From Valentines to Valentine-ing: Love as a Verb

Love Through the Lens of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

When I was young and single, my approach to Valentine’s Day was often “the boycott”. I quietly protested the existence of the holiday with my all-black ensembles and resting sad face, and I wanted the coupled and the purveyors of Valentine’s Day merriment to see it, (and preferably feel guilty for shaming the lonely by flaunting their abundance of love and romance).  It was a classic, young, passive-aggressive kind of move—the effect being a satisfying pity-party at best, and an added obstacle to the love I so desperately wanted at worst. 

Love can be a values-focused process of blooming, rather than a goal to achieve. For a simple explanation of goal-focused vs. values-focused living, watch this video from Russ Harris, one of ACT’s pioneers:

Love can be a values-focused process of blooming, rather than a goal to achieve. For a simple explanation of goal-focused vs. values-focused living, watch this video from Russ Harris, one of ACT’s pioneers:

It made me feel better in the moment, though.  It did. I felt it was a righteous defense of the singles of the world to shine a light on how Valentine’s Day—with its ubiquitous jewelry store commercials and drugstore candy end-caps—alienates and devalues the single person.  And if it were truly personal activism, (albeit quiet and not-so-productive), or even just made me feel a little better and caused me no harm, what’s wrong with that?  Well, maybe nothing.  If it were just that, it’s a harmless coping mechanism and maybe even a helpful defense of the underdog, but unfortunately behavior that simply demonstrates the pain of inadequacy and scarcity rarely helps bring abundance and meaning into our lives; in fact it often scares it away.

Had I known then what I know now about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based psychotherapy and approach to personal growth with mindfulness, self-compassion, and commitment to values at its core, I might have done things differently.  For starters, I might have re-framed my goal to attain love as a mission to live a life of love, putting the emphasis on love as a deeply-held value rather than a brass ring to grab.  If ACT had been in my tool kit then, I might have turned my attention in an honest, compassionate way to the uncomfortable feelings and powerful, repetitive mental scripts that were running my show. I might have cast an observing eye on the thoughts I had about love and allowed for the feelings I had, because without doing that our human default is to believe the self-sabotaging thoughts, (i.e. self-critical, nay-saying, regretful, “can’t thoughts”), we have and impulsively react to them—either by escaping them, (through suppression or bad habits that distract from and dull the discomfort they cause), or trying to act on them—in ways that usually become obstacles to pursuing what we actually want.  

Instead of mindfully observing my thoughts and accepting the reality of my feelings as ACT and the Eastern philosophies on which it’s based suggest, I bought into thoughts like: “I’ll be alone forever,” “I’ll have to settle,” “I should be married by now,” and “Other people have managed to find partners by now. . . I haven’t, so there must be something wrong with me,” and I often wallowed in the heavy, dark, lonely feelings that filled my body.  I had the same, typical thoughts many have about solitude—thoughts which reflect the critical and absolutely unproductive “should’s” of a society built on the never-ending pursuit of success and avoidance of discomfort.  Our own internal monologues tell our culture’s story that success equals attainment and self-blame is the best way to keep us safe and motivate us to aim high. I didn’t question the truth of my thoughts or the way they sapped me of the confidence and motivation I needed to seek out what I wanted and act in a way that reflected Love as a value.  If I had the lens of ACT back then, I might have been able to see that I valued not just love as a noun, but loving as a direction, an active verb.

Love is many things, but when love is a path instead of a destination, anyone can walk it, any time.

Love is many things, but when love is a path instead of a destination, anyone can walk it, any time.

So what does all this have to do with Valentine’s Day, that mid-winter love-fest inspired by a saint or a greeting card company, depending on your perspective?  Traditionally, Valentine’s Day celebrates romantic love.  Maybe, if you have kids or are one—you use the occasion to celebrate the love between parents and their offspring, or even affection between friends.  As children, we excitedly wrote the names of all our classmates on small cards with flirty jokes and sayings on them and passed them out at school.  As teenagers, we may have swallowed our alienated angst and tried on romance with a girlfriend or boyfriend or turned to self-righteous loneliness or our inner lone wolf.  As adults, though, what are our options? 

If you are sold on Valentine’s Day as a celebration of romantic love and you happen to have a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, or even a date, you are good.  You have snagged what you’re supposed to have on Valentine’s Day.  Even if you don’t get all lit up with passion like you used to or you don’t even make a point of celebrating the holiday, you still, in theory, have the relationship and hopefully some mutual feelings—the love as a noun.  Of course, this is no guarantee you are living in a loving way with that lover of yours—but you have the love object.  Nice job!

The problem comes if you are unwittingly counting love among your possessions, a check-box checked in your list of life accomplishments or “should’s.”  Now, granted, most of us aren’t knowingly checking check-boxes or counting bedpost notches, player-style, but our culture spins a compelling yarn of success as attainment around each of us.  We are raised with a destination mentality, (eg. reaching the destination of a college degree, a marriage, a house, and children = happiness and success!), so even if we pursue love with values of companionship, connection, and the like in mind, it is a rare person who does not also carry the goal of achieving love and relationship as possessions, a goal that often masquerades as the value of love.  It is a subtle but important distinction. 

Pursuing the goal of finding love and living life as a loving person do not have to be, mind you, mutually exclusive.  In ACT language, living in a valued direction and pursuing goals related to love are both “workable” and actually encouraged if the pursuit of the goal reflects your chosen values.  The point is that goals and values are not the same thing and goals should stem from values.  In love, for instance, if I have a goal of getting and staying married, that goal should primarily reflect not the cultural story, “adults should be married,” but the core values that marriage embodies for me—values like lasting connection, companionship, mutual support, and commitment or loyalty to someone loved.

According to ACT, having love is not enough to live a values-based, verb-infused life.  It is in the acting loving that real, values-driven love is made and lived.  From the perspective of ACT, the main idea in Life is to live fully—not necessarily a life of complete happiness, but a meaningFULL life—and the key to living meaningfully is to identify your values and do your best to behave in a way that reflects those values.  Sounds simple enough, right?   In theory, maybe. 

(For some tips and prompts on clarifying values from Steven Hayes, founder of ACT, check out this brief 2009 article:

In practice, clarifying and living values is hard work because:

1.     It is difficult to distinguish which values are core values and which values are actually external expectations foisted upon us by others that actually don’t align with who we are as individuals.

2.     There are so many values to try to focus on in just 24 hours a day.

3.     Values often conflict with each other in every situation life throws at us—forcing us to choose some over others or to choose to focus more heavily on some over others.

4.     Pursuing some of our values may be difficult when we lack time, money, and health, or gender, race, sexual orientation, and class privilege.

5.     Our fear of not being what we think we’re supposed to be and our sense of obligation to others like to throw up thick smokescreens that confuse and shame us into acting against what we actually believe in most deeply.

So what’s a person who’s only human to do?  What do we do if we want to love based on the value of Love, the verb, rather than seek and hold love as a possession with little connection to what love is really all about? 

1.     We acknowledge our imperfect humanness and accept the fact that the mind has all kinds of ideas about love and relationships designed to keep us safe from getting hurt, protect us from feeling unacceptable emotions, and motivate us to meet our perceived obligations as an adult, a spouse, a friend, a parent. . .whatever roles we voluntarily and involuntarily take on.

2.     We observe that some of those ideas are preventing us from using our core values as our most important compass in seeking love, behaving in a loving way, and continuing to nurture love with love.

3.     We ask ourselves what our core values around love and relationship really are.  We fearlessly look at what loving really and truly means to US, not what Disney, Hollywood, our parents, or even the people closest to us say it means.

4.     We notice when the expectations of others, including our larger culture, are pretending to use the voice of our own hearts to seduce us into acting on ideas we don’t truly believe. . . and we practice observing those thoughts coming and going through our heads rather than impulsively acting on them.

5.     We notice when uncomfortable feelings and the desire to avoid or reduce them are motivating our behavior instead of our ideas about what is most important to do based on our innermost values.  We notice as much as we can about those uncomfortable feelings, (again with the noticing—are you noticing a pattern of noticing in these suggestions?) and we practice holding those feelings with acceptance and compassion for ourselves. . .because it hurts to feel pain and someone in pain deserves compassion!  Even you!

6.     We focus on connecting to our core values about love and relationship, even in seemingly trivial day-to-day situations, and commit to decisions and behavior based on those values—even when it hurts, even when it’s hard, even when it conflicts with ideas we’ve always had about what we’re supposed to do.

Got it?  Easy-peasy, right?  Wrong, but it's worth it.

Living in a valued direction is a tall, tall order, especially in love, an arena so very fraught with triggers that go right to our earliest, most fragile attachment wounds and leave us feeling so exquisitely vulnerable to our most primal fear: being alone and unloved.  And yet, if we do not get to know ourselves and attend to our values, we predictably and repetitively wind up in unhappy relationships with people who get between us and our authentic selves.  Even if we learn enough about ourselves to find “the right people” for us, if we do not continue to recognize and honor our core values related to love and relationship, we easily fall into patterns of behavior that ward off love, erode it, and preclude meaningful love. 


It is not always easy to manifest our values in how we relate to love—or anything else.  Each of us is in a life-long process of falling off and getting back on the wagon of our intentions, but committing to driving and taking care of that wagon is a worthy goal that tends to help make life more meaningful and less tinged with regret.  When we approach love as a verb—a path to walk rather than a destination to reach or possession to obtain—Valentine’s Day is much more than a celebration of our love lives; it is a sacred day to celebrate the love we stand for all year long.






Taking it beyond wine, cookies, and gifts. . . : True Self-Care for the Holiday Season

Apologies to those of you already done with holiday celebrating, now that Channukah has ended. . . I was a bit too caught up in my own latke-making and candle-lighting to get this blog post done before The Festival of Lights. . . but as Christmas and New Year's approach,  I want to share a few tips for handling the numerous emotional and psychological triggers that tend to come along with all the merriment.

With all the social obligations and money-spending expectations on most of our plates this month, have you fortified your personal boundaries?  Examined your triggers to uncomfortable feelings and behavior you may regret?  It may be "the most wonderful time of the year" for some, but for many it is a minefield of triggers related to identity on multiple levels and an incubator for anxiety, shame, and anger.

Emotional triggers may include holiday season-specific situations like extra-crowded stores, travel, and church services, to walking into a home with twice as many holiday cards on the fridge as you have on yours or not having enough money in the bank for all the presents you feel you should buy. . . Or your triggers may have little to do with the holidays themselves, but relate to long-standing or current issues with family you are expected to see at holiday time. As New Year's rolls around, a host of feelings may emerge around unmet resolutions from last year, no one to kiss on New Year's Eve, or a general pessimism around your prospects for a happy year to come.

Whatever triggers you to strong, uncomfortable emotions may be people and situations to A) avoid or B) plan for so that you can stay centered and take care of yourself through the season. Follow the steps below for a holiday season with more jolly and less folly!

1) Identify the people, situations, experiences, thought patterns, etc. that typically cause intense, difficult emotions and/or behavior you tend to regret at this time of year.

2) Take time to evaluate what things can be avoided without sacrificing something meaningful and important to you, (like harmony with a loved one), and what things are important to do even though they are hard.

3) Assess what tweaks might be made to your experience of challenging things you cannot avoid, such as limiting the time you will spend at Christmas dinner with the family, suggesting a dollar limit on gift exchanges, or avoiding political discussions at holiday gatherings. The goal of these tweaks is to reduce the number and intensity of triggers and honestly honor your emotional needs.

4) Practice self-care before, during, and after stressful holiday season experiences. Perhaps 10 minutes of pre-party, meditative deep breathing--focusing on your breath and bringing your mind back to the sensation of breathing when it wanders--could help. Maybe rehearsing a graceful but honest response to your insensitive relative's jab about not being married yet could give you strength.

Instead of drinking more than you want, picking a fight, or holing up and avoiding potentially fun experiences to escape uncomfortable feelings, maybe you can choose this year to start noticing the feelings you're having, compassionately reassuring yourself that it is tolerable and perhaps inevitable to feel that way, and choosing a response or action that aligns with the person you want to be and how you want to act (values) rather than impulsively doing something to make discomfort go away.  It's not easy, and it might unleash a slew of new feelings to feel bad about, but values-based living guided by an honest assessment of your individual self-care needs is probably the best gift you can give yourself and those around you.

Wishing you (inner) peace at this season and a values-driven 2018, 


The Day of the Dead, Grief Therapy, and Me

Happy Day of the Dead!  Though my own heritage is not Mexican, I have loved this Mexican holiday, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, for as long as I have known it exists.  These days, The Day of the Dead has become popular to the point that many outside Mexico are aware of and even celebrate the holiday.  The familiar, colorful skeleton imagery can be found on decorations sold at stores like Target and most American cities have festivals and parades to honor the day.   For me, Dia de Los Muertos is something I have tried to incorporate into my own process of grieving and remembrance of people I have lost in my life and I have taken inspiration from its rituals in my work with grief therapy clients.  


What is The Day of the Dead?                 

El Día de Los Muertos or the Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that honors the dead, and, from a therapeutic point of view, honors the living experience of grief.  There are many traditions devoted to death and grief across cultures, yet the Day of the Dead is distinctive in its ritualistic use of all the arts and its celebratory approach to commemorating the dead.  On this day, rituals are performed to welcome animas, the spirits of the deceased, back to their family homes so that the living might spend a few brief hours at their side, and vice versa. 

This festival ritualizes an understanding of death as a natural occurrence that goes hand in hand with life.  It conceives of the dead as souls with the capacity to influence the lives of the living in positive and negative ways, souls that seek the attention of their loved ones through offerings of earthly things they once enjoyed one time each year (Carmichael & Sayer, 1991).  Melding Catholic ritual and cosmology, pre-conquest Spanish traditions, and ancient Meso-American Indian practices, El Día de Muertos is a multi-cultural festival that has evolved over hundreds of years to accommodate a range of spiritual beliefs including secular humanistic ideas.  Over the course of this evolution, it has grown into a unique approach to death and grief that stands in stark contrast to the increasingly impersonal approach taken by much of the industrialized world.

Why I observe Dia de Los Muertos 

When my mother died in 1999, I struggled to cope with the grief I experienced.  I had no real cultural or family rituals, beyond the funeral, to contain and share my mourning and grief with others.  Though there are certainly mourning rituals to be found in my Jewish heritage, I was not observant and my family had not practiced these traditions with me in the past.  When my mom died she left me and my brother in our nuclear family.  I tried to talk to people, journal, and read about grief, but it was not enough.  There were so many things I felt I needed to share and figure out, but no one in my life seemed able to listen and support me to the extent I knew I needed. 

I tried therapy with the social worker at the assisted living facility where my mom had lived for the last six months of her life, and while somewhat helpful, it lacked the soul I longed for.  I was going through an existential crisis only major loss can prompt and I needed a person and expressive tools that could acknowledge and support me through that.  Eventually I found a therapist who not only understood the depth of the loss of a parent but offered experiential ways to work through and honor such a loss.  I found an Expressive Therapist who used art, sand tray work, and other active methods in therapy to help her clients through grief and other deeply personal experiences. 

Through my art therapy with Maryland expressive therapist and “creative aging” expert, Wendy Miller, (, and my discovery of the ideas and rituals that are part of the Day of the Dead, I found ways to integrate my loss into my life story, begin to heal the pain of grief, create a template for a lifelong process of grieving my mother, and, ultimately, face the existential reality of loss itself. 

It is all too easy to avoid that last one.  Both our human propensity to escape difficult feelings and our western culture promote denial of loss and death, so when we do eventually lose people close to us and face death ourselves, we are caught unawares— frightened and unprepared.  When the fog of fresh grief began to lift for me, I turned to the example of The Day of the Dead for ways to face the cycle of life that necessarily includes death, both for myself and the clients I hoped to have once I graduated from the Master’s program in counseling and art therapy I was about to enter.  

People sometimes seek therapy when grieving is too painful to be endured alone, when it interferes with day-to-day functioning, or when it seems to last "too long."  Some might argue that the difficulty of enduring grief without structure--customs, rituals, things to do--is what makes people seek help with grieving (Rando, 1988; Bertman, 1999).  Cultural ritual is one such form of structure, and psychotherapy is another.  For some, one or the other might be sufficient as a context for mourning, processing, and healing.  For others, therapy and cultural ritual might be complementary aspects of a consciously constructed process of grief work. 

We all need support for grieving

Everyone experiences loss.  Though you may not have experienced the loss of a close family member or partner through death yet, all of us have lost or left relationships, homes, schools, jobs, pets, and phases of development like childhood.  When we experience change or loss without acknowledging grief and the impact of transition on our psyches, our bodies, and even spirits, we are ignoring a dimension of what it means to be human.  This ignoring prompts our bodies to manifest the impact of change in us in subconscious, perhaps in physiological ways that may result in dysfunction and even disease.  We cannot separate body and mind; what is suppressed in the mind finds a voice in the body and may resurface in emotional, psychological and behavioral issues later.  Ignoring the impact of loss—“accepting and moving on” without another thought—or even actively criticizing ourselves for our feelings and suppressing them is a recipe for mental health problems and it throws away a rich opportunity for meaning-making and growth.


Day of the Dead-inspired Creative Exercises

With art-making, however, we invite meaning, acceptance, and healing.  Try the following creative exercises to touch your own losses, however temporary or small, with an open heart.

1.   Make a table-top altar for someone or something you’ve lost. 

This can be as simple as covering a table with a tablecloth and putting some pictures, writing, objects the person liked, things you’ve written or drawn on top of it.  Light a candle.  Think about the person or thing lost and how you’ve been affected.  Maybe journal or make a collage or drawing.

2.   Create art that expresses how you feel about the person, animal or thing you’ve lost.

Your art can be as simple as some lines and shapes on a page, or as refined as an elaborate portrait of the person you’re remembering.  What is important is the opportunity to slow down, express your feelings, experience the creative process, and honor your own experience of grief or change.  Much of Day of the Dead art makes light of death.  It highlights the absurdity of the cycle of life and wishing for reality to be other than what it is.  It celebrates remembrance and begin with the memories or souls of our dead loved ones.  If you don’t feel sad remembering someone or times past, that’s ok!  You can feel whatever you feel and even poke fun at death in your art or writing.                   

3. Create and practice a ritual for remembering people who have died or things that have ended.

Just as nature brings us the ritual of foliage changing colors and leaving the trees bare for winter each year, so too can we have our own rituals for honoring the cycle of loss and growth in our own lives.  Perhaps making the favorite meal of a deceased loved one and eating it with friends or family will help you honor that person and experience the feelings you still have somewhere inside.  Maybe displaying a copy of a photograph you have written on and added to with colors and designs would help remind you that that person is still a part of you and signal to others that they can speak of that person with you.  Perhaps you could pick a new photograph to make into an art piece at the same time each year--maybe on the anniversary of your loss or the birthday of the person who died. 

The Day of the Dead is full of ritual that honors people who have come before.  The customs of the holiday, such as tending graves, making home altars, and gathering with family and friends for meals and story-telling help participants continue to feel connected to their loved ones and to the ways they have been changed by their lives and deaths.  Although it can never be the same as observing a cultural ritual authentically and holistically in community, taking inspiration from a sacred day like The Day of the Dead and expressing yourself creatively in that tradition can transform and deepen your healing process.

For more information on The Day of the Dead, art-making for grief, or creative arts in grief therapy, click the Let's Connect button below to ask a question or have a free, 30 min. consultation with Valerie.