The Gift of Your Story

BY Grace Hallock @ The Cypress Counseling Group

In the counseling world, therapists have the privilege of hearing others’ stories--their dreams and deepest desires along with dark moments of heartache. Essentially, we hear the most sacred parts of their being.

These stories, as challenging as some chapters are, are as unique as a thumbprint and truly help define us.

Counseling is about gaining insight and understanding of our stories so we have better self awareness and self compassion. 

Clients often wonder about my personal story and why I believe in the counseling process. I must admit, when I thought about writing this piece, the task of summarizing my story seemed daunting. I certainly can’t include the nitty gritty in 500 words or less, and like I tell many of my clients, I won’t be able to tie a pretty pink bow around it either.

So although it might seem tidy and contained, my story is its own organism, constantly evolving and often elusive. I’m sure that many of you can relate. 

I characterize my childhood as somewhat broken and disjointed as my parents contributed to the staggering divorce statistics in the US. My circumstances left me feeling abandoned, neglected, and never quite good enough to deserve unconditional love. Little did I know that unconditional love can never be earned, just as God’s grace isn’t based off what we do or don’t do. 

Fast-forwarding a bit to young adulthood, I (of course) thought I had it all figured out.

I vowed to leave my past in the past—or shoved back in the cobwebs of my brain—and focus on myself and my future.

My goal was to graduate college and break out into the real world as a successful, independent woman. And let me tell you, I was a complete control freak and still have to pull back the reins on my type A personality to this day…I’m working on it!        

Then in 2010, the real world didn’t seem so rosy as I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I approached the “c” word as something to conquer, squash into oblivion, and basically check off my to do list. Surgery…check. Radiation…check. No thyroid function…not ok!! After I lost my thyroid, Pandora’s box essentially opened as I was met with a myriad of negative side effects, including severe anxiety, depression, hormonal imbalances, fatigue, digestive issues, and complete brain fog just to name a few. I had trouble functioning in daily life and would literally wake up in a panic and go to bed feeling like I just stepped out of a boxing ring.

The illusion I had created of my perfect, happy life was shattered, and when the cracks started forming in my very foundation, the junk I buried long ago came to the surface.

I heard once that it is only in the valley that the flowers grow, and I believe this to be true.

In my broken and helpless state, I sought counseling and was able to process through some of my trauma wounds. As time passed, I began to make positive changes and learned vulnerability, acceptance, and self compassion. I started to see myself as God sees me and was relieved that I could just be real, flaws and all. Though I’m still a work in progress, I look forward to a lifetime of learning and growing. I’m so grateful for the gift of counseling, and I hope to share that gift with others. 

Grace Hallock, M.A., LPC-MHSP (Temp), NCC

Humans & Trees: Two Peas in a Pod

BY Elizabeth DeVaughn @ The Cypress Counseling Group

I love hiking. And nature, and being outside. I just, love it. It’s where I find restoration and a sense of calm. When my clients and I talk about self-care, I’ll usually mention hiking as one of my main self-care tools to give some examples of what self-care can look like.

So when I found the book, “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben while vacationing last fall, I was like, BAM. Purchased.

Now, a note about my relationship with books. I have about 18 book by my bedside that I’m reading all at once, little snipits/chapters here and there. I’m not sure what that means, but I won’t analyze that. Today.

So last night as my husband and I settled in for bedtime, I picked up this book for the first time. I was so excited to start reading. I LOVE trees, always have. From climbing trees constantly as a kid growing up in rural TN, to finding such rich symbolism in them as I’ve walked through my own healing journey, as well as with my clients through theirs; I love them. I opened the book and read the forward. And then promptly put the book down because I had started crying. Like, big tear crying.

I cried for a minute, and then started to chuckle. As I wiped my tear-soaked eyes and cheeks, I glanced over at my very-asleep husband, who was dreaming sweetly and therefore oblivious that his wife was crying because trees sometimes feel sad and lonely.

That imagery still makes me giggle.

Now, the reason for the crying. Even just the short bit I read of this book overwhelmed me with information about trees – actually, forests – and how similar we are to them. The author has spent over 20 years studying and carefully observing forest patterns. Apparently, trees, quite literally, live in community with each other. They are extremely social. They “smell” and “taste.” They care for each other and pass nutrients on to one another, even to the point of feeding tree stumps that have been cut down so as to keep them alive (that’s when the tears started). They communicate and fend off threats. They need each other in order to create a sustaining environment. They live in family groups. And when trees live in isolation, they don’t live as long or as well. When trees aren’t in community – especially when commercially farmed – they lose the ability to communicate, to be in relationship; they even become “deaf and dumb” (that’s when I had to put the book down).

All I could think was, well first, how much I want to hug and take home every tree that’s every felt lonely and isolated. I’ll plant them all in my back yard.

I’ll let you know when I accomplish that.

After THAT, all I could think about was how similar we as humans are to trees. Like trees in a forest community, we need each other, desperately. Our most basic biological design is to be in community. And like trees, we suffer when we’re without it. We become anxious. Depressed. Our health suffers.

We’re not designed to be isolated.

Among many unfortunate – and untrue – messages our Western society tells us is that we should need people less than we do. We’re told that we should be independent. That while relationships are good, what we really need is to be able to meet our own needs in the end.

Now, I hope I didn’t lose you just then. Independence is a great thing; we’re just sent the wrong message on how we attain it. We become our most independent, thriving, creative, innovative, passionate selves when we are firmly rooted in safe, secure relationships. Research abounds on this. Dr. Sue Johnson, the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, tells us that we flourish in healthy independence when we are effectively dependent on others.

Quite a different idea, isn’t it?

Of course, there is also ineffective dependence on others. This is where we see unhealthy relationship patterns, from obsessiveness, disconnection, all the way to the extremes of abuse.

Basically, we absolutely flourish when we’re deeply connected in relationship. We are our brightest, most authentic, fulfilled selves. When we’re securely connected in relationship, our most basic human needs of being deeply seen, heard, and understood are met.

And from there, the sky’s the limit for us.

Humans and trees.  Two peas in a pod, indeed.
Elizabeth DeVaughn, M.A., LPC-MHSP


BY SAMANTHA STRADER @ The Cypress Counseling Group

“Trauma” was a word that was hard for me to use for a long time. It seemed very big and very heavy, something reserved for WWII vets and refugees of war torn countries. While those things definitely count as trauma, I’ve also come to understand the word in a much more intimate and nuanced way. I define “trauma” as anything that rips the carpet out from under our feet, anything that shatters our hope and belief that the world is a good and safe place. These experiences inherently make us feel isolated, ashamed, and unsafe in a dangerous world. So it makes sense that people respond with things like being hyper-vigilant and untrusting of others. These are ways that our minds and bodies try to protect us from such a wound ever happening again. But the trade-off is that a lot of time is spent being exhausted, lonely, angry, or afraid. All of these feelings and responses are normal, and valid; they are part of our authentic truth. 

And they are not our whole truth! There is also radical hope. Radical hope is not an eyes-closed denial of the truth, or even an assertion that “everything will work out for the best”. Instead, it is accepting that change is inevitable, and the way things are today is not the way they will be forever. Rebecca Solnit says in her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, “I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for a series of ongoing acts of defiance…There is no alternative, except surrender.”

Radical hope is made of resilience in the face of loss, not innocence and naivety, or even faith. It is a deliberate choice, an act of courage.  

The truth is, there is no “going back” to before a traumatic experience. We are changed by our experiences. But, we have a way forward, and a big say in how we decide to be changed. There’s a reason there are so many metaphors and myths of heroes striding through fire, and what makes them heroes is not that they come out unscathed, but that they are transformed, stronger than before. We can be the hero, or heroine, of our own story. When we know that the future is ours to create, we shoulder the burden and the freedom of radical hope.

A life worth living is possible, one with joy and celebration, open and safe relationships with others, and peace.

That future requires us to show up, to do the work, and to choose the defiance of radical hope.

Samantha Strader, M.Ed., NCC

Running on Empty? 6 Steps Towards Finding Balance in Your Life

BY CHRISTINE FINNEGAN @ The Cypress Counseling Group

I don’t know where it first started for me. That belief that I must constantly be doing something for others in order to feel of value and worth to this world. Maybe it’s something that was subconsciously passed down to me through the generations of my family; or, maybe it was just an unspoken truth that I saw modeled from a very young age.

Whatever the origin, I operated off of this truth for a very long time. Even now, I catch myself falling back into this old pattern of behavior; like a worn in pair of sneakers- so easy, so effortless.

“Do more. Be more. Give more. Not enough.”

My thoughts run wild from the moment I wake to when I go to bed at night. Even then, instead of counting sheep, I find myself making to-do lists in my head. What else can I achieve? What more could I be doing? What expectations can I fulfill? How can I prove myself?

I share this very human and vulnerable side with you, because I want you to know that you are not alone in feeling this way.

Holding these expectations for yourself and the world is not all bad. If it were, many people would not operate this way. By being this way, you in fact become a very driven, successful, compassionate, and generous person.

You are the person others go to when in need.

You climb the career ladder fast, because you become known as the person that gets tasks done quickly and efficiently- always willing to go the extra mile for your coworkers.

You’re the type of mother that signs up for numerous volunteer tasks at your child’s school; they call you first because they know you care and will put your whole heart into the task.

At church, you are asked to participate in many ministry projects; because once again, you are quickly pegged among others as the type of person that won’t drop the ball on a task- but instead- go well above and beyond what the average person will do.

Your heart is a beautiful gift to the world and many people see that and are drawn to it.

The problem isn’t your ability to give so generously. It’s where this generosity is being fueled, that is the problem.

“Do more. Be more. Give more. Not enough.”

By choosing actions off of this type of distorted belief, we are almost guaranteed to run ourselves empty. We never set boundaries with how many things we pile onto our plate, because we constantly feel like we should be doing more; that setting limits to what we take on in some way equates to us failing or being selfish.

We stop listening to our needs.

This is what can lead you to feeling angry and resentful.

You continue to take on tasks, but internally you begin to despise those around you for the amount of work they keep putting on you.

You believe that it is others that have led you to feel so exhausted, numb, and disconnected- because somewhere along the way you stopped believing that you have a choice in how much you do for others.

You do have a choice.

You can still be a good, generous person, while also setting boundaries and limitations to the amount of energy you pour into those around you. The journey towards getting to this place of balance isn’t through isolation, or distancing yourself from the people that ask so much; It’s beginning to tap back inside yourself, and truly hearing your needs.

It’s through changing the truth you believe about what it means to sometimes put yourself first.

Your inner voice wants to be heard but it’s difficult to know what it is saying when you give so much power and importance to those around you.

Here are six steps you can start today, to start creating a healthy balance in your life:

1. Journal: I know, I know. This is such a therapist thing to say; but hear me out! When you take time to journal each day- even if it’s just for 15 minutes– you begin to see patterns emerge. My guess is that when you first start doing this, a lot of the content will be about others. Identifying this pattern is the first step; because then you can start to see how truly lost your own voice is. Give yourself permission to start writing about your own feelings and needs; only then will you start tapping back into your own voice.

2. Schedule Time for Yourself: You are excellent at juggling and managing time for others, so what would it look like if one of your responsibilities each week was an allotted time or task that is just for you. Maybe it’s a 30 minute walk in the morning; a hobby that you start for yourself; or, seeking an individual counselor you see once a week. The purpose is geared towards creating space where you are allowed to put aside others needs and concerns, and give yourself permission to attend to your own.

3. Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of being present inside of this moment without judging or analyzing the moment. Generally this can be achieved through guided meditations (check out Headspace), but if you don’t connect well with meditations, this can also be achieved through simple tasks. For example, while cooking food, allow your focus and attention to be on your senses while cooking; by focusing on your senses (touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight) you are able to give those racing thoughts a reprieve and just be present. Slowing down our racing thoughts and worries through mindfulness practice, gives our brain a chance to catch up and be more aware. Why do people find the beach to be such a mental escape? Because in essence, the beach is a very sensory experience. Sitting on the beach and listening to the waves is mindfulness in action!

4. Find an Accountability Partner: Remember when I mentioned how often I catch myself reverting back to old patterns and beliefs? Our brain becomes conditioned and accustomed to the way we think, perceive, and interact in the world. In order to break old habits and routines, it’s important to have some accountability. An accountability partner is a great way to have that added support and encouragement as you work towards breaking these patterns in your life. It’s important that this person is someone that doesn’t ask things from you, but encourages and supports you along your journey towards creating healthy balance. Maybe this a friend, a spouse, or a family member; but, if these are the very people you find yourself constantly doing things for, it may be more helpful to seek an unbiased person, like a therapist, that holds you accountable and keeps you motivated.

5. Create a Rule List for Yourself: Write down the amount of tasks and responsibilities you feel expected to keep each week; then write down an ideal list of what you feel is realistic in managing- while not running yourself ragged. By having a visual, concrete list of what this balance may look like, you can begin to reference this “Rule List” when taking on more tasks and responsibilities. If something comes up that is outside of the rules, give yourself permission to say no.

6. Surround Yourself with Positive Messages: Keep in mind that a lot of the need to do for others is coming from an internal place; a script that is stuck on repeat in your head. “Do more. Be more. Give more. Not enough.” What would you like to be telling yourself instead? Write these thoughts down on flashcards and place them all over your house, car, and place of work. By having these concrete reminders of different thoughts you can be sending yourself, you are able to slowly diminish and dis-empower those old thoughts and beliefs.

Christine Finnegan, M.A., LPC-MHSP (TEMP), NCC

The New Civil War


When I was growing up, I had the unique opportunity to spend my summer vacation time on the shores of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. My grandparents owned a house right on the water and my mother would take me, my older sister and brother there for several weeks in the summertime while my dad worked as a branch manager at a local bank in Williamsburg.

One of the highlights of those river (pronounced Rivah if you’re from the area) vacations was that two sets of aunts and uncles and their respective three children would come and stay for most of the time as well. We learned a lot about family, relationship, and community as we were expected to work hard maintaining the river house property before we could enjoy the gorgeous scenery in front of us. 

When we did have the opportunity to relax, we played and we played hard. One of our neighbors had a tennis court which became the scene of many classic battles of boys against girls, brother versus brother, sister versus sister and cousin versus cousin and all variables in-between. Two of my female 1st cousins were star players on their high school tennis team so they ran you off the court when they played singles.

It was only natural to think about the competitive carnage they would inflict whenever they combined their might, strength, and talent to play as a team in a doubles format. Unfortunately for them, a strategy was quickly identified, developed, and implemented to perfection by any team of cousins that would dare face the Fearsome Twosome. All you had to do was to turn one sister against the other by casting doubt, fear, and distrust about the strength of their relationship to one another and as a team. As soon as they took the emotional bait, it was clear sailing for the underdog tennis amateurs to seize the day. 

I find this story very intriguing as we find ourselves in the present day arguing left versus right, good versus bad, and right versus wrong.

Family members and friends are pitted against one another in a deceptively seductive battle of who holds the moral high ground and the master key to the gates of Utopia. Thanks to technology and our evolving American society the battlefield now extends across both a real and virtual expanse of territory. The attacks, assaults, raids, and campaigns are no longer tracked by the tally of the wounded and deceased, but rather by the damage done to the human psyche and the number of rotting souls consumed by hate and rage.

This is a violent and sadistic torture of immeasurable proportion as the wounds of this battle imperil its victim to call upon the keys of survivorship – anger, fear, isolation, hurt, sadness, guilt, shame, and manufactured contentment. 

When we use our emotions and feelings as weapons we only invite our intended target to respond in the same which ends in a losing result…the loss of relationship and ultimately the loss of our only hope for healing and connection.

How powerful it can be when we hold the hurt and pain of our personal stories and reach across the aisle with charity and understanding. Nothing in this world happens in a vacuum – there is always a context and there is always a connection.

It is our own and personal responsibility to learn more about ourselves and one another. Our emotions and feelings simply don’t appear out of thin air as there is always a story just below the spiritual surface.

Did you grow up in a home where trust prevailed or was there chaos around every corner?

What did you learn about the world through the eyes AND ears of your parents?

What significant events and/or trauma may have befallen you growing up?

Our physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies do not forget the answers to these questions. It is our calling to reassess these voices from our past so we can experience personal freedom in the present. 

Be aware of the civil war that is upon us each and every day. Each one of us is being called to stand up and to rise up together in order to realize our greatness together. We can only do this when we unlock the doors of emotional understanding and reach out and connect to our fellow man with goodwill, generosity, and kindness. In order to lead this great and noble charge to the other side, we need to honor the relics of our past while we cultivate a refined civility which can only be won through the acceptance of ourselves as being broken, healed, and most importantly, human.

Paul Babb, EdS, LPC-MHSP