Twelve Excellent Movies About the Pain (and the Joy) of Parenting

When we are expecting, we have this idea that our babies will bring us happiness. I maintain that starting a family does not make a person “happy” (whatever that means). Parenting is painful and scary. Parenting hurts precisely because we love our children so much. As parents, we are capable of so much strength and love, even in the hardest of circumstances. The following movies about parenting depicts both the highs and the lows.

Despite the pain of parenting, having and raising children brings a sense of purpose, and that is so much more important than happiness. In the following movies about parenting, we see characters who are sometimes lost or struggling. But they find their reason for getting up each day in being the mom or dad their child needs them to be. (Or in some cases, being who they THINK their child needs to them to be!) Some of these parents need to focus a little more on their own self-care; some of them need to focus a little less on themselves. Our children grow and that dance changes over time. We don’t always know how much to help, and how much to step away and attend to our own needs.

How to Read the List

Speaking of growing children, the following list of movies about parenting is organized roughly in order of age of child. So parents of young children will find something of value at the beginning of the list, whereas parents of older children might want to skip to the middle and the end. (In order to gain the most therapeutic value from your movie watching experience, I suggest you read my other post about how to watch a movie mindfully.) In this list of movies about parenting, I have included everything you might find helpful when trying to choose what you want to watch tonight.

  • Where I found it (in summer 2020, given what services and platforms I have access to): You may have other streaming services, and this information may change over time. Renting off iTunes is usually a good last resort if you are having trouble finding it elsewhere.
  • Year: How old is it? Movies here were made between 2009 to 2018.
  • Running Time: Sometimes you have time for something longer, sometimes you don’t!
  • Rating: Sourced from Consumer Protection BC (British Columbia), who have the task of rating everything shown on the big screen in our province. So, movies not made for the big screen are not rated here.
  • Reviews: Sourced from Rotten Tomatoes. I have tried to go a little deeper than just whether it is “fresh” or “rotten”. You will find information about critics’ vs the audience, top critics vs all the critics, some qualitative comments, and more.

Twelve Movies About Parenting

A Kid Like Jake

(Netflix, 2018): In New York City, a four-year old’s mom and dad struggle with their child’s gender identity as the time for entering Kindergarten approaches,. Their child was assigned male at birth, but identifies as a girl. Starring Claire Danes and Jim Parsons (from Big Bang theory).

  • 92 minutes runtime. Made for Netflix, so not rated in BC.
  • Received 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, with 48 critics giving an average rating of 6/10. Generally, critics found that the movie took an “overly cautious approach”.

The Lighthouse of the Orcas 

(Netflix, 2016): In trying to help her autistic son find an emotional connection, a mother who has a “special relationship with nature” travels with him to Patagonia (“the end of the world”) to meet a ranger and wild orcas. This is an Argentinean (Spanish language) movie.

  • 110 minutes, made for Netflix, so not rated in BC.
  • Listed on Rotten Tomatoes as “The Lighthouse of the Whales”. Not enough consensus to receive a rating. However, three out of four critics liked it.

An Audience of Chairs 

(CBC Gem, 2018): A young mother in the throes of both manic and depressive symptoms, endangers her children safety and then has them apprehended. She is reunited with them twenty years later. Set in Newfoundland.

  • 94 minutes, rated PG in BC.
  • Unrated by Rotten Tomatoes, but two out of three critics liked it. One stated it was “a movie about empathy … an experience to be shared”.


(Netflix, 2017): The story of a little boy entering grade five who lives with facial differences, and how his parents, his classmates, and the larger community all struggle with compassion and acceptance of his disability. Starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson.

  • 114 minutes runtime, rated PG.
  • Received 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, with 187 critics giving an average rating of 7/10. Critics found it sentimental, but “but this well-acted and overall winsome drama earns its tugs at the heartstrings”.

My Sister’s Keeper 

(Netflix, Crave, 2009): Based on a book by Jodi Picoult, and starring Cameron Diaz and Abigail Breslin. Two parents, desperate to save the life of their fragile and ill child, resort to desperate means.

  • 110 minutes runtime, rated PG.
  • Received 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, with 136 critics divided approximately in half on whether it was worth watching. But the audience score was significantly higher, at 72%.

No Letting Go 

(Amazon Prime, also available in full for free on Youtube, 2015/2016): Parents struggle to come to terms with their young teen’s mental illness. Based on a true story. “There is no letting go when you have a sick child.”

  • 104 minutes, not widely released.
  • A mental health professional writing for HuffPost reviewed this movie. Audiences on Rotten Tomatoes rated overall “fresh”, but no critics scores.

World’s Greatest Dad 

(Rent on AppleTV/iTunes or on YouTube, 2009): A middle-aged single dad, struggling with depression, undergoes the accidental death of his teenage slacker son. In his grief (and subsequent choices) he learns that “the things you want most may not be the things that make you happy and that being lonely is not necessarily the same as being alone”. Starring Robin Williams, only five years before his death.

  • 99 minutes runtime, limited box office release and not rated in BC.
  • Received 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the “top” critics assigning it 97%. Critics described it as a “risky, deadpan, dark comedy”. It may have been too risky, as it tanked at the box office!

The Descendants 

(Rent on AppleTV/iTunes or on YouTube, 2011): A movie for all Dads of daughters. An indifferent Dad is forced to re-examine his priorities, and his relationships with his children, when his wife dies unexpectedly. Starring George Clooney.

  • 116 minutes runtime; rated PG.
  • Received 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 8/10. Rated even higher by “top” critics (which is unusual!)

Beautiful Boy

(Amazon Prime, 2018): This story chronicles the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with addiction over many years. It was based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff. Starring Steve Carrell.

  • 121 minutes, rated 14A.
  • Received 68% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, with 170 critics assigning an average 6.5/10 rating.

Ben is Back

(Netflix, 2018): A 19-year-old son (who struggles with addiction) returns home on Christmas Eve morning. Over the next 24 hours, relationships are tested, new information is revealed, especially as his mom (Julia Roberts again) struggles to keep her son safe.

  • 103 minutes, rated 14A.
  • Received 81% on Rotten Tomatoes, with 213 critics giving an average of 7/10. Generally described as “understated … subverts family dramas”.

The Land of Steady Habits 

(Netflix, 2018): While this movie is mainly about a “deeply flawed”, lonely and depressed middle aged male, the story centres around how his mistakes impact everyone around him. Importantly, we see his efforts to be the Dad his young adult son, struggling to find his independence, needs him to be.

  • 98 minutes, made for Netflix, so not rated in BC.
  • Received 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, with 40 critics giving an average of 7/10. Critics consensus: “finely layered performances … one mid-life crisis worth watching”.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi 

(Rent on AppleTV/iTunes or on YouTube, 2011): You don’t have to care about sushi to enjoy this documentary about anxiety, perfectionism, parenting and aging. A story of a world class chef and his relationship with his eldest son and heir, “who is unable to live up to his full potential in his father’s shadow”.

  • 83 minutes runtime, rated G.
  • Received 99% on Rotten Tomatoes!! 94 critics assigned this movie an average of 8/10. Even audiences liked it, giving it 92%.

Finally …

Our children were not created to love us. Rather, it’s our job to love them without condition. After watching one of these movies about parenting, check out the riveting and emotional TED talk “Love, No Matter What”. You will learn more about how deeply parents love their children, even in the most difficult of circumstances. I highly recommend it!!

So what about you? You came here for a reason. If you are interested in watching movies about parenting, and how painful it can be, chances are you are a parent. Parenting is one of the most important jobs you have taken on. It may be that on some days, you’re beating yourself up, because it feels like you keep screwing up your job, when all you want to do is help. You might even be coping with your own issues, in addition to trying your best to help them with theirs. You would do anything for your child. But as a parent, you are scared of the future, and sometimes angry at this person you love more than anything. You might be lonely because others don’t understand. Regardless of whether your child wants their own help, you want to learn more about how to help them.

I’ve been there too, and I know we can’t do this alone. Need help? First, watch one of these movies about parenting. (Before you start watching, remember to read this.) Then, what are you feeling? We rarely watch a movie without feeling something. Last – need help with that? Get in touch with Rainstorm Counselling today.


Cinematherapy Revisited: 95 Movies (and TV Shows) about Depression, Anxiety, Grief & Loss, Divorce, Disability, Parenting & Other Really Tough Things You Might Need Counselling For

While they are probably not considered “Cinematherapy,” I love superhero movies, time travel and other fantasy and science fiction. In fact, I love them as much (usually even more) than the next middle-aged woman. Give me Doom Patrol, X-Men, and Star Trek: Discovery any day. Yes, escape has its own therapeutic effect; escape is my jam. I am a true movie buff and a tv fangirl. At last year’s latest Terminator movie, I literally pumped my fist in the air and cheered when Sarah Connor showed up!

But sometimes you need a movie that feels a little too “real”. Those movies can be hard to watch. But they’re important, because they get you out of your comfort zone. For more reminders of why they are important, read my post from two and a half years ago. (I can’t believe it’s been that long!) In that post, I said I was starting a new series … then never came back to it. … Well I’m back!!!

One of the ways my collecting hoarding tendencies takes shape is in my Netflix “to watch” list. I wish I could sort it into categories the same way I do my Pinterest boards.One of the categories would be called “Cinematherapy”. I haven’t seen most of what’s on the following list myself. (More posts to come on that!) It reflects my interests (both personal and professional) in parenting, aging, illness and more. In this post I’m re-starting my blog series, and sharing my complete “to watch” list.

One Idea To Get Your Cinematherapy Journey Started

Right now, my husband and I are halfway through “The Land of Steady Habits” (2018, on Netflix). It’s about male depression, loneliness, divorce and family breakup, parenting, and addiction. It feels very real, and it got 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. And it’s funny! When we started it, I was really hoping the family in the movie would get back together, but I don’t think it’s heading that way. However, it’s working for us is because we can watch something that feels so close to home, while staying at a safe arm’s length distance. We can get uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable. Getting brave about being uncomfortable is imperative for personal growth and development. That’s what watching movies mindfully (ie. Cinematherapy) can do for us.

95 Movies (and TV Shows) on Tough Things to Help You Grow

So put the escape aside for one night, and be brave! Get a little uncomfortable. Additionally, know your limits and do your own research. (For example, if you just had a parent die in the last six months, you may (?) not want to watch a movie about a parent dying.) Finally, if you are wondering how to make the most out of your movie watching experience, check out my first Cinematherapy post and scroll down to “How to Watch a Movie with Mindful Awareness”. (And don’t forget to scroll to the end to see what’s next on this series!)


  • The Leisure Seeker (Aging, Dementia)
  • Sister Cities (Family estrangement, aging, suicide)
  • The Meyerowitz Stories (family estrangement, men aging)
  • Our Souls at Night (aging, loneliness)
  • Marriage Story (divorce)
  • The Fundamentals of Caring (Physical disability)
  • A Kid Like Jake (gender nonconformity, parenting)
  • Brain on Fire (seizures, psychosis)
  • Wonder (stigma, parenting)
  • Like Father (family estrangement)
  • Ben is Back (addiction, parenting)
  • 6 Balloons (addiction, parenting, caregiving)
  • The Last Laugh (aging)
  • To the Bone (eating disorders, body image)
  • The Land of Steady Habits (divorce, midlife, depression, parenting)
  • What They Had (Caregiving, aging, dementia)
  • Concussion (brain disorders, concussions of course!)
  • Kodachrome (aging, family estrangement, grief)
  • Nappily Ever After (perfectionism, anxiety)
  • Phil (depression, suicide)
  • 100 meters (terminal illness)
  • Paddleton (terminal illness, euthanasia)
  • Irreplaceable You (terminal illness)
  • The Discovery (death, afterlife)
  • The Lighthouse of the Orcas (parenting, autism)
  • Asperger’s Are Us (Autism, documentary)
  • Crip Camp (disability, documentary)
  • Cracked Up (Childhood abuse, PTSD)
  • Unrest (chronic fatigue, documentary)
  • Silver Linings Playbook (Bipolar Disorder, anxiety)


  • The Age of Anxiety (doc, 51 min)
  • After Everything (terminal illness, relationships)
  • The Sabbatical (burn out, depression)
  • Jacob (suicide, grief and loss, post traumatic strength)
  • Melissa (parenting, cyberbullying, suicide)
  • No Letting Go (parenting, anxiety and depression)
  • Beautiful Boy (parenting, addiction)
  • Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (disability, addiction)
  • A Big Love Story (body image, relationships)
  • The Descendants (grief and loss, parenting)
  • Cake (chronic pain, depression, parenting, grief)
  • Little Miss Sunshine (depression, family dynamics) *Also on Crave
  • The Soloist (Schizophrenia, burnout)
  • Robot and Frank (Dementia)
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (anxiety, men) *also on Crave
  • An Unfinished Life (men and depression, grief and loss) *also on Crave
  • My Sister’s Keeper (parenting, illness, anxiety) *also on Crave


  • Love on the Spectrum (reality show, autism and dating)
  • After Life (grief and loss)
  • Atypical (autism, adolescence)
  • Living with Yourself (Burnout, Depression, self-improvement)
  • Special (LGBT, disability)


  • World’s Greatest Dad (depression, suicide, parenting)
  • The Hours (depression, women)
  • Helen (depression, women)
  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story (depression, anxiety, perfectionism, adolescence)
  • A Separation (Dementia, caregiving)
  • Inside Out (Anxiety, Childhood) *also on Disney+. Highly recommended!
  • Anomalisa (depression, men)
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Anxiety, adolescence)
  • A Beautiful Mind (Schizophrenia, anxiety)
  • A Fantastic Fear of Everything (anxiety)
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi (anxiety, perfectionism, parenting, aging)
  • Forgotten Plague (chronic fatigue, documentary)
  • Ordinary Love (terminal illness, marriage, caregiving)

STREAM ON CRAVE (Mostly Movies)

  • Away From Her (Dementia, caregiving)
  • The Wife (Divorce, aging)
  • The Tale (childhood trauma)
  • Diagnosis Bipolar (parenting, bipolar, documentary)
  • Bipolar Rock n Roller (documentary, men, bipolar)
  • I Know This Much is True (schizophrenia, caregiving) *an HBO miniseries, not a movie, based on the book by the same name
  • Pain and Glory (chronic pain, aging)


  • Love, Scott (Disability, LGBT, documentary)
  • An Audience of Chairs (bipolar, child apprehension, parenting)
  • Away From Her (dementia, caregiving)
  • Empire of Dirt (childhood trauma, Indigenous)
  • Goalie (chronic pain, addiction, family breakup)
  • Hector & The Search for Happiness (depression, men)
  • How She Move (addiction, grief and loss)
  • Man Running (euthanasia)
  • Meditation Park (infidelity, divorce)
  • Minding the Gap (family violence, childhood trauma)
  • My Life Without Me (terminal illness)
  • Mouthpiece (grief and loss, women)
  • Pretend We’re Kissing (anxiety, loneliness)
  • Still Mine (dementia)
  • The Other Half (bipolar, grief and loss, relationships)
  • Tom at the Farm (grief & loss, LGBT)


  • Stepmom (divorce, parenting, grief and loss)
  • Reign Over Me (PTSD, grief and loss)
  • Girl Interrupted (anxiety, adolescence)
  • The Skeleton Twins (depression, attempted suicide, siblings, childhood trauma)

What do you think? Is there anything on my list you want to warn me off of?

Where should I start? Is there anything you’ve seen here that was amazing?

What’s missing? Anything I should add?

What’s Next?

Next, follow up posts will be broken into categories. Examples might be “Movies about Autism Spectrum Disorder” or “Movies about Parenting”. I’ll share the Rotten Tomatoes Rating, the year, where you can find it, and a sentence or two on what each is about.

Then, I’ll start watching! When I do, I’ll let you know, from a therapeutic standpoint, my thoughts and impressions. In other words, how might I approach the issues raised by the characters, if they were my clients? Exciting, right? My hope is to deepen your Cinematherapy experience. I’ll keep you posted. (Follow Rainstorm Counselling & Consulting on Facebook to stay notified of upcoming posts.)

Ten Questions to Help You Think Differently and Feel Better

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) in its very basic form is based on the idea that our mental health is like a three-legged stool. Each of the three legs stand for a different aspect of health: thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Make a change in one leg (like learning how to think differently) – the other two legs are changed as a result!

Want even more good news? You can start with any leg of the stool!

  1. THOUGHTS: Keep reading and start learning how to think differently. Like weight training with increasingly heavy weights, changing how we think takes a lot of practice. It can help us feel better, thereby making a difference in our behaviour.
  2. ACTIONS: Many people choose to start here. What we do impacts how we feel. How we feel impacts how we think! (Watch for my upcoming post on Behaviour Activation.)
  3. EMOTIONS: In my last blog entry I talked about “bottom up” techniques, such as mindfulness in order to learn how to self-regulate our physiological responses to stress and anxiety. Most distressing emotions have an accompanying physiological response. When we can manage those responses, we can help our emotions lessen in their intensity, which will better equip us to work on our thoughts and behaviours.

Learning to Think Differently: An Example

We know that “Thoughts Are Not Facts”. The facts are what happened. Often, even that is in dispute! Our thoughts are only our interpretation, or “take-away” about what happened. Here’s an example.

SITUATION: Lucia’s 17 year old daughter is spending a lot of time in her room with the door shut. She almost never comes out to hang with the family anymore. When she does, and Lucia tries to engage her in friendly conversation, she will respond with irritation and impatience.

THOUGHTS: This could mean any number of things. In Lucia’s case, she’s thinking that her daughter must be hiding something illicit. Because Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) come and go so quickly, without us really taking time to put them under a microscope, her counsellor recommends that she sit down and journal all the distressing thoughts that are in her head – getting as detailed as she can. By slowing down through her writing, she realizes that she’s also been ignoring a few more thoughts – because they feel even more personal. Lucia is thinking about her friends that seem so close to their daughters, and wondering if her daughter must hate her. In turn, this leads to more thoughts about what a terrible mother she must be, and what a crappy job she is doing as a parent.  

FEELING: Lucia has had a whole bunch of emotions about this state of affairs. Worry, anger and hurt standing out as the strongest.

If Lucia continues down this path, her behaviours are going to get in the way of her relationship with her daughter, and her own self image as a mother. If she thinks her daughter must be hiding something illicit, she may choose to search her room when her daughter is at school. She may make accusations. If she thinks she’s a crappy mom compared to her friends (or at least, that her daughter thinks of her that way), she may go into her own fight or flight response. She might spend a lot more time in her own room. Or she might feel the need to defend herself.

Is There Another Way to Think About This?

These ten questions will help Lucia think differently, which in turn will decrease the intensity of her distressing emotions. Once she feels better, she will be in a better space for problem solving.

  1. What might I tell a friend who was in this situation?
  2. How do I think about this when I am feeling my strongest/best?
  3. Could more than one thing be true here?
  4. What’s the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it? Will it matter in five years?
  5. What’s the best thing that could happen? What is most likely to happen?
  6. Are there any exceptions to this rule? (Do I have different rules for myself than others?)
  7. If this thought is true, is it really so bad? Can I cope? Can I do anything about it?
  8. Is there anything good about this situation?
  9. What can I learn from this that will help next time?
  10. What way of thinking will help me to best serve my health and well being?

Through this questioning process, Lucia will probably come up with some other possible meanings for her daughter’s behaviours. Is it likely that her daughter is hiding something illicit, or is it perhaps that she needs more time to herself as she is growing up and feeling overwhelmed? Is she seeing all sides of her friends relationships with their daughters? Or is it possible that she is only seeing what they tell her and put on social media? Could some of what she is noticing in her daughter and their relationship be in fact, normal?

She might not fully believe any of those possibilities (yet) … but even by noticing them, and admitting there is a small chance they could be “true” … she is opening a crack to let some light in. The emotions don’t go away, but they don’t feel quite so intense, so that she can better problem solve and function as a parent.

Finally, remember that …

It’s not about seeing the world through rose coloured glasses, or looking on the bright side. Rather, it’s about learning how to step back and look at a situation from all angles, even when it feels personal and hurtful.

Imagine your thoughts are the ocean. It’s the difference between drowning in the ocean, versus sitting on the shore and watching the waves roll in. Remember, thoughts are not facts. They are only our interpretations of the facts. Learning how to think differently takes a lot practice, and it often takes a lot of help. I have a lot of experience (and more tips and tricks) to help others learn this new skill; reach out today!

Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety: Both to Reduce it … & to Increase our Ability to Bear it

The seagulls, water, waves, and the Island of Alcatraz on a grey day, taken from a distance.
Even Alcatraz is kinda beautiful, in its own way, when seen from a distance!

Like many of you, I am trying to incorporate more mindfulness meditation both in my personal and my professional life. But … in my own life I am not doing so great. Over the last five years I have tried several times to develop my own practice. Recently I was reminded that as a therapist it isn’t great to be preaching mindfulness meditation for anxiety to clients, when it isn’t something that I am myself working on. I am feeling confident these days, and almost ready to try again. Currently, I’m in the “preparing to act” stage of change!

As I prepare, I am working on my own self compassion. Part of this means reminding myself that mindfulness meditation treats our brain like a muscle. Much like lifting weights, it isn’t necessarily about reaching a finish line. It is in the attempts, in the striving, in the work, that those muscles are strengthened.

During the times when I have guided clients through a mindfulness meditation for anxiety, it always seems to turn out so well. They are struck by new realizations. They notice things that provide such wonderful fodder for processing their difficult emotions. Just yesterday, after coming out of a mindfulness exercise, a client said “I learned that what was bothering me wasn’t quite as bad as I was making it out to be”.

Two Different Ways to Approach the “Problem”

Talk therapy is usually what is called “top down” work. We start with the brain, and hope that it translates to the body. We process our thoughts and emotions in a very brain based (cognitive) way. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is usually an example of this. By learning how to think a little differently, we start to feel better.

In contrast, mindfulness is different – it is an example of what we call “bottom up” work. It’s all about paying attention to what is happening in our body in the present moment. When you are anxious, what do you notice? When we can regulate our body’s responses, we can find the perspective and objectivity we need to deal with any of the distressing thoughts in our minds.

Body … mind … body … mind … body. With some clients it might help to start with the top, with others the bottom.

Before you Begin

As part of my work with clients, I have been drawing lately on a simple exercise to help with fear, worry and anxiety. The rationale for this exercise comes from the following two ideas:

  1. Mindfulness can retrain our brain to lower anxiety. By refocusing on the present (which is usually pretty safe) we turn our attention away from the past or the future (the thoughts that we are finding distressing).
  2. More counterintuitively, mindfulness can also increase our capacity to bear anxiety. Sometimes that is called “distress tolerance”. By staying with the distressing emotion, not avoiding or running away, and giving ourselves some comfort and care … we learn what we are capable of. We grow in confidence. It becomes less scary.

Refocusing on the present … while staying with what’s worrying us. Both at the same time. Two sides of the same coin.

Before undertaking the following, consider what might be bringing up the strongest worry or anxiety for you right now. Is it a person? An event? A specific environment? Whatever it is, we will be calling it forth during this exercise.

Also, a word about the following phrase “Real But Not True”.  Your distressing, judgemental thoughts and physical feelings are real! But it’s also important to remember that your rationale for holding on to these thoughts and feelings are only based on “sound bytes” … not objective truth. There is so much more to what makes you who you are. You can never know it all. Believing these thoughts and feelings creates behaviours that then bring about exactly what we are afraid of. Consider that there are many ways of looking at difficult triggers in our lives.

That Rock Troll ain’t so scary! Maybe you can creep a little closer? 😉

A Simple Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety Exercise*

Take a few moments to be still. Congratulate yourself for taking some time for meditation practice.

Start with your eyes open, taking a moment to notice your surroundings. What colours and shapes do you see? Pay attention to anything you might smell, these might be good smells or bad smells. What about your sense of touch? What textures do you observe? Finally, observe the sounds in your environment. Can you hear traffic? Birds? The sounds of a ticking clock?

All of these observations can just happen, without needing to react or do anything about them. For example, notice that the sound reaches your ears naturally, and they don’t fold over and push away what they hear …

Now, close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath … wherever you might feel it the strongest. You might notice the air moving in and out of your nose. Or you might notice your chest, or your belly, rising and falling. Or you might feel air rushing down the back of your throat.

There is no need to visualize, count, or figure out the breath. Just be mindful of breathing in and breathing out. Without judgement, just watch the breath ebb and flow like waves in the sea. There is no place to go and nothing else to do, just be in the here and now, noticing the breath – just living life one inhalation and exhalation at a time.

Next, bring to mind something that makes you anxious. Imagine that you are about to be in this situation, or in contact with this person. If you can’t find any anxiety, generate a scary thought or an image to help conjure it up. We want to get the anxiety going strongly enough to be able to practice feeling it, but not to be overwhelming.

What kind of thoughts are you having? Are they about trying to problem solve? Planning ahead? Mental judgement? A voice? Some images? … Consider that your thoughts are a form of fear thinking. They are Real, But Not True. They are only thoughts. You can still choose whether to listen to them or not.

Now, bring your awareness below your neck and drop into your body. Become mindful of the physical sensations you might be experiencing. Notice wherever you feel the most vulnerability in your body – this might take shape as a pressure, heat, or tightness. You might feel it in your forehead, or jaw. It might be present in your neck or shoulders, in your chest or belly. It might be most present somewhere below the waist. Does it have a shape? A color?

You don’t need to judge it as good or bad. Just notice how it feels.

Once you’ve got some anxiety going, acknowledge its presence, wherever it lives in your body. Give it a mental nod of recognition and familiarity. Just breathe into that place in your body where you feel it the most.

If the sensation of anxiety starts to fade, do whatever you need to do to bring it back.

Continue to observe whatever is happening in your body right now. Where do you most feel the fear? What does that place need the most? Breathe into that fear. Accept it. By accepting it, you accept yourself.

Keep breathing, and …

… keep practicing just welcoming and feeling the fear.

From time to time, attention may wander away. When you notice this, simply acknowledge where you went, and then gently bring your attention back. Breathe normally and naturally, without manipulating the breath in any way, just be aware of the breath as it comes and goes.

Now, offer yourself some comfort or care. What message might be most comforting? What does your anxious self most need to hear right now? It might be “you are fine in this moment”, or “I’m with you”. Or it might be “that’s then, now is now”. Experiment with placing your hand on your heart …

… As we near the end of this meditation, take some moments to notice what is changed.  How does your body feel? Turn your attention observing the contact of your feet on the floor. What about your weight on the [surface beneath you]? Does it feel soft/hard underneath you?

Next, I want you to open your eyes once again, and take some time to notice what is around you – this might be light, shapes, sounds. What can you hear now? What do you notice? Has the quality of these sensations changed at all?

Finally, congratulate yourself for taking this time to be present, realizing that this is an act of love. May we be at peace. May all beings be at peace.


I have learned that fighting and/or avoiding the thing that is upsetting me usually makes makes it worse. (Remember the fight or flight reaction?) This holds true both for our external as well as our internal triggers. For example, as a parent I learned that pushing my kids usually meant they pushed back harder. Instead, if I softened my responses, and took the time to listen to what they were saying, they usually softened theirs.

So this means that by taking time to listen to our body, staying aware of the worry, and present in the anxious moment, we can learn how to slow down our responses. In turn, the worry and anxiety will usually lessen in its intensity, and/or our self confidence will grow. This point is driven home by a personal hero, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning” (a short easy read). He said,

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

As I embark on your own mindfulness journey, it helps to remember the words of another famous writer. Mark Twain said “the worst things in my life never happened”. I love this. Again, it reminds me of the client (mentioned at the beginning of this blog) who found out she was making a bigger deal of it than she needed to.

So, what about you? What did you notice? What came up for you? Were you, like her, a bit surprised that the thing you were worried about was not as bad as you thought? Or perhaps you might have felt the opposite, too overwhelmed, such that it was hard to come back down after. (Maybe you need to pick something smaller?)

When you feel frustrated, remember that it takes practice to decondition your body’s responses to stressors. I am trying to remind myself of this too! It is a muscle that needs time to build, and time to maintain. This exercise, with practice, can help with that. In order to make mindfulness meditation a little easier, many people use apps. There are so many choices out there – do you have any favourites?

Further Growth & Help

*When I wrote this exercise, I drew heavily on the work of Ruth Buczynski, Tara Brach and Ron Siegel. I have also pulled content that can be found in the “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Workbook” (2010) as well as the book, “Leave Your Mind Behind” (2007). Contact me for more information, or if you want to check out these sources on your own.

If you tried this exercise and found it to be a little too overwhelming, you might need a little extra help. In sessions with clients I can adapt these strategies as needed. Reach out today.

10 Reasons to Choose Email Counselling (and 3 Reasons Not to)

The world is changing fast, and counselling is too. Below are ten reasons many individuals find that email counselling can be therapeutic during times of need. (Scroll down to find three reasons NOT to choose email counselling!)

  1. You can communicate with your counsellor when you need to, rather than waiting for their schedule to open. You can write a letter, or review a past letter. Your counsellor isn’t present, but taking the time and space to write to them means that you are reflecting and working on solving your own problems.
  2. You don’t need to set aside a whole hour all at once. You can write, read, review and reflect bit by bit over time. In fact, counsellors who do this work encourage it!
  3. Conversely, you can take longer than an hour if you need to! There is no need to fit your whole story, and all your complicated emotions, into 50-60 minutes. You can take the time you need to compose your thoughts before you press “send”.
  4. There is no parking, gas money, time off work, or travel time to worry about.
  5. If you are housebound or live in a remote community, online counselling can be an ideal option.
  6. Email counselling affords you increased anonymity; many people find it much easier to lower inhibitions and talk about difficult subjects in a letter.
  7. Email counselling is private. There is no chance that someone will see your car, or that you will bump into someone you know. No one will see you walk into a counselling office. Unlike video counselling, there is no chance that someone will overhear.
  8. You have the option of having a permanent written record of everything you and your counsellor have to say over time. It is like keeping a personal journal, except that you are communicating with a professional. This can be helpful to track changes, or as a source of encouragement when you are feeling low. Various parts of your letters might only become meaningful later.
  9. You save money. Even though you get to spend more time sharing your story, and the counsellor still spends an hour writing their reply, email counselling is often a bit cheaper, as there is less overhead involved in providing services to you. You may even save money as you may not have to return to your counsellor for a refresher if similar problems return – you just have to go back to your letters.
  10. By setting aside the time to sit down and write (rather than attend an appointment at a certain time) you are forced to take ownership over your own healing process. You aren’t doing it because it’s what your counsellor expects, you are doing it for yourself!

Still wondering if counselling by email can really help you heal and create change? Check out this blog posting.

Why NOT Counselling by Email?

Online counselling is not for everyone.

  1. If you may be at risk of violence (or of hurting someone yourself) or are feeling suicidal, you need to access more immediate face to face counselling in your local community.
  2. If you feel overwhelmed by strong emotions and unable to manage them on your own, you should not choose online counselling.
  3. You may require more specialist medical treatment than what online counselling can provide, especially if you have been diagnosed with psychosis or an eating disorder.

Keep in mind that my responses are not immediate. Typically, my commitment is to respond within two of my business days. For more immediate choices, keep an eye out for RSCC Resources page (coming soon).


An Intro to Watching Movies as Therapy

I love going to the movies, don’t you!? Movies make you feel things. “Who has not walked out of a movie theatre feeling sad, scared, inspired, or otherwise moved? Movies can potentially open a person’s eyes to new solutions to any number of difficulties. … They might offer hope, provide role models, and reframe problems” (from

Hmm. Kinda sounds like counselling, doesn’t it?

This post marks an introduction to an upcoming blog series on “Cinematherapy” (or movie therapy). In the series, I will be recommending and reviewing a different movie each time. The only rule: the plot or theme of each movie will touch on something related to relationships, mental health and/or social issues.

I’m excited! Okay, let’s get started … (if you have come to this post just to see the directions how to watch a movie mindfully, please scroll down).


The term cinematherapy has been used since the 1990’s, and is a close cousin of “bibliotherapy”. (Books make you feel things too!) According to Segen’s Medical Dictionary, “Cinematherapy can be a catalyst for healing and growth for those who are open to learning how movies affect people and to watching certain films with conscious awareness.”

Read those last words again. “… those who are open to … watching certain films with conscious awareness.”

How the heck do you do that?

Dr Birgit Wolz, a current guru in this field, acknowledges that it is easy to get caught up in the entertainment and forget to watch mindfully. She answers one viewer’s question: “What you are saying about movies is true for life in general. We often get “caught up” in things and become conscious only later when we look back. … Like in real life, your conscious awareness will increase and decrease at times. Learning to have control over this will benefit you greatly in life.”

Back in the mid-1990’s, I was a Drug Prevention Worker at a high school in northern BC. I didn’t know there was such a thing as cinematherapy, but I knew that teens liked watching movies! So I organized groups where they could come watch movies related to problem drug and alcohol use. When choosing the movies (before Netflix and Youtube) I looked for stories which were relevant to their lives. I also created suggested lists they could take home and use. My hope was that I could engage them in honest conversation about substance abuse, rather than teaching remote facts that did not connect with their everyday experiences.

How Can Cinematherapy Help?

While the research is still ongoing, here is a summary of what I and the current practitioners in the field believe:

  1. Watching a movie (or talking about a movie) with someone you don’t know very well can help build a rapport. It is an easy way to build a connection with someone (including your counsellor).
  2. How you respond to a character or a plot point in a movie can help you learn about yourself. Because talking about the movie is less threatening than talking about yourself, it’s a “way in” to the stuff you may find quite challenging otherwise. This helps to strengthen self-awareness. (*Note: most of the reflections questions below are designed to help in this area.)
  3. Talking about a movie with someone that you otherwise experience communication challenges with can help to build your communication skills.
  4. You’ve heard about feeling better after “a good cry”. Watching movies that make us laugh or cry can provide a cathartic emotional release. This can be a useful first step to therapy or counselling.
  5. Movies show us what is going on behind a character’s surface. We learn something about “why” they behave as they do. As viewers, we go along for the ride, walking beside them on a part of their journey. All of this helps to generate an empathic response – something we need a little more of in our everyday lives.
  6. Movies fight shame and stigma when they are about the lives of people who are marginalized or otherwise invisible. The recent popularity of transgender individuals in Hollywood is one example.

How to Watch a Movie with Mindful Awareness

Before you begin, find a comfortable spot. Pause. Take a moment to notice your breathing. It should be easy, and natural. Don’t force it. Do a quick body scan. Then if you notice any spots where you feel stress or tightness, acknowledge them. Dr Wolz writes, “Let your breath travel into these spots. To release tension you may experiment with ‘breathing into’ any part of your body that feels strained.” For now, set your judgements aside.

While watching, pay attention both to the movie and to your own physiological reactions. Observe whatever is happening – whether your heart is speeding up, or the pace of your breathing is changing. Do your best not to judge or analyze. Just “be fully present with your experience”.

The following are questions that suggests you ask yourself when the movie is finished. If you like, it can be useful to record your answers.

  1. Do you remember whether your breathing changed throughout the movie? Could this be an indication that something threw you off balance? In all likelihood, what affects you in the film is similar to whatever unbalances you in your daily life.
  2. Ask yourself: If a part of the film that moved you (positively or negatively) had been one of your dreams, how would you have understood the symbolism in it?
  3. Notice what you liked and what you didn’t like or even hated about the movie. Which characters or actions seemed especially attractive or unattractive to you? Did you identify with one or several characters? 
  4. Were there one or several characters in the movie that modelled behaviour that you would like to emulate? Did they develop certain strengths or other capacities that you would like to develop as well? 
  5. Notice whether any aspect of the film was especially hard to watch. Could this be related to something that you might have repressed (“shadow”)? Uncovering repressed aspects of our psyche can free up positive qualities and uncover our more whole and authentic self.
  6. Did you experience something that connected you to your inner wisdom or higher self as you watched the film?

I have to give grateful credit for these instructions as they have come from Dr Birgit Wolz, at Although I struggled a bit with the layout, what a gold mine of content her website is! (She has in turn based portions of these instructions on Sinetar, Marsha (1993) Reel Power & Spiritual Growth Through Film. Ligouri, MO: Triumph Books.)

Finally … A Warning

Cinematherapy is an “add-on” therapy, much like art, music, or dance therapy. Similarly, it can be used as a self-help technique or with a counsellor. However, our problems show up in a spectrum. Self-help can be useful for problems that do not require a counsellor, but sometimes other expert eyes can be useful. If the problem is more severe, do not use cinematherapy in place of a trained counsellor!

The questions for reflection above encourage you to open yourself up to those uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that you might be closed off from. But watch out for negative triggers! Sometimes it can be too much. Make sure you have access to emotional support if necessary. If you end up feeling overwhelmed, is there someone you can talk to about it? (Or even get a hug from?)

Finally, there are no known contraindications for cinematherapy among most people. However, it is not advisable or helpful if there is a history of psychosis.

Further Reading

E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lovers Guide to Healing and Transformation Birgit Wolz (2005)

Rent Two Films and Let’s talk in the Morning: Using Popular Movies as Psychotherapy John W. Hesley; Jan G. Hesley (2001)

Advanced Cinematherapy: the Girl’s Guide to Finding Happiness One Movie at a Time Nancy Peske; Beverly West (2000)

The Motion Picture Prescription: Watch This Movie and Call me in the Morning Gary Solomon (1995)

A Peek Inside My Email Counselling Office: A Role Play

Today, you get to be a fly on the wall, and peek inside my email counselling office!

Email counselling seems to inspire strong feelings. Most people I talk to are very intrigued. There are a few who have said: “that would NEVER work for me!” (If this is you, please read this.) As I say below (to my fictional client Sandra), email counselling can feel very out of the box. I have created this role play both for the curious and for the doubters.

Setting the stage: As you drop in to observe, Sandra has already written me for the first time, telling me a little bit of her situation. To find her letter, scroll down and look for the italics. You might want to start there, just reading the italics. You are dropping in at the point where I am responding to her. I start with an introduction at the top and then respond to her specific concerns below.

Dear Sandra:

Congratulations on taking the first step to look for a counsellor! For some people, especially those in a caregiver role, it can feel very out of the box. You have recognized that it is not just your mom who needs care (not to mention your grandchild). But in order to be there for them, you need to care for yourself. Counselling is a form of self-care. It’s so easy to put yourself last, and you have courageously stepped outside that.

Email counselling is also something that is very out of the box! I have responded to your concerns below. You can see I have also attached my welcome and consent forms. These forms explain more about my approach and how this whole thing works. In the meantime, keep reading to learn a little more about what to expect.

Our letters are meant to be a conversation, just as if we were meeting in person. The approaches and techniques I use have been designed to facilitate that sense of face-to-face communication.

  1. For example, when I reply to your letter, I hit return in key sections, and type my comments there. I preface my comments with my initials so that it’s clearer who is saying what. When you read it, you will see how it reads as a conversation between the two of us.
  2. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to misinterpret what is said over email or when texting? I avoid this by using square brackets [ ] to convey some of the non-verbal parts of communication (e.g., body posture, facial expressions, or tone of voice). If you want to try using square brackets yourself, please feel free! It can be therapeutic, in that it forces you to increase your own self-awareness of what you are feeling. And it will help me to better understand you.

When you want to reply to me, go ahead and continue our conversation! I invite you to click on my message at the appropriate point. Hit return, and insert your response, starting with your initials.

Then, I also ask that you also compose a new message, as you normally would respond to a regular email … with a letter at the top. In this letter please let me know any updates since the last “session”. What’s changed? Anything new you want to share?

Take your time in composing your response. This is important work. I also suggest that you don’t hit send immediately. Sleep on it. Come back the next day. Inevitably, there will be things you will want to change. In this process of writing, reflecting, revising, and writing some more, you are reflecting more deeply, and moving closer to achieving your goals.

Okay. On to your letter …!


Dear Kirsten,

I’m writing to you because I am way too busy to see a counsellor, and in the small town where I live, there’s no one really appropriate anyway. I am at my wit’s end with my 92-year-old mother. All she does is complain and criticize, and she won’t accept any help from anyone except me. She is driving me crazy! I don’t know whether this is something you can help with or not?!


KM: Welcome, Sandra. If you were coming to see me in my home office, I would be greeting you at the door [warm smile and extending my hand to shake yours]. I have a sign on my door with my business name that invites you to, “walk in”, so you know you are at the right address! (I know it can feel a little weird going to an office in someone’s home for the first time.) In my office, I have a comfortable futon for you to sit. I also have a lot of art on the walls. I’ve made a cup of herbal tea ready to offer you. Perhaps you’d like to make yourself your favourite hot drink while you read this? Don’t worry, I’ll wait! 😉

From this brief introduction, it is evident that this situation with your mother is really distressing. Refusing to accept help, and constant complaints can be a common problem I hear about from adult children. You are not alone. Although it can be common, every situation is unique [leaning forward in my chair with interest]. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the details of your family life.


I should mention that she lives in our basement suite. It’s actually a contained ground level suite, in a home that my partner and I co-own with her. This has been a long-standing arrangement, and it may be that we have all outgrown the situation. She finds it difficult now to even go out to the mailbox to get the mail on her own, let alone do anything else out of the house.


KM: [concerned expression] It sounds like she has become somewhat housebound. And if she is refusing help, that puts quite a burden on you.


I am constantly worried about her having a fall, and me not noticing until the next day. She is lucky to have a scooter, which should be helping her get out of the house. But she refuses to use it because it scares her (even though she won’t admit it).


KM: That is true – she is lucky to have a scooter. They are very expensive. Some older adults have a difficult time feeling dependent on scooters, walkers, and the like. I like to say that these are tools to facilitate independence for the people that need them. NOT to create dependence and frailty. And when you are comfortable and confident using them, then you don’t feel so scared to leave the house! [voice rising slightly with enthusiasm]

Hmmm…. As you can tell, this is something I feel strongly about!

The trick is … like most new skills – learning something new takes time and outside help. [sitting back] From what you have shared, this does sound like a situation where an assessment from your local health authority may be a good idea. They would be the appropriate party to teach her how to use her scooter, for example.


Really, she’s the one that needs the help, not me. But as I said, she refuses to accept it. I’ve talked to our local health authorities, but there is little they can do without her consent unless I am abusing or neglecting her, or she is neglecting herself!


KM: That is so frustrating isn’t it!? [feeling curious] Correct me if I’m wrong, but are you feeling a bit angry at the system? At your mom?

Actually, I’m planning to write a whole blog post on the topic of how to handle it when your parent won’t accept outside help. There is a lot of general information and ideas I could share that would be outside the scope of this letter. If you like, I can also point you towards resources to help with this.

For now, here is a quote from psychologist and author Donna Cohen. “Many older people see themselves as proud survivors. They think ‘I’ve been through good times and bad, so I’ll be fine on my own.’ Plus, they don’t believe their children understand the physical and emotional toll of age-related health declines.”

Do you think this applies to your mom? Or not? [hesitating with uncertainty.] Please let me know if I’m on the right track.

In the meantime, I would love to talk more about the details of your situation. Can you tell me more about your mom? Has there been a time when the two of you gotten along well?


More about me: I have a chronic condition that causes pain in my hip and so I walk with a cane. I am the primary caregiver to my 8-year-old grandson, who also lives with us. He is a handful. Actually, he’s the only one who can make my mom smile – she brightens up when he is around, and they are close. I work almost full time, and (as I mentioned) I have a common-law partner. My partner works full time, contributes to finances, and is busy a lot.


KM: WOW. [eyes grow big] Sandra, you have a LOT on your plate! [feeling concerned for you] Anyone would feel overloaded with all of this, but chronic pain adds an extra burden, making it difficult to cope. What do you do to take care of yourself? When do you get a break?


I’m not sure what I am hoping for in writing to you. I guess I thought this might be a way to find support and a place to vent. I can’t talk to well-meaning family or friends because I often get too emotional (and I don’t want them to worry about me). Or they try and tell me what to do to fix it, without really listening or understand how I’m doing.


KM: It sounds like you are running into some roadblocks finding support in your day-to-day life. Your comments remind me of my favourite quotes from a relationship expert named John Gottman is “understanding must precede advice”. You have echoed this in your reference to well-meaning friends.

[leaning forward] When you get “too emotional”, what does that look like? Can you give me an example? Please tell me more about what you are feeling.


I also thought you might have some insight into what was going on with my mom and our relationship. Why she is so critical and angry, for example. We weren’t always this way. We used to be close.


KM: Ahhh. [smiling with hope] Earlier I asked if you two had ever gotten along well. I see you have begun to answer it. I would love to hear more about when you used to be close!

As I won’t get the opportunity to meet your mom, what I can do is present some possible paths for you to pursue. It may be that as we talk more, you will be able to connect some of the dots in your current relationship with her. I am hopeful that together we can make some progress.


Thanks for any help you can provide.



KM: You are very welcome! [big grin] I have asked a number of questions in this initial response. My purpose is simply to highlight possible paths we might follow in working together. It is completely up to you where you want to go with this. In other words, take what is helpful, and don’t worry about the rest! If anything is confusing or doesn’t make sense to you, please send me a brief note in a new letter with the subject heading “clarification requested”.

We have not yet really discussed the frequency of our “sessions”. I would like to hear back from you within a week. In that letter, I would either like your response, or just a quick note to say that you have read my letter, and plan to respond in x time. Because of the nature of email, if I don’t hear from you, I start to wonder.

Okay, I don’t know about you, but my cup of herbal tea is empty! If we were meeting in real life, our attention would start to turn towards the rest of our day. As I walk you to the door, I notice some blue sky out there!

It has been a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to our next session. [warm smile, extending hand to shake]



Communicating with your Counsellor Online: Ethical Concerns

Have you ever emailed your counsellor? What about your kid’s teacher? Last fall, I took an eye-opening course on Cybercounselling. In the process, I gained a much clearer understanding of the ethical concerns associated with communicating with your counsellor (or kid’s teacher) online. Twenty-three years ago, in 1994, the head of the school Lawrence Murphy founded Worldwide Therapy Online. In 1998, together with with the National Board for Certified Counsellors, he created a distinct code of ethics “to address the unique situations created by Internet technology”. (Wow. I didn’t even have a computer in my office yet!)

The Backstory

You’ve come a long way, Internet.

Way, way back in 1995, as a fresh young graduate starting out in addictions counselling at a non-profit society, I didn’t even have a computer on my desk. Rather than emails, we copied interoffice memos and stuck them in our colleagues’ mailboxes. Sometimes, when I tried to reach a client, they didn’t even have an answering machine. Remember those days?

Flash forward about five years later: I have a memory of sending a quick email to a colleague, hearing an email ding, then looking up from my computer and catching her eye. Turned out she and I both had our office doors open. (We were across the hall from each other.) We both burst out laughing at the absurdity.

In the last decade funding sources slowly dried up and caseload pressures grew stronger. And yes, I took shortcuts. As email found its way into almost every home, it also became a very efficient time-saving tool in communicating with clients. The purpose of emailing may have been to share a resource, book an appointment time, or even respond to a concern or question. I simply did not have the time to deal with all of these communication needs by phone.

The thing is, I am not alone. “It is more than hyperbole to suggest that the use of insecure email by professional clinicians may be the single most ubiquitous breach of ethics in the history of psychotherapy” (Murphy, Cybercounselling Level 1 class, Worldwide Therapy Online Inc., September 2016).

So, you and your counsellor are communicating online. After all, that’s the world we live in now! Maybe you are getting some counselling, or maybe you are just scheduling your next appointment. What are the ethical considerations you need to think about?

Communicating by Video 

Many sources equate online counselling with Skype. Many counsellors are offering Skype counselling as a way to make things easier on some clients. If your counsellor is using Skype, are you aware that Skype is licensed for personal use only, not for business? Check your terms and conditions. Both of you have agreed (when you first signed up) that Skype can review content at any time. Or, your counsellor may use Skype for Business (launched in 2015). If so, you may want to ask her how its integration with MS Office impacts how data is shared between the programs. For example, are contact names shared?

In addition to privacy concerns specifically related to Skype, there are other ethical considerations that stand out. I have seen a counsellor’s web page that advertises their Skype sessions as “just like real life”. This is a misnomer. For example,  you may have noticed that it is difficult to meet the eyes of the person you video chat with. How do you hold a therapeutic conversation when the other person is looking at your chest the whole time?

There are also space and lighting concerns to think about, as well as technical! When we meet over video, where am I in your space? What can I see and hear in the background? How does the lighting and/or video quality impact my impressions of you?

Communicating by Email

Further considerations unique to email exist, especially if you are going to communicate with your counsellor through regular, non-encrypted email. They will not protect you completely but may go a little way towards keeping you safe.

  1. Avoid giving away personal information and/or names of individuals in the subject heading. (As a parent, I have been guilty of using my child’s name in the subject heading when sending an email to their teacher!)
  2. Avoid discussing anything personal, especially information that may be damaging, in the content of regular email communication. Once the two of you have developed a rapport (and given the informal tone of many emails), this can easily happen without thought. You need to know you are then making yourself vulnerable.
  3. Look for a counsellor that uses a generic domain name that does not immediately reveal their role. Eg., rather than kirsten at rainstormcounselling dot com.

BEST PRACTICE: Look for a counsellor that provides secure, encrypted email that allows you to talk more privately!

Speaking of Encrypted Email…

My Cybercounselling teacher has said it is a breach of ethics to use regular email for any communication with clients. A conversation about an appointment time can easily slip into sharing information about something upsetting that happened that day. You may want your counsellor to be aware of it. After all, they are supposed to be a safe person for you to talk to, right?

“The rationale for encrypted email requires no more comment than does the rationale for a locked filing cabinet in a face-to-face counselling office” (Ibid, September 2016).

Very simply put, the web may route any email from within Canada through the US on particularly busy traffic days. Once it reaches the US the USA PATRIOT Act (and related legislation) applies. This is still the case even if you are sending elsewhere in Canada, and using a Canadian based email company. If you are using US based company such as Gmail, or Yahoo, the same American legislation automatically applies. It is not going far enough to exchange confidential information through regular email as long as they give informed consent. It is not going far enough to provide a warning in small print at the bottom of your email. The issues are too complex; we cannot be properly informed.

“It is akin to telling a client that you might break confidentiality ‘if bad stuff happens’ and then assuming they understand that disclosure of child neglect will lead to them being reported” (Ibid, September 2016).

Finally …

Online counselling goes by many different names: telemental health, cybercounselling, online counselling, e-counselling, and more. In all types, there are ethical concerns that cross the modes of communication. Whether it is by email, phone or video, you need to consider who else in your world can see and/or hear. Does anyone else know your password? Is there someone in the next room that you don’t want to hear you?

Working online can be notoriously unreliable. What if the application goes down? What if your account locks you out? What if there is an emergency? What if a space of time goes by when I don’t hear from you? Both of you need to have phone numbers you can use for backup, or in the event of an emergency. For crisis counselling, getting services online may or may not be the right choice. All of these things need to be considered carefully.

The new frontier, (especially for counsellors who work with young people) is communicating with each other by text. All of the above ethical concerns still apply. Free encrypted texting and email products are commonly available. (Most systems require both parties to sign up in order for the exchange to be encrypted.)

Are you feeling worried now?

Despite all these concerns, I am still a big believer in this form of therapy. (Check out another blog post I wrote to learn more about that.) When I started Rainstorm Counselling & Consulting I researched the various choices. Currently, I use Proton Mail for email and Signal for texting. (Communicating by video seems to be another matter. Several choices exist but they all cost money. Video counselling is coming soon!) Contact me if you have further questions about what I learned in my consumer research. If you are interested in getting training yourself, check out Therapy Online. This article only covers a small amount of what there is to learn.

A CBC article shows that more Canadians are worried about their privacy online. How about you? Do you communicate with your counsellor online? Have you ever tried out encrypted email?

Counselling by email: Does it really work?

(Spoiler alert … counselling by email does work IF you can build a good relationship with your counsellor. After being challenged by a family member, here’s the journey I took to demonstrate that!)

As any parent of a teenager knows, if you want your blind spots pointed out, ask your kid. Little kids love you and don’t want you to leave; teenagers want to take you down! (Okay, that’s an oversimplification – but it sure feels that way some days!) My teens would never hesitate to tell me if I have a hair growing out of my chin, a new wrinkle on my forehead, or spinach in my teeth. Or even (gasp) that the email counselling techniques I was learning would NEVER work!

Yes, that really happened.

I felt excited about the tools I had learned and so I shared some of them with my 19 year old. Of course, as a young person, they are a “digital native” and very familiar with text based communication. So, while I felt deflated, their opinion held some weight, and I decided to investigate further.

The first thing I need to make clear is that counselling (probably) isn’t going to help you heal or create change in your life UNLESS you can form a “therapeutic alliance” with your counsellor. No matter how good that person is or how much training they have had. Sometimes we call it “fit”. You can find that fit with some counsellors, and you might not with others.

Yes,  counselling by email really works, if you and your counsellor can build a good fit.

What is required in order to find that fit? I like Carl Rogers’ (humanistic) approach. He found that three components are essential for therapeutic change to take place: unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence. I have ordered these in what I consider to be the easiest to the most difficult to achieve via email counselling.

Unconditional Positive Regard

(Defined by Wikipedia as “basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does”.)

This may almost be easier to transmit through email than in person. In person, I sometimes work with “difficult” clients. By this, I mean that they are not very likeable. Working face to face I may have micro expressions or tiny mannerisms that betray my impatience. I may feel triggered by something that they say or do. This can lead to an inability to be truly present within the session.

Via email, I can pick and choose my responses. If I feel triggered, it might stem from a personal experience that has nothing to do with that person. Over email, I can take the time to reflect on the source of my feelings. This can help me reframe my response into something helpful. Communicating warmth towards the other is one element of unconditional positive regard; it is something I find fairly easy to do in both in person and in writing.


Empathy involves understanding, feeling, and sharing in another person’s thoughts and emotions. I have two thoughts about conveying empathy in an email.

First, as a counsellor, my ability to understand and share in another’s emotions is highly dependent on that person’s ability (whether written or verbal) to communicate those emotions. Some find it easier to explain and articulate thoughts and feelings in person. Others find it easier to write about them. Face to face, I may draw conclusions about the client’s thoughts and feelings based on their non-verbal communication. I am more dependent on non-verbal communication when the client is struggling to talk. Over email, especially when a client is struggling to write what they feel, I can mediate my response by being especially tentative my approach.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the sense that you might be feeling a bit angry at your mom?”

In some ways, communication that is not face-to-face can help to prevent me from making unspoken assumptions (based on their non-verbal communication). Checking out my impressions over email can lead to deeper understanding and empathy.

Second, I also believe communicating empathy is highly dependent on my own ability to draw on my personal experiences. This ability is not handicapped by using email. When something resonates, it is here where I may use a small amount of self-disclosure, to show the client that I understand. “I get that – I’ve felt that too – I’m right here with you”.


I like to think of congruence as “matching” the client. The best example I have of this is a middle aged Indigenous man who came to me for addictions counselling several decades ago. I was a young white woman. Several other social service agencies had banned this fellow because of his outspoken (and apparently rude) nature. Somehow, without even realising it, I was able to match his approach. When he would tease (or insult) me, I would do the same to him. Rather than getting offended, I lucked out. He thought this was hilarious – and ultimately, matching his style of humour helped us to achieve a therapeutic alliance.

In email communication, I rely on what is called “process control techniques” and “presence techniques” in order to communicate congruence. When it’s done right, it works! But it can be easy to mess this up. Even something as simple as using too many exclamation marks can be entirely appropriate for one person, and not at all with another.


A good “fit” speaks to the relationship you form with your counsellor, and whether that relationship has the potential to help you create change in your life. Counselling by email really CAN help you heal. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I have heard it said: “try telling people a hundred years ago that you couldn’t have an intimate letter writing relationship over a long period of time, sometimes even with people that you’d never met, sharing your deepest thoughts and feelings!”

I just googled it to remind me if my memory served. Yep, Einstein and Freud’s famous correspondence was one example of this sort of relationship.

Okay. I just shared the story of Einstein and Freud with my teen. The answer I got back? “One hundred years ago? Try today!” Then I learned about a friend who is engaged to someone she met on Twitter! I know nothing about this relationship, including how healthy it may or may not be. But I am forced to conclude that somehow, the conditions necessary for communicating empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence must have been met in 140 characters. Surely, the same can happen in an email!

Check out other pages on this site to learn more, including 10 Reasons to Choose Email Counselling, and FAQ: Email Counselling.