Category: Uncategorized

Knowing You are Good “Enough”

blue star backdropIn this day of fitting in one more thing, or “reaching for the stars” it can be difficult to see what we are actually doing. It can seem like no matter how much we run from one work task, child’s activity, volunteer task, paperwork, financial document, or exercise class, the only feeling that we feel is run ragged. At the end of the day, all we check off in our heads are the to-do checkmarks left undone and the tasks that didn’t make it on the list at all. Even when we feel like we have had a “busy day,” we can feel unaccomplished and unworthy. The measuring stick of accomplishment can seem like it constantly is moving. All of us in this society of perpetual bootstrap-upping are asked to be masters of their own homes, successful in their careers, genuine spouses and expert parents, financial gurus, accomplished socialites, and oh wait, have the lean body of Gillian Anderson? All of that, while also accomplishing the basics (which often go by the wayside) of feeding, watering, and resting ourselves. It is even a wonder with those expectations that we don’t show up forgetting to put our pants on in the morning. Have we even counted up the hours necessary for that cacophony of expectations? My gracious. No matter how much Steven-Coveying we do in planning sometimes it feels like we are still going to end up in the negative. All of this with most of us working a US average of 47 hours a week and spending more time with our kids than any time in US History (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/19/AR2007031901972.html). We continue to raise the bar on what it means to be “an adult” in America while constantly feeling like we are failing.

A good friend, who is a wonderful mother, and the organization guru that I only aspire to in my wildest imagination, said to me this week how she went to the gym with her four children, did a class, and had her children participate in a class. All had a wonderful time and she had a feeling of pride at this new accomplishment. However, the enthusiasm was dampened when she met another woman who also had four children, all approximately 6 months older than hers, but she told me that they all seemed to do things a bit “better.” Coordinated exercise outfits, organic snack in between activities, etc. etc. and they had been to the gym four times that week. All my friend could think of (and frankly, myself too!) was “HOW DID SHE DO THAT?” She did everything that I did….but better??? My friend’s excitement at having made it to the gym with all of her kids withered and it bothered her, because all she could see was the image in front of her, and like a cruel mirror it said, “Haha. Nice Try.”

Why did her image of her accomplishment change? Why does all of our moments of accomplishment change, that alters that sense that we “are enough.” Many times it is the moments where we look around and see what we perceive to be each other’s “baseline of operation” and judge ourselves for not cutting it. We concentrate on the magic trick in front of us, not knowing the circumstances from where this comparative image comes from and forget to see what we are doing day by day in creating the life we have. From an evolution stanpoint, I suppose this makes sense, in a rather “survival of the fittest sense.” We want better for the next generation. And I think that sometimes this translates to what we perceive as “the next generation” of ourselves? Like New Year’s Resolutions, we try and imagine the next “version” of ourselves. Not all of us have children, but each day we have the opportunity to make ourselves better, a rebirth. Does it truly make us better? How is that even defined?

The author Don Miguel Ruiz, author of “The Four Agreements” offers us this: he states that one of the four basic rules of living is to “Do Our Best”—nothing more and nothing less. Only our best. Ruiz states that we can only do our best and that our best is customized and personalized only to…you guessed it, ourselves. He states “Our best will change from moment to moment, will be different when we are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstances simply do your best and you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse and regret.” One of our greatest mistakes is comparing our best to someone else’s best, without truly knowing all of the circumstances surrounding the person we are comparing ourselves. Yes, they may have done the seemingly impossible—successfully wrangled four polite children in coordinating outfits to the gym four days a week—but we don’t know who may have helped her at home with that, what some of the other areas of her life looked like, if her house is as messy as mine….who knows….and frankly, should we care enough to compare? Does it serve us to care or compare, or does it make us simply feel bad about ourselves and our contributions? We cannot possibly have the energy and focus to “be the best” in all areas of life, and even if that were the case, what best would we be comparing ourselves? Ruiz states “always do your best” not “always do the best,” which is a gigantic difference in perspective. It is the difference between feeling like you have done enough, and that you accomplished something, and the feeling like you are always coming up short. Do we do our best when we feel like we are always coming up short or does it deplete us? Give yourself the gift of feeling like you are enough by acknowledging your accomplishments, and see how you feel. It may “the best” thing you do for yourself all day. 

Activity: As it is the beginning of the month, look back on February and think of all of the things great and small that you accomplished. Did you finish a proposal or paper? Were you friendly to someone when you didn’t exactly feel like it? Did you exercise (even once!)? Did you cook dinner at home for your family? Clean your house? Did you make a tough decision? Or deal with some lingering grief? Do a small home project that you had been putting off? Log more hours in at work? Did you make a therapy or doctor’s appointment that you have been putting off? Do something new or out of your comfort zone? Go out with a friend…or phone one that you haven’t spoken to in a long time? Anything counts, and should, as a good first step in recognizing what you bring to the world.

And remember, the old saying, reach for the moon because if you miss you will land among the stars is an astrological impossible quest. Stars are further than the moon, so in reaching for the moon you will just land in the earth’s deadly atmosphere. Keep it local people. Reach for being your best self….which is complicated in and of itself!!

Feeling Powerless

There are so many different instances where any of us find ourselves with a lack of control over our circumstances. These happen at work, at home, at school,powerless-underwater1 in public, in traffic, in our health, the list goes on. I would imagine that any of us could look at a given week and find over a dozen instances where we didn’t have the control, didn’t have the power to alter or influence our circumstances.

Lack of control doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have any power. Lack of control can be making a conscious decision to defer to another person/entity/ group, the control you still have is whether or not to maintain your deferred status or to trust the “other” with your decision making. When something is out of our control we can still be at peace with that and find a new point of control within the circumstance.

A mild example is that lunch is being catered for an event and you have a strong dislike of what is being served. The choice of caterer or menu was out of your control, your point of control is to find an item here or there you can tolerate, to suffer through a lunch you dislike, or you can seek an alternative food source. Jimmy John’s delivers almost anywhere!

Lack of control in one area means there is control in another area, once you find that you open up new options for yourself, more on how to manage when life happens here. When you can find your point of control it’s like getting your feet underneath yourself – you gain stability and security.

Powerlessness is a deeper problem. There is no choice there, and powerlessness is where anxiety and fear live. Powerlessness is a space where there is absolutely no choice, no opportunity for impact, input, or control. This is others making your decisions for you or the situation being so out of hand that there is nothing you can do to change the course of movement. Powerlessness is often accompanied by a feeling of hopelessness and defeat.

Did you know there is a silver lining there? For most of us, day-to-day life will include loss of control masquerading as powerlessness, but there are very few times when we genuinely experience total loss of power within our own lives. When that happens, when those feelings of hopelessness and defeat are all that come to the surface, we need an advocate. We need someone to come to our aid and help us see, reclaim, and wield our power, to show us how to regain control over our lives and how to use our power as strength.

Advocates come in all kinds of packages, sometimes it is a parent, a friend, a child, a sibling, a stranadvocateger, even a part of ourselves that still maintains the fortitude to push through. And their firm, gentle encouragement can often be subtle, as simple as a hand on the shoulder or a genuine smile. The real silver lining is that when you experience powerlessness you don’t have to stay there. Let me say that again – you don’t have to stay there and chances are that you won’t stay there for long! Your advocates will find you, maybe even you will find you, and will help you to fight to regain control over your circumstances.

 

Have you experienced powerlessness? How did you find your way out of that situation? 1

Notes:

  1. Google + Author, https://plus.google.com/u/0/102851063175689428953

Gift from the Sea: by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Picture1Recently, a surprise came to me in the mail, unmarked, but a completely perfect gift.  I later found out that my sister had sent me the book “Gift from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a book that she had mysteriously found while vacationing at my grandmother’s home.  It had been my mothers and had filtered through 3 generations.  This book is timeless in how it captures the common struggle of finding time to live, to pursue, to raise children, to work, to struggle, to find purpose and meaning, and to not go completely insane in the process.  It is also, I was surprised to find out, written by the wife of Charles Lindbergh, not only the wife of an adventurous aviator, but also the courageous woman who went through the terrible uncertainty and loss of having her first child kidnapped and found out later, killed.  I was also surprised to find out that included in their history were five other children, an escape to Europe for safety and privacy life that was interrupted by war, and a return to the states where she and her husband lived by the ocean with their children and wrote.  Her pursuit for peace amongst so much chaos and tragedy is inspiring, especially when life can feel so uncertain.  I think that in grief, whether that is of a loved one, a broken relationship, or of a lost dream, most all of us know that there is a good deal of looking back, but that also included in grief is a look forward, of what we might be seeking once we come out of the clouds of grief.  For the Lindberghs, without knowing them personally, it seems like from their story they went to the ends of the earth in search of peace, and by finding that peace they also found wisdom.  Here is a small excerpt from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s learned wisdom:

“Vague as this definition may be, I believe most people are aware of periods in their lives when they seem to be “in grace” and other periods when they feel “out of grace,” even though they may use different words to describe these states.  In the first happy condition, one seems to carry all one’s tasks before one lightly, as if borne along on a great tide, and in the opposite state one can hardly tie a shoe-string.  It is true that a large part of life consists in learning a technique of tying the shoe-string, whether one is in grace or not.  But there are techniques of living too, there are even techniques in the search for grace.  And techniques can be cultivated I have learned by some experience, by many examples, and by the writings of countless others before me, also occupied in the search, that certain environments, certain modes of life, certain rules of conduct are more conducive to inner and outer harmony than others.  There are, in fact, certain roads that one may follow.  Simplification of life is one of them.

I mean to lead a simple life, to choose a simple shell I can carry easily–like a hermit crab.  But I do not.  I find that my frame of life does not foster simplicity.  My husband and five children must make their way in the world.  The life I have chosen as wife and mother entails a whole caravan of complications.  I involves a house in the suburbs and either household drudgery or household help which wavers between scarcity and non-existence for most of us.  It involves food and shelter, meals, planning, marketing, bills, and making the ends meet in a thousand ways. It involves not only the butcher, the baker, the candlestickmaker, but countless other experts to keep my modern house with its modern “simplifications” (electricity, plumbing, refrigerator, gas-stove, oil-burner, dish-washer, radios, car and numerous other labor-saving devices) functioning properly.  It involves health, doctors, dentists, appointments, medicine, cod-liver oil, vitamins, trips to the drugstore. It involves education, spiritual, intellectual, physical; schools, school conferences, car-pools, extra trips for basketball or orchestra practice; tutoring; camps, camp equipment and transportation.  It involves clothes, shopping, laundry, cleaning, mending, letting skirts down and sewing buttons on, or finding someone else to do it.  It involves friends, my husband’s my children’s, my own, and endless arrangements to get together, letters, invitations, telephone calls and transportation hither and yon.

For life today in America is based on the premise of ever-widening circles of contact and communication. It involves not only family demands, but community demands, national demands, international demands on the good citizen, through social and cultural pressures, through newspapers, magazines, radio programs, political drives, charitable appeals and so on.  My mind reels with it. What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives.  It puts the trapeze artist to shame. Look at us. We run a tight rope daily, balancing a pile of books on the head. Baby-carriage, parasol kitchen chair, still under control. Steady now!

This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of.  It leads not to unification but to fragmentation. It does not bring grace; it destroys the soul.  And this is not only true of my life, I am forced to conclude, it is the life of millions of women in America. I stress America because today, the American woman more than any other has the privilege of choosing such a life.  Woman in large parts of the civilized world has been forced back by war, by poverty, by collapse, but by sheer struggle to survive, into a smaller circle of immediate time and space, immediate family life, immediate problems of existence.  The American woman is still relatively free to choose the wider life. How long she will hold this enviable and precarious position no one knows.  But her particular situation has a significance far above its apparent economic, national or even sex limitations.

For the problem of the multiplicity of life not only confronts the American woman, but also the American man. And it not merely the concern of the American as such, but of our whole modern civilization, since life in America today is held up as the ideal of a large part of the rest of the world (22).

…(29) Simplification of outward life is not enough. It is merely the outside. But I am starting with the outside. I am looking at the outside of a shell, the outside of my life–the shell. The complete answer is not to be found on the outside in an outward mode of living. This is only a technique, a road to grace. The final answer, I know, is always inside.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh: A Gift From the Sea, Written in 1955,  p. 18-22 & p.29

3 Ways to Get More Sleep and Why That Is Actually Important

We are hearing from everyone all the time how important sleep is. I don’t know how your calendar looks, but mine is packed, often with things scheduled as early as 7 in the sleepermorning and ending at 9:30 at night. Does your candle burn at both ends?

When I think back to the times in my life where I got 5-ish hours of sleep or less I also recall the coffee I needed to wake up, the groggy feeling that followed me all morning, the lack of energy I felt, moodiness, higher stress levels, and a constant sense of being overwhelmed. Any of those things are reason enough to find the source and terminate it. Study after study tells us how important sleep is to our vitality, to our life in general. With all this research, why are we not getting the hint and sleeping more? Our culture plays a huge role in the fast-paced, never miss a thing, workaholic type of lifestyle that undercuts so many of our efforts to live well and sleep well.

Sleep studies show nights of sleep disruption for 14 consecutive nights show the same negative impacts as sleep deprivation for 2 nights, specifically that cognitive functioning decreases steadily while the experience of sleepiness plateaus. The individual may not feel very tired but their brain is not operating at full capacity. 1

Rapid Eye Movement sleep, or REM sleep, is a deeper quality of sleep and researchers with the American Psychosomatic Society have linked increased REM sleep with

decreased subjective emotional responsiveness to negative stimuli and a decrease in amygdala reactivity

These same researchers found,

Poor sleep efficiency has been related to lower levels of perceived social support . . . perceived social support moderates the link between threat-related amygdala reactivity and trait anxiety. In addition, poor sleep may likely cluster with other negative health behaviors. 2

 

The bottom line is when you get don’t get enough sleep (approximately 8 hours or more for adults) you experience:

  • Decreased Brain Functioning
  • More Mood Swings
  • Less Social Support
  • More Unhealthy Behaviors

With that being said, the no-brainer is to start sleeping more so you can reduce your level of stress, feel better physically and emotionally, and get more done while you are awake. Easily said, not easily done. So here are 3 easy ways to get more sleep.

Set a Bed Time for Yourself

If you have kids this gets a little trickier, but if their bedtime is 9, your is 10:30. Make it a 3805sleep-beautypriority to get to bed by 10:30 every night, or the time that makes the most sense for your schedule. If you can sleep until 8 then 11:30 may be a better bedtime for you. Before we had the luxury of lightbulbs and technology we had the sun to mark our days, when it went down we started working our way to bed. Getting to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning does so much to regulate your body and get yourself on a schedule. The more consistent you are the easier this is.

Stop Drinking Caffeine After 3 pm

no-coffeeI have definitely been guilty of the 3:30 coffee to get me through the end of my work-day. The problem with caffeine late in the day is it leaves our nerves agitated and postpones the body’s ability to sleep. When you hit that afternoon slump instead of hitting a cup of Joe, take a walk around your office, do 15 jumping jacks, if you are really ambitious do a 2 min headstand. You will feel more energized and better able to tackle the end of your day without killing your sleep cycle.

Avoid Electronics with Back-lit Screens in the Evening

Do your eyes ever feel dry after you have spent most of the day on your computer? Yep, you have experienced eye agitation first hand. The blue light that is incorporated into your computer screen is incredibly stimulating for your brain and it agitates the eye. Sitting in front of your computer, tablet, or phone before bed is like giving a child a piece of cake with ice cream and 30 minutes later at the peak of that sugar rush telling them to go to bed. The solution is to stop using electronics after 8 pm or to install f.lux on your devices to naturally take out the blue light in the computer screen. This happens gradually and will help your eyes and brain adjust naturally with the time of day. There is also the option to get a pair of glasses like the ones I wear to protect your eyes from the harsh light.

I have made all these changes in my life over the past year and my quality and consistency of sleep has increased greatly, I physically feel better, and I get sick less often.

Have you experienced the negative effects of poor sleep? How have you dealt with it? 3

Notes:

  1.  Kerkhof, G., & Van Dongen, H. (2010). Total sleep deprivation, chronic sleep restriction and sleep disruption. In Progress in Brain Research (No ed., Vol. 185, pp. 91-103). New York, NY: Elsevier.
  2. Prather, A., Bogdan, R., & Hariri, A. (2013). Impact of sleep quality on amygdala reactivity, negative affect, and pervieved stress. Psychosomatic Medicine, 75, 1-9.
  3. Google + Author, https://plus.google.com/u/0/102851063175689428953

Finding Confidence #likeagirl

girl-running-on-beachIt was recently brought to my attention that some people think that women or “girls” are less credible than their male counterparts. Wait . . . did I say recently? That wasn’t true at all. I’ve lived with the knowledge for a very long time that society often discredits or undercuts women and girls starting with the ages of 11 or 12 and continuing through to adulthood.

There are certain things that girls should do, like, say, and be and certain things they should not. My mother as a doctor was pegged as being “emotional” when she was passionate about the health of her children and patients and had research and evidence to prove her position. I as a young professional woman am often not taken seriously at first; I am often interrupted or not addressed directly. Traditional male roles, when filled by a woman, create unease and society becomes discontent with this broken boundary.

Yes, I believe it is true that men and women have different and unique strengths – but isn’t it just as true to say that people have different and unique strengths from other people? When did we decide it was ok to attack the female population during their formative years? Puberty is a difficult time for anyone where the person is building the foundation for who they will become and what life path they will follow. It is also a time where any deviation from cultural expectations is harshly punished and youth are told they must stand out, but they have to stand out within a certain set of guidelines so as to maintain the greater balance.

Really, this whole issue of “like a girl” isn’t just about critically looking at our own stereotypes and how we develop those greater ideas about what is normal and what is not. It is about celebrating each girlkickperson as an individual and exploring what they are capable of. There is an awesome campaign out there that does just that. This short 3 min video does a fantastic job of explaining what this post is all about. What messages has the culture you live in pushed onto you? What boundaries are you trying to break and reshape? How are you living up to your full potential and celebrating your own abilities? Admittedly this has been a little bit of a rant, but I am too invested in my family and community to let negative phrases be thrown around so mindlessly.

Have you ever been put down with the phrase “like a girl”? Please share your experience with us! 1

Notes:

  1. Google + Author, https://plus.google.com/u/0/102851063175689428953

Finding New in Dark Places

MP900341448

Over the years, several clients have said to me in one way or the other “I was stupid to hope…” or “If only I didn’t hope….,” blaming themselves for believing something would get better in a bad, sometimes brutal situation. It has always amazed me that these individuals who have survived against all odds have been able to keep their light of hope on, let alone let it eventually guide them away from those situations, once they decided on a new route.

We tend to blame hope for our hurt. If only we hadn’t expected so much…..if only I had just seen the stark reality of where I was and what I was doing….if only I had believed that person to be their darker side, rather than hoping that the other side of them, a lighter, more caring side would emerge and be a permanent resident. Hope can set us up for disappointment. Urgh! Darn hope! But hope also does something else to us that is unexpected. Many who are recovering from relationships will say that they hoped during that time for peace in their relationships, healthy conflict resolution, acceptance from the other person, and a loving, kind, responsible and fun person to share their lives with. All of those are very healthy desires for a relationship, and tell us more about what we want in a relationship, the type of person we want to be with and what kind of life we want to share with the other person. Listening to that voice that tells us what we are looking for helps our brain to determine if what we are looking for fits what we have currently. And if that answer is a strong NO….then some examination may be necessary (perhaps even with a good therapist!)  for change in the relationship and our lives. We may hope that the other person fits that bill very strongly, but determining that can only be answered in the very deepest part of our being, that nagging voice that says, “Is this right?” or “Is this really a good fit?”

In those dark moments where we are hoping that things will get better, we are holding on to hope as one would cling to the last candle in a cave. We hope while we are in the cave that the candle will help us survive the cave, but we are also looking to the candle as a way to lead us out. In the same way, the strong hope that a situation will get better will also be the same strength and skill set that leads us out. Out of the darkness into a place that is more authentic to who we are and what kind of relationship we want to be in.

 

Please Note: If you are currently in a relationship that is emotionally, physically or sexually abusive, it can be very dangerous to leave right away without a plan or other people knowing. If this is your situation, and you want information on how to safely leave, please call the National Abuse Hotline at 1800-799-SAFE (7233) or if you are in Louisville or the surrounding areas call Center for Women and Families 24 hour crisis line at (502) 581-7222. You can find resources at the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association (KDVA) at http://www.kdva.org/victim_services/kydvcenter.html , however please delete this website from your browser after viewing for your safety.

Natural Born Fear: Anxiety is Learned

When I am working with a client for the first time one of two things happens. Either they can link their current level of stress and anxiety to one particular event or time in their life or they say, “I have always been really anxious.” Well that raises a pretty important question: What is anxiety?

Dictionary.com says anxiety is: “distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune.”

When we move a bit deeper than that we find that anxiety is rooted in the past or in the future. The mind is racing over something that has already happened, worried about what that means for the future or the brain is worried about what might happen in the future. An anxious brain is a brain that lives in the past or lives in the future, but never in the present.

loud-noisesAnxiety is also learned. Did you know that? People are only born with two fears:

Falling
Loud noises

 

Both of those are biological instincts designed to keep you alive. Imagine modern society’s primitive ancestors – loud noises could be a predator or some other red flag for imminent doom. Not good for the caveman = natural fear. Falling could also mean certain death. Also, not good for the caveman = natural fear.

So why is there this intense fear and anxiety over things like being late on a deadline? Over not having the perfect dinner prepared? Over having open conversations with the people around us? We all learn our fears. To this day you will not, and I mean never in any circumstance, convince me to put my body in water where I cannot touch the bottom. Will never happen. I was not born with the fear of water but somewhere along the line (or maybe with one too many Jaws movies) I learned that water meant certain death.

What are your learned fears? Learned expressions of anxiety? (Hint: anything you fear that is not falling or a loud noise) Please know that I am not saying that many of our fears are not in some way designed to protect us. All of our stress responses served a legitimate, positive purpose at one time, but somewhere along the line the stress and fear overwhelmed the brain and the nervous system and became anxiety instead of being that live-savor. More on that later, but for now, know your stressor, the triggers for you anxiety and start making a plan for how to regain control over your stress!

 

What fears did you learn and how are you conquering them today? 1

Notes:

  1. Google + Author, https://plus.google.com/u/0/102851063175689428953

They are driving me crazy!: How to deal with Holiday Conflict with Family Members

Graphic from The Family Stone. A must-see family conflict flick!

With Thanksgiving over and family tucked safely back into their dwellings, some of you may be missing family already, while others may feel a slight sensation of relief that the whole Thanksgiving business is over….or a large sense of relief.  Not that we don’t love the holidays, (or our families) but sometimes, amongst other things, conflict between family members can cause stress and anxiety to pounce up unexpectedly.  While many of us hope for the idealistic family holiday, ala the picture of Jimmy Stewart surrounded by his family and friends at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, we do have to remember that even in that movie this came after a lot of conflict and soul-searching (Clarence didn’t get his wings for nothing!).   Family Conflict can come from a variety of places including unspoken & unresolved family events (Thursday’s Blog) and personal symptoms of holiday depression (Psychiatrist James Cattell called this in 1955 “Holiday Syndrome.” Next Tuesday’s blog) but can also come from our past creeping up on us like Scrooge’s “Ghost of Christmas Past.” 

Family Conflict can occur between family members that are decidedly different or remarkably the same, but either way, one thing is certain, and that is that in some way, the person that we are in conflict with is touching an emotional part of us that may be raw and aches to be protected.  Do you have unresolved conflict with your dad and suddenly your brother-in-law is acting just like him? Your family was a mess and your cousin’s perfect family shows up and you can’t understand why you can’t stand them? These events are mirrors of our past that challenge us to deal with our stuff.  Sometimes even very admirable characteristics in others hit a place in us that is vulnerable and we can become confused when we don’t understand why we are having such a reaction that seems so visceral.  This can be a result of them awakening in us parts of ourselves that either feels undeserving of what another has, not accepting of a piece of ourselves, or a misunderstanding of what that person represents in our lives.  When this occurs we react as if attacked (even if no danger of attack is present) in our flight, fight or freeze reactions, basically laying us out our adrenals as if we had been punched in the stomach.  This could also come from a feeling of lack, or a thought that we could never have  for ourselves what they have and that in accepting this part in ourselves we can feel decidedly weak, inferior or more vulnerable.

We can be reflecting pools for one another and when we look across the tables at those we love, those we have struggled with; we are looking at our own teachers, our own struggles, our own path. We have particular strengths and weaknesses for a reason and examining those as an integral part of what makes us “ourselves” can help us appreciate the ones that have been put on our path with us.  It also helps us accept ourselves as we are as well. 

Questions to ask when these feelings arise:

What particular behavior of theirs is driving me crazy? (Or does their entire person represent something or someone…and who or what is that?)

Does this behavior remind me of anyone?

What have I been told about this particular behavior and by whom?

Do I have any judgments surrounding that behavior?

Is their behavior a direct cause of something I did or is this due to them going through something unbeknownst to me OR are they acting just as themselves and I have the issue with their behavior?

Oftentimes if we can find the source of why someone is actually getting on our nerves we are better able to cope.  We also can learn a bit more about ourselves and learn to examine those areas which may seem a bit vulnerable….or at any rate, enjoy the Thanksgiving stuffing and avoid flying drumsticks. 

Noticing the New: How Thankful Thoughts Build Your Happy

German postcardAn anonymous German postcard (1888) was the source for the first optical illusion of the “Old Woman/Young Woman.” Which do you see?

I recently heard that what we concentrate on has this strange way of growing bigger, whether that is our stress, our work load, our weight or even our bliss.  What we put our attention into is what begins to take up rental space in not only our minds, but in our reality.  Truth be told, when two people are standing next to each other concentrating on the same event, they will pick up different pieces of the event, depending on their perspective…what they concentrate on or what they pick up according to their own background and individuality. 

Negative Space, not the glass half-empty kind, but negative space in art and dance is what we often think of as “the background.”  This is the space that we generally don’t concentrate on so much because we are looking at the “positive space” (again not the half-full kind but..), the space where the dancers are moving or the parts of the canvas that the paint has touched.  My first year in college, I took a dance class and was utterly befuddled when my professor told me to step in and fill in the negative space in the studio.  What space? There was nothing there but empty air? She told me to look at the negative space and see ONLY the negative space…the shape, the lighting, the overall presence of the space where nothing appeared to be and THEN to become a part of it, shaping it to become a new type of space.  Whoa. Man.  Although at first, I felt a bit like I was being tricked, like in the storybook, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the shape of what wasn’t there slowly started to form and it gave me a new found freedom to imagine new possibilities within the space in front of me.   

Our lives are every bit a piece of art that unfolds in new ways every day.  Love, loss, grief, pain, stress, fatigue, rush, joy, beauty all take the stage at various points leaving us at times sweating, unable to see the full picture.   The deadlines at work, the fears and worries about our families, our own inadequacies take shape as a hulking beast, and we often can’t see the other, more subtle pieces around them, because our worries and stress seem so large and overwhelming.  Part of this is a survival mechanism…we can only take in so much and thus have to divide our attention so that what we take in with our senses is not so overwhelming.  So those “crises,” those things that cause us biological stress end up taking center stage.  But how do we shift our focus to the negative space?

Gratitude.  I wish I had something a bit more kitschy or new to give to you, but study after study, culture, spiritual background, one after another all say the same thing; that when we concentrate on what we are thankful for, our attention shifts to those things, and that we become happier.   It is like noticing the quiet girl in your high school that ends up being your best friend or your soul mate…you were here this whole time??? Well, yes she was, but it wasn’t that she didn’t say anything, it was that you just didn’t notice.  We get to decide where our focus goes, which is good news for us, because that gives a little bit more control in this emotional whack-a-mole game we play.  So then how do we get started?

If you are serious about shifting your focus let me challenge you to start a gratitude journal.  I know that you have probably already heard of doing this and may be having a reaction to the word “journal” like you are going to suddenly turn into a Judy Bloom character; so let’s call it the Neuron Reshaping Documentation Portfolio.  WHATEVER WORKS.  This is a place where you are going to keep track of what you notice during the day, that is new and different that causes you an increase in joy…even a slight increase in joy.   The smell of a new book, that tree that you pass by every day that you never noticed before,  the things your kids say, the high five your husband gives you as you wish each other good luck on the day (hey, sometimes it is a good-bye, sometimes it is a good-luck!).  Whatever these things are, just note them and at various times during the day say thank you and put 15 minutes into your planner to list those things, those new things that you notice.  They may have been there the whole time hanging out in the negative space, making it all that more beautiful and unique than what you have seen before. 

 Here are some questions to get you started:

What are some things that I like about myself? Not even just like…LOVE about yourself.  (This can be anything from I like my eyes, to I love that I am adventurous, to I love that am the only one in my office who sets their ringtone to The Lord of the Rings theme). Noticing new things that you like about yourself can increase your self-appreciation.

What are some things on my way to work that are beautiful?  Yes, it can feel at first a little like the License Plate game growing up…you may have to look hard at first, but once you start, these things have a way of snowballing.  Once you get going, start saying “Thank you for” before each thing or each person. 

What do you love about your home?  This is an interesting one because at first, when we look closely, we may just see how messy it is, or what needs to be fixed, but shifting your focus to what you truly like about where you live can give you more peace about the long list of to-dos.

What do you love about your loved ones?  This is an advanced practice one, because while we can practice on noticing the beauty of “things” in our lives, what we haven’t noticed before, we need to have exercised our gratitude muscles in order to feel what kind of depth of gratitude we have for our loved ones.  I would recommend picking a loved one of focus each day and writing what you absolutely love about them, what is unique and special and what your first memories are of that person.  After you write those things you may feel compelled to write them a letter to tell them those things.  Be brave enough to do it and if it is safe, send it. 

This has been a hard year for many of us and this is by no means a call to forget your grief, loss or acknowledge your pain.  Gratitude is not an evasive maneuver for running from what is right there in front but in tiny intervals can help us to notice those small things that still give us a little hope and a little joy.  You may be surprised about what takes shape and how your life starts shifting to something you never thought was there.

Picture from:

Weisstein, Eric W. “Young Girl-Old Woman Illusion.” From MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource. http://mathworld.wolfram.com/YoungGirl-OldWomanIllusion.html

Easing stress around the holidays: Readjust your Expectations on the “Perfect” Holiday

Sure, we would love to have a holiday where there is a magical glow of perfectly placed ornaments and the scent of cinnamon and pine lingering in the doorways and sparkling in the eaves.  But, let’s face it, sometimes the glow gets out-shined by the perspiration on our faces, or our hot-tempered bursts as we try and create the most magical of holidays.  Unless you have a big secret, not one of us is a magical creature, therefore creating the “magic” of Christmas, either needs to be outsourced to a multitude of elves or you need to lower your expectations.   

Look at the reasons behind what you are doing in trying to create the “perfect holiday”:

Are you competitive?  Realize that this is coming from a person who was in such denial of her Type A tendencies that her Ph.D. adviser laughed in her face when she said she was Type B.  I mean this in the most kind way.  Some of us wear our competitive spirit on our sleeves like we were endorsed by Nike, while others of us are more like Competitive Ninjas in a holiday Fight Club: we come, we conquer, and we never talk about it and we certainly don’t like to admit (even to ourselves) that we are competitive…especially with things like the holidays!!!  Are we known in our circles as the “Perfect Present Gifter,” “The Gourmet Chef,” “The Decorator” “The Designer Present Wrapper” (watch out Vera Wang), “The Christmas Tree Lady,” or the “I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it-with-a-career-and-family-Christmas-Fantasma”?  When we come together have we spent countless hours sweating in a sea of Christmas drenched saline only to arrive in a teetering tense tinsel-toting exhaustion, triumphantly announcing “It was no big deal, just threw this together.”  If so, you may be a Competitive Ninja, in which case, you are asking for some tense times around the corner.  Acknowledge your efforts, even to yourself, and ease up on your expectations.  Evaluate why it is that people truly love you, and if you feel safe, ask them.  It may be the gusto of your laughter at their jokes or your kind and generous heart, and not the height of your altitude-defying bows.     

Are you trying to relive good memories & traditions? Was there a special holiday that you would like to re-create for your children or for yourself?  Look at what truly made it special.  Was it the decorations? The perfectly cooked food? The rituals of lighting the menorah? The presents?  The midnight candlelight church service?  Extra attention by family members?  Recognizing exactly what it was that made the holiday special can help you hone in on what exactly you want for that day or days to be about…then focus on that.  You don’t need to have EVERYTHING perfect, concentrate on those things that are important to you and your family and let the rest go.  You and your family will be relieved when there is more of you to go around, rather than the 8-step gourmet stuffing found on the latest cooking challenge show.   

Do childhood holidays seem bigger than what you can feasibly recreate for your family?  Recognize that events in our past can become grander over time as well.  There are very good reasons for this!  When we are children we are smaller, so everything is going to seem much bigger.  Aunt Harriet literally looked 9 feet tall.  And the presents under the tree literally looked like an ocean.  When we are children we are also making brand new neural pathways based on new information, so that when we see something new and cool, like a tree growing in our living room, or our family gathered around a menorah of nine beautiful glowing lights, everything is going to seem that much more spectacular.  There is also a sense of anticipation when we are younger, partly due to us being so much more trusting of the unknown.  Big guy with presents coming into our house that we have never met?  That’s cool.  Aunts and Uncles who we have never seen before coming to stay in our house and using our towels? That works….minus the lipstick kisses on our cheeks.   As we get older, we trust the unknown and uncertain less and less and while when we are a kid the unknown may seem “magical,” to many of us adults, the unknown needs to be mapped out, organized and conquered.  That is why the holidays can seem like an endless list of to-dos and tasks.  Things don’t magically appear anymore, you are the elf. 

Are we trying to rewrite a traumatic past while suffering through it? On the other hand, maybe you are trying to create an intensely wonderful holiday for you and your family because you had the opposite experience growing up, and the holidays bring up painful memories from the past.  As in relationships, we either relive or rewrite the past.  Sometimes, in trying to rewrite the past, we try to make the perfect holiday that we never had, while working through out trauma and reliving past pain.  This can be extremely taxing, emotionally, psychologically and physically and we may think that this goes unnoticed by those closest to us.  Unfortunately, suffering in silence will make you feel more isolated and alone, and those closest to you will be confused when you fervently insist that everything is okay.  Significant traumas can be reawakened through holiday traditions and rituals that may have been the same at the time of the trauma.  Maybe when you look at a specific holiday symbol, painful memories reawaken of events in the past.  This is a normal piece of the trauma cycle for those that have experienced past traumas, and much like Scrooge in A Christmas Story, the scenes can come back to us quite vividly, as if we were there; and put us in a state of pain, anger, grief, anxiety and/or depression.   Although clinically this is a recognized piece of trauma cycle, it is not healthy to go without help, suffer through alone or be left unaddressed.  Seek attention from a qualified, professional mental health provider to help you work through the trauma. It is a sign of strength to recognize that you need that support, and you will be more authentically available to those you love.     

Readjusting our expectations of what the holidays are about, what we are capable of, and what we want to create during this time, is not easy and can take some quiet time to really focus and reflect.  This can be difficult when our senses are bombarded and our time is demanded.  Circle the wagons around your time and your family and let some of your expectations go.  If you do this, I promise it will be a holiday to remember: Even if it is only because you will actually have the time and mental energy to remember it.