Hope

Cultivating a Life that is Real: Finding Hope through Your Darkness

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

I have yet to meet anyone whose middle school years were not fraught with social perils and awkwardness and mine were no different. I can remember days I was so sure I had committed a social disaster that I laid in bed at night dreadfully imagining the possible fallout that awaited me the next day at school.  And yet, I would often awake the next day and march into school doing everything I could to pretend the truth that my knotted stomach betrayed was a lie and that none of the previous day had unfolded as it did. This got me through the day many times, but it was a miserable way to live. And, it still is.

The reality is we all still do this self-deception as adults because it gets us through the day, but we often never slow down to think about what it costs us. In the course of experiencing deeply confusing, painful, frightening, shame-filled, and aggravating events somewhere along the way we make a decision – whether conscious or not – to disown pieces of this experience that feel like too much to bear.

Just like middle school, we act like the wounds and emotions our bodies communicate we carry don’t exist, and we talk ourselves away from what the pit of our stomach knows is actual reality. We become so good at this that we disown parts of an experience while keeping all the good things so that as we move forward it seems like a bright and cheerful time even though it carries shadows on all sides of betrayal, crushed hope, or shame.

My point here is not to “miserable-ize” everything in your life, but to illuminate what is lost when we do this. The reality is what we disown is not only an event but our experience of an event. When we disown that experience we actually disown a part of ourselves – a part of the deep experience of our soul – and we take one more step away from ever being truly known by those around us. No matter how vulnerable we are with however many people, we always have those pieces in the back of our mind holding us hostage with the thought, ‘Yeah, but if they knew that about me they would run in the other direction.” We become lonely, and less and less real – no matter how many people or “positive vibes” we surround ourselves with.

Cultivating a life that is real and fighting loneliness begins with examining the pieces of our soul we have disowned, working through whatever discomfort kept us from doing this before, and bringing those pieces of ourselves back into the present so that we can live a more whole and connected life.

This is certainly not an easy task, but often when we face the darkness rather than run from it, we find some light. As English theologian Thomas Fuller once said, “The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

So what are the pieces of yourself you’ve left in the darkness? What are the parts of your soul locked away inside? Are you ready to face them openly? Are you ready for true connection? For whole-hearted living? Are you ready to be real?

Does your past matter?

Does your past really matter?

by:  Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

shutterstock_155509727How often to you pick up a novel or biography you have not previously read, flip to a random page in the middle of the book, and start reading from there? Have you ever tried to sit down in the middle of a movie and pick up the storyline? Our lives are stories full of experiences that connect and impact what comes next. So when we say that the past doesn’t matter or our childhood has no significance when it comes to what’s going on in our lives today, it seems to me more like it’s wishful thinking than what is actually true.

I think there are different reasons why we want to downplay the significance of our past, specifically our early years. Sometimes it seems to stem from a desire to believe we’ve moved past it all, grown too strong and mature for any of those vulnerable years to still have the power to impact us today. For others the motivation to downplay prior experiences comes from an avoidance of the pain which accompanies them.

The reality, however, is that our lives are a whole intricate story.

Think about it this way: what’s the first thing a doctor asks about? Your medical history. What do you want to know about a car before buying it? Accident history and mileage. Similarly, when you are getting know someone new, whether a friend, co-worker, or date, conversation will surely be filled with facts about the present, but part of getting to know them is also understanding their past and where they come from, both literally and figuratively.

Neglecting the importance of our past, especially our early impressionable and very vulnerable years, is a misstep that hinders our growth and depth in the present.

History is a mandatory subject in school for a reason. We can become students of our own histories and discover how and why we got to where we are, potential pitfalls and blindspots we operate with, and relational patterns and styles that may contribute to our present relational struggles.

Is Grief Good?

Is Grief Good?

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

shutterstock_174741554To allow yourself to experience grief, and to choose to engage in the on-going act of grieving, is difficult and takes courage. I believe it is something we must actually choose to learn how to incorporate into our lives. According to Brene’ Brown, who has studied emotion and vulnerability for 15 years, we fear the emotion of grief the most. I agree.

As humans, we tend to run from what we fear. So if we fear the emotion of grief, then it makes good sense to say we will likely run from feeling and experiencing it in our lives to the best of our ability.

Why do we fear grief so much? As I asked myself this question, I realized I believed lies about grief and grieving.

Here are some lies I have either believed myself or have heard from others –

~”If I let myself feel sadness or pain, it will only make it worse.”
~”If I let myself acknowledge my grief, I will never be able to function again. It will engulf me.”
~”I don’t have time to be sad.”
~”I need to think positively and not dwell on the bad (on the pain).”
~”The pain from my grief will be so painful, I will not sustain under it.”
~”If I let myself grieve, I am just having a pity party for myself.”
~”Grief only comes when someone dies, and no one has died, therefore I shouldn’t be in pain.”
~”Something is wrong with me because its been “this much time” and I am still sad about ____.”

There are some deep-rooted misbeliefs exposed in the comments above. The assumptions exposed are that grief is bad, weak, wrong, only “okay” when someone dies, and that it exists on some sort of definable timetable.

I started learning a lot about grief and grieving 5 years ago when the landscape of my life radically changed through my divorce. Wrestling with betrayal, and the loss of our intact family, is something I am still grieving. My days are no longer shadowed by grief, but it still pops up from time to time. Some days it may pop up for a moment, some days it may take up residence for a few hours. It has taken me awhile to learn that I will be “okay” in living a life now sprinkled with grief on a daily basis.

I didn’t start out okay with my grief. For the better part of a year after my life had radically changed, I was angry at the pain of my grief. I tried to numb it, run from it, and mask it into something it wasn’t. I fought it, and I suffered for it.

I had to learn how to not fear grief, but rather how to embrace its presence. I had to learn grief is not containable, it cannot be managed, and it lacks predictability. It can last a moment or remain for the better part of a day. It does not ask for my permission to overshadow a day. I also had to learn that when grief rears its head, it doesn’t mean I am weak.

My journey to no longer fear grief is much like my process of no longer fearing thunderstorms. As a kid, I feared thunderstorms (and if i’m being honest here…my fear lasted into my early adult years). It didn’t matter if a storm came in the day or night. To me, the loud bangs of thunder and sudden flashes of light freaked me out! Now as I sit with my youngest son during a storm to calm his fears, I wonder, “What was I so afraid of? It’s just a thunderstorm!” I believed unfounded lies about storms: “something bad is going to happen,” “what if it never stops,” “I am not okay and I won’t be okay until the storm goes away…” and on and on my thoughts would go. Do you see the similarity between storms and grief? With both, I feared what I didn’t understand.

Allowing ourselves to feel grief, is as important as allowing ourselves to feel joy. When we try to numb only the emotions we dislike, feeling we set in motion the beginnings of living an emotionally handicap life. Over time, we will not only numb the emotions we don’t like, but the emotions we like become numb as well.

Life Lessons My Newborn Has Been Teaching Me

Life Lessons My Newborn Has Been Teaching Me

by: Melinda Seley, PLPC

Sometimes life’s greatest teachers come in the smallest of packages. After recently returning from maternity leave, I have been reflecting on some life lessons my newborn has been teaching (or re-teaching) me over the past several months.  Below are the top five:  

Silence the “always” and “nevers” and work to be present here and now.  

Caring for our newborn is one of the most demanding “jobs” I have ever had – it’s physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. In those first weeks with our boy, I found myself so afraid that this would be my new normal – being trapped in the house with a tiny little person who could only communicate via hangry crying and who needed something from me for what seemed like every minute.  I would never get to have friends again, enjoy a cup of hot coffee, attend church, or do anything beyond being at my boy’s beckon call.  This is always how it was going to be.  I found myself saying a lot of “always” and “never’s”.  And the only place they led me was to despair and fear. They made me miss the joy and uniqueness of that finite season and a season I had so longed to experience.  

Do you find yourself saying a lot of always and nevers about where you are in life?  If so, what would it look like to, instead, be present in this moment, right now? To be honest about and grieve the unique challenges, losses, and hardships you are experiencing, but to not forget to look for and savor the good. Right here and now.

baby hand

Some of the most significant growth in life comes through hardship or struggle. Don’t avoid it.

Pediatricians recommend that by 2 months of age, infants spend 30-60 minutes on their tummy.  Until he could successfully lift his head, my boy hated “tummy time” and was quite vocal about his dislike of it.  It would turn our happy, easy-going baby into a crying mess.  I wanted to avoid it; I didn’t want to subject my own son to struggle; and honestly, I didn’t want to subject myself to additional emotional exhaustion from needing to soothe him afterwards.  But the only way for him to grow and be able to hold his head steady was for me to allow him to struggle. To give him opportunity each day to face what he didn’t like with support so that he could grow.  Is there anything in your life that seems like it would be easier to avoid but really what you need most is to get down on the mat and spend time learning to lift your head – through the tears and grumbles?  What are you missing out on because it’s easier or more appealing to avoid the struggle?  

Value “being” rather than “doing”.  

I am a “doer”. I like lists and I especially like to check them off. Life with a newborn doesn’t allow for many lists other than feed, change diaper, soothe, repeat (with the occasional change clothes and spray with stain remover mixed in!). In the first days of being home all day alone with my son, I texted my husband, “I’ve showered and done a load of laundry…today is already a success!” And in doing so, I realized that my definition of success was based merely on how much of my “to do” list I could accomplish…instead of savoring just being with my new, precious child who relied on me for everything and who I had longed to have.  Do you struggle as I do to find your identity in what you do rather than just being?  What would it look like to keep the to do list, but give it a whole lot less weight in determining your worth?  You are not what you do. You are not the boxes you check off. You are you and that is enough.

The first time will be the hardest…the important thing is to lean into the fear and do it.  

After 3 weeks with our little guy, I felt like maybe I finally had the hang of this whole parenting a newborn thing. But I still had not left the house with him alone. I was afraid – what if something happens when we’re out and I don’t have what I need or worse yet – I look like I have no idea what I’m doing as a mom?!  My fear kept me stuck in the house and unable to move forward.  And then I read somewhere an encouragement to do something I feared as a new mom each day.  And suddenly I felt a resolve within me that I would not let fear rule me. I had to name the fear and walk through it. After leaving the house for the first time and realizing that I could survive it (and more importantly, our little one could survive it!), it got easier. I had concrete experience to learn from.  What is fear keeping you from doing? What do you need in order to move through that fear and do something for the first time?

Stop comparing.

Being a first time parent is hard. There are so many unknowns, big adjustments, differing opinions on how you should care for your little one, exhaustion, and fear. Every parent is different and every child is different. I found myself looking around me at friends who are on their second, third, fourth child and thinking, “They are handling life so much better and they have more than one child! I can’t even manage {fill in the blank} and I only have one kiddo!” So much shame. And insufficiency. And failure. But my comparing isn’t fair. Those friends of mine have walked through the challenge of adding their first child to their family and they had to do and experience all these things for the first time, too.  And they questioned themselves, felt unsure, and were overwhelmed just as I have been.  And they learned along the way how to do it.  Comparing myself to others in different seasons or places in life discounts their journey to get where they are and the journey I have not yet walked.  And experience is one of life’s greatest teachers. When I stopped looking around to compare and gave myself grace to navigate this completely new role with my unique child and my unique strengths and weaknesses, I found so much more joy in the process. Do you find yourself making endless comparisons?  Are they fair? What would it look like to acknowledge that you have unique strengths and weaknesses and experience is a great teacher?  Would that make a difference in your joy?  

Do you need to learn (or apply) any of these life lessons along with me?  What are you learning where you are on this journey of life?  

 

What if I don’t feel grateful?

What if I don’t feel grateful?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

20648028973_184236efa9_mRecently I was in a group where they talked about how important gratitude is for living a happy and healthy life. I remember thinking “yeah, sure, that’s all fine and good, but what if you don’t feel grateful?”

They explained to me that gratitude isn’t primarily a feeling; it’s a discipline. It’s like a muscle that we can strengthen or allow to atrophy. And there are a number of ways we can exercise our gratitude muscle:

Make a list of what you have to be grateful for every day

Keep a gratitude journal. It can be just a simple notebook or something more elaborate. Schedule a time to write five things you have to be grateful for daily. If you do it every morning, you will remember it throughout the day. If you do it at night, then it will shape how you look back at that whole day. (After a while, you’ll find that you’re having a lot more good days). The list doesn’t have to be of big things. In fact, it’s better if they’re not. Even the smallest positive event counts.

The simple act of bringing to mind the good things in your life has a huge impact on your wellbeing. But it takes intentionality to notice the good. We are much more skilled at noticing the negative things that happen to us. They tend to stick out more than the good. (And when you’re depressed your brain actually goes to negative memories more easily). So it takes an act of the will, a habit, to make your brain notice the positive. You will be surprised by the results. In time, your feelings will follow.

Strengthen gratitude by looking outward

Another way to exercise your gratitude muscle is to notice those around you in difficult situations. They can be close to home or on the other side of the world, but they can’t be people to whom you usually compare yourself. Comparison is toxic to gratitude; it is like gratitude kryptonite. The purpose of comparison is to judge (either your self or the other). This leads to dissatisfaction on one hand or pride on the other. Either way, it’s destructive to gratitude.

Looking outward is different. Its purpose is to empathize and help. Helping someone is invigorating, provides a sense of purpose, improves self-perception, and helps put your blessings in perspective. Not only that, but it benefits someone who needs you and gives them a reason to be grateful.

Purposefully remember in hard times

There are times where it is hard to be grateful. This is just reality. Seasons in life are hard, painful, and seemingly hopeless. During these times it can be difficult to think of current things that make you feel grateful. In these periods, it helps to look intentionally at the past and the future. Remind yourself of good events from your past and dwell on potential positive opportunities in the future. This is a habit that you have to nurture; it won’t happen automatically.

Our brains can get stuck in a negative rut, but we can short-circuit our brains by forcing ourselves to consider other options. Think of yourself as a lawyer cross-examining your negative brain. Bring evidence of any positive experience to the jury of your mind. Look back for anything, however small, that disproves the case being made that your life has been uninterrupted tragedy. Then look forward for any possibility that things will be better than you are currently expecting.

Extra Credit

For extra credit, you can make a list of five positive outcomes that could happen in your future. Developing a positive view of your future is a great antidote for hopelessness. (Notice that I said developing a positive view). A life of gratitude doesn’t just happen overnight; it has to be nurtured, exercised, and grown.

Having an attitude of gratitude is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. Consider starting a gratitude journal today. Your brain will thank you.

Say Goodbye to Life-Sucking Fears

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

Learning to acknowledge the fears we have within ourselves and with others is the first step to becoming free from them.

Perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt was onto something when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Having a fear of something isn’t bad.  In fact, sometimes our responses to fear can save our lives.  We sense danger, so we run.  We are swimming and running out of breath, so we get to shore.  Fear itself isn’t the problem.  It is what becomes of our fear that matters.  Once our fears begin to control us – limit our life, change our thoughts/beliefs about ourselves, irrational behavior surfaces – this is when a fear becomes problematic.
A fear not dealt with has the potential to overcome us to the point of robbing our joy in life.
Anything can become a fear.  Nothing is too far from its reach.
Oftentimes I find people hating what they fear yet, unwilling to change.  I can’t say that I blame them.  After all, even though they hate what they fear and want so badly for it to change, it is also known to them.  Theoretically, they have already lived with their fear for a number of years, and have become accustomed to how it limits their life and restricts their happiness.  Asking someone to take the risk learning to let go of their fear, is one of the scariest risks I ask of people to try in my job.  Asking people to give up the known for the unknown requires much trust, courage, and vulnerability on their part.  Asking them to believe change is possible is the first step.
What are you fearing?
-Not being good enough?
-Letting people down?
-Being abandoned or rejected by those you love?
-Being a bad parent?
-Not having enough money to pay your bills?
-Not being liked?
-Loosing your spouse?
-Never being happy?
-Something bad that happened in your past?  
-(insert your fear here….)
Are your fears limiting your life?  Are they altering your beliefs about yourself?  Are they causing you to act in ways you normally wouldn’t?  
If you answered yes to any of the above questions then seeking help is your next step.

What do we do when ours fears begin altering how we live our lives?

1.  Acknowledge your fear is controlling or altering the way your think and live.
2.  Seek help.  Ask friends for support. Find a trusted counselor to help you.
3.  Believe change is possible.
These steps may sound trite, but believe me they are not!  These initial steps are hard and require courage and vulnerability.  You are choosing to step out into the unknown and say, “I want something better than what I currently have.  I want to take back control of my life!”  This is no easy task to begin engaging in.
Some of the common fears I see people struggling with actually have nothing to do with something outside of themselves.  Usually, I find people most fear something having to do who they are, how they perform and how they perceive the need to measure up to others, or being good enough or perfect enough to be loved.   If I just described you, know you are not alone in your struggle.  I hope you will reach out for help because freedom from your fears is possible!

We Hate to Feel

We hate to feel, don’t we?  There seems to be a generalized belief among the living that to feel any emotion for too long or too intensely means something is wrong with who we are.  Why is this?

 

We believe we have somehow malfunctioned if we cannot keep our emotions in-check, socially acceptable, and controlled.  And we believe that we must…and I mean must maintain homeostasis in how we feel.  By any chance does this sound like you?

Avenues Counseling

Why do we hate to feel?  Why do we fear our emotions?

Here are some thoughts on why we fear to feel:

We Fear we will loose our controlled composure – Any emotions we experience intensely can cause us to feel out of control.  It doesn’t mean we are out of control, but this is how we feel.   Mentally we want to stop crying or feeling sad, but no matter how hard we will ourselves to stop these unwelcomed emotions they do not go away.  They must run their course.  And simply put – this feels uncomfortable to us.

We Fear social isolation –  “What if I’m too much for my family and friends and they all walk away from me?” It is such a horrible thought to have of oneself as “being too much” for others, isn’t it?  This fear alone can grip us so tightly that we choose to stuff down our feelings in an effort to never burden someone again.  In all honesty, if someone who claims to love you walks away from your relationship with them because they claim you are too much, then I would question if they truly loved you in the first place.

“What if they think I’m crazy?” – Another aspect to our fear of social isolation is the fear that says something like, “If I let people see my ‘raw’ emotions, or if I am sad too long or cry too much, they are going to think I am crazy.”  Basically, we hate to feel because we fear what our feelings say about us to others.

We Fear being consumed –  Our fear informs us that if we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they will consume us.  Once consumed, we will no longer be able to function.

Our fears can hold a very powerful role in our lives, but they don’t have to.  How can we start to think differently?  How can we respond differently to our fears?  Next week I will seek to answer these questions.  Until then, perhaps just take some time to think about which of the fears listed above ring true in your life.  Think about if you are willing to imagine a new way of living.  A way of living that doesn’t magically make your fears disappear, but a way of living that isn’t bound by them any longer.

-Lianne Johnson, LPC

 

Increasing our Ability to Love and be Loved

Increasing our ability to love and be loved –

Whew…I literally just finished reading this article (below) by Brene’ Brown, who happens to be one of my fav’s when it comes to teaching me how to live and love.  I thought I would share of few of parts of the article that were highlights for me.  This article is so good.  So, so, good!

“To say no (to something or someone), we have to understand why we’re saying yes.”  This is so true and needs no further words – if we don’t understand why we are doing something it just won’t last.

This next highlight I have never considered before, but I sure am now!  Here it is, “I had to push myself to rediscover my own artistic side.  Unused creativity is not benign.  It clumps inside us, turning into judgement, grief, anger, and shame.”

“None of us get calmer by telling ourselves to calm down.  we get it by understanding what calm is: being able to see clearly because we are not overreacting to a situation.  We’re listening and understanding.  We are letting ourselves feel the vulnerability of the moment (the call from the doctor, the meeting with the angry boss) and then managing that feeling.”  To feel is to allow yourself to be vulnerable – what a great reminder for me!

Here’s my last highlight to share before sharing the article in its entirety.  “We become what we do.” Yep, simple and true.  The more I practice at growing a garden (my current hobby) the better I will become.  Similarly, the more I practice loving who I am and not hating myself the easier it will become.

So those are the specific items Brene’ shared that impacted me.  I wonder how it will impact you….

-Lianne

“5 (Doable) Ways to Increase the Love in Your Life

Can we increase our ability to love and to be loved? Brené Brown, PhD, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, on what wholeheartedness means—and how you can take a few practical steps to cultivate it.

Avenues Counseling

Of all the thousands of people I’ve interviewed and studied over the years—looking for patterns in the data—only about 15 to 20 percent were folks living with their whole hearts, folks who were really all in when it came to their relationships. So I decided I wanted to find out why. What quality did these people have that made them so capable of both receiving and giving love?

When I examined my research, I discovered that these were people who deeply believed that they were worthy of love and belonging. These folks believed this regardless of the circumstances, unlike the majority of us who think: “Okay, I’m worthy of love and belonging a little bit, but I’ll be superworthy if I get promoted. Or I’ll be superworthy if I lose 20 pounds.” These folks believed that they were loveable and that they had a place in the world, and those beliefs translated into specific choices they made every day. They were aware. They recognized shame, and they knew how to deal with it. They recognized vulnerability, and they were willing to feel it—rather than ignore or numb it.

What I wondered was, How do the rest of us cultivate these same qualities? It’s not like we can just decide to be vulnerable or say, “Hey, I’m worthy,” after which—poof—this instantly comes true. But there are practical changes you can make in your life which encourage these beliefs. Here are five basic everyday actions that can help you develop a deeper, more loving sense of wholeheartedness, both for others and for yourself.

Letting Go of Exhaustion

Everybody in the world says that you need to work less in order to live a fuller, more connected life. But so few of us address what prevents us from doing it. The reasons are simple: (1) exhaustion is a status symbol in our culture, and (2) self-worth has become net worth. We live doing so much and with so little time that anything unrelated to the to-do list—taking a nap, say, or reading a novel—actually creates stress.

Wholehearted people, on the other hand, know when to stop and rest. Personally, I had to learn this. I’m still learning this. I screw it up every now and then, but five years ago I made some huge changes in my personal and private life. I went from full time to part time at the university, and my husband, who is a pediatrician, cut his hours to four days a week. As it stands now, we never get less than eight hours of sleep.

What did this require? A constellation of choices. For example, one of the things I have to do to cultivate more rest is to say no. Last year, I turned down 85 percent of the invitations I got to speak. Because I have a commitment to be at the family table four nights a week.

To say no, we have to understand why we’re saying yes. One of the reasons is scarcity. I, like many of us, was so afraid that maybe all these opportunities would just go away, that maybe next year people wouldn’t ask for me to come speak, and maybe my work wouldn’t get the attention it needed, and that if I didn’t have my work, who would I be? So I thought I had to say yes, yes, yes. The only reason I can now say no is because I work on my shame “gremlins.” Gremlins are the tricksters who whisper all of those terrible things in our ears that keep us afraid and small. When the gremlins say “you better say yes, or they won’t like you” or “they’ll think you’re lazy,” I whisper back: “Not this time. I get to say no. I get to love myself, stay home and drive soccer carpool.”

Painting a Gourd

All of us were made to make things. During my studies, I found out a surprising piece of data: There is no such thing as a creative or noncreative person. Every single human being is creative. Every research participant could recall a time in his or her life when creativity brought him or her great joy. It was usually childhood, and the creative expressions ranged from coloring or finger-painting to dancing, singing or building. What was most fascinating was that the participants never talked about learning how to be creative—they just were.

As adults, what keeps us from being creative—from painting, cooking, scrapbooking, doodling, knitting, rebuilding an engine or writing—is what I call the comparison gremlin (a close cousin of the shame gremlin). People say, “I’m not good enough,” or “Why am I the only one with dangling modifiers?” or “I’m not a real sculptor…I’m a total poser.” In other words, we shame ourselves into stopping. While we may have all started creative, between ages 8 and 14, at least 60 percent of the participants remember learning that they were not creative. They began to compare their creations, they started getting graded for their art, and many heard from a teacher or a parent that “art wasn’t their thing.” So we don’t have to teach people to find joy in creating; we have to make sure not to teach them that there’s only one acceptable way to be creative.

I had to push myself to rediscover my own artistic side. Unused creativity is not benign. It clumps inside us, turning into judgment, grief, anger and shame. Before I turned my life around, I used to dismiss people who spent time creating. When a friend would invite me to go to an art class or something, I’d respond: “How cute. You go do your A-R-T; I’m busy with a real J-O-B.” Now I realize that was my fear and my own frustrated need to create.

To kick things off, I went to a gourd-painting class with my mom and my then-9-year-old daughter, Ellen. It was one of the best days of my life. I’m not kidding. I still paint, and now I’m having a serious love affair with photography. But start with something easy. Why not start with a gourd? Put a silly face on it. Make it smile.

Practicing Calm

None of us get calmer by telling ourselves to calm down. We get it by understanding what calm is: being able to see clearly because we are not overreacting to a situation. We’re listening and understanding. We are letting ourselves feel the vulnerability of the moment (the call from the doctor, the meeting with the angry boss) and then managing that feeling.

Calm participants in my studies all have a few things in common. They breathe when they’re feeling vulnerable. They ask questions before they weigh in, including the three most important questions—ones that changed my own life. The first is, Do I have enough information to freak out? (Ninety percent of the time, the answer is no.) The second is, Where did you hear the upsetting news? (Down the hall? From a trusted source?) The third is, If I do have enough reliable information to freak out, and if I do that, will it be helpful?

When my daughter, Ellen, comes home and says, “Oh my God, Mom, the school moved my locker, and now I can’t reach it!” I stop. I remember what I used to say: “Oh that’s it! I’m furious! I’m going off to school tomorrow, and you’re going to get your locker back!” Now I say, “Tell me more about it.” And 15 minutes later, I find out that the guy she likes has a locker down at the other end of the hall; what she really wants is to have a locker nearer to him.

This is real change. Four or five years ago, I was the least calm person you have ever met. And when people describe me today—people like my co-workers, friends and family—they say, “You’re the calmest person I know.” Well, it’s because I practice it, the same way you practice the violin. We become what we do.

Fooling Around

One of the things I noticed in my research was that wholehearted people tended to fool around a lot. This was how I described their behavior, “fooling around,” because I didn’t know what this behavior was. It was such a foreign concept to me that I couldn’t even name it correctly until I happened to be sitting in the backyard watching my kids jump on the trampoline. All of a sudden, I went: “Holy crap. Those grown-ups in my studies are playing! They are piddling and playing! They are total slackers!”

Then I found some research by Dr. Stuart Brown. He said that play is something you did “that caused you to lose track of time.” Which I called work. He called play “time spent without purpose.” Which I called an anxiety attack.

Clearly, I had a problem. So I sat down and made a list of nonwork-related things that I love to do where I lost track of time, I lost my sense of self-consciousness, I didn’t want them to end, and they didn’t serve any purpose except that I enjoyed them. Then I had my husband do the same thing. Then we did it with our two kids, and I made a Venn diagram to understand the data (sorry, I’m a researcher).

Our family-play Venn diagram showed us what kind of play we share in common, and we realized there were only three kinds that we all enjoyed. Because sitting on the floor playing Candy Land? I’m not losing track of time. I’ve been on the floor for 30 minutes; I could shoot myself. But swimming? Hiking? Going to the movies? All of us enjoy that.

So now, we totally build our family vacations around being outside. Because it’s play for all of us. It’s battery-charging for all of us. But that doesn’t just happen. We draw diagrams. We plan. And then…we goof off.

Doing the Scarecrow

What keeps most of us from dancing—at any age—is usually the desire to be cool, and being cool, even for grown-ups, is a refusal to be vulnerable. Cool starts early. Some of the latest research shows that rather than being an adolescent issue, our kindergartners and first graders are starting to feel anxiety over being cool and belonging. Imagine being 5 years old and deciding that it’s not so good to let others see how we feel.

When it comes to dancing, we’re afraid that we’re bad dancers or that others will laugh at us, so we don’t do it enough. About eight years ago, my daughter and I were at Nordstrom. She was in fourth grade, and there were these beautiful, put-together mothers in the shoe department with us. I was in my Jabba the Hutt sweatsuit; I looked horrible. And I was doing the whole shame routine…down to telling myself: “Argh. You’re a disaster. You don’t belong in this nice store with these fancy, put-together people.”

The kids’ department started playing a song. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some movement. Then I saw three of the beautiful, put-together mothers and two of the daughters look past me, gasping. When I looked over, it was Ellen. Everyone was looking at Ellen. She had put her shoes down, and she was full-on doing the robot to the music—popping and locking. Without a care in the world. And you could tell these daughters were getting ready to laugh, and the moms were like, “Oh my God, girls, shield your eyes.”

At that moment, I had a choice. Previously, shame would have taken over, and I would have looked at Ellen and just said: “Pull yourself together, Ellen. Come on. Jesus. Stop being so…weird.” But I just heard this voice, the voice from my research and the voice from what I was trying to change in my own life, and that voice said: “Don’t betray her. Be on her side. Be on her side.” So I looked over and said, “Awesome robot.” And she said, “Hey, Mom. Show me the scarecrow again.”

The scarecrow is when you swing your hands like they’re not connected to your elbows. I did not want to do the scarecrow in Nordstrom. Inside me there is a seventh grader with sweaty palms who doesn’t have anywhere to sit in the cafeteria. But I did it. My daughter and I danced. Maybe I was faking it at little, but actions are far more important than anything we tell children. We have to show them love and self-worth, just as we have to show ourselves love and self-worth. We can’t just overlay these ideas on our lives. We have to change the way we live—and, fortunately, there isn’t just one way to do it.”

 

 

What’s so great about grief?

by: Andy Gear, PLPC
                  

I remember those first moments after the accident as if everything was happening in slow motion. They are frozen in my memory with terrible vividness. After recovering my breath, I turned to survey the damage. The scene was chaotic. I remember the look of terror on the faces of my children and the feeling of horror that swept over me when I saw the unconscious and broken bodies of Lynda, my four-year-old daughter Diane Jane, and my mother. I remember getting Catherine (then eight), David (seven), and John (two) out of the van through my door, the only one that would open. I remember taking pulses, doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, trying to save the dying and calm the living. I remember the feeling of panic that struck my soul as I watched Lynda, my mother, and Diana Jane all die before my eyes. I remember the pandemonium that followed—people gawking, lights flashing from emergency vehicles, a helicopter whirring overhead, cars lining up, medical experts doing what they could to help. And I remember the realization sweeping over me that I would soon plunge into a darkness from which I might never again emerge as a sane, normal, believing man.

–Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised

I remember a time when I experienced loss. As I walked home that evening, I remember telling myself this isn’t going to ruin me. I made a vow that I wouldn’t let it affect me. I wouldn’t be weak. I wouldn’t feel. I would forget; pretend it never happened. And then it wouldn’t hurt me. Then it wouldn’t touch me. I would ignore the wound; pretend it wasn’t there. Then it would go away.

But it didn’t go away. Neither did my memories. I started watching more TV to try to divert my attention. I had trouble concentrating on work, my mind wandering back to that event. To that pain. I had to distract myself, numb myself. I mustn’t think about it ever again. It was too painful. If I thought about it, something bad would happen . . . I had to avoid it at all costs.
None of us want to suffer. But none of us can truly avoid it.

We all have reason to grieve at some point in our life: loss, mistreatment, rejection. In the end it affects us all. But how we approach it influences how it forms us. As I see it, there are two basic options: we can ignore it or we can grieve it. And the path we choose determines how we come out on the other end.

On the surface, ignoring it sounds like the safer option. Just ignore it, don’t let it affect you. But it doesn’t work that way. When we ignore it, it continues to grow inside us. We waste away from the inside out.

It affects the way we approach life; we shut down parts of our selves. We shut down part of our mind. We shut down part of our heart. We become less than a whole person. Our relationships become shallow and stilted. There are parts of us that are shut away, irretrievable, unreachable to the closest people in our lives. We find ways to distract ourselves: TV, hobbies, work, porn, busyness. They may seem harmless enough. But they begin to own us. We live with eyes half open. We live with our heart half closed.

But we choose to ignore it because we feel overwhelmed and powerless. We want some sort of relief, any relief to get us through the days and nights. We keep ourselves busy to avoid our tortured thoughts. We numb ourselves to avoid the unbearable pain.

When we notice the pain less, we think we are out of the woods. We have survived the grief unscathed. But we have merely pushed it below the surface. And it will pop up again: in anger, in addictions, in unhealthy relationships. We have not saved ourselves pain; we have merely stretched it out, separated it from its source, and allowed it to dictate who we become. The irony is that in trying to escape the pain, we have given it the keys to our heart and allowed it to blindly drive us—as we simply pretend it isn’t there.

So what about the second option? The scarier option: facing our pain head on. Admitting the hurt. Acknowledging the loss. Processing the damage. Mourning what once was and will never be again.

This is the way of healing. We can choose to face it squarely. To meet it head on. To enter it honestly with our eyes wide open. It is a long and painful journey, but it can be a journey of growth not destruction.

But this requires facing reality for what it is. We cannot ignore it and hope that it goes away. A wound will not heal with lack of care; a bone will not mend without being set. We cannot heal by denying that something has been broken. We are made to share our stories, to experience our pain, to feel deeply, to mourn fully.

We must allow ourselves to grieve. This is not something that happens overnight; it takes time and community. It is not easy. It takes sharing our hurt, expressing our pain, acknowledging the damage done. Grieving does not make us weak; it makes us courageous. It is facing life as it is, not as you wish it were. There is hope in authentic suffering, but only false-hope in denial and distraction. Loss does not have to ruin us. In fact, if we face it honestly, it can grow us. 

Getting Pruned

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

I have a Dieffenbachia.  It’s a tropical houseplant I’ve been growing for a few years now.  When I got it, it only had 4 leaves and stood maybe a foot high.  I stopped counting the leaves a long time ago.  It now stands three to four feet high.  Maybe I should say “stood”.  I have recently learned a great deal about the plant’s nature and needs, which resulted in my cutting it almost in half.  Let me explain.

The Dieffenbachia is also known as “Dumb Cane”, apparently because of it’s poisonous sap, which will cause throat constriction and even death if ingested.  “You’re dumb if you eat this cane”, I think is what the name means.  I, personally, call it “dumb” because it will grow itself into oblivion.  If you let it go, it becomes too tall for the root system to hold upright and it falls over, uprooting itself.  In order to properly care for the plant, one must cut off a fairly significant amount of growth.  New, healthier, growth sprouts from below the cut, and the plant is sturdier and more balanced.

I must confess, pruning seems counter-intuitive.  It feels destructive to me to chop off parts of the plant that are doing well, from which new growth is continually sprouting.  It seems wasteful to simply drop those leaves and stems into the trash.  (I actually planted the severed portion to see if it will take root and propagate.  I’ll let you know what happens, maybe.)  Yet the overall health and continued success of the plant depends on this process of cutting back.

Why the horticulture lesson?  Because this seems to be a beautiful, if unsettling, analogy for the human condition.  We are all about growth.  We love to get stronger, taller, to spread more leaves and challenge new heights.  Growth is good.

We don’t seem to like the idea of pruning much, though.  First, it means experiencing pain, and nobody likes pain.  I’m sure my plant was terrified as I approached with my knife.  Second, it means understanding that not all growth is necessarily good.  There is a kind of growth inherent in humanity that turns into pride, an appearance of strength that leads to catastrophe.  I love to see new sprouts on my plant, but I was utterly dismayed when I returned home one day to find that the plant had toppled over onto its neighbor, damaging both plants in the process.

There is a kind of pain that originates in our own actions and attitudes.  I am not speaking of the pain that comes from death, natural disaster, or the predation of others upon us.  I am speaking of the kind of pain that we experience as a natural overflow or consequence of our own actions and words. These actions and words grow from attitudes and a sense of entitlement that feels like strength; in other words, from pride.

The moment we believe we have overcome a temptation, that we have succeeded in surpassing the weakness that used to trip us up, we have entered a kind of denial that we often label as growth.  “I’m better now.  I wouldn’t do that! It’s no longer a problem for me.”  Pride is the language of “I’m better than that”.

I celebrate when I see anyone overcome a temptation or weakness, but I also cringe just a little, because I fear that in the certainty of having surpassed the actual behavior or attitude, they may come to deny that the core weakness to it still exists.  It is the core weakness that will topple us, for in the moment we believe we are proof against it because we have “come so far”, we let down our guard and open ourselves up to it all over again.  None of us is as strong as we think we are.

Wise is the one who will open him- or herself to pruning when it comes, who will humbly acknowledge the truth that their heart whispers to them and reveal it to a trustworthy helper.  It hurts, it’s scary, it changes things irrevocably… and it spurs new, real, balanced growth.  Those who resist pruning head for a far more painful tumble when the overwhelming weight of “growth” tumbles them from their pot.  The damage is greater, the recovery longer, the hurt done to self and others deeper.  The very hurt we fear from the pruning is intensified and broadened.

Not all growth is real or healthy.  Often it becomes an illusion of strength or competence, while on the inside we deny the toppling sensation we feel deep down.  Better to bring it out voluntarily and deal with it sooner -to submit to the pruning knife –  than to let it continue until we fall.