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 – A roadmap for happiness and well being: Part 3 – Relationships


Photo by Elizabeth Messina

I have been on hiatus dealing with a family situation of the knucklehead teenager persuasion – though stressful, the experience brought into bold focus the importance in my life of the people I love. Friends, family, my partner. These relationships are defining for me.  I have had some amazing, fulfilling relationships in my life and I have had some one-sided, not-so-good ones. I have worked with many people in therapy who struggled in terms of their interpersonal connections. Relationships can be hard, but they are essential. As Seligman points out, “very little that is positive is solitary.” (Flourish, p.20). Most joy, laughter, and positive experiences happen with other people. Our relationships contribute directly to well-being and are worth the effort. Positively connecting and being kind to others is a guaranteed remedy for whatever is ailing you.

Here is my recipe for growth promoting positive relationships:

Step 1: Find people who are good for you and get close to them. Obviously, it is essential to make good choices about who you develop friendships and romantic partnerships with (I know that is bad english, but with whom just sounded too stuffy). Trust your gut and connect with people who bring out the parts in you that you like the best and who make you feel good.

Step 2: Once you have cultivated connection with these folks, be the finest you in your relationship. Relationships work best when both parties are more worried about the other person than themselves. What I mean by this is that if my focus is to take first-rate care of my friend and my friend’s focus is to take the first-rate care of me – both of our needs will be met and then some. This is true in healthy romantic relationships as well. One way that relationships get out of whack is when people get so focused on themselves they don’t consider the other person.  I have been on the receiving end of much generosity and selflessness in the past week and I can tell you that it had a profound impact on me and I will pay it forward when the opportunity arises.

Step 3: Find ways to integrate more tenderness in your daily life. In his research, Seligman found that doing just a single act of kindness had a profound impact on mood.

Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.

Lao Tzu

So, what are three kind things you could do in the next week?

  • Smile at a stranger in the grocery store (not flirty smile, friendly smile)
  • Offer to carry someone’s bags off the elevator
  • Leave your partner a note in the fridge listing your 5 favorite things about them
  • Call your mom and tell her thank you for all she did for you when you were a knucklehead teenager yourself
  • Think of something else nice and do it for just no reason…

50 Favorite Words – #4 – Grit

grit noun \ˈgrit\
: mental toughness and courage
: firmness of character
: indomitable spirit

I absolutely love Grit.  Grit is the scrappy persistence that can triumph over a whole host of limitations.  Grit is badass.

It is my birthday today, so I find myself reflecting on the things I like about who I have grown into and the ways I hope to continue to evolve and improve.  One thing that has always been true about me is that I am fairly tenacious – turns out this is a good thing. Grit means the fact that I have always been persistent to the point of annoyance and some may say “strong-willed” is a strength!

Exhibit A: Circa 1974IMG_2528


Now, I am not the only one who likes this word – a quick google search will show you it is all the rage right now, and with very good reason. It turns out that the key to success is, you guessed it, Grit.

According to Forbes, there are 5 characteristics of Grit:

  1. Courage
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Endurance (follow-through-it-ive-ness – that is a made up word but you get the point)
  4. Resilience
  5. Striving for excellence (vs. perfection)

Fear not if you read the above list and don’t see yourself in it.  Grit is still attainable.  All of the above characteristics can be cultivated if they aren’t currently strengths for you. What if today, you decided to build your courage?  Courage is simply about managing your fear. What would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail?  Give it a try, and if it doesn’t go well, dust yourself off and try again….


Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

Thomas A. Edison

FIGuring Life Out – A roadmap for happiness and well being: Part 2 – Engagement

I thought I was all ready to write my next post on “engagement” which is one of Seligman’s keys to Flourishing and then I couldn’t quite do it. The irony was not lost on me that engagement is about being so engrossed in an activity that you lose yourself in it and yet I was the opposite of engrossed.  In fact, I have been having a glorious case of writer’s block.  I have cleaned my closet, attempted to teach the world’s cutest puppy a host of new tricks, read countless posts on procrastination, re-watched most of Parks and Rec,  I even gave myself food poisoning (in truth, the food poisoning was an accident) all instead of focusing in on writing.

Then, I went to yoga this morning (taught by the amazing Bee Bosnak).  It was a wonderful class that was just the right amount of challenging.  I had no choice but to pay complete attention and then it happened…(cue the angels singing)…I experienced flow: time seemed to stand still, I lost myself in what I was doing, and I was fully and intensely in the present.  It was a beautiful thing. When I walked out of class I felt an incredible sense of well-being and it has stayed with me for hours…

Flow.  What is it and how do we achieve it?  Flow is that state that we experience when we are fully engaged and engrossed in an activity.  We know from Seligman and other Positive Psychologists that engaging in this way is one key component to well-being.

Here is a rundown of what it entails (Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi, 2002):

  1. You have intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. “Merging of action and awareness.”  What this means is that all of your awareness is engaged in what you are doing. Your aren’t thinking about other things or distracted by things going on around you.
  3. “A loss of reflective self-consciousness.”  This simply means you are so engrossed in what you are doing, you don’t have that voice going on in your head making a commentary on what or how you are doing.
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity.  You feel in charge and competent.
  5. “A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered” (this is just a fancy way to say you lose track of time – like in some amazing movie and when it is over you can’t believe 2 hours have passed).
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding – it feels good in and of itself.

So, here is what I figured out.  Even though I would like to have writing be a glorious, transformative experience, that isn’t usually what it is for me.  It is more of an unpleasant means-to-an-end (I write because I want to find and trust my voice and I hope to share information that may be helpful to others).  So rather than being delightful, writing is actually slow and labored for me.  However, for me, yoga is a joyous, seamless way to mainline mindfulness.  So, I couldn’t find flow by trying to force it, rather, when I engaged fully in something that I love, flow found me.

What most sparks your interest? What activities can you get lost in?

Maybe its…

  • Cooking an elaborate recipe
  • Working with your hands
  • Taking a run
  • Being out in nature
  • Perhaps you are a gifted writer and the process is smooth for you
  • Or you love puzzles and can lose yourself in the Sunday NYT

It doesn’t matter what it is, what matters is that you cultivate it. You make proactive choices to fan your inner sparks. For me, when I can’t write (and every other day), I shall get me to the yoga studio.

What is it for you?

Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life.  Make the most of yourself by fanning the time, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.

Golda Meir

50 Favorite Words #3 – Potential

 po·ten·tial adjective \pə-ˈten(t)-shəl\
 : capable of becoming real

Potential is one of my favorite words because it can serve as the foundation for realistic dreaming.  Potential means “capable of becoming real” – so in its very definition we are assured that the dream is possible.  Now, daydreaming can be seductive.  I have often fallen prey to wishful thinking of how I should…could…would be – and much of it was quite unrealistic.  Most of my clients’ problems with self-esteem relate to this same process – comparing oneself to an unrealistic ideal and then feeling inadequate.

You can instead take a more strategic approach to your dreaming.  If you anchor your dream in what is possible, you make it much more likely that your vision will become your reality. This requires intentional focus.  Thinking through what is actually possible for you; being honest with yourself about where you are today, and where you want to end up.  Owning your limitations or past failures/disappointments can actually empower you to build your best future.

Use this approach to make New Year’s resolutions that are attainable, sustainable and that will help you flourish. Here are the steps:

  1. First, you need to practice radical acceptance of the things that just are what they are. For instance, I will never be an Olympic athlete, I am very unlikely to participate in an Ironman competition, and I like my sleep too much to wake up at 5 a.m. to work out everyday (in fact, I am currently napping). That just is what it is. Radical acceptance is about accepting your present reality and not resisting what you cannot or choose not to change. “Radical Acceptance is about saying yes to life, just as it is.” (Hall, Psychology Today, 2012)
  2. Second, you need to allow yourself to ask “what if?”  Brainstorming a vision for the realistic ways you would like to grow and change.  Conjure a vision that can actually happen, you know you can stick with, and that energizes you.
  3. Third, you need to crystalize your dream.  Say to yourself, “I want to be able to clearly articulate where I will be in a year, 5 years, etc.”  So, taking my fitness example, my vision is that I will feel strong and healthy and exercise will be a regular part of my life.
  4. Fourth, you need to identify the first small step to get yourself there.  For me it was joining a yoga studio that had convenient class times and was close to my apartment.
  5. 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. My second step is that I am going to start jogging for 15 minutes for at least two of my current daily walks each week.  I will let you know my third step once I accomplish this second one….

So….what is your realistic dream…how will you fulfill your potential….what is your vision for your future…what is the first small step that will get you on a successful path for 2015?

FIGuring Life Out – Why we always notice the snag in the sweater…

I am often brilliant at noticing just what needs to be different, better, changed in my life and at straight up ignoring the things that go well.  And it turns out I’m not so special in that way, “We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives.” (Flourish, p. 33).  As soon as we notice a small snag in the sweater we are wearing, it is hard to notice anything else.  We don’t think about how soft and warm and wonderful the sweater is. Don’t fondly recall the wear and tear that led to the snag.  Don’t notice how stylish and adorable we look in it.  We just see the snag…

I actually think that this comes from an “adaptive striving”.  If I want to have all good things in my life, it would make common sense to focus on the things that aren’t currently good so that I could tackle them and make them better.  The problem is that there is always something that isn’t exactly just right and we miss countless moments that could bring us joyful contentment.

So, the first step from Seligman’s Flourish was positive affect – if we want to begin to flourish, we need to shift our focus from all of the things that aren’t exactly how we wish they were, to all of the things that make us feel good and content and happy. (That, by the way, doesn’t mean we don’t strive to improve our lives in ways that we can – we just don’t miss the good while doing this).

There are a number of ways to cultivate positive emotion in our daily lives.  One simple way is to take a moment every evening and write down 3 good things from your day.  I remember when my son was in Elementary School, he was often a bit negative and cranky. He would get in the car and on our ride home would tell me all of the things that had gone wrong in his day. After a while I instituted a policy where for each 1 negative thing, he needed to tell me 3 positive things.  I challenge you to do the same for yourself.  It’s not weird that if you focus on bad a lot you feel bad.  When we find ways to notice the good we feel better.  Simple.

So, my one complaint this morning:

1. I had more teenagers than I would like to count sleeping in my apartment last night and I suspect I’ll be cleaning for hours.

My 3 positives this morning are:

1. One of my kids insisted that we get matching x-mas pajamas and I am currently wearing matching PJs with my two girls.

2. I made an unexpected professional connection last night and I think a cool collaboration may grow from it.

3. I have the cutest puppy on the planet (for Exhibit A see pippa.messina on Instagram).

What’s your list of 3?

P.S. I feel the need to further add that I wish this post wasn’t a holiday post.  This time of year we often think we are supposed to be full of positive affect when we actually feel super crappy.   If you don’t happen to have lots of things that make you feel awesome this week, then I think you should get a pass.  Hide out in bed and watch the entire Harry Potter series.  Better yet, watch Beyonce – Behind the Music, twice.  Or play Candy Crush for hours (buy those extra lives that it is stupid to pay for).  Eat too much.  Feel crappy. It is made up that we are supposed to feel happy on some particular day. Once you are done indulging feeling bad, you may notice that you do have things that you could feel good about.  Maybe you have your health. Maybe your family loves you (even if they are a bit of a pain). Maybe you have a best friend who you can laugh about everything and nothing with.  Maybe there are people who are suffering worse than you are.  If so, focus on the things that can make you feel better. If not, that’s ok too…this too shall pass…

50 Favorite Words #2 – Simple

adjective \ˈsim-pəl\
: not hard to understand or do
: having few parts : not complex or fancy

Ah…yes…simple.  Just saying it makes me feel good.  And yet we often make things so complicated.  Whether it’s the complex set of expectations and criticism we put on ourselves…the labyrinth of mindreading that we overlay on other people…or the overload of our hectic daily lives.  Maybe the answer is simple. There are boundless simple things we can do to transform our daily lives so they are populated with health and happiness.

  • Smile more and you will feel happy – it’s scientifically proven!
    • Other people will smile back; this will help you feel connected.
    • If someone doesn’t smile back assume that they are having a hard day (not that they are being specifically mean to you due to some flaw of yours or personality problem of theirs).
    • This realization will help you feel empathy and show the other person kindness (which eventually may help them to smile…).
  • Take 15 minutes to indulge in your favorite treat (a bubble bath, decadent reality tv…), even though you have a ton of work to do.
  • Make yourself a cup of tea and let it steep so that it is just how you like it.
  • Take an extra few minutes to cook dinner for yourself the way you would if you had company coming over.
  • Click on a silly video that shows up in your Facebook feed (laughter is really good for you – this is also scientifically proven!).  Click here to see one of my all-time favorites.
  • Say one nice thing to yourself every morning when you first wake up.
  • Tell the people in your life – your friends and family – you love them each time you talk on the phone to them.

Simple. Simple is good.

Food For Thought: A roadmap for happiness and well-being


One of my goals as an adult is to spend as much of my time as possible feeling good in my skin. Most of the folks who come to see me in therapy share a similar goal. Though it is often easier said than done, there is actually a wealth of research out there to help us feel happy, fulfilled, and generally better about ourselves.  Toward this end, Fig & Birch is intended to give practical application to many of the new trends and research findings in the fields of psychology and wellness to help readers flourish across all domains of their lives.

Martin Seligman is a researcher and author who I have always respected.  He is the father of the field of Positive Psychology and his book Flourish (Free Press, 2011), struck me as a useful tool to concretize steps one can take to begin to transform their life to one that best matches their vision. Over the next few weeks, I will pull out some key concepts from his theory and explore some ways we could all apply them to our lives. For anyone interested (or too excited to wait), this book is a wonderful resource with numerous exercises and applications of theory – so if you are so inclined I encourage you to buy it and read it for yourself.

In a nutshell, Seligman proposes that well being (which is our ultimate goal as humans) is comprised of 5 elements: 1. Positive emotion; 2. Engagement; 3. Meaning; 4. Accomplishment; 5. Positive relationships.  Each of these areas can be cultivated and honed by proactive choices. Indeed, Seligman’s research has demonstrated that, with agency, we can increase our own well being in a meaningful and sustainable way.  My plan is to use the next couple of weeks dig into each of these domains.

The hecticness and indulgence of the holidays often culminates in grand plans for how next year will be much different (manifest in New Year’s Resolutions which, sadly, according to Forbes, only 8% of us will actually achieve). So I thought this was good timing to help us frame our goal setting – this will help use embark on 2015 with a clarity of what proactive steps we want to take.

The first step, if our goal is to flourish, is to identify what we need to strive for to make this so. Well, there are lots of interesting elements for us to explore, but according to Seligman, it all starts with identifying what makes you really happy? (I know this sounds a little like pop-psych, but stay with me, it turns out it is a really relevant question.) Do you know the answer for you? If yes, what proportion of your waking hours do you spend engaging in or pursuing the key to your happiness? What is one specific thing you could do every day to amplify it?


50 Favorite Words #1 – Brave


brave adjective \ˈbrāv\
: feeling or showing no fear : not afraid

I love the word brave, but I disagree a bit with the definition.  I believe brave is acting as if one does not have fear (even if one is petrified) – it is a refusal to allow fear to determine our choices.  Brave does not = not afraid.  In fact the times of greatest bravery that I have ever shown have been times that I have been flooded with a lot of anticipatory anxiety/fear and self doubt.  Now…once on the other side of the brave choice, the overwhelming sense of empowerment and fearless calm is quite distinctive. To trust oneself, to do what we know is right (for us) or more globally, that is brave.  To feel fear is normal, adaptive…we should be worried about ourselves if we operate without a healthy level of fear.  That said, what would you do, try, experience, express if you refused to let fear define your choices? The possibilities are endless….

[Stay tuned in the coming weeks, more to come….]