life

Stopping the Runaway Train – Part II: The Importance of Naming Our Experience

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

This is the third blog in a series. So far, we’ve explored the very real experience of relational chaos and trying circumstances and looked at our ability to choose how we want to be in response to them, and we’ve discussed how the first step to stopping the runaway train is slowing down through relaxation exercises like the breathing one we tried together. Today we will explore the importance of naming our experience.

[Remember, this all takes time, patience, and practice. So, though our blog series chugs along, stopping the runaway train usually takes some serious time and discipline and perhaps help from a friend, mentor, or therapist. If you want to take the next step in this regard, feel free to email or call and setup an appointment.]

“You can’t just change plans last minute! I have studies, and work, and a life to plan of my own!” I shouted over the phone. My brother’s wife wisely jumped in, “This is getting unsafe – we need to have this conversation when we aren’t driving through this crazy weather.” She was right, and I was out of control. And, I wish I could say I realized it in that moment and stopped the runaway train of my anger – but I didn’t. I did hang up, but I was still furious.

My brother and his wife were taking a cross-country road trip for their honeymoon. Based on a number of legitimate reasons including weather, they had to change the days in which they were arriving to visit me in St. Louis where I was working my way through my graduate studies. When my brother delivered the message, I was in the midst of a hectic life – running from work, to class, to work, to making dinner, to studying through the night, and so on. I was moving so fast, that I didn’t skip a beat when my anger overtook me – I just let it fly without a moment’s delay.

Now, after the fact, I can look back and realize that anger wasn’t primarily about what was going on. I was feeling overwhelmed with life, and feeling like my schedule and anxieties were invisible to my brother and his wife.

This experience hit on threads in my story of times when I felt like my experience took the back seat to others, and I was so tired of that feeling of being trampled or not worth people noticing my needs.

All of this was actually pretty removed from anything my brother or his wife did, but I was moving so fast that in the moment I had no capacity to understand this because I had no ability to name my own experience.

We live in a culture that values ‘busy-ness’ – where being on the go is often a status symbol of our success.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy ambition in your career or life, and yet sometimes we are moving so fast we entirely lose touch with ourselves – with what is actually going on inside our minds and hearts. We enter autopilot.

Autopilot isn’t always bad either, but when it comes to relationships it becomes a barrier to knowing others and being known. It’s like trying to be in relationship with a robot. So, after we’ve incorporated various relaxation exercises into our life to help manage our big emotions like deep breathing or mindfulness, another crucial step is putting words to what is going on in our internal world without judgment.

The last part can trip many up because we want to justify ourselves. Maybe a small piece of us wonders if it’s okay what we’re feeling? Perhaps we shame ourselves that we should never feel such things, or we blame others for what we are experiencing internally. Much of this comes out of what we’ve learned about emotions from both our families of origin and our experiences along the way. These areas are another step of exploration, but for now we must simply name our experience.

Just as a doctor cannot move forward with treatment without fully understanding all of the symptoms, so we cannot move through our internal emotional experience without fully understanding it from a distance – without judgment. What is there, is there. To jump to judgment before fully understanding it would be to like the doctor treating you without asking any questions about symptoms – yikes! To avoid naming it, is to brush it under the rug and give what control we have over how we want to be back to the runaway train. This is why naming our experience, and the accompanying emotions, is so vital to not being ruled by them.

 

Wellness in the New Year

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

With a new year comes New Year’s resolutions.  People use the New Year to take stock of how the past year went and what changes or goals they hope to make for the upcoming year. What does wellness look like for you in 2017?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) “defines wellness not as the absence of disease, illness, or stress but the presence of purpose in life, active involvement in satisfying work and play, joyful relationships, a healthy body and living environment, and happiness”  (Source: www.samhsa.gov).

I like that to pursue wellness does not mean that my life is perfect or easy.

To pursue wellness means I am pursuing a purpose and seeking joy. Wellness means that I am seeking healthy relationships, a healthy body, and a healthy environment.   SAMHSA has created eight dimensions of wellness: Emotional, Environmental, Financial, Intellectual, Occupational, Physical, Social, and Spiritual.  One of the great things about this Wellness model is that many of the categories overlap with each other.

Even if my work life adds a lot of stress to my day to day functioning I can still pursue my own wellness. That may look like exercising to increase some of the needed endorphins in my body.  It may mean I pursue some environmental changes and wellness. I can’t quit my job, but I can create space in my home in which I find peace and rest. It may also mean that I create an environment at my desk where I am reminded of positive relationships and purpose. Wellness may also look like me pursuing relationships with co-workers in an intentional way to make my environment more comfortable.

Some of our life stressors may not change too much over the coming year.  We can lose some weight, cut back on the alcohol, go to counseling, or try a new hobby; but will these things balance out the negative experiences?  Wellness allows us to hold in tension the stressful and negative parts of life, recognizing we can still find good.

Where can you find the joy and play in your life this year?  How can you pursue wholeness and wellness in life?

Does Validation Matter?

Validation: Why it matters.

 

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

We have all experienced a situation where we have not validated a person’s beliefs or behaviors as we interact with them.  We also know what it feels like for someone to ignore our feelings, minimize our experiences, or change the subject of a conversation when the topic really matters. Validating our own feelings and those of other people is an important skill to have and to hone.    

What is validation?  Validation means “acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable”.  

To validate someone means we are looking for the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them.

Why is it important?  Well, it shows that we are listening to the other person and that we are trying to understand them.  It helps to strengthen our relationships because we can avoid a power struggle over who is right by validating the other person.  When we don’t validate others, it hurts.

How do we do it?  Pay attention to what the other person is saying.  Actively listen and reflect back to them what they are saying, without judging them!  We have to use our observation skills and we have to be pay attention to the conversation.  It is important to notice the little things, how is the person standing, are their arms crossed, is their face red, do they look like they are getting ready to cry?  All of these clues help us in conversation.  

We need to notice how a person is acting, listen to what a person says, and respond according to what we see and hear to help create and improve connection in relationships.

What’s the impact?  Like I said, validation helps to create connection. Validation challenges us to be present in conversation. We have to be listen to what the other person is saying in order to respond in a way that helps a person to feel understood. Validation can de-escalate a situation because you’ve avoided the fight and acknowledged the other person’s experience.  

Give it a shot!  

 

 

 

 

Information adapted from DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, Rathus, Jill H., and Alec L. Miller. “Validation.” DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. New York: Guilford, 2015. Print.

The Healing Presence of Brutal Reality

The Healing Presence of Brutal Reality

by: Jason Pogue, PLPC

Do you know that uncomfortable tension when you realize you are trying to be somebody or something you are not?

I’m not sure what it feels like for you. For me, it is as if my mind begins to separate itself from my heart, trying to press ahead and leave my knotted stomach and racing heart behind. If I just do these things I can pull it off and no one will know. Often my mind is so good at this that it can be in this place for weeks before I start to recognize my body aching from carrying all the tension – my tight shoulders and aching legs like clues to the mystery of where I actually am. And, no wonder it sometimes takes weeks! Prior to beginning my own counseling journey my mind was in this place for years unaware – racing ahead to avoid the deep fears of being “found out” as an imposter or discovered as someone broken beyond hope. Perhaps my mind was racing ahead at light-speed to avoid the deep pain that I didn’t know how to experience yet, unaware that this pain collects interest over time.

Recently I sat down with some colleagues to discuss an interview with a prolific psychiatrist and author, Irvin Yalom. Irvin recounted early in his career a moment when he sat in the therapy room with “a red-headed, freckled woman, a few years older than” him. In the first session, this woman shared with Irvin that she was a lesbian. Irv writes, “That was not a good start because I didn’t know what a lesbian was. I had never heard the term before.” I about burst out laughing when I first read that. This is the prolific therapist Irv Yalom! Yet even Irv has moments where he must make a choice. Am I going to try to be someone I’m not, or be real in this moment with this person?

Irv, being the gifted therapist he is, made the split-second decision that “the only way [he] could really relate to her was to be honest and to tell her [he] didn’t know what a lesbian was.” And so, he invited her to enlighten him in the coming weeks about her experience and they developed a great relationship in their work together.

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The truth that this little story reveals to me is that what we all need most is genuine and honest connection. If that exists, we can learn from each other and enjoy each other even in our differences, failures, finitude, and confusion. However, this connection is impossible when my mind is racing ahead of my heart – when I’m living in a world designed to protect me from the present, rather than risking being honest about the reality of what is happening right now.

Unfortunately the world we live in continues to tell our minds to run ahead…to forget about the moment because you have a million other things to do, too many things to worry about…or to forget about the moment because what if the moment is unbearable? And yet, it is only when we risk acknowledging the present reality of the now – when we don’t shy away from our fears, inadequacies, wounds, guilt, powerlessness – that we can ever truly enjoy the beauty in and around us and the joys of living in this world.

If you’re tired of trying to be someone you are not, what is stopping you from being who you are? What is stopping you from stopping, and entering into the reality of now?

(The interview with Irvin Yalom can be found at: https://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/irvin-yalom)

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.

Accepting Depression

Accepting Depression? “Are you kidding!? Why would anyone want to accept it!?”

slide2Depression can be brutal. You have no energy, no passion. You feel like crap pretty much all the time. It’s the hardest work of the day to find the juice to get out of bed, but you spend so much time in bed, you hate being there. You’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.

But wait there’s more! In addition to having zero energy to do 40% of the necessary things in life (like “eating”, or “bathing”, or “walking”), there’s all the guilt that comes from not having the energy to do them. You feel like you’re dropping the ball, doing life wrong. The voice in the back of your head keeps saying, “You should be able to handle this, but you can’t. If you were a stronger person, you’d be able to get past this more easily. Don’t be such a complainer!” It seems like the very fact that you’re depressed means that you’ve screwed something up.

This is the double-whammy of depression. Not only is the experience awful, but the fact that you’re having it in the first place means you failed somehow.

I have just emerged from a 3-month-long tunnel of depression. One might think that Mental Health Professionals should have their shit together well enough to not get depressed, or at least to know how to handle it when they do. I know I kept coming back to that particular refrain. Therapists make lousy patients I guess, because that philosophy is a load of crap.

The hard work of “handling” depression is learning that there is no such thing as “handling” depression. It exists, it’s real, and it’s not something anyone in their right mind would choose. It happens. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that depression is a state that 10 out of 10 people will experience in their lifetime, whether they would call it “depression” or not. It is something that is utterly common to humans.

Therefore, the internal accusation that “I’m doing it wrong” is utterly false. It is work to grasp this when you’re in the thick of it. It’s hard to believe that being depressed is not wrong because it sucks so much. Being depressed is a normal human experience.

We spend vast resources on not being depressed. What if we could accept that depression is a common thing for humans, and that even when we’re depressed, we’re OK? Don’t get me wrong, depression sucks, and it is perfectly appropriate to hate both depression and being depressed; but don’t hate yourself at the same time.

Of course, circumstantial depression and clinical depression are different animals. I do not suggest that anti-depressants are bad, or that there is no need for them. If your depression lasts longer than a couple of months, it’s time to think about getting medical help. There are real biological causes and effects of depression that Pharmaceuticals can alleviate.

I do believe that we can learn to live with and accept Depression as a common experience. I do believe that especially circumstantial depression can be prolonged and deepened by the self-attack trap that we commonly fall into when we’re depressed. We don’t necessarily need “fixing”. It doesn’t make us feel better, but accepting depression can help us not feel any worse than we already do. And for anyone who is depressed, the freedom to be depressed without the extra guilt or shame might just feel …”better”. – by Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

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.

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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?  

 

Good Tears?

Good Tears? Is there such a thing?

 

I went for probably 20 years without shedding a single tear. It’s not that I never had reason to do so. I had plenty of sad or powerful things happen in my world in those times, and I even felt as though there were moments when I could have cried, but the tears would not come.
That has changed. My tears have been unleashed. It’s starting to worry me.
There have been many things recently that have moved me deeply, and my tears have fallen. It was as I drove through the smoky mountains with my family recently and found myself once again moved to tears that I realized several things all at once.

  1. I have driven here before, many years ago, and I was not moved to tears.
  2. I was in as much wonder and awe then as I am now.
  3. I’m crying a lot lately. It’s starting to feel like I’m crying “too much”.
  4. I’m not crying because I‘m sad.
  5. Crying in awe and wonder at this massive and overwhelming beauty is perfectly appropriate.
  6. Crying in awe and wonder at this massive and overwhelming beauty is richer than not crying.

Somewhere in the back of my head and deep in the recesses of my heart there is still a voice that says tears are risky and vulnerable, that crying means I’m a “wuss” or a “pansy” (these are old words, and I know they are not appropriate in common usage, but they are the words that are there).

There is a lot in culture that reinforces this. My tween-aged son talked about “man-screaming” on a roller coaster recently. He demonstrated gripping the safety bar and clenching his face and teeth without making a sound. He was proud of the fact that he resisted the urge to scream, but it kept him from “cutting loose”. Crying is often seen as weakness. Even the picture above shows a very stoic kind of tears. Sometimes mine look like this.

Crying a lot feels defective.

But these are good tears. These are tears of delight and wonder, of the overwhelming perception of beauty, of physically seeing and experiencing a fabulous reality that boggles the mind, of realizing that what I am in the midst of feels like a fantasy painting but it actually exists and I am here in it.

 

I spent 20 years not crying because I had refused to become vulnerable. I had been trained by many people that to become vulnerable in this way would mean physical and emotional punishment. I had buried other pains and refused to weep over them. I would not be touched or moved beyond my own control.

 

My inability to weep over pain robbed me of the experience of weeping in joy and wonder. We as humans are wired for emotional experience, and we are wired to weep. We cannot turn off one kind of tears without turning them all off. I could not weep at beauty because I could not weep at my pain.

I have been tackling my pain with the help of friends, colleagues, and of course with the help of my own therapist. The releasing of those tears of pain has released many other tears. Good tears. Tears that I relish and love for their potency and magnitude.

These tears of wonder and beauty often surprise me. They catch me up and sweep me away. I could stop them up, but I have learned not to. Let them come. They are good and beautiful… and vulnerable, uncontrolled. In the back of my head, sometimes I think, “Really?! I’m going to cry about this?”

Yes, I suppose I am. And I am thankful.

By Jonathan E. Hart, 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.”

 

 

Wisdom from Calvin and Hobbes

by Courtney Hollingsworth & Calvin and Hobbes

Change can be scary. It can be hard. It can be painful. It’s risky. It’s dangerous. Ignorance can be all of those things too. Neither option eliminates risk. You can choose to walk into the risk and embrace the scariness of it. Or you can choose to close your eyes, walk forward, and pretend it isn’t scary at all. Ignorance isn’t bliss. But don’t take it from me, take it from Calvin and Hobbes: