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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain

Monday, May 4, 2015

Monster Bash

I know there is a great and worthy debate about the various ways to deal with anxiety and treat anxiety disorders - from mindfulness to prayer, spiritual fitness to embracing the rage,  from CBT to ACT, from unpacking unconscious repetitions, analyzing the sources and then, some gentle but worthy combination of all of the above.  So many good ways to work with our human mind and heart.

Do we feel our feelings and use them guideposts? Do we push them away? When do we act on them and when do we sit still and wait?

So here's another combo, in some way of all of the above.  And by no means do I think this is easy or fast, but I do think it's useful.  It plugs into the possibilities and ways that we help ourselves live life and feel life and more forward:  Telling the monster to sit down and be quiet.  Here's what I mean:

For most folks who have some kind of recurring anxiety or continuous anxiety, whether it seems to be situational or external (a kid acting out, job stress, money issues, relationship issues), or whether it seems to be more internal (having the idea that worry keeps us safe, or that if we don't worry we will get blindsided, or that we have to worry over it to figure it out, being overly concerned about what people think of us), there are usually recurring underlying story lines.

There is a strong case to made for analyzing the story lines.  Studying the different fears and the different thoughts underneath the different feelings.  And almost always, it's the quiet chaser thoughts that are ruling the day and have us by the throat.  It's not that we think "I am so overwhelmed."  It's that underneath that we think "I cannot handle the overwhelm.  I cannot stand it.  I'm doomed no matter what."  And it's not that we think "I screwed this up." It's the quiet whisper of  "I am terrible. I am worthless. I am worse than everyone else. I am not okay.  I am not safe.  I cannot have what I need and I never will.   Things will never get better or be okay."

And it's not that we ask ourselves "How will this ever get better?" It's how we ask it, and with what tone: curiosity or animosity?  And  that we hear underneath "It will never get better.  I am a bad mother/father/spouse/person. It is terrible to make mistakes.  Forget it, you're hopeless. You're awful.  Things are awful and you will lose everything.  You cannot stand this."

There are themes, though, that we can identify.  And after we get to know our themes, and after we've done our inner research and we have answered those deep whispers, in addition to continuing to answer them, we can also see them as one of my young clients does:  as monsters.  Funny looking, over sized grouchy monsters.  And we can feel them coming.  We know the feelings they bring.  We know the theme thoughts they bring.

And we can tell them to go sit in the gallery.  Go sit down because we know what you have to say, and we know what feelings you bring and we know that going along with you only is a repeat of the same old same old and never takes me anywhere but down.  So go sit down in the bleachers with the other monsters and be quiet."

Here are examples of "monsters":

Triggers: Hard day at work, disagreement with spouse, lots of housework to do, kid getting in trouble, unexpected expense, someone saying something mean  , difficult conversation with a parent. (add your own recurring themed ones!)
Feeling lead: Dread, panic, frustration, doom, shame, guilt, resentment
Thoughts (see above)

So sometimes we need more exploration and answering the quieter thoughts and feelings, and sometimes if we see the same triggers over and over again, and we've been through all the real and deeper answers to the deepest whispers, its time to say to the monster, "Yes, I see you.  I feel you coming on again.  Here you are again.  Now, sit down and be quiet, I've got a day to live."

It's not magic, but if we practice it, repeat it and move on, we often see that new feelings and thoughts and ideas present themselves and life opens up in ways that are so much better than being led around by the same ole' same ole monsters.

photo credit:  | Dreamstime Stock Photos




Monday, April 13, 2015

Don't Ask - Don't Tell

Seems like there are so many ideas in the world about how to live our internal lives.  Religious ones, spiritual ones, philosophical ones, psychological ones.  Sometimes, its hard to know where to focus our thoughts, our energy.  Sometimes it feels like it's so overwhelming, why even bother to ask.

And similarly, why bother to ask about ourselves, or about others, or about how to work with our minds?

In my office I hear a lot of pain.  I hear a lot of fear.  And urgency.  And more fear.  Fear of not getting what we want.  Or what we think we want.  Fear of having things we don't want.  Fear of not being good enough, happy enough, satisfied enough, loved enough, lovable enough.  Fear of making wrong decisions, or of being left out or missing out.

So lots of times we don't even ask.  We function in ways that seem to be what we need, but somehow, don't actually move us forward.  We stay safe, and somewhat asleep to what thoughts are repeating, what ideas are guiding us, what notions keep us stuck.

We think that if we ask, if we look, we will have to do more, know more, figure out more.  We think we will be told things we don't agree with, or that will keep us from getting what we believe we have to have.

I have seen this played out in a thousand ways:

Pursuing a partner to the point of pushing him/her away.
Pursing money to the point of losing a job.
Pursing a point to the point alienating someone, or sabotaging a relationship or job.
Pursing relief externally to the point of addiction, compulsion, danger to one's self or others.

And the opposite:

Ignoring what someone tells us they feel, need or are effected by to the point of damaging a relationship
Ignoring that quiet, innately healthy voice that we hear whispers of, when we are quiet.
Ignoring good advice, good sense, good wisdom to the point of destruction or loss.

It's hard to ask.  It's hard to get curious about our behavior, our minds, how to work with our minds.  We are afraid.  And it takes a bit of time, a bit of talking, to clear the path and come to what works for us, uniquely, individually, and instinctively.

But when we are willing to ask, we are on the way, and that in itself is something.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Internal Solutions for External Problems and Agency Over Our Lives

Usually when something is going wrong in our lives,  if we are going to address it,  we first look to change it from the outside.  We look to change the person, place, situation, relationship, routine.   We are convinced that while we could look at our attitudes or perceptions or behaviors, really, something external has got to be different.

And sometimes that is true.  We need things to change.  Sometimes they can change.  Sometimes external problems need external solutions.

But sometimes, we need an internal solution to an external problem.  We need to slow way down and take a second look at how we see things, how we and others experience them.  We need to get curious about our convictions, our assumptions, our beliefs about why things are going the way they are going.

Its not about assigning or reassigning blame.  It's not about blame at all, actually.  And in fact, when we can take the blame out, even just for a little while, we can discover so much more about ourselves, and about what we need and feel and believe.  And moreover, we can come to a new agency over our lives that is not dependent on something or someone being different, or in fact, on any outside shift.

We can open ourselves up to what the meaning might be for us, on our journey, in this life.  We can shine a spiritual light on things, and wonder what we might glean from our struggles, our pain, our circumstances.  And how experiencing them differently might make all the difference.

I'm not suggestion that we stay in unhealthy or harmful situations, but I'm saying that we can often be surprised at how much internal definition we can find and how relieving that can be when  we work with how we experience others, how others experience us, and not just what we take for granted as facts  - or what we believe on a surface level.

We can go not only deeper, but broader, to what other possible experiences might be like.  We can risk some vulnerability for the sake of discovering  more of our authenticity and fortitude.  We can work it out inside and that can be life changing.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Start the Conversation (and the dangers of not starting the conversation)

It's not always easy to start the conversation.  Especially if the conversation is about a difficult topic, like not being happy in a marriage, or not feeling happy with one's job, or children or sense of self.
Sometimes we don't know how to start.  Sometimes we don't know who to start the conversation with.  We don't know what we will say.  We are afraid, even, of saying anything.  What if we don't have the right words? What effect might our words have? What effect would we like them to have?

Some people are afraid to put themselves into the equation, thinking they should just live with things as they are, or that their needs are too needy, or too shameful, or not "normal."  Some people think the other person's needs are too needy, too demanding, or not normal.  Sometimes we are afraid we will hear things we don't want to hear, or learn things we don't want to learn about ourselves or someone else.  We think we won't be able to deal with it.

Sometimes we don't start the conversation because we think we will be met with ridicule, or with dismissal or harm.  And there are times where that may be true.  Sometimes we don't start the conversation because we fear being misunderstood, laughed at, or not taken seriously.

And sometimes we don't start the conversation because we believe it won't make a difference anyway.  And sometimes we think that if we start the conversation we are going to make something become real that should not become real.  That we will be stuck with our words as if they are signatures on a contract, as if they are facts forever.  We don't know that we can walk through them without taking any action.  That even if our feelings get stirred up, we don't have to act.

Sometimes we don't start the conversation because we don't really want to.  And when we unpack that a bit we learn that we don't want to because maybe we just are not ready to open up that door. We are afraid of where it will go.  

And sometimes we don't start the conversation because we don't want to because somewhere in the back of our minds we want to take some kind of action and we don't want to veer off the path toward that outcome.  We have in mind what we are going to do and we don't want to think it through, or give another outcome a chance.

From where I sit, in the therapist's chair, all these years, I see what happens when the conversation does not start.  I see marital problems get swept under the rug until one person or the other has an affair, or leaves or blows up big time.  I see people quit jobs on a whim, lose it with children, hurt themselves or others.

Sometimes we are not sure how to talk safely.  But we can learn.  We can learn the right enough words to start with.  Whether we are starting the conversation with ourselves, with our partner, our boss, our kids.  The conversation does not have to be, in fact mostly, should not be, a once and done, intense blow out.  It can be ongoing, and rolling and open ended and gentle even.  We can start with "Hi, I kinda like the idea of starting a conversation - would you join me?"

Recently, someone said to me "As long as we keep talking we'll be okay."  And I'm thinking how great that is.  That I really believe that.  While we are not always emotionally able or ready to jump right in to the deep parts of the issues, and while we may not know exactly where the conversation will go, I think its true.  As long as we keep talking, we are not entirely alone.



Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tea With Your Thoughts

I know, sounds odd.  But learning how to work with our minds can go such a long way toward bringing us a peaceful and meaningful inner world - which often translates to a feeling of health and satisfaction in our outer worlds.

Traditional CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) has long been teaching us how to hear our thoughts, understand how they cause and effect our feelings, our urges, and result in actions and then, of course, consequences.  CBT in it's many useful forms has helped many tune in to their thoughts, sort them through and refute the ones that are based on faulty beliefs, old destructive thought patterns or self-attacking inner voices.  Talking back is often an effective and powerful tool.

But here's another take on the back talk because talking back, getting so involved with all the negative thoughts, trying to refute them, argue with them, tell them they are wrong (especially when we are not so sure we disbelieve them or we have not yet understood their usefulness to us or their origins) sometimes just does not work as well as we might like it to:

Invite them in for tea.  Let them keep talking.  Tell them you hear them.  Tell them to come on in, sit down, have a cup of tea.  And while they are talking and having their tea, do what you know is the right thing to do anyway.

Folks often ask me about how to really sort out the healthy thoughts from the unhealthy ones, and the truth is, it's not so hard once you tune in to doing it.  The unhealthy ones are the ones that have you by the throat.  They are the ones that command you, harangue you, tease you, urge you, guilt you, condemn you, condemn others, spook you, demean you, egg you on toward harming yourself or someone else, with words or actions.

And the healthy ones come from a quieter place.  A place inside that is calm and willing to feel feelings, even sad ones, slower ones, frustrating ones, and just be.  The place that knows that difficult feelings can motivate not debilitate, can inspire and not extinguish your sense of creativity and self. The better thoughts are more reasonable, more poignant, more in line with your overall value system and belief system.

It does take some tending to, for sure, to figure them out, but we don't have to be ruled by them without paying attention to them.  We can tune in, invite all our thoughts to have a cup of tea while
we keep on going from our hearts.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Better is Not So Far Away is Here (small steps do actually move you forward)

At long last and with much gratitude to all who helped with this project - Better is Not So Far Away is finally not so far away!  It was released by McGraw-Hill Education a few weeks ago.

For me, one of the best things about the experience of writing this book and seeing it through to publication is the experience of seeing a process made up of many small "next right steps" and "keeping on keeping on" come to life.

Sometimes process is difficult to wait through, especially when there is emotional pain, confusion, or a feeling of time passing.  There are so many things that are worth shining the light on to see what lies below the surface of our wantings, our longings, our pull or push to move things along.

And sometimes here in the office, we see the opposite - the hesitancy to change, to move forward, a pull toward staying with or in the status quo, to keeping things as they are.  Sometimes this is fear of change, a clinging to what is known and familiar. Even in emotional pain, changing or saying, thinking, feeling, doing something new, can seem too risky, too strange, too different and unpredictable.

And the culture backlash these days to the competitive, achievement focused world is to encourage mindfulness, personal vulnerability from a position of self reflection and grace and gratitude.  And to be in the moment.  In the small moments of the moments of the day.  But even this, sometimes, can seem too far away or like a pressure of a different sort.

What I came to believe through the process of writing this book is that you can have both.  Back and forth and with ease at times, and at other times, a bit of difficulty.  But the difficulty is so valuable because when you get through each bump, there is a renewed sense of purpose, of accomplishment, of both quiet mindfulness and personal movement and meaning.

It means that just doing one more next right small thing is small enough that you don't have to jump farther or go faster than you can, but that you can go somewhat forward toward progress and still not miss the meaningful private moments in life.  That you can compare yourself to yourself, and that it does add up to something as well, but the process is in its own right is something of value, and the destination comes along as a soft reminder that we don't really have to move fast or big.

Things don't always have to be exciting to count.  They can count just because they are part of our process.  When we look at how we spend our time, what is valuable to us to devote our attention to, we can  - yes - have meaning and movement both getting there and being there.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Crash - Could Have Been Worse Though (and the power of words)

My friend K (yes it was my friend and not me!) was in car accident coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel last week.  For those of you not familiar with the traffic spillage out of Manhattan into New Jersey, I'll say this: at certain hours its not so bad...you merge out of the tunnels, up the hill, around the bend and more merging for a mile or so until you have to decide which direction in New Jersey you want to go - Turnpike, or west, local or north - there are lots of signs, lots of lanes, and not a real heads up as to which sign matches which lane.    As often happens in New Jersey, by the time you see the sign - it's often too late to get into the correct lane.

So coming out of the tunnel K was driving beside but behind an eighteen wheeler with an out of state (out of area) license plate.  And somehow she was in his blind spot and he saw the sign he needed and the exit sneaking right up and he slid over into her lane and into her van  - and crash.

And it wasn't so bad - given the fast flow of traffic, the confusion, the hills and the bends and the rush - it's a miracle no one was hurt.  So here's the heart of the story:

K stayed in her car, but the truck driver got out and boy was he mad.  He was red; he was yelling, cursing and coming at her.  She had kids in her car.  Everyone was okay, but she was shaken from the bump - even though it wasn't huge - still.

So she rolled her window down and while he was yelling about where she came from and where she should go - she said "Are you okay?" and then "Are you hurt?"  And he sort of stopped his tirade for a second.  And then she smiled at him and said "Really, are you alright?"  And then he paused again and said, "Yeah, yeah, I think so."  And then, "Are you?"  And then he looked in the van.  And he said, "The kids okay?"  And she said, "Yes, a little shaky, but okay."

"I didn't see you," He said.  "I'm not from around here.  It's so confusing."
"I know," She said. "It's difficult, even for locals."

By the time the cops came, they were friends.

And you know, it happens, that some of us are quick to anger -especially given the circumstances, the frustration, we all have our moments.  (And yes, when those moments are the norm, and they effect those around us, we should probably tend to it).

It's a tall order to respond the way K did, especially in the moment.  But that's K.  She has slowed herself down over the years, and somehow sensed that there was a frustrated person inside, who could use a little help, even though he was not sounding so good.  She saw he needed help calming down, and she had the presence of mind and the words to do it.

I also know that when we are dealing with our own built up resentment or frustration or hurt, its hard to pause, to be curious, to help someone calm down and to find the person inside, behind the yelling, or the ignoring or the withdrawing.   But it is amazing what the right words can do.  That's all.  Just saying.