Accumulating Positive Emotion

People sometimes have the impression that the primary goal of therapy is to eliminate negative emotions or distress. Although there is often a focus on symptom reduction early in therapy, we generally have much broader goals. Likewise, people sometimes navigate daily life in an effort to minimize discomfort or distress. This is fairly reasonable as we are all motivated to avoid pain. Nevertheless, it can lead us down a path of avoidance and hypervigilance or into a pattern of negative thinking and despair if we are not paying attention.  

In contrast to avoiding or eliminating (not possible) negative emotion, we can focus on accumulating positive emotion. In fact, this can be a useful coping skill to learn for building resilience. In reality, unpleasant things, people, and emotions are inevitable and often out of our control. Yet, if we focus some attention and effort on ways of collecting positive emotional experiences, we are likely to be more resilient in the face of adversity.   

The primary challenge to accumulating positive emotion is the all-to-common focus on avoiding negative emotions. It is even possible to overlook and thereby neglect positive emotions when they do occur. Therefore, the first step to accumulating positive emotions is to notice when you are experiences them. Next, allow yourself time to experience and fully acknowledge your positive emotions. You might consider taking a pause, closing your eyes, or speaking softly to yourself using affirmative statements about your emotions. You might imagine taking the positive emotion and related experience and putting it into a backpack to carry with you throughout the day.  

It is all too common to rush past our positive emotions and experiences as we look to the next negative thing to avoid. In this sense, we are unable to accumulate much beyond a fleeting glimpse of positive emotion. A third helpful tip is to monitor your self-talk or automatic thoughts when you attempt to pause long enough to fully experience a positive emotion. Do you find yourself fighting against it or thinking of yourself as not deserving? Do you question the practice and think it is a waste of time or silly? Do you get stuck thinking about the next negative thing that will come your way? This is nice, but . . . ?

Finally, take time to check-in with yourself throughout the day and mentally take note of the positive experiences you have had as well as the positive emotions you have collected. Sometimes it can be something very small. A hug or smile from a loved one. A phone call or text message. Recalling a pleasant memory. Looking at the picture of a close friend. Exchanging a smile with a stranger. Enjoying a few minutes to sit quietly and drink a cup of coffee.

Pause long enough to recall your positive experiences and emotions as you near the end of your day. Imagine you are looking through your backpack and counting each one. Take a brief inventory and connect with a sense of appreciation for taking the time to practice accumulating positive emotions. Having connected more intentionally with your positive emotions you may find yourself more recharged and satisfied. We can’t rid our lives of negative experience or emotions, but we can certainty feel empowered to appreciate the positives ones.

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist 

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Embracing the Complexities of Life

The other afternoon I had the thought that I didn’t want to get back on my computer to finish work just in time to rush off and pick up my small children for a long evening of hide-and-seek, amongst other things. All of this takes a lot of energy and I was feeling a bit drained. I also simultaneously felt excited to finish my project for work and I love playing hide-and-seek with my children. I take a deep breath and remind myself that two opposites can exist at the same time. I can feel both tired and excited. I can wish for more time to myself and also love playing with my children. 

This powerful reminder can go a long way – that two opposite truths can exist at the same time or what is referred to as dialectics. This is a key concept for a therapy approach called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and can be usefully integrated into daily life to foster greater flexibility and openness, while also reducing the pressure to feel only one way or think only one thing. When we embrace the dialectical nature of life we can experience greater freedom through flexibility and acceptance.  

How often do you tell yourself, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” or “I shouldn’t be thinking that,” or question, “That’s not what a good friend/parent/spouse would want to do.” In these moments we are selling ourselves short on the complexity of our human experience. This makes sense given the pressures we all might feel to know or have the right answer, do the right thing, or even feel the right way. Ultimately, this leads us into a rigid seesaw game of all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking. We can become rigid and close-minded about the way we think or feel forced to choose and maintain one truth, ultimately leading to increased stress and anxiety when faced with a reality that does not meet our expectations.  

Embracing the dialectical nature of life by reminding ourselves that more than one truth can exist at the same time allows for greater freedom and flexibility in our lives. Take a moment to reflect on the last time you felt pulled between two feelings or found yourself stuck in a pattern of black-and-white thinking. Some examples might include thoughts such as “Either I make a perfect dinner or I can’t cook,” “If I make a mistake at work others will think I’m careless,” “Either I’m always on time or I’m unreliable,” or “If I feel frustrated by having no time to myself I’m being selfish,” and “If I let my friend down tonight I’m a bad friend.”  

All of these examples are limiting and oversimplified. Nevertheless, if you find yourself in this pattern you are not alone. Most people find themselves engaged in this pattern of thinking at various times, particularly when overly stressed or pressured by high expectations. It also makes sense that we attempt to zero in on a specific meaning or answer. Might it be possible to be a good cook and still make a fairly bland dinner? It is possible to be an excellent spouse and also want to be alone at times? Can you make a mistake or let a friend down, yet still be a good friend?

Take some time to pause and observe your thoughts and feelings. Notice if you are struggling to allow only one truth into your experience. Notice if you are engaged in binary thinking, such as all-or-nothing or black-and-white patterns. Take a moment to step back and give yourself space for more than one truth to exist. Embracing the dialectical nature of human experience may provide an opportunity for greater freedom and flexibility in your day-to-day life as you allow room for the full range of complex and seemingly contradictory experiences. Human beings are not either-or’s, we are both-and’s.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Coming to Your Senses

When I studied painting and drawing in college we learned to look very closely at every detail in the objects and scenes we sought to represent. We attended to the full range of colors as well as the light, shadows, and changing reflections. We carefully studied the folds in fabric and the play of light as it shimmered on glass vases. As my classes progressed, I noticed more and more in my daily life. The nearby lake had an impressive array of reflections that transformed throughout the day. The soapy water became beautiful as I washed the dishes. In many ways, I had come to my senses by paying closer attention.

Our senses are the primary way that we connect and engage with our environment. When navigating daily life, our attention allows us to focus our senses and cognitive-perceptual processing on what is necessary to accomplish our goals and stay safe. To be sure, if we lacked this filtering capacity, we would be completely over-stimulated and unable to function. However, this might also set us up for a habitual way of experiencing the world that excludes a wide range of nuances. Add the challenge of spending endless time in your head and much of your environment might be missed completely. What would happen if you shifted your attention to things you never noticed before? How might your day-to-day experience be different?

Daily life can be both busy and mundane. In either case, there is a world of opportunities to observe our environment differently by paying attention to things that we had previously filtered out of our experience or never noticed. Try spending a day using your senses to observe things you might have never noticed. Take note of how this experience impacts your sense of presence, connection, calm and overall experience of pleasure or enjoyment. 

Here are a few examples to help you get started:

Try noticing with your eyes. Look at the many different shades of green on the leaves of the trees. Notice reflections and shadows. Notice textures. Look at the way water moves in the sink or on your windshield. Notice the patterns created on the sides of buildings or freshly mowed lawns.  

Try noticing with your ears. Listen for sounds such as your footsteps, creaks in the floor, the click of the light switch, the rush of flowing water at your faucet or the patter of the rain.  Notice the birds or the sound of the breeze. 

Try noticing with your nose. What does the room smell like at this moment? What smells do you experience outside or when you drive around town? What about your soap, foods, candles, and beverages?

Trying noticing with your mouth. Taste all of the flavors in your food. Try eating new things. Notice the textures and feeling of eating each bite. 

Actively bring your awareness and attention to details you would not typically notice and slow down long enough to take in the endless nuances of your environment. Start a collection as you notice and experience new things throughout your day and make a list of your favorites. As you come to your senses you are likely to feel increasingly present and grounded. You may also notice a stronger sense of connection and pleasure as you take time to experience all that is around you. When you come to your senses and wake up your attention to the things that go unnoticed it is possible to find an entirely new world right before your eyes.

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Using Mindfulness to Promote Self-Awareness Around Race

Mindfulness can be used to increase awareness of subtle insults or assaults that dismiss or degrade based on race or other identities, or what are called microaggressions as well as the role of implicit bias or unconscious prejudice.  

Mindfulness is the act of maintaining moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a nurturing and compassionate lens. In addition to awareness, mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them or engaging in a struggle about how we should think or feel. 

Rhonda V. Magee (2019) provides the following prompts to facilitate a mindful reflection on race:  

Think of a time when you were interacting with someone of another race, a time when the fact of racial difference became apparent to you somehow. 

What were some of the thoughts running through your mind? 

What notions of race do you recall being a part of this experience? 

What sensations arise in your body as you recall this interaction? 

What emotions come up for you now? 

Taking a step further, we can use mindfulness to further address internalized bias by asking the following questions.   

What images, moments, snaps, or snapshots are coming up for you when you think of racial differences and racism?

What feelings are arising in you? 

How much of what is coming up seems to echo what you have been taught, or what you have witnessed or inherited from the culture? From your family? From your community? 

Notice whatever feelings are present. Allow the feelings that have arisen simply to be, without judgment, without trying to change them. Get in touch with the ways that you are interconnected with everyone in our society. 

Lastly, connect with a sense of appreciation for taking the time to reflect on these experiences and your efforts to promote a more supportive and inclusive world for others.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Everyday Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment. The regular practice of mindfulness over a period of time can have a profound impact on our health and well-being. 

Meditation is often thought of as the best means for practicing mindfulness. However, it can be very useful to think broadly about mindfulness practice, particularly in a busy world. In fact, it is precisely the practice of mindfulness in the midst of daily chaos that makes this practice so profound. As mindfulness becomes more integrated into our way of being in the world, it increasingly allows us to shift our awareness in ways that can help us deal more effectively with stress and anxiety, while simultaneously enhancing our capacity to experience pleasure and satisfaction.  

Everyday mindfulness is one way we can exercise our attention on a regular basis without having to change anything in our routine or set aside time for meditation, although this is still highly recommended. We can practice everyday mindfulness by bringing our attention more fully to the present moment and focusing on our senses in the here-and-now. The following are my favorite examples for practicing everyday mindfulness.

Taking a shower. Bring your attention to the warmth and calming sensations of the water on your skin and the smell of the soap or shampoo.  

Brushing your teeth. Bring your attention to the feeling of the brush as well as the taste of the toothpaste. 

Walking. Bring your attention to the movement of your legs with each step and the pressure of your feet on the ground. If you are outside, notice the feeling of the breeze on your face or the sunshine. Notice anything else that brings your awareness to the present moment, such as the sounds of birds or passing cars.  

Folding laundry or doing dishes. Notice the feeling of the clothing and bring your awareness to the repetition of folding without needing to rush. Notice the feeling of the water on your hands and the repetition of placing dishes with care.

Eating a meal. Bring your attention to each bite of food. Notice the taste and the texture. You may also practice chewing each bite more completely and reflect upon the source of the food you are eating. Notice how your body feels and bring your attention to feeling full at a nature pace.  

In each of these examples, the core practice involves bringing your attention back to the present moment or here-and-now as our mind will naturally wonder. In bringing our attention back to the present, we are exercising our attention and strengthening our ability to connect to the here-and-now.

There are endless possibilities for practicing everyday mindfulness, but it might be helpful to select one or two of these to get started. I feel confident that regular practice of everyday mindfulness can have a positive impact on your well-being and enhance your capacity to be fully present in your life.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Poetry & Self-Expression

Poetry is many things. I often think of it as an examination of the human condition as we put our experiences into words that attempt to capture something or express something important about life. I have always been drawn to both reading and writing poetry. It provides is an excellent avenue for self-growth, self-care, and self-reflection.  

Below I’ve included one of my favorite poems. You might consider finding one of your favorite poems today or writing a short poem yourself. If you don’t have a favorite poem, considering reading some poetry and finding something that resonates with you. If nothing else, poetry may give you some time to pause and help you tap into your own creativity.  

“Sweet Darkness”

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

– David Whyte

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Always Arriving: Embracing Each Moment in Times of Transition

Transitions are often times of mixed emotions. Sometimes transitions are by choice, but many times we are not given a choice. People handle transitions and change in all kinds of ways. Depending on the nature of the transition, you may feel anxious and experience self-doubt or feel angry and confused. In some cases, you may feel excited and look to celebrate the transition. In other cases, you may feel slightly numb or disconnected as you approach a transition and find yourself doing all kinds of things to distract yourself from dealing with the change that is about to occur. 

The stress we can experience during a time of transition is often linked to a flood of emotions and a strong underlying current of resistance. Most of us resist transitions and change because they involve moving into unfamiliar territory with unpredictable emotions. Change can be so difficult that many people perpetuate unhealthy behaviors or relationships because doing something differently is experienced (consciously or unconsciously) as more difficult than changing the status quo. One of the more helpful things you can do during a transition is to remain open to your feelings and allow yourself to experience whatever comes up for you.

Mindfulness is extremely beneficial during times of transition. Curiosity in particular can be helpful as it encourages us to stay open to the feelings, thoughts, and sensations that arise in any given moment and allow our understanding to unfold. Fear and uncertainty are difficult, but they can become more manageable as we notice the subtleties of our experience and open ourselves to the complexity that resides beyond the initial layer of anxiety and fear.  

In reality, we are always arriving. It might seem radical at first, but we are always in a state of transition and with each breath we transition to the next moment. If we take a step back and approach our lives as an ongoing experience of emergence, we might be less intimidated by change. Likewise, if we consider all of our emotions as reminders that we are truly alive, we might experience greater freedom and less of a need to fight against fear and uncertainty. With an attitude of acceptance and curiosity we can practice moving forward moment-by-moment.  From this moment to the next.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Shifting into Gratitude

A number of things can be helpful when dealing with fears or tolerating the uncertainty that fuels anxiety. We know that attention plays a significant role in perpetuating anxiety and fear. The more we pay attention to fear by allowing ourselves to focus on irrational thoughts, the more anxious we feel and the more evidence we look for and find to confirm our fears.

What is the bigger picture? This can be a powerful question when we feel overwhelmed with fear and find ourselves ruminating on negative and often irrational thoughts. Rather than jump around from tree to tree, step back and view the entire forest.

Gratitude can be a great place to shift our attention when we feel overwhelmed. Take a moment and reflect on the people in your life you care about and the things that you have and appreciate. Think also about the basic things that are often taken for granted, such as a roof over your head and healthy food to eat. Shifting our attention to gratitude can be an excellent way to take a break from “feeding the monster,” or focusing attention on our irrational fears and the uncertainty we face daily.

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Compassion Directed Inward

Self-compassion refers to having an accepting and caring orientation toward oneself. In other words, it is compassion directed inward. Research suggests that self-compassion can have a positive impact on our ability to cope and may also promote prosocial behaviors. Where do you stand when it comes to self-compassion? How can self-compassion be practiced so that it can become a more prominent part of our day-to-day life?

Two brief exercises can help you get in touch with your capacity for empathy and gain further insight and skills for self-compassion. 

Experiences of compassion from another:

Take a moment and think about the last time you were struggling yet felt truly supported and understood. Take yourself back to that moment and think about what others did for you or said to you. They may have offered empathic comments such as “this must be really hard,” or “you are dealing with a lot right now.” Most likely they were present and available to listen and provide non-judgmental support. Imagine what it felt like to have this support and connect with the feeling you experienced at the time.  

Experiences of compassion toward another:

Take a moment and think about the last time you were there to support a friend or loved one in need. As you recall the situation, think about what you felt and what you communicated while you provided support. You may have said something such as “you are strong,” “I know you can get through this,” “things will get better,” “I’m here for you,” and “I love you.” You may have offered empathy using statements such as “this is really hard,” or “you are dealing with a lot right now.”  Close your eyes and imagine how your loved one was feeling. Imagine yourself saying these supportive statements again and being present for support. 

The primary goal of these brief reflections is to help you connect with the feelings of compassion you experienced in both giving and receiving support. In a practical way, these reflections also give you a chance to reflect on the tools of self-compassion by taking a closer look at the language used to express support and the loving presence that is provided by a good supportive listener.   

There is a good chance that you were incredibly helpful for your friend or loved one when you provided support. You were able to show compassion towards them in a difficult time. This same capacity for care and compassion can be directed inward when you are feeling upset, frustrated, fearful, or sad. Try closing your eyes again and repeat these same supportive comments to yourself as if you were speaking to your friend or loved one.  Allow yourself to feel the love and the kindness being directed inward. If this feels a bit foreign or awkward, then you are probably doing a great job. Self-compassion is often new for many of us.  

The ironic thing about this exercise is that it often feels foreign or awkward to say kind things to oneself, yet most people are fairly good at saying critical and harsh things to themselves, often without realizing it. Think about the last time you felt frustrated or upset. As you recall this situation, think about what you were feeling and thinking at the time. What was your self-talk?  What were you saying to yourself?  It is clear that what we say to ourselves internally has a significant impact on how we are feeling. It also influences our ability to cope with stress and tap into our resilience. This is all good news because we can work to become more aware of our self-talk and practice saying kind things to ourselves.  

Here are a few ways you can practice:

If you are struggling to feel motivated, practice telling yourself “I can do this” or “I can make some progress even if I don’t finish everything.”

When you feel tired, practice telling yourself “I’m dealing with a lot right now” or “of course I’m tired, just do your best,” and “I’ll try again later, I deserve a break.”

When you struggle to accomplish a goal, practice telling yourself “I have been successful before” or “this is just a minor setback in my larger story.”

When you feel sad, practice telling yourself “it will be alright” and “you are a great person, most deserving of love and care.” 

When you doubt yourself, practice telling yourself “I have a lot to offer” and “I deserve to be where I am” or “I can do this!”

When you are anxious, practice telling yourself “I can handle it, “I can be imperfect and successful,” “I’ve been here before and I know this will pass,” and “this is a good opportunity to practice.”

When you feel like giving up, practice telling yourself “I am worthwhile,” “I am a good person,” “I have something to offer,” and “I am already good enough.”

When you accomplish something, practice telling yourself, “I am proud.”

Referring to these suggestions as practice is no accident. As simple as it may sound, it takes intention and effort to be kind to yourself and talk to yourself in a kind and supportive way. If you feel uncomfortable talking to yourself in this way, it likely means you would benefit the most and it might just take more openness and practice. Next time you feel uneasy, take a moment to imagine what you might tell a friend or loved one in your shoes and connect again with the way you felt when you were supported in the past. Tell yourself the same things you would tell a loved one and pause long enough to feel what you say. The more compassion you can direct inward, the more resilient you will be when faced with adversity and the more available you will be to support others. Practicing self-compassion will also help you begin to shift away from negative self-talk or the critical automatic thoughts that can color our mood in a negative way and perpetuate self-doubt. Take a moment now to quiet your mind and speak kindly to yourself. We all are deserving of our own kindness.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist 

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Resistance and Suffering: Stepping Back from Motivational Pressures

I found myself struggling to write a blog this week. There are many topics I could select, but nothing seemed to fit as I reflected on my experience and the experiences of those around me. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog on motivation. Although, I hope these tips were relevant and helpful to others, I have started to question our collective approach to staying motivated and productive during the current pandemic.

I recently came across a reflection posted by Alaa Hijazi, a trauma psychologist in Beirut, where she described feeling horrified about the push to learn a new skill or calls to be productive. At first, I resisted her reflections as I have prided myself on staying productive and oriented toward self-improvement over the past few weeks. Nevertheless, as I read further, Dr. Hijazi went on to plea for more self-compassion and acceptance of the difficult emotions that come up for us and to find ways of soothing our pain and the pain of those around us. The suffering is real. The loss of control is real. The uncertainty is real. She further labeled our experience as a collective trauma and noted the profound loss and panic as well as the overstimulation of our nervous system as we attempt to cope. Indeed, it is not surprising that so many people are struggling with sleep and feeling increasingly on-edge. In the end, these reflections struck me as an important message to balance the calls for self-improvement and productivity during this time.  

To be clear, distraction, particularly when it is focused on healthy activities and self-improvement, remains an important tool for coping with distress. It also allows for us to step outside of negative thoughts and can reduce the intensity of our emotions. However, when our attempts to feel better become grounded solely in resistance of pain or we completely check-out from reality, we often experience increased suffering and only struggle further to tolerate and cope with distress. For example, we might work hard to be productive and positive, but feel increasingly stuck as we fall short of our goals. We might work even harder as a result, only to find ourselves increasingly exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed. We might compare ourselves to others, as we often do, and make faulty assumptions about others being much more productive. In the end, we might find ourselves feeling more and more stuck in a place of suffering.  

A well-known Buddhist notion about suffering is helpful for this discussion. The simplified equation is pain + resistance = suffering. In other words, when we resist pain and actively strive to push away our distress, we can find ourselves stuck in a place of suffering. Therefore, it might be useful to consider how efforts to be highly productive can manifest as resistance and how this can make us feel worse. 

The answer to these questions is challenging. If we do not actively resist or distract, then we must accept. Acceptance can be incredibly hard, even as it is often viewed as weakness or mistakenly dismissed as a form of giving up. Indeed, acceptance takes great strength as it requires us to more directly face and acknowledge what is difficult in our lives. Below are a few ways of incorporating greater acceptance into your life.  

Begin by accepting reality. Take time to accept how you are feeling and acknowledge any fears or apprehension you have about the future. Take time to look at whatever is currently causing you the most stress and acknowledge it. Notice how much time you spend checking-out of reality. 

Cope with distress. Take a moment to pause, breathe slowly, and allow the intensity of your emotions to dissipate. Instead of distracting yourself, stay in the moment as best you can and allow the impulse to distract to dissipate. If you are able to stay in the moment long enough, the intensity of your emotions should subside.  

Practice Mindfulness regularly throughout the day. Getting better at something takes practice. Mindfulness is the best way to practice the skills and mindset for moving toward acceptance. Take a moment to become aware of your surroundings. Focus your attention on your body and your breath. Notice what thoughts come to mind when you take a moment to pause. Notice what feelings come up. Practice using non-judging awareness of all that arises and ground yourself in the present.

Use RAIN as a guide. Tara Brach, a well-known psychologist and meditation teacher, provides a useful tool for practicing mindfulness and acceptance using the acronym RAIN. Recognize what is happening; Allow the experience to be there, just as it is; Investigate with interest and care; Nurture with self-compassion. This simple, yet powerful practice is a great way to practice acceptance and self-compassion.   

In the end, it is possible to be both more accepting, while remaining productive. The key is to take time to pause and check to see if our approach is balanced. If we are only striving to be productive, we might be neglecting other aspects of our experience that need to be recognized and acknowledged. We might be setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves or unknowingly pushing ourselves to a point of emotional exhaustion. When we take more time for self-compassion and acceptance of all that comes up for us during these difficult times, we are actually more likely to be productive and more likely to be a positive support to others.  

Is motivation and productivity something we must be striving for and fighting against ourselves to achieve? Might it be better to approach productivity as a side effect or outcome of acceptance and self-compassion as we naturally accomplish things at a pace that is both realistic and grounded? 

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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