The shedding of ourselves

We all have things that we don’t particularly like about ourselves. Things that hurt others, or hurt ourselves, or create problems that we don’t want to have to deal with. One thing we need to be aware of is that the coping skills and techniques that often create the most pain both for ourselves and others are the ones that we put there on purpose. We put them there to keep away those that were dangerous at one point, or to manage untenable situations. Those things that may cause the most pain now were often put there to keep us safe and sane. Now, as you try to shed them it is natural to feel as though you are losing yourself, losing your safety, and possibly even losing your sanity. It is akin to ripping off your skin to replace it with something better. It won’t feel good in the process.

There must be a trust that it will be better once the process is over. A belief that the world will be easier, lighter, and smoother to move through is required to endure the physical and emotional pain that shedding our unhealthy life management skills will bring. Image the first couple months of working out once you’ve decided you want to shed those extra pounds and get in better physical shape. They suck. It doesn’t feel good to work out, you are hungry for your comfort foods all the time, and you’re often sore afterwards. It isn’t a fun place to be. Then one day you can walk up stairs without feeling your heart come out of your chest. You notice your clothes fitting better, you notice you aren’t as tired in general throughout the day, and often you even notice you aren’t as irritable with friends and family and generally feel better about the world in general. Once you start seeing the results of your hard work and dedication you see that while it was miserable at first, there were great rewards.

Letting go of the sarcasm you use to keep people at a safe distance, putting down the verbal weapons of criticism and contempt,  stepping outside of the house and going to the random meetup from meetup.com that sounded interesting, or redirecting your thoughts when you are focused on the bad and scary instead of the positive can have the exact same effect. It can actually even cause physical pain and distress in the form of stomach cramping, intestinal distress, and difficulty breathing. You are letting go of the security blankets that you have used for years to help you manage difficult situations. It won’t feel good. And yet when you see that people are happier to see you, even the cashiers at the grocery store are nicer to you, and you generally feel better throughout the day you will find that the hard work was worth it.

This process is often easier with a therapist or counselor. The therapist is someone that can hold you accountable. When they call you on your BS, while you will be hurt and embarrassed it is significantly better than your loved telling you that you are full of crap. A paid effective stranger giving you the spoonful of bitter medicine is always easier than a loved on that you want to see you as perfect. Where the loved on can be helpful is the honesty they can provide about the things that would make your life better if you changed. Our loved ones often know us better than we know ourselves. They know how we try to hide from hurts and pains. They know the defenses we put up. While it may be difficult, having out loved ones hold the metaphorical mirror up can give us direction for when we step in to a professionals office.

Shedding our problematic defenses and unhealthy coping skills is never easy. And yet the benefits always outweigh the difficulty of the work. It won’t be fast, and it will be messy. Things may actually get worse before they get better. Loved ones need to be aware of this, as they can get frustrated and think that you aren’t trying, even though you are actually making huge progresses. I talk to my families about the concept of successive approximations. You don’t go from using criticism and contempt to kindness in one day. And if you have a day where you manage to be kind and tender in all interactions, then the next day may exceptionally bad with the criticisms. It is still progress. You and your loved ones will need to find the patience for mistakes, bad days, and mis-steps. It will be worth it.

Planting a seed

Planting a seed

When you think of a leader, what do you think of? Many of us think of teachers, bosses, or someone like Ghandi or Mother Theresa. The truth is that all of us have the ability to be a leader. The moments that come back to me, that people tell me they remember the most aren’t the ones that I see myself as being a leader, they are the moments in which I was kind, open, and present with someone.

Usually the moments that I am told are the most impressionable are the ones in which I plant a seed. They are the moments that I tell someone that their hair is amazing that day, or that the hat they are wearing looks amazing. They are the moments that I sneak up on someone, unknowing and let them know that in that moment they are doing amazing. The moments I want to be teaching moments often have little impact. It is the tiny moments that have the biggest impact. It is the moments that I am kind during a moment of someone’s darkest moments that I lead the best.

The scary part is that I have no idea when this moment is. I have no way of knowing when someone’s low point, or when they are vulnerable. So in order to lead, this means I just have to be present, open, honest, and kind with people all the time. Think of a moment that you remember someone making an impression on you. The things you hold on to, that teach you a lesson. Some of these moments for me are the ones that are during actual teaching moments. And many of them are during random moments when someone did something that spoke to me in a way that I remembered.

These teaching moments are all around us, and they can’t be planned. A lecture to a kid isn’t going to be remembered. The moment when they are low and you cheer them up will be. The moment when you are in the check-out line at the grocery store and you ask the person in the wheelchair behind you if you can help may be the moment they learn that people can be nice to them they just need to trust.

Ultimately, this is a long winded way to say “be nice to people, you don’t know when they will need your kindness”. We all have the chance to be leaders. We all have the chance to plant seeds in people. When we honk and flip people off in traffic we plant a seed of violence and anger. When we give the person behind in the check-out line the penny, nickle, or even dollar they are short of their bill, they are taught a lesson of kindness. These moments sneak up on us, and often we don’t remember them as others do. We just need to be kind. As often and as much as we can, we need to be kind. This is how we plant seeds.

I want to be a leader in kindness. This means all day, every day I need to plant seeds. When I wave the guy in that is trying to merge on the highway, or say something nice to someone on the street. When I pick up the dropped object from the person with full arms, or even pay it forward at the coffee shop I plant a seed. These are the seeds I want to plant. I want to be a leader. I try to do so in my practice, but the moments people remember the most are the ones in which I was genuine, honest, and kind. Go out in to your day and be genuine, honest, and kind. You will plant more seeds than you know, and be more of a leader than you ever thought you could be.

Our double standards

Have you ever noticed the double standard we have for ourselves? I remember before my divorce  I held no judgment for the friends that were divorced, even my parents.  I knew fully in my heart and head that the friends and family that had divorced were better off.  Divorce was OK for everyone else.  But I was ashamed of my divorced status. It meant I was a failure.  In one of my personal writings I wrote; “part of me felt like I had a big D written on my chest. “D for Divorced, D for deficient”.”  I had an absolute double standard, what was OK for everyone else, and what was OK for me. 

A double standard I see frequently from clients is a belief that no one is perfect, and everyone is allowed to make mistakes, everyone but them.  We already know that we are our own worst critics.  Often the little foibles we see in others we don’t even give a great deal of notice to.  The same foibles in ourselves become mountainous warts on our own character.  It may be time to give ourselves a proverbial break.  The standards we hold others to are not light.  And yet we are more tolerant and forgiving of everyone else than we are of ourselves. 

The conversations we have with ourselves tend to be cruel and harsh.  The mistakes we make create an internal dialogue of words like “stupid” and “idiot”, along with many more.  I see someone trip out on the trail around the lake here in Austin and I think; “I hope they’re OK”; I trip and I call myself a clumsy idiot.  And while those are just words, and we all know; “Stick and stones may break out bones…etc”, words do have power.  They create labels, and put us in boxes.  Think of the word “slut”.  “Clumsy” and “Idiot” also create a label, putting us in a box.   Not a very nice one.

For those of you with children, you know when they make a mistake you (hopefully) tell them that their mistakes don’t define them. You hopefully tell them that they are good even when they screw up. Because they messed up, they aren’t screw-ups. We need to start having the same conversations with ourselves. You aren’t a screw-up just because you screwed up. The heartbreaking thing is that our kids will learn from the language we use for ourselves, not the language we use for them. If we tell them they are great even when they make mistakes, but then call ourselves idiots when we make our own mistakes, they know that mistakes really aren’t acceptable.

For the most part we allow those around us a great deal more leeway than we allow ourselves.   This is not to say that we should become lax in our desire to hold ourselves to high standards, to be the best person we can be.  It means that when our life doesn’t turn out the way it was supposed to, or when we trip and fall, we give ourselves the chance to learn from our mistakes instead of making those mistakes define us. 

Love, Happiness, Safety

Have you ever thought about why we do what we do? Have you ever looked at someone and wondered “Why on earth would you do that”? This includes the people walking through hip deep water from the storm Katrina with a 54” TV, the person that split their tongue in two and has implanted horns, and the person tailgating you going 80 on the highway. Why are they doing what they are doing? Well, the answer is they are trying to find love, safety, or happiness.

“But that doesn’t make sense!” I hear you exclaim. How does a person taking a TV with them while evacuating from the flooding from a storm help them find any of those three? I didn’t say it made sense. In that moment, their brain is telling them that they need that TV to live and to find safety. Sometimes the panic brain doesn’t make sense. And yet they are still trying to find safety. And the person tailgating believes that if they get where they are going they will be happy. And the person that uses body modification to express themselves is working to find love in a way that works for them.

Our base motivations are usually pretty simple. Why do people lie, cheat and steal? They believe that they can find happiness or safety in money or things. I worked with someone that was horrible to all of the employees. The ideas he came up with were ridiculous, and he always had a frantic energy about him. We all disliked him greatly. We found out that he had a brain tumor and he was desperate to keep the job so that he could earn as much money as he could for his wife and children after he died. The ridiculous ideas were his attempt to keep from being fired like the last three people that had had the job before him. He was trying to find safety.

When we start to see people through the lense of attempts to find love, safety, and happiness then we can start to find understanding and even some empathy in their craziness. The behaviors may not be conducive to getting what they want, and in fact they may in all actuality be accomplishing the opposite. And yet, even in our worst moments and cruelest behaviors we are working to accomplish love, safety, or happiness.

Often the things that drive us the most insane are when someone we care for goes about trying to find love in a way that drives us further away. In that case, it can often be helpful to let them know what they can do to get your affection. Letting them know (kindly!) how they can change their behavior to get your love, kindness or affection gives helpful and constructive feedback. It actually helps both people feel less powerless, and often more connected.

As a professional I have done things for money that I probably shouldn’t have, taken client’s that could have been served better by others with more training, or taken too many clients in a day just because I wanted to maintain my feelings of safety. I have driven faster than I should have to get home and be happy. I have made choices that have hurt people to make myself happy. I think we all have. Then there are the times that people’s attempts to find happiness or safety actually compromise your safety. People that are happy to lie, cheat, and steal in an effort to provide safety for themselves or their family. I can understand their motivations. If I lived in Russia and the safest way to keep my family fed was to hack people’s accounts and steal from them, if I were desperate enough I would probably do it. I don’t have to understand, like, or agree with their behaviors. I may need to keep myself safe from them though. I need to set boundaries, I need to maintain my own safety. I need to watch to whom I give my money, time, and love. Unhealthy people are looking for the same things, and will find unhealthy ways to get love, safety, and happiness. I can have compassion without making myself a victim.

I had a conversation with a client today about their path. They are in a place on Maslow’s hierarchy where they are able to start thinking about the more esoteric path they want to be on instead of just working to make sure they don’t lose the basic needs for safety of food and shelter. The path that looks at how he wants to feel about himself at the end of the day, about how he wants to go about getting love and happiness. Like me, he wants to know that he is healthy in finding love and happiness, and he doesn’t do at the expense of others. We all want the same things. The difference is how we go about getting those wants met. I also want to be able to find compassion for those that meet their needs and wants for love, safety, and happiness differently than I do, even if I need to protect myself from them. Underneath we aren’t that different.

Finding Gratitude during this Thanksgiving

Every day I run in to pet-peeves.  Just driving to work I hit triggers and frustrations, and my drive is only 2 miles.  As I move through my day I hear triggers from others, I hear frustrations and I hear difficulties.  Then comes the drive home on the same roads with many of the same people that hit the pet-peeve triggers to begin with.  Then I listen to the news and hear of the refugees flooding in to Europe that are being turned away, some of them dying in their attempts.  I hear of the cops killing people, and the people killing cops.  I see all of the hate, anger and suffering in the world.  It is easy to get lost in all of that.

It is easy to get lost in the hurt and the anger and the suffering of the day and of the world.  It is easy to lose sight of the other side of the coin.  Every day I see people find the best of themselves, taking strides forward.  I see watch other drivers show kindness to each other. I watch couples talk to each other with kindness, and strangers tell each other jokes at the bus stop.  Every day my partner gives me a reminder of his kindnesses.  If I look for it, every day I can find some kind of beauty.

It is easy to see the frustrations, the hurts and suffering of the world.  It takes intention to see the beautiful, the things to be grateful for.  Each day there are beautiful things to see and be aware of. These are moments of gratitude.   The moment your cat reaches over with her paw to draw your hand in to a pet. The moment you see other people fighting and recognize how safe your relationship is.  The moment you look up and see the sunset setting the sky on fire and see the beauty.  The moment you recognize the things that are beautiful, you remember that the world isn’t just suffering.  The world is also beauty.

Some days the moments of gratitude are easy to find.  Some days you see the little beauties of the world and they fall like leaves from a tree.  Some days it is harder.  The days you find out your best friends dad died and you watch her cry her heart out, or your partner spits up with you.  The days when just the act of existing brings up all the suffering of the world.  These are the most important days of all to find the moments of gratitude.

The next step is to share our moments.   There are many ways we can share our moments of gratitude, especially in today’s digital age.  First, if you have a family make it a part of your family to share, preferably on a daily basis those moments.  At dinner, at bedtime, or in your own ritual.  This keeps your family or partnership connected and helps through the difficult times.  If you are currently single, share with your friends, on your Facebook or instagram or even Whisper page.  We are so quick to share our suffering.  “A thousand candles can be lighted from the flame of one candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.  Happiness can be spread without diminishing that of yourself”.  Mahatma Ghandi

Gratitude reminds us that there are blessings in the world, that there are silver linings on the cloud.  Making a daily practice of gratitude keeps a reserve of sunshine when the clouds seem to be taking over.  These practices can help us when we’re alone and single to remember that we aren’t fully alone.  These practices can help us connect with our families at the dinner table, when each day everyone has to give their one thing, the one beauty they saw in the day.  Every day take a moment and fine at least one thing you can be grateful for in your day.  Find a way to share it, either with your friends or family or on Facebook.  We share our frustrations all the time, switch the script.

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is not an American celebration.  We are led to believe that the holiday is about the first pilgrims, but the Native American’s celebrated a similar feast every year in thanks for a good harvest.  The Jewish faith has celebrated a similar Thanksgiving for centuries to celebrate their God, and Islam has several holidays that give thanks to and for God.   In fact most cultures have a day to celebrate life and to give thanks.

Giving thanks is not a new concept, and along the lines the day has lost a little bit of its meaning as it has become a day to watch football, get stuffed and get ready for Black Friday.  In my family giving thanks happened for all of about 5 minutes before the stuffing of people actually started, and the rest of the day was dedicated to getting ready for the meal or cleaning up from the meal.

Because of the work that I do I have several clients that struggle to find things to be thankful for.  Every single one of them misses the small things in their lives that are amazing and beautiful.  I had this discussion with a client last night about having her child taken away from her by Children’s Protective Services.  She was able to see that it placed her son in safety while she was able to find continued sobriety and an increasing strength in herself.  She was able to give thanks for having the room right now to fail and learn from her failures if necessary while her son is safe.

Even our struggles help us on our path for growth, and often get us to someplace wonderful and amazing. It is only when we fall in to despair and forget that there is a light at the end of the tunnel that we get lost in the pain and don’t find the other side with the beauty. On this one day, can you see the things that are struggles in your life, that cause you pain and difficulty and find some way to re-frame them in to beauty?  That is true Thanksgiving.  Being able to see the beauty in even the pain, and finding the little things that we sometimes miss.

A daily practice of thanks gratitude is especially important now, as we as a country enter a time of upheaval and change.  I find gratitude that the change is happening, even while I am afraid of the change process.  I remember that any kind of change will come with trauma.  I have to remember that change never comes as I expect, and the storm is there to help tear down so rebuilding can happen.

  • My demanding cat that show She loves me by purring loudly by at 5:00 am, and licking my toes after I swim
  • The way the air smells the morning after a rainstorm
  • The things I have to loose in my life, because I have them
  • All of the goals I haven’t met, because they give me directions
  • The goals I have met
  • My struggles, because keeping with myself through them shows I have strength
  • The little tree in my back yard that has clung to life for 13 years and keeps on holding its ground
  • The disagreements I have with my Husband, because each time we find compromise we become stronger together.
  • The blue of the water, the blue of the sky, the green of the grass, the wind in the trees
  • The small moments every day that provide surprising beauty, that all I need to do is open my eyes to see.
  • The support of my family, even though they are states away from me, and we don’t always get along with each other
  • The trials and struggles of my past, surviving them has made me the person I am today
  • The flowers (both metaphorical and real) growing in places of strife and hurt
  • The people in our world that continue to fight for kindness and acceptance

I want happiness!

We have come to equate ego as self-esteem or self-importance.  If someone is said to have a big ego, they are believed to think higher of themselves than they really deserve.  But the Freudian concept of ego really is the concept of self.  We all actually have a very strong ego, we may like who we are or we may not, but we all are strongly in touch with our sense of self.  That sense of self however often is what gets in the way of our happiness. 

 Our sense of self is created as we move through the world and get feedback about our actions and the things that happen to us.  We create a concept of what we can and can’t do, our own personal value, and the value of the things around us.  Then within that concept we work to navigate our world.  It is also a great deal of what allows us to decide of we are happy or not.  We create definitions of what we want within what we find important and what makes us happy. 

 This is when things get tricky.  When the things we find important or the things we believe make us happy are not present we often struggle.  We then start looking to find happiness, chasing and chasing to find something that our ego, our experiences and our beliefs get in the way of us finding. 

Happiness is all around us.  There are things that will cause pain and difficulties, and yet even then happiness is still all around us.  The sense of I gets in the way of finding what we want.  I am in pain. I am struggling.  I can’t do what I want, or believe I should be able to do.  The I, the ego, can be a huge distraction from happiness. 

 Our ego makes a lot of decisions in our lives.  Can you see where it gets in the way of your happiness?  Do people tell you that you are beautiful, and you can’t believe them?  Do you try your best, do better than you’ve ever done, and it still isn’t good enough?   “There is no good or bad, our thinking makes it so”  Shakespeare.    Where can I get my ego out of my way for even a little bit of happiness?happiness-comic

So…Now what do we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding gratitude for wasted time

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

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

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

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

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