Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

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Changes can be sc-sc-sc-scary and un-un-un-settling! We tend to feel comfortable with the known and therefore crave the known. Even if we don’t particularly like the known, at least we know what it is. Our minds work hard to make sense out of ourselves, our situations, or events in our lives. This seemingly logical framework brings a feeling of control which can lead us to feel more calm or peaceful.

Unfortunately, changes bring along the possibility of the unknown and can tip the logical framework out of balance. We may make up internal dialogues about what the unknown change will bring, and many times that internal dialogue veers towards a more negative or more positive version of the accuracy of what is to come. These internal stories are often our coping mechanism for creating sense out of the unknown and they can then bring us a sense of control or peace, even if the dialogue is negative.

But what if our internal framework of stories brings us anxiety about the impending change? Or what if that internal framework leads to excitement which deflates when the actual change occurs and cannot live up to the excitement? We may be better off ditching our internal stories and just living with the unknown.

So how can we learn to approach change with more ease or acceptance? There is a story of a wise old man who was approached multiple times with the question of, ” Isn’t this the best/worst thing to ever happen?” Each time the wise man heard this question, his reply was the same: “Maybe so, maybe not.” We often believe what our brain tells us. We believe that because we hear it inside, it must be true. But if we are able to stay open to the possibility that our brain tells us information based on internal messages and biases, then we are able to see that we cannot accurately fortune-tell what a change will bring. We begin to be able to relax into the unknown and into the changes which are coming. Is it really the best/worst/slightly better/slightly worse/completely neutral thing to ever happen?

Maybe so. Maybe not.

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Mindful – what?!

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The term ‘mindfulness’ gets thrown around quite a bit, not only in therapeutic settings, but also in the news and popular media. I am a champion of the mindfulness concept, however often the exercise of mindfulness is not adequately explored. Tara Bennett-Goleman, a therapist, writes that:

“Mindfulness means seeing things as they are, without trying to change them.”

If we just leave the concept at that, it can seem frightening or even harmful. After all, I don’t know many folks who want to see that they feel angry or scared and then just sit in it! Ms. Bennett-Goleman’s next words on the subject can help us to better embrace the concept. She writes:

“‘The point is to dissolve our reactions to disturbing emotions, being careful not to reject the emotion itself.”

Our goal is not to sit and ruminate upon the disturbing experience (we are generally very practiced in that already!) Our goal is to fully see and experience our emotions related to the moment without judgment. Without saying to ourselves, “That is a bad emotion to have. I shouldn’t have that emotion. How wrong of me. I must do better.” When we are able to become mindful of our primary emotions and give ourselves permission to see it as it is without changing it, we become more able to allow that emotion to shift or flow through us. We become more truly ourselves, with acceptance and understanding.

No Laughing Matter

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Numerous articles have sprung up on the web in the last few days mourning, reminiscing, and discussing the death of Robin Williams. Clearly his passing has struck a chord in the public and it seems that we are collectively grieving his death. Often when a public figure dies, or there is a national or international tragedy, my clients bring it up during session. When we experience any loss, we want to make sense of it, to understand it better. What has been notable to me since Williams’ death, is that almost all of my clients have spoken with me about the impact it has had on them.

Williams played characters on the screen which felt accessible and relate-able to everyday people. His characters were not glamorous, but instead felt grounded in reality. He was funny and witty and so often his characters seemed wise and upbeat.  This part of Williams which was portrayed on screen co-existed with his other pieces of depression and struggles with addiction. It can be difficult to imagine ourselves and others capable of holding so many different parts of ourselves together in one body, in one life. So his death was a shock, and it can bring up so many of our own fears about ourselves. Death is scary, but often the unknowns of depression can feel worse. Depression brings with it unexpected feelings and thoughts and impulses. Depression can damped out our own knowledge of our other parts – such as the funny and intelligent pieces of ourselves. Depression is serious and is no laughing matter.

As we remember Williams, we also have the opportunity to check in with ourselves – to notice all the parts of us which ultimately make us whole. Some who are depressed may end their lives in suicide, but we can work – individually, inter-personally, and culturally – to accept all parts of ourselves and to be kind with one another in the process.

To quote Robin Williams himself in Dead Poets Society,

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Deciphering Motivation

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Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist who specializes in happiness. She has devoted her career to “The How of Happiness” (also coincidentally the title of her book quoted below,) and has quantifiable research to back up her advice. One thing which makes a lot of sense to me, and which seems to ring true to many of my clients is the theory of five generalized motivations for taking actions. She states them as:

“Natural: I’ll keep doing this activity because it will feel ‘natural’ to me and I’ll be able to stick with it.

Enjoy: I’ll keep doing this activity because I will enjoy doing it; I’ll find it to be interesting and challenging.

Value: I’ll keep doing this activity because I will value and identify with doing it; I’ll do it freely even when it’s not enjoyable.

Guilty: I’ll keep doing this activity because I would feel ashamed, guilty, or anxious if I didn’t do it; I’ll force myself.

Situation: I’ll keep doing this activity because somebody else will want me to or because my situation will force me to.”

The first three motivations – Natural, Enjoy, and Value – are positive internal motivators. Generally when we pursue an activity from one of these motivators we feel happy or content inside. The last two motivations – Guilty and Situation – are negative internal motivators. Lyubomirsky prescribes a minimally complicated math equation for figuring out how much you will like any particular activity based on these five motivators. But in lieu of having to do math, imagine rating an activity on a scale of 1 – 10 for each of the motivators and see what the numbers say. The higher the numbers for the first three in regard to the last two, chances are you will enjoy the activity more.

This by no means is a call to only do things which are in the first three categories. Sometimes we must do things motivated from the last two categories. But it is a call to think about your life as a whole and where your motivation lies most of the time. If you listen inward and discover that more often than not your motivations come from a place of guilt or situation, see if there is any leeway to lessen those activities and/or increase activities which come from one of the positive internal motivators.

Happiness takes work, but the effort can lead us to a more satisfying and contented life!

A Social Group of Lions

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When I entered the term, “pride” into google, the following definitions popped up as the first entry:

1. a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.
2. a group of lions forming a social unit

I will try to remember to refer to the next group of lions I come across as a pride. However, my intent in my search was really to find an accurate definition along the lines of #1. I often witness clients squirm in their seat when I ask if they feel pride in something particular. I attribute this squirming not to the fact that they do not feel pride, but to the fact that somewhere along the line, these particular clients learned that they were not “supposed” to feel pride in themselves.

Deep shame precludes a feeling of pride and satisfaction. This deep shame can be developed at an individual level, however it can also be passed down through families or cultures. Therefore, it can take a lot of emotional effort to overcome the guilt/shame we may feel at the slightest hint of self-pride.

On the flip side, there are some people who seem to take more pride in themselves than a situation may merit. Yet, my experience in observing others leads me to believe that many more of us struggle to feel pride or to express the pride we feel. 

Therefore, I encourage you to find one thing you are proud of in yourself today, and SAY IT OUT LOUD! Even if it is to the air, say it! Allow yourself to own that pride. Most of us can benefit from a genuine confidence booster. And if that feels too hard, flip through a National Geographic until you see a pride of lions. 

Conscious Partnerships

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After the recent media blitz about Gwenyth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s self-proclaimed “conscious uncoupling,” I cringe slightly at the terminology of a conscious partnership. Yet, despite my inward cringing, I can see the value in a self-aware, conscientious, and purposeful partnership. Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. writes a list of 10 characteristics of a conscious partnership in his book, Getting the Love You Want. His list, without elaboration, is as follows:

1. You realize that your love relationship has a hidden purpose – the healing of childhood wounds.

2. You create a more accurate image of your partner.

3. You take responsibility for communicating your needs and desires to your partner.

4. You become more intentional in your interactions.

5. You learn to value your partner’s needs and wishes as highly as you value your own.

6. You embrace the dark side of your personality.

7. You learn new techniques to satisfy your basic needs and desires.

8. You search within yourself for the strengths and abilities you are lacking.

9. You become more aware of your drive to be loving and whole and united with the universe.

10. You accept the difficulty of creating a lasting love relationship.

So to break that down out of the therapist-y jargon…you figure out that we all act unconsciously based on what we did or learned in childhood, you say NO to that childlike way of being, you say YES to the parts of you you’ve tried to hide away, you figure out how to soothe yourself, you allow yourself to become stronger, and VOILA! Whole new kinds of relationships!

This can be a lifetime of work on ourselves and our own perceptions of the world, but each step in that work has the potential to increase the satisfaction in our relationships. So give yourself permission to take a baby step forward with boldness today!

Just Do It

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I’ve had several folks close to me who have recently gone into the hospital or had family members go into the hospital for serious, sometimes life-threatening, reasons. As a friend of someone facing medical adversity, we can experience a multitude of emotions, including fear, hope, helplessness and confusion. Often I feel unsure of how to really be a help or even how much to be present.

Unfortunately there is no cookie-cutter answer to this, as each person has different needs and wants. But after an experience not too far back of feeling like I had let a hurting friend down, a wise person told me, “Don’t ask, just do it.”

Given how many of us have trouble asking for help – even when we really need it – this piece of advice really spoke to me. Certainly it is appropriate to ask what someone most needs, and if they are able to verbalize it and we are able to do it, then do that! However, at times, all of us are unable to verbalize what we need or want, especially when we are hurting – physically or emotionally. In those moments, we can show our care by showing up to say hi, or dropping off meals, without our friend having to ask.

This philosophy can serve us well at other times in our life also. With our partners, families, friends, children – we can increase the connection of our relationship by just doing it – without someone asking us to, thereby relieving their burden of having to ask, or even their feelings of guilt over asking.

Asking for help is vulnerable – but when those around us are already in a vulnerable state, we can give the gift of, “Don’t ask, just do it!.”