identity

The Pinterest Beast

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The Pinterest Beast

by: Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC, EMDR Trained Therapist

I love Pinterest. I used to bookmark tons of web pages, have draft emails full of links for easy access. Thanks to Pinterest, I can keep all that information handy in one place and organized! And I can search for resources of all kinds in one place. It’s an awesome tool.

However, this wonderful tool also comes with a sneaky and nasty beast. You may have noticed him or heard him while scrolling through pins. He may be so sneaky with you that you haven’t noticed him lurking between homemade play dough recipes and decorating ideas that cost a year’s salary. He has many names: Comparison, Envy, Self-Doubt, Esteem crusher, Mommy Guilt, and many more. He whispers in your ear in first person: “Why can’t I do that?”, “I’m so lazy,” “My house should look like that,” “If I were a better mom, I would _______,” “I need more,” “I need less,” “I’m not enough,” and variations of “If my kid doesn’t know all his colors, numbers, shapes, alphabet, and multiplication tables before entering preschool, he will grow up to be a high school drop-out and become homeless.”

The Pinterest Beast isn’t alone, it has a variety of friends on other websites and apps telling us about how our lives, ourselves, are not enough. Social media has given us a great way to stay connected in our fast-paced and transient lives. It has also given us a chance to edit what is seen as I talked about in a previous blog here. And when we see the edited 5% of the lives of others, we tend to use it to judge 100% of our lives.

What if we lived our lives according to our own view of it? What would that look like? What if Pinterest was just a place to keep and find good ideas, and reject the ones that just are realistic or even good for our lives. Six months of freezer meals may be great for someone else and the idea is good, but it just doesn’t fit well in my life. Floor to ceiling bookshelves built-in around a door looks awesome in the picture, but my skills and my budget make it totally unrealistic. There is no judgement call on who I am. Be the you you want to be in real life, not the one your screen lures you into thinking you “should” be.

Batting a .300 and thoughts on being Perfect

Batting a .300 and thoughts on being Perfect

 

by Kim Hammans, PLPC

Fall means a lot of things: temperature changes, beautiful colors on the trees, apple and pumpkin picking, and my personal favorite: baseball playoffs!

As I have been watching the games this playoff season, I have been struck time and time again at how the professional baseball players, the best of the best players in the country, have batting averages of around .300.  That means that 30% of the time they are successful at making contact with the ball and making it to at least first base. Batting .300 is no small victory, and the crowds cheer for this amount of success!

Thirty percent success rate.  That means the other 70% of the time, the player does not make it to base, and instead makes his way back to the dugout. That is a huge margin of error!

We all know people who we would label “perfectionist,” and in fact most people have the tendency toward it. Our culture feeds our desire and deep inside we tend to believe perfection is possible. Perfect appearance, perfect thoughts, perfect achievements and a perfect household elude us in this life, yet the pressure remains to seek them anyway.  The pressure literally comes at us from everywhere.

Yet in America’s favorite pastime, the goal is to have success 30% of the time.  No player is expected a 100% batting average, because they are up against a professional pitcher!  The reality is that the expectation of 30% is good enough batting.

Dr. Richard Winter wrote a book called Perfecting Ourselves To Death.  Winter describes the importance of knowing yourself in order to grow. “When someone begins loosening the grip of unhealthy perfectionism they must have a strong and reliable sense of identity and purpose, built on a foundation of reality and truth, that will allow them to grow toward a healthy pursuit of excellence” (p. 147).

As we consider a healthy pursuit of excellence, we should take a lesson from the baseball greats.  We are not going to be perfect.  We are going to mess up.  What if we aim for batting a .300 in our lives?

What does your Inner Voice tell you?

What does your Inner Voice tell you?

by: Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

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“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” ― Peggy O’Mara

I came across this quote and was struck by its simple profundity. Such a sentiment can surely cause you to step back and reevaluate your typical interactions with the children in your life, which I do believe was the author’s intent. But we can also use this insight to look into the inner voice we each carry and what has informed it over the years. This inner voice has often been born within us from significant people around us as we were growing up and learning to make sense of the world.

I’m not talking about audible voices in our heads, I’m talking about the way we talk to ourselves inside ourselves. We tend to trust this voice; often to the extent that we don’t even notice it. It flows in and around us like the air we breathe. It feels true and informed. It feels like the one we can trust to keep us from believing we are capable, we can depend on others, and we are worth something.

I often find when talking with people that this voice is unkind, unforgiving, shaming, and critical. It’s cynicism feels trustworthy and it’s avoidance of hope or longing feels safe. And yet, it is all too holding us back from developing deep relationships, learning how to care for ourselves, striving to take risks in life, and hoping for something better.

Often, this voice is so embedded it can never be completely silenced. However, it can be identified, labeled untrustworthy, and we can learn to react differently to it. We can learn to tell it to be quiet, we can learn to ignore it, mistrust it, or even argue with it. We can learn to walk through our lives with a different narrator, one that is informed by the present, by reality, by trustworthy people. Counseling is a very effective way to begin to label that voice and learn new ways to talk to yourself.

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!

Our Identity and the Call of the Mall

Our Identity and the Call of the Mall

by: Jonathan Hart, LPC
It has been quite some time since I have had cause to wander around in a shopping mall for more than a few minutes.  I usually have a focused plan of attack: one or two things I want to grab, in and out and done.  Today, I have a couple of hours to kill.  As I stroll the balconies I find myself fascinated and somewhat saddened.
I am fascinated by the allure of “the Next Greatest Thing”: whether it is the image created by what we wear or the latest advancements in gear and technology.  I am saddened at the fact that, in order to get us to notice, desire, and above all else, *purchase* that Next Greatest Thing, the marketing machine must cause the adequate things we already have to seem inadequate.  To quote Billy Joel, “Can’t you see that you’re out of touch?”

This is true of our possessions, of our clothing, of our very identities.  We begin to believe the lie that we ourselves are inadequate, and we ask Stuff to make us better.  We shape and define our identities by what we wear and by what we look like rather than by what we actually *are* to the point that we forget our original identity, or at least to the point that we believe that our original selves can never be what anyone wants to see.  It’s exhausting to keep up an acceptable, presentable image.

mall 3
Here at the Mall, I see purveyors of identity, cultivators of First World privilege, technological bathhouses. Here you can acquire all that is necessary to become hip-hop or hipster, outdoorsman or urban chic. Here you can locate a dozen technological solutions to all of the problems you never realized you had. Here is the lair of the next good thing that makes the thing you have look shabby and old. Here luxury and convenience become necessity.
Store after store along these sunlit and stylish halls. They thrive on the cult of appearance. Each vending hall itself bears the image it purveys. As I walk by, the walls abruptly shift from the clean modern lines of the trendy clothier to the blank whiteness of the computer clean-room, to the ragged edges and coarse textures of “Manliness”, to the frills and exposure of sexy, elegant, or beautiful.  Glass, steel, wood, stone, plastic, each takes over from the previous, greedily and garishly staking their claim on my eye and attention.
Every ad, every image, every paneled line, from ceiling to floor, intended to convey a unique message of sameness and acceptability.
The open spaces and hard surfaces of the walkways and balconies reflect and muddle the noises of humanity into a background cacophony of recorded music, indistinct voices, shouts of children, and the splash of a waterfall. The liveness and persistence of the din conspire to drive me into a doorway, any doorway, passing through which the noise fades and my attention focuses.
The doorways magically defeat the polyphonic sea-sound “out there” and a different music takes over; a single, sculpted voice, indigenous to the visual style that meets my eye.  I think to myself, “Was I looking for something? Maybe it’s in here.”
I absently wonder about the poor kiosketeers, whose stores do not have this benefit of restricted air space. My shoulders relax and I realize that was tense. That’s passed now. It’s nice in here. What was it that I was looking for again?
“Can I help you find something?”
“No thanks, I’m just looking.”
But in this place there is no such thing as “just” looking.  This place evokes a potent hunger. There are a thousand and one “Things I Need” here.
Because this place, outside and in, is a temple of Want, the holy place of Dissatisfaction and Dearth, filled with the promise of plenty and blessing when you pass your plastic offering through the altar slot.
Here there are no average sizes. You are skinny or plus-sized. Short or tall. When did they expunge “medium” from the tag-writer’s lexicon? I am suddenly looking for the thing that fits me, but not only in size. I’m looking for my style, too. I realize that I didn’t know I had a style to be looking for, but I suddenly know that what I’m wearing is not quite up to snuff. I don’t have anything that looks like *that*, and that mannequin looks pretty sharp.
The stubbled stud in the photo ad behind looks even better.
It occurs to me that I am supposed to use the mannequin as a mirror. I’m to imagine my head where it has none and envision my body as the same in appearance as the plastic and canvas simulacrum before me. There is the unspoken promise that my face will look like the stud’s face when I wear this shirt, because damn he looks good.
I suddenly sense the inherent lie of the promise, that it is impossible to keep, and now I want to flee. Deep down I know that my face will never look like that. I know that the quest for that face would lead me to too many plastic surgeries, to the pity of the other mall-walkers when they see my overstretched, too-modified, ultimately mannequin features.
No, my altar is the altar of things. The awesome tech, the powerful devices, the clever items that no one else has (yet). The stuff that, if I pause for a moment, I know I will use three times before it loses the packaged charm that it now possesses.
But I am not in a mood to pause. The Stuff-Call is upon me.
My only choice is back out into the noise. I pass the magic barrier and the atmosphere of need is all around me again, pressing at my ears.
Now I AM looking for something. Something shiny and smart. That manly razor shop, for instance. I like the look and feel of the place, the “old school” razors and shaving gear. The smell of leather and soap.  Maybe there. Yes.
Then I remember that for the last 10 years, I’ve worn a beard.  Did I actually forget that?  The Stuff-Call is strong here.
I do the counter-intuitive thing. I stop and sit. The benches were not made for comfort. THEY don’t want me to stay out here, looking into the windows of a single store, not for long, any way. (There are no seats facing a blank wall, after all. I looked.)
The pleasant looking but inadequately padded bench (I wonder if I could find one like this for my living room?) says, “Rest your feet for a bit, traveler, but this is not a destination. It is a way-station to help you on your journey to the temple of your choice-god.”
I defy the subliminal pressure of the Call.  Instead, I record my thoughts on a very useful, very smart, very out-of-date device which I already have (but which is not yet paid for) and which will likely last me quite some time yet.
Perhaps I will share these thoughts with you someday. I will have to refine them and make them presentable first, though, because… Well, appearances matter, and they have to be presentable, after all.

toughest people to lead, live with, love

by: Frank Theus, PLPC

toughest people to lead, live with, love…

 

You know who that person is. He’s the socially awkward single at church who falls asleep during your homily snoring loudly enough for most to hear. They are the neighbors who are polite enough from a distance but who make no effort to approach because, well, you’re not a member of the parish congregation. It’s your sibling who has been labeled by the rest of the family as having “unresolved emotional issues” and s/he chooses to distant themselves from the rest of you because, after all, when s/he is around for more than a couple of days all hell breaks loose. It’s the co-worker who has a knack for being able to drive you and others crazy because of her increasingly bizarre antics in the office. It’s the parent who is wounded and wounding others through their chronic passive-aggressive anger, lying, and substance abuse. It’s that women at your 12-step meeting whose recovery has little to do with program work and more to do with hooking up.

The list could go on-and-on couldn’t it? But, before we close out the list just yet who’s missing in action (MIA) here?

You know who that person is.

 

Could it be that the “who” that is MIA above might just be you and me?

 

 

Wait a minute, Frank. What are you suggesting?

What I’m suggesting is that too often you and I get so caught up in living life and managing our myriad of relationships that we seemingly are unable to slow down enough to look longingly at our own visage in the mirror. In other words it’s easier to recognize the other troublesome folk in your life because, I suspect, it keeps you from facing your own pain and agency.

Remember the list above? Before you can deal well with the “tough people” in your life with authenticity, healthy boundaries, and empathy you must first fully embrace and love the unique person you are.

I’m inviting you to embark on a journey. It’s one that challenges you to leave certainty as you have come to know it. This will require courage because it inevitably calls you to slow down life and to risk exploring your respective storied-life, baggage and all. We all need to do this very thing from time-to-time.

I’m inviting you to embark on a journey.

You see, when you take time to be safely guided into exploring the baggage of life or as one writer described it, “[y]our own dark nights” (DeGroat), you are in effect choosing to take responsibility for how you will now live. It’s learning to exercise a self-care that isn’t selfish because it’s transforming you to grieve the shadows of your “false and private self” (Merton). It’s a change-process that grows deep confidence from within enabling you to say aloud standing in front of the mirror, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be!” And, in time, realize a renewed sense of compassion and hope for self and resilience in living with the toughest of people.

Resources for your consideration and growth:

Books:

  • Henri J.M. Nouwen. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
  • Henri J.M. Nouwen. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Doubleday, 1979.
  • Chuck DeGroat. toughest people to love: how to understand, lead, and love the difficult people in your life – including yourself: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.

Online:

http://avenuescounselingcenter.org/

How to live in Freedom: Confessions of a Recovering People Pleaser

By: Andy Gear, PLPC

How to live in Freedom: Confessions of a Recovering People Pleaser.

 

For most of my life I have been a people pleaser. In fact, for a long time I didn’t even feel like it was a problem. Who doesn’t want people to be happy with them? I do.

However, thirty some years of unnecessary anxiety and guilt have convinced me that living to please others presents some problems. That’s not to say that all guilt is unnecessary, but guilt that comes from people pleasing often is.

This is because people pleasers live according to another’s perceived expectations rather than their own values. In fact, these expectations are often at odds with our actual values—values such as honesty, authenticity, and even real love. We no longer seek the best for someone but simply their temporary approval.

Guilt can be an appropriate reaction if we have truly done something wrong. But more often than not, our shame is about someone’s response, not our actions. People pleasing replaces our deepest values with a cheap imitation.

Another problem with people pleasing is the illusion that it is actually possible. It’s not. To adapt Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: you may be able to please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time.

And in my opinion, we can’t really MAKE anyone be pleased any of the time. Being pleased is a choice that the other person makes. We are responsible for our character. They are responsible for their reaction.

Another problem with people pleasing is the cost. Two of the biggest costs are freedom and maturity.

People pleasing prevents growth into mature adulthood. The pursuit of approval takes valuable time away from developing our own identity, values, and goals. We give up responsibility for the direction of our own life. Instead of learning to manage our own life and emotions, we give that power to another.

In fact, many people pleasers give little thought to their own personal development at all. Being so caught up in what another person wants prevents us from truly contemplating our own goals. We can end up with careers, friends, or hobbies that we never really wanted. A people pleaser can spend their entire life not knowing who they are or what they are capable of.

Worst of all, people pleasers forfeit freedom. We compromise our own freedom and the freedom of those around us. If gaining someone’s approval feels like a necessity, then we will do anything to get it. This gives the person we want to impress absolute control over us. We will be easily manipulated.

Not only that, but we may begin to try to control the behavior of those closest to us. If a certain type of family is necessary to gain approval, then we may demand that our spouse or children ‘toe the line’ as well. We will compromise not only our own freedom but also the freedom of those we love.

Nine practical steps towards freedom:

  1. Consider your motives: Are you trying to be the best version of yourself or are you image-crafting?
  2. Cultivate your values: When you feel guilt or shame, ask yourself: ‘have I actually violated my values?’
  3. Think about what brings you delight at your core: Are you pursuing that or something else?
  4. Notice if you are acting out of fear or obligation: Whose opinion do you fear?
  5. Fight your desire to change others: Why is this necessary? Are you actually struggling to manage your own feelings internally?
  6. Pay attention to what makes you anxious: Are you believing that you could control someone’s reaction if you got it just right?
  7. Observe where you struggle with maturity: Where are you giving the responsibility for your own actions, thoughts, and feelings to someone else?
  8. Focus on your own character: Are you letting yourself be distracted by someone else’s potential actions, thoughts, or feelings?
  9. Clarify your own goals: Whose life are you really living?

Caring for Yourself in the Everyday

Caring for yourself in the everyday can sometimes prove difficult.

 

So many people and tasks demand our attention that we can often forget about caring for ourselves. Below are some things I try to do everyday to care for myself.  The key word in the last sentence was try, did you catch it?  Remember, we are all in the same boat when it comes to taking care of ourselves.  Some days will prove easier than others.  Be gracious to yourself.  After all, you’re only human.

Oh, and just in case any of you out there desire to reject the notion of caring for yourself because you find it to be selfish, don’t do it.  Caring for yourself has absolutely nothing to do with being selfish. Caring for yourself isn’t selfish, it just makes good sense.

Avenues Counseling

Accept who you are:  Stop fighting against how you were created and disliking yourself.  Learn to love who you are and embrace how you were created.

Be honest with yourself about yourself:  The moment you begin to ignore what you need and who you are is the moment you begin being at odds with yourself.  When we ignore ourselves long enough we begin to create a “fake” self.  The result?  Over time our “fake” self becomes all we know and we loose our identity.

Have fun:  Having fun and laughing reminds us that we are ALIVE!  Research (proof!) has shown that laughing and having a sense of humor can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.  So laugh, play a practical joke on a friend, watch a comedy, read a silly book, or start telling knock knock jokes until your friends make you stop.

Eat healthy:  Easier said than done for most, yet still very important to your everyday mood and body functioning.

Get enough sleep:  Don’t just sleep…get enough of it!  Our bodies function off of the food we eat and the sleep we get.  If we don’t fuel up properly then our everyday days will be more difficult than necessary.

Exercise:  I know,I know, trying to eat healthy and get enough sleep was already pushing it and now I bring up exercise.  However, its true that exercise is so important for our bodies so I can’t ignore this topic.  Even if you go walking for 30 minutes a day (or every other day) its better than nothing.  Try going on a walk in the morning.  Like around 7ish.  I think its more fun to walk in the morning while all of the squirrels, chipmunks, and birds are more active.

Remember the core of who you are:  For me, the core of who I am rests in knowing that God loves me.  You may not believe in God.  I respect your decision.  But for me, reminding myself that I am a child of God, a daughter of the King, and loved by Him, always helps my everyday days.

-Lianne Johnson, LPC

 

Stop Verbally Abusing Yourself

Stop Verbally Abusing Yourself

Avenues Counseling

“You’re so stupid!”

“Of course you failed at that. It’s what you do.”

“No one could ever love you.”

These are extremely painful statements to hear; ones I cringe to even write out. And if these things were said out loud to you, they could easily be called verbal abuse. No one should be told those things. No one.

And yet, how many of us have a tape that plays in our heads that sounds remarkably similar? Or maybe not quite as extreme as the statements above, but still carries with it the same underlying critical, harsh message and/or lack of compassion?

Why do we think it’s okay to talk to ourselves the way it is not okay for anyone else talk to us? Or maybe we don’t even consciously realize how severe our self-talk is. Day in and day out. An endless reel of criticism and condemnation in the face of life, that by its very nature is just hard.

These voices can come from many places – maybe they were given to you by the ones who are supposed to love and encourage you most; maybe they are what you think is needed to keep your drive alive to excel at life; maybe it’s in your DNA to be self-critical and perfectionistic; maybe it’s how you try to remain “humble”. Wherever they come from and however they’ve been formed, I wonder what it would look like to say, “It’s not okay to talk to me like that,” and to start replacing them with the voice of compassion for yourself.

Drawing upon the research of Dr. Kristin Neff, below are some practical ways to begin to better relate to yourself with compassion and to respond to the critical, harsh reel in your head:

1)   Be kind to yourself. Pain, failure, disappointment are part of this life. We are not perfect beings and never will be. Extend to yourself the same grace, forgiveness or understanding you would extend to others when you mess up or things don’t go the way you hoped they would.

2)   Remember the bigger picture. You are not alone in whatever you are experiencing. Sometimes this is hard to believe because we are all working really hard to cover up our own places of shame (and unfortunately, we’re really good at it), but I guarantee you are not alone. It is often our weakness that connects us the most to each other. Stop using this against yourself or allowing it to isolate you and start looking for ways to connect to others in our shared human experience of weaknesses.

3)   Be mindful. To begin changing the way we speak to ourselves, we must start by being aware of how we do it. Being self-compassionate does not mean avoiding your negative thoughts or difficult emotions. It means experiencing these thoughts and feelings with the posture of kindness and in the context of being human. This keeps us from over-identifying with our negative thoughts and emotions and allows for thoughtful consideration of how there might ways we could do things differently next time around.

So…as some version of the tape is currently playing in your head now, please remember: your words have impact. Instead of continuing to verbally abuse yourself, please be kind, remember the bigger picture, and be mindful as you talk to yourself today.

by:  Melinda Seley, PLPC

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.”