Author Archives: Marissa Engel

About Marissa Engel

I have been in private practice in Austin, TX since 2007. My focus as a therapist is to help clients uncover within themselves the courage and strength to face life with confidence. In my work with clients I am most interested in helping people develop a compassionate relationship with their own experiences that can lead them on a journey of acceptance, self discovery, relief from suffering, and healing of relational disconnects. In my practice I have worked with individuals, couples, families, and groups, seeing adults, adolescents, and children. My scope of treatment has included depression, anxiety, panic attacks, anger and stress management difficulties, suicidal ideation, grief and loss, addictions, eating disorders, and couple/family difficulties.

So…Now what do we do?

Gridlock is when one partner in a relationship wants one thing, and the other partner wants something completely different. When you talk to each person and ask them for their reasons, in general their reasons are sound on both sides. The dreams and the fantasies on both sides have value and validity. So when no one is wrong and everyone has a reason for what they want, what do they do?

The first thing to do is stop trying to convince the other person why they are right. It turns in to a pattern of attack-and-defend. “Yes, but….my here is my attack on your idea. And if you would just stop to listen, you would see why my idea is right, and why this is so important to me, and if you really loved me, you would see how important this is to me and just give me what I want.” I have had so many sessions with couples where I explain this concept, and as I say the above statement both people are nodding their heads. “If you loved me you’d see how important this is to me and just give in!” You both are in the same place. Let go of convincing the other person they are wrong, even when you have a “Yes, but…..” that is perfectly valid. Start trying to figure out why the other person’s view-point is so important to them. Start looking through their eyes. Once you have an understanding of their dreams and their fantasy, even if you don’t agree with it, you have a starting place.

The next bit is the hard part. It is the “So, what do we do now”.

Start thinking about what you deal breakers are. This is part of recognizing that you are not getting the whole kit and kaboodle. Compromise means everyone walks away from the table unhappy.

You also have to think what you are going to do if the other person’s deal breakers are in direct opposition to yours. You probably have multiple fantasies going, and what is the more important fantasy. For example: You have a fantasy of living forever with your partner. You see them holding your hand when you’re old and grey. And you also have the dream that you persistently fight about with that partner. Having another baby, spending now vs spending later, colored vs white Christmas lights, mountains vs beach, homework or playtime first. Admittedly, some of these are more difficult than others, and at the same time you may or may not be surprised about how ugly the fights get when talking about them.

What happens when no one is wrong. In the above examples, there is no right and no wrong. You may have strong feelings about some of them, and at the same time none of them are wrong. We want to believe that if our partner loves us they won’t make us sacrifice our core wants / needs. We may have to choose the partner or the belief. And even then there is no right answer. There have been core needs / wants I have left a partner over. There are core needs / wants that are less important than my partner. You have to answer the question: Is this the hill you want to die on? Is it important enough to walk away from your partner over?

Now, once you’ve decided what the deal-breakers are, and you know what your partners deal breakers are and you know why they are important: it is time to get creative. So, what do we do now?  When it comes to having a child or not, you may have to decide what’s more important, a child or your partner. When it comes to anything beyond a win / lose situation like a child, get creative. Do you take separate vacations? Do you have 2 Christmas trees? Do you have 2 sets of lights on the same tree, with different timers? Do you each get an allowance that you get to spend whenever you want, while still saving money for the future? Work to not defend your point, and work to move toward solutions, not toward attacks. I have sat at a table for 2 hours with both of us looking lost, just pondering the words “What do we do now?”.

The biggest key through all of this is to keep your calm. Avoid the big 4: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling. When you find you are feeling attacked, say out loud, calmly: I’m feeling defensive.   And then take a break. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and then come back. This process won’t work if both of you are feeling attacked, if darts are being thrown (“Let’s be logical about this” Implies that the other person isn’t being logical, and is a dart) or fireballs (That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!) nothing will get done.

Remember, Is this the hill you want to die on? Is this the thing that is worth ruining your marriage or friendship over? If it isn’t, then it may be time to step back and take a breath. Most disagreements aren’t friendship or marriage ending disagreements. Work to find a middle ground through creativity and kindness and it will save a lot of tears and frustration.

Finding gratitude for wasted time

Ten thousand years ago our time was pretty much filled with working to live. Time not spent hunting, gathering, and farming was used to make the things they needed for daily life such as housing clothes, food, and other necessities. It took a lot of work to make sure there was enough food stored properly to make it through winters and clothing to wear for protection.

But what did they do when the house was built, clothing was made, and the food stored? They created art. Making a bead was intensive labor. The shell or the stone had to be ground down, and a hole drilled through it. Making enough to decorate clothing and make jewelry took thousands of hours.

Through the ages your ability to have decorations in your home and on your clothes was a sign of wealth. The reason for this is wasted time. The more resources you had the more time you had to waste. Ten thousand years ago you only really had time to make unnecessary things if you had all the necessary things made. You wouldn’t use grapes, apples, or grain to make alcohol if you didn’t have enough to make sure your family was fed. You didn’t have the time to hand-make beads to decorate your clothing if you didn’t already have clothing. Time wasting activities meant you had everything you needed and were good to go.

Another word for wasting time is hobbies. I have a multitude of hobbies that serve no purpose other than making me feel good. The fish tank I keep in my living room serves no purpose other than to give me something pretty too look at. It takes my time and resources (money and water) to keep it going. Hobbies keep us sane. The only time they become a problem is when they interfere in maintaining the rest of our lives. When they take food from your mouth, shelter from over your head, and time from maintaining relationships then they are problematic. Otherwise, the time and resources to have hobbies is something to be thankful for.

I am thankful that I have the time every week to write this blog. I am grateful that I have the time to travel, to take pictures, and to play around on Facebook. All of my hobbies are things that keep me grounded and sane, and in many ways connected to friends and family, and the world around me. None of them are necessary, and thus are “wasted time”. Hopefully you find a way to be thankful that you have extra time as well. Don’t begrudge yourself your hobbies. If you have the time and the resources, wasting time is a time honored tradition that we’ve had for thousands of years.

There is no normal


Have you ever wished you were normal? I know personally I have had that wish. I have wanted to fit into the boxes that it seems everyone else fits in to. I have felt odd, different, and lonely. I tried for so many years to fit in to some semblance of normal. Then as I worked in the field of emotional and mental health I started to understand. There is no normal. Those that look normal from the outside have just as much oddness, as many differences, and feel just as lonely as I do. Because there is no normal.

When you allow yourself to embrace that concept life starts to change for you. When you let yourself let go of the belief that who you are is wrong in some way, because it doesn’t fit in with the norm, then you stop hating the things that make you “different”. The truth is, we are none of us snowflakes. I follow Mayim Bialik on Facebook. If you don’t know who she is, she was Blossom in the 90’s, and today she is Dr Amy Farah Fowler on the Big Bang Theory. She also has a PhD in Neuroscience. She talks about her frustrations and difficulties being a nerd growing up. She talks about feeling alone and different, especially being a female that loves science and Star Wars. And she is followed by almost 900,000 people on Facebook alone. I haven’t checked her twitter account. That means that she isn’t weird, or different. She has a group and a tribe that she fits in to, and one that thinks she is amazing just the way she is.  
When we realize that none of us fit in to every group out there, we feel better about who we are. Fitting in is kind of like hair. We all wish we had different, better hair. We look at someone else and think how nice it would be if we had their hair instead of our own. We think how nice it would be if we fit in to that group, or liked this thing instead of what we do like. We all do that. I have yet to meet someone that is perfectly fine with who they are, what they like, and the groups they fit in to. We are all abnormal. And that’s OK.
Normal is a fantasy. You aren’t normal. Neither am I, and neither is the next guy down the line. There is no such thing as normal. So embrace your quirkiness. To thine own self be true. And give a big fat raspberry to the fantasy of normal you keep trying to reach.


Of course you’re special!

Yes. You are special.  Just like everybody else.  Just like a snowflake.  Or fingerprints.  But then we have found duplicates in snowflakes, and in fingerprints.  The question you need to ask yourself:  Is it more important to stand out or to fit in?  Either way, you will find a group.

There is a group that does what is called extreme body modification.  Full body tattoo, splitting the tongue, stretching the ears, having horn implants, corset lacings implanted on the back.  If all of that sounds interesting, you will find your group.  There are groups that do extreme hobbies such as rock climbing without ropes, skiing in avalanche zones, biking down mountains.  People who play D&D, people that are into different kinks, people into racing wiener-dogs.  These are all small groups comparatively (compared to people that like cat videos online).  And yet they all have groups.

We aren’t snowflakes, and we aren’t alone.  For most people that helps them feel better.  You are not alone.  This means you don’t have to walk through your pain alone either.

You aren’t alone in this world.  There are always people to reach out to.  You don’t have to walk your path or your pain alone.

Learning how to dance

Going with the Flow

A Taoist
story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids
leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his
life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the
bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive.

“I accommodated myself to
the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to
be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl.
This is how I survived.”

I happen to think in pictures, and sometimes this creates difficulty when trying to describe concepts in my head to clients.  A picture that I had in my head while working with a client recently was that every time the world would change directions she would fall over, working her best to  continue on in the direction she was going, the direction she was comfortable with.   The picture I had was working to shift from fighting the change and falling, to flowing with the change.  Moving from falling, to dancing.

So much of the suffering I see in my clients is attempts to keep the world the way it was, instead of adjusting to the way it really is.  Sakyong Mipham discusses in his book How To Turn Your Mind in to an Ally how we create difficulty for ourselves by resisting change.  Struggling to keep the world in our safety zone where we are comfortable.

The world is going to shift, often in ways that we don’t plan, or even want.  If we struggle to keep the world the same, every time it shifts in a new direction we risk falling.  Consider the world your dance partner, always in the lead.  There will always be times now and then the world shifts unexpectedly and we are knocked off our feet.  In general though, if we keep our heads (and our hearts) together we can follow the shifts and keep our feet, hopefully with even a little grace.

Buddhism believes that suffering comes from wanting.  Wanting to draw closer, push away, or wanting to keep the same. An old saying, possibly over used, “the only constant is change”.  The world will shift, time will move forward, and change will come.  When we can learn to follow the changes the world is going to throw at us, we can learn to dance instead of fall.

What’s love got to do with it?

When you love someone you care about their happiness and well-being. When they are struggling, you feel empathy and want to help. When they are sad or hurting you want to help them feel better. When you love someone you care. Codependency is taking responsibility for the other person’s happiness. When they are struggling you feel required to make it better. When they are sad or hurt, it is your fault if they don’t feel better. Codependency is when you know that is going on with them and put their emotions above your own.

Love has nothing to do with making someone’s emotions your own. It is difficult enough to manage your own emotions and keep them in check. Trying to add someone else’s is like trying to empty a lake with a bucket. You may be able to make a small difference, but not enough to really matter.

The best thing you can do for someone else is hold space for them while they have their own emotions. You create a situation in which they are allowed to feel what they are feeling without judgment. This at times means putting aside your frustrations with their emotions. It does not mean trying to fix the emotions or make things better. Just being present while they move through them on their own.

Love is not about making someone happy. While it would be amazing if we all had magic wands and we could fix things with a wave, or if we had happy buttons that could be pushed, we don’t. That just isn’t the case. It isn’t easy to be present for someone that is hurt, and just let them hurt. That is what you do for someone that you love though. You can’t fix it, but you can be there. Love is just being there.

It’s time to play!

“The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.” Brian Sutton-Smith

There are millions of toys for kids to play with. Kids are kind of like cats, and even without toys, they can make something to play with. We know that animals learn how to be adults through play (there is a video of an adult lion faking injury when bitten by a kit. This is play for both the adult and the kit). We watch adults in most animals play if give the chance. For some reason though, we think that once we leave childhood we are no longer allowed to play.

What we have learned is that play is as important for adults as it is for children. It helps mental acuity, it helps with connections and intimacy, and it helps manage depression. Play is time spent with little purpose other than fun. It is part of why Pokemon-go has helped so much. It is play. Hobbies, board games, and playful teasing. It eases stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as increases bonds among friends and partnerships.

Take time each day to find time to play. Don’t ever let yourself think that you are too old to play. Don’t let others tell you that you need to grow up when you play. I will play until the day I keel over. I encourage you to do the same.

It’s no big deal

Have you ever said this about something that has frustrated you? We say this about our job, our friends, and our partners. Something happens, and though it frustrates us we say; “It’s no big deal”. We say this once or twice, with no worries. How many times can you say this before anger and resentment start to take over?

We all walk the fine line between managing relationships and managing our identity. We all have what we want to have happen. At times what we want and what others want are not the same thing. Many people, in an effort to keep the peace and avoid conflicts, will sacrifice what they want. They will do this thinking “It’s no big deal”. So imagine your best friend asks to borrow five dollars. And then every week following for 4 months asks to borrow five dollars. Without ever asking your friend to re-pay you, you give the money. At first it is willingly. Then after a month or so, as you have given $20, then $40, then $60, how long will it take before you become resentful? How many of you will continue to give week after week, slowing simmering, but never saying anything?

We tell ourselves it isn’t a big deal. Week after week, time after time, we say these words. We convince ourselves that this is true. And underneath we simmer. The resentment builds, until eventually it erupts. The eruption may or may not be at the person or people that have created the resentment. And often when the eruption comes and the person on the receiving end is confused and befuddled when they are covered in emotional lava. They had no idea that you were angry or resentful, because you never set the limit.

“The givers need to set limits because the takers never will”. Even the most well-intentioned of people will take advantage of someone that gives again and again without setting boundaries on it. It is just human nature. We want to believe that human nature will keep people from taking advantage, and often that just isn’t true. Even I, and I would like to believe I am a good person, have taken advantage of situations and people when I needed to. I would have been perfectly understanding had the people set boundaries, and at the same time I also used the resources around me.

You don’t have to be an ass to set a boundary. “Sure, I can give you $5, I need you to pay me back by the end of the week”. And then when they don’t pay you back “Hey, you didn’t pay me back from the last 2 times, I need you to pay me back before I can lend you any more money”. If your friend gives you resistance for this, maybe they aren’t the best of friends, or the best of people. You don’t have to be an ass to say out loud what you want to have happen. “I’m interested in pizza tonight”, even though you know your friend or partner may not have the same interest.

The thought “It isn’t a big deal” is the warning sign that you may be sacrificing yourself more than your identity and integrity can handle. You can be kind and still say out loud what you want or need to have happen. Make sure you know what you want to have happen, and then think how you would want someone to say the same thing to you. Remember, using criticism, contempt, or blaming will make people put up their own walls.  Setting limits and standing up for your identity is just as much a part of maintaining relationships as meeting in the middle, and letting go of the small things.

Ignore the news

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the news is rather negative lately. It can make a person feel rather overwhelmed with the negative, and at times powerless. We forget that the normal and the kind doesn’t get reported. Every day people go about their lives, being normal regular people. They are kind in moments, cruel in others, but overall normal. If we watch the news, it is easy to feel the world is coming to an end with how horrible it is.

Remember; the news draws viewers by pointing out the horrible. They don’t draw people by pointing out the normal or the kind. It is still out there. We have to take the time to look for it, especially because we will notice our pet peeves long before we notice the normal and the beautiful and add that in to the news that we see every day.

In general we are all just working to live our lives the best we can, in the best way we can. And most of us just move through life without hurting anyone, creating any scandals, or creating any bother. The news doesn’t reflect this. Along with the people working to live normal chaos free lives, many people actually work to make a nice difference in people’s lives. We just need to look.

The news is not going to show us the normal. It doesn’t make good ratings to say “Everyone went about their lives in an every way manner, with nothing crazy happening”. That is what happens to most of us. In order to keep our sanity we need to remember this. Most of people are good people, and most people live normal lives. It isn’t all going to hell in a hand-basket. We are mostly doing okay. Don’t let the news drive you insane. It is overall okay. Hold on to that.