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.”


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?



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.


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…

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

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…

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?