiting in traffic, I snack while making dinner, and I have been known to peek at a present. I often focus so much on the potential outcome, I miss the process, the joy of getting there. Patience is less one of my favorite words and really more an aspirational goal.

Here is why I wish I were patient:

1. As soon as what I’m waiting for happens I’m on to the next thing. I think that overall my drive, planning and focus have served me well. But in my constant quest for meeting my goals I don’t spend much time celebrating or showing gratitude at each stop on the way. I skip the chance to savor small successes.

2. I miss many special moments while trying to get to the one I have in mind,thereby missing possible pleasant surprises on the way.

3. At times when I’m impatient, my intensity limits my very process. When I am patient, instead of trying to rush my insights or my writing, I just relax, let it be. During those rare moments, I sometimes happen upon an unexpected gem.

4. It also turns out that patience is really good for you. The physical and emotional toll of being intense, anxious, jacked up all the time is significant. The power of a few calm, yoga-breath moments in your daily life goes a long way.

Kind, sweet patience. That is what I hope for. For myself, as I strive to meet my personal goals. For my partner. For my children as they grow into themselves. Patience…it’s worth a try.

“Genius is eternal patience.”


Ummm…I’m pretty sure I’m a cross between an avatar and Dr. Ruth

One of the cooler things that has come out of the otherwise stressful process of trying to network and get established in NYC, is that I have met some amazing people doing some amazing work.  As part of this process, I got connected with Bridg-it.  Bridg-it partners with schools, communities and organizations to address bullying and harassment.

I am deeply passionate about reducing violence of all kinds and promoting safe and healthy communities.  I spent a number of years working for the amazing Green Dot Violence Prevention Strategy but when I moved to NYC I shifted my professional focus to the intervention side and much of my writing to broader issues of health, happiness, and all around flourishing.  So…it is very cool to be able to partner with Bridg-it and do a small part to support their important work. Toward that end, I am serving as a member of their advisory board and doing a monthly blog for them.  But that isn’t the exciting part. The exciting part is they made a cartoon version of me – the concerning thing is that the cartoon is clearly better looking than I am.  Check it out….



FIGuring life out – Eye of the beholder…


Photo by Elizabeth Messina

How is it possible for two people in an interaction to have such profoundly different experiences? Do you ever feel like your life is like one of those sitcom episodes that shows the same events from different characters’ perspectives and the humor is in how dramatically different each depiction is?

If truth be told, reality is most likely on some continuum between the two perspectives.  We can decide we are right and can choose conflict and distance…we can cave…or we can find a more balanced perspective that can help us understand and be understood.

The challenge is to find the balance between trusting your own gut and expectations and perspective taking.  We are all skewed by the frame that we bring from our history, personality style, etc. This can be intensified by strong emotions. The act of stepping outside of our own world view and taking someone else’s perspective can feel nearly impossible – but it can go quite a long way in improving the quality of our relationships.

At the end of the day, we really just want to be understood and loved in spite of our flaws. By stepping outside of ourselves and considering the perspective of our partners we give them that gift. This in turn makes it much more likely that they will reciprocate…

50 Favorite Words #7 – Livid


Livid. This is a very important word. I know it may seem like somewhat of an unlikely choice with all of the mindful happiness I routinely share my thoughts about. But I think being able to feel and (appropriately) express legitimate anger is another key to fully self-actualized living—being able to feel our feelings, even the ugly ones.

Maybe it is because I am a woman, and women are often discouraged from expressing their anger. Maybe it is because I am a fan of being fully present in as many moments of my life as possible. Maybe it is because there is something inspiring about caring passionately about something. About being so invested or principled or connected that an injustice can resonate deeply. Feeling livid. Having the intense physical reaction that flushes our faces. There is an aliveness to it. There is power in anger that can lead to positive change.

I am not talking about needing anger management kind of anger. I am not talking about being unkind to others in how we express our strong feelings. I am talking about being connected to our feelings and really feeling them. This type of anger can help us recognize and respond to things that are unacceptable in our world. It can help us realize when a pattern in our life isn’t serving us.  It can help us realize when a relationship we are in is not good for us.  Being livid is your body letting you know something is not right. Feeling it and recognizing it are the instrumental first steps to doing something about it.

Being livid can revitalize, mobilize to action, help us understand what matters to us at our core. Maybe it’s a toxic relationship in your life that you recognize you want to end. Maybe it’s a negative self voice that keeps you down that you will no longer tolerate. Maybe it’s a broader injustice and you want to do your part to change it. Your emotional reaction doesn’t have to translate to you expressing your anger at someone. It can instead run through you as fuel to empower you to take the steps you want to take. Steps to change your world or the big world around you.

What matters enough to you that you would be willing to let your blood boil a little? What if you were allowed to feel your anger (go into a wind tunnel and scream)? How would you use this fuel to make changes in your own life?  How would you use it to change the world?

FIGuring Life Out – A roadmap for happiness and well being: Part 5 – Accomplishment

As a reminder, my first project with Fig & Birch, was outlining a pathway to Flourish. This post is the last piece. As we wrap up the focus on Seligman’s pathway to well being, I want to do a quick review of the PERMA model:

P=Positive Affect





The final component to well being is accomplishment. Striving to make ourselves better in some way. Mastering a skill…Achieving a goal…And, taking the time to acknowledge what we have achieved. This can contribute to our ability to flourish. Not in a blinding ambition sort of way, but in an I accomplished something that mattered to me sort of way. The steps to accomplishment can be broken down:

1. Ask yourself “What if?” Identify a meaningful dream for yourself. Conjure a vision, one that energizes you and you know you can stick with.

2. Crystalize your dream into a specific set of goals.

3. Identify the first small step to achieve the first goal. Take the first step and follow-through, even if pieces of it are tedious or hard for you.

4. Lather, rinse, repeat…As you achieve each small step you identify for yourself, you will feel better and stronger and will then be fueled by your own success. You will build on this new foundation and step-by-step make your vision a reality.

5. Allow yourself to take your success in. Feel pride in your accomplishment. Feel gratitude for those who helped make it so.

I have, for many years, had the dream of writing a book. But I felt (and sometimes still feel) quite shy about it. In order to actualize this dream, I decided to start with the goal of building a blog that more than 3 people who aren’t related to me read. The fact that I have launched Fig & Birch, that slowly but surely I am building a base of readers, and that additional collaborative writing opportunities are growing from this project feels like a huge accomplishment.

I must pause to express gratitude for my sister, Elizabeth Messina, who helped me create my vision, generously allows me to use her images and is personally responsible for almost all of the exposure I have gotten; my partner who consistently believes in me; my sweet mom who takes the time to proof read all of my posts before they go live; and you for taking the time to read this vulnerable creation of mine.

What is your DREAM? What will give you a sense of Accomplishment and contribute to your ability to flourish?



50 Favorite Words – #6 Alchemy

Sometimes it’s not fun having kids – they fight and are rude and I daydream that I am in a Calgon commercial.  Sometimes it’s kind of magical.  One of my favorite memories ever is the Christmas of 2013.  It was the first holiday since my divorce that I had my three kids all to myself. I had a little one bedroom apartment and we didn’t have our furniture yet, I just had an air mattress in the living room. The four of us lounged around on the air mattress and watched every holiday movie you can think of (Christmas in Connecticut is my personal favorite).  We even had our Christmas dinner picnic style.  It was lovely, and connected and wonderful.  Why did it come together this way? I have no idea.  It could have just has easily been miserable: cramped in a small space with lots of complaining and fighting and crankiness.

But it wasn’t miserable, it was wonderful…


Photo by Elizabeth Messina

I attribute it to Alchemy. Those special, extraordinary moments when things just click and are right. It’s easy—an instant connection with friends, a romantic partner, or family.  It’s infectious laughter that makes your face hurt and later you don’t remember what was so funny. I don’t know why it happens. But I know that when it does it has a bit of magic to it – and it is advisable to free fall into the moment lest it pass you by.


FIGuring Life Out – A roadmap for happiness and well being: Part 4 – Meaning


Photo by Elizabeth Messina

I took last summer off and spent a lot of time with my kids. It was amazing. I felt full and happy. Soon after they went back to school, we had an unexpected move to NYC.  When I got to New York, I couldn’t at first work as a therapist because I had to wait for a New York State License (which felt like 6 eternities).  Initially, it was fun and exciting to be in the city without something structured to do.  I walked all over the place, ate lots of good food, and taught myself how to ride the subway.  But then, it got harder to do those things and before I knew it I was watching back to back Law & Order SVU episodes.  Not like a one-day fun TV binge, more like the curtains were drawn and I was watching Benson & Stabler all day, every day.  Not only did this venture make me feel sure that everyone I intersected with when I did leave my apartment was going to kill me after doing a host of horrible things to me, but my mood was terrible – my sense of well-being was nonexistent.


Our obligation is to give meaning to life and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life.

 Elie Wiesel

I need not look far to understand what was going on with me then.  My daily life was missing meaning (the M in PERMA – positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment). According to Seligman, it’s pretty simple, if we generally feel that what we do in our lives is valuable and worthwhile, we feel happier and are on our way to flourishing.  I found this to be very true for me.  Now that I am back doing clinical work I feel a rich sense that I am doing something worthwhile, contributing outside of myself and my sense of well-being is quite high.What gives your life meaning? If you read this and instantly know the answer, then you are on the right track. If you aren’t so sure, it’s worth exploring. It isn’t “one size fits all” and there isn’t a single, right answer. But knowing the answer for yourself is essential for your well-being.  It may be something big (you working to find the cure for cancer) or something relatively small (you volunteer an hour a week at the Animal Shelter). You may find your meaning through your work, through recreational activities, in church, or by caring for others.  

We don’t need to make this complicated. It can really be quite simple. What matters to you? What contributions can you make to the world that feel worthwhile to you? Finding a way to belong to and serve something that you believe is bigger than yourself, that’s the key.

50 Favorite Words – #5 Self-sufficient

Photo by Elizabeth Messina

Photo by Elizabeth Messina

Imagine what daily life would be like if you were supremely confident in your own resources.  You would walk around every day with a presence that would draw others to you, you would face new challenges with excitement, you would say things to yourself that would have you beaming and holding your head high…

Self-sufficient.  I’m enough.  It sounds nice.  Being self-sufficient doesn’t mean be a selfish, narcissistic, jerk. It can mean being a boundaried, confident, and loving adult.

Finding this word took a long time (literally and figuratively). I was looking for a word that was like selfish (considering oneself) but that wasn’t pejorative. But in the English language, considering one’s needs is apparently a bad thing because it connotes not caring about anyone else. Unfortunately, that deep seeded belief that it is “selfish,” inconsiderate, indulgent to consider one’s own needs leaves many of us caring for others while utterly disregarding ourselves. In fact, many of us take it even one step further, we are harsh and critical of ourselves, have an internal dialogue that we wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else (more on this in future posts…).

As I write about relationships and caring for others, I feel compelled to pause and reflect upon the relationship we have with ourselves. There is a reason why we are instructed to secure our own oxygen masks before we help someone else.

There are three main reasons why treating yourself like your best, most favorite person makes good common sense. First, it turns out that you are the one sure thing in your life. You will be there with yourself until the end. Developing a really strong positive relationship with yourself will make that journey a much more pleasant one. Second, it will help you to be much more discerning in your choices about who you develop outside relationships with. When we feel crappy and desperate we aren’t super selective. The last reason, is that thing we have all heard and sort of know (even though it sounds pyscho-babbly) – to take in love from others we have to first love ourselves.  Having a positive relationship with yourself is truly a pre-requisite for a positive relationship with anyone else.

So, how do we get started? Just like in romance, what if you swept yourself off your own feet.  Be your own best partner and the kindest loving friend.  Do all of the sweet things for yourself you wish someone was doing for you:

1. Tell yourself 3 things you like about yourself (really think about it, be specific).

2. Make yourself a special meal – nothing but the finest ingredients (what if you actually treated every meal with yourself as if it was special – not fancy, but special).

3. Run yourself an extra bubbly bath and bring your favorite magazine in for a soak.

4. Organize a lunch with all of your favorite friends.

5. Get a monthly pass to your favorite yoga studio and give yourself permission to go almost every day.