The Things We Cannot Change

It’s pretty safe to say that I haven’t had a conversation recently with anyone that hasn’t included a complaint about the weather. In my neck of the woods, we have been enduring “winter in extremis.” Bitter cold and lots of snow and ice, going on for what seems forever. And it seems that people are getting the rats of it. Even those who love winter are ready to see the back side of this one.

This reminds me of the part of the Serenity Prayer that includes the words, “those things I cannot change.” Certainly the weather is one of those things that we do not directly control. (Which is a good thing in my book. Can you imagine what a mess mankind would make of that? The wars that would break out? But I digress). The snow and ice have disrupted schedules, caused more “snow days” for schools than they have had in years.

In addition there are lots of injuries caused by slipping on ice that is hidden under a layer of snow, or on packed snow or “black ice”…ice that is disguised as macadam or concrete. A broken bone, sprain, concussion or heart attack from shoveling is quite the unpleasant reminder that we do not run the universe.

Losing an ability to plan, or to count on carrying out plans that we’ve made seems to be one of the most frustrating things about it. I heard on a news program on NPR that there is a steep financial price to pay, in part for lost sales. Those of us who are service providers take a hit when clients cancel and offices have to close. A woman I know said that her family vacation plans at the beach have been lost along with their deposit, because the kids will still be in school instead of playing in the sand.

So how on earth does one attain serenity in the face of such helplessness?

That is a challenge for me, I must confess. But I think the place to start is to remember that the snow and cold are NOT causing our grumpiness or fear or whatever the emotion is.

Now that might just sound crazy to you, but it’s true. It is our thoughts about the snow that bring up the emotion (helplessness, anger, sadness, despair, frustration, etc) that we are experiencing. If you need convincing, just tune in for awhile to your “mind chatter” and notice what your thoughts are. And after you tune into that frequency, you might change the thoughts, and thereby change the emotional state you are experiencing.

This is a key to benefiting from cognitive-behavioral therapy, and also to making use of the Law of Attraction. Knowing that as you change your thoughts, you put yourself into a position of choice. Very empowering stuff! Try taking a minute to write down what you are thinking. You might be surprised. We get into habits and patterns of thought that we learned and collected over the years, and for most of us they are like wallpaper that’s been hanging on the walls for 50 years. We don’t even see it any more.

After you do that, notice what emotion is being evoked by the the thoughts. And then ask, “What thought feels better?” Go ahead…write down another thought which would improve on that. And as you do, notice that you are raising the emotional (or vibrational) level of your mood. I would encourage you to continue this exercise until you really do feel better.

I have been changing my own thoughts by remembering a gift in all this “lost” time, and that is that it affords me an opportunity to do some things that I have been putting off, or don’t get on my daily to do-list very often. Writing, clearing the clutter off of every surface (I’m not exaggerating much) of my home office; catching up with some friends that I haven’t spoken with in awhile; writing a get well card for a sick friend; working on Quick Books (my CPA will be happy); reading some of the pile of required reading for my coaching class; cleaning up the linen closet which would cause Martha Stewart to shake her head in despair; use that organic butternut squash that I bought at the market and make soup.

Probably the best antidote to making myself miserable over what I cannot change (in this case, the weather) is writing my gratitude list every morning, and taking time before I sleep to recall the highlights of the day. It works because it isn’t possible to be thinking of lack and loss, arousing sad or bad thoughts, and feeling grateful at the same time.

Gratitude banishes fear and misery, because thinking grateful thoughts allows the feelings of joy or relief to come. You may even compound the experience by calling someone who enriches your life and tell them so. Buy flowers or a plant to remind yourself that winter doesn’t really last forever. Write a note and tell someone how much they mean to you. Text them if you must. Just do what you can to recount the blessings in your life. It will at least figuratively melt the snow and ice. I highly recommend it to you.

 

 

 

 

It’s Holiday Time! Are You Anxious?

Holly Wreath

It’s “beautiful December,” and if you are feeling anxious, you must know that you are not alone!

When the holidays roll around, so do emotions of every kind.  It is certainly a time when many feel nostalgic for the “old times.” Sometimes those memories are sweet or even bittersweet.  And even when those past experiences were disappointing or painful, remembering them brings up the same potent feelings.

Since most of us celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukah with family and friends, the quality and nature of those relationships color our emotions and the memories of the past.  If the relationships were loving and close, those memories warm us.  And if they weren’t, there is sometimes a sadness or bitterness that accompanies thoughts of the coming days.

For those whose primary focus is spiritual or religious, there is a deep connection with this season.  It becomes a time of reflection and meaning and awe.  Sharing it in community with family and others then is something to look forward to and to treasure.

Hardly anyone is immune to the secular pressures of the Christmas season in particular. After all, the stores were decorated before Halloween had passed, and the ads are running on every possible venue.  My mailbox is glutted with more catalogs every year, some from companies I have never heard of.  I wish they would put the recycle bin next to the mailbox, and save me from carting them off!  The few magazines I subscribe to are aglow with beautiful pictures of decorated living rooms, handmade ornaments and gifts galore.  Not to mention more menus and recipes than I could cook in a lifetime.

The comments that I am hearing from clients I work with are often that they feel anxious about the weeks ahead.  You may relate.

  • There is too much to do!  Activities to attend, entertaining to do, events to participate in or to attend.
  • Meeting the expectations of family and friends provokes tension.  Young adults who have their own families find it exhausting to get to every family gathering and worry about disappointing someone if they don’t.  Coping with fretful and overwhelmed children is a part of that.
  • Buying gifts while not wreaking havoc with the budget or the credit card balance is often a big problem.  Decisions made prior to Christmas may bring regret in January when the piper must be paid.
  • Perfectionism rears its ugly head!  Those images ranging from Normal Rockwell to Martha to toy ads on television are seared into our brains, and they are impossible to live up to. If we are hung up on needing to “do it right,” then we are doomed to be anxious.
  • Finding a balance between the spiritual, social and secular can be very difficult!

Of course there are degrees of anxiety that we may be experiencing. For some there are severe, truly unpleasant symptoms of panic.  If you would describe yourself as an anxious person in June or October, then the strength of your anxious symptoms is likely going to be cranked up.  Even if you wouldn’t categorize yourself as especially anxious the rest of the year, but are now, here are some tips for you:

  • Begin by deciding what you truly desire for the holiday.  It may be easier to clarify this by making a list first of what you DO NOT WANT.  For example you might list gaining ten pounds; or feeling exhausted and irritated; or spending more than X amount of money; or wrapping presents all night on Christmas Eve; or putting up the beat up hand-me-down artificial tree that your mother gave you after she couldn’t sell it at her yard sale ten years ago.
  • Go through this list, crossing off each item and beside it write a second list of what you DO DESIRE.  That list might include keeping your weight to no more than 5 pounds higher; getting to bed on time and taking time outs when you need them;  planning ahead and limiting gift buying to a specific amount;  wrapping gifts simply and ahead of time;  decorating in a way that pleases you.
  • Make sure that you choose and schedule activities that are really meaningful to you and your family.  Keep that list short.  It may include hearing music or attending a holiday program or performing a volunteer service or baking cookies together.
  • Be assertive with friends and family about your choices.  Most everyone will understand an “I statement” of what you are choosing.  For instance, “I have decided to host a potluck dinner (everyone brings a dish) instead of exchanging gifts this year. Would you like to come?”
  • If you find that your anxiety has reached a heated pitch, and you experience panic attacks, then help is at hand.  Click here for access to a terrific product that will certainly change your life in the New Year.

 

 

Taming the Mind

“You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.”
~Albert Einstein~

That quote of Einstein’s has always rung a bell with me. It just makes sense that whatever my mindset was that led me to make certain choices would need to be changed if I wanted to make a different choice. Or, which is more to the point, to clean up a problem that the choice had created.

The problem is that HOW to change your mind to see your way clearly to a better solution isn’t often easy.  The real difficulty becomes apparent when the unconscious mind with its old (sometimes self-defeating or limiting beliefs) teams up with the emotions and creates a real uproar. Imagine a toddler screaming at the top of his lungs while you are trying to make a decision. He may be saying:

Don’t try to get that job! You don’t know enough!
You’d better not ask her/him out!  They won’t like you!
Don’t even try to quit smoking! You’ll never be able to stick it out!
People in our family have never been able to make much money!

Especially when it comes to making life changes, our emotions, particularly FEAR, gets into high gear. And when you consider that different parts of the brain are responsible for different functions, and in a way, “speak different languages,” it seems like a miracle when we pull off meeting our goals.

No matter how stuck in a rut we are, there is comfort in repeating the familiar patterns. In some ways part of our brain functions like any other animal brain. Your dog knows what it means when you reach for the tennis ball on the closet shelf.  He knows just where his food dish is, and where he sleeps and what time of day you come home.

Although you may hate your job, you know how to handle it. Or you may be unhappy in a relationship, but it’s familiar and you know how to negotiate it. And although you are afraid of the consequences of smoking, the thought of going through the discomfort of quitting keeps you lighting up.

The more engrained the limiting belief and the more potent your fear or anger, etc. the more difficult it is to use that part of your brain which is great at imagining a new outcome or solving the problem. Fortunately we all have that rational pre-frontal cortex…the creative, conscious mind. But we have to calm the amygdale, center of emotions, in order to change the limiting beliefs and get to new solutions.

Fortunately there is a method you can use to calm your emotions, change your limiting beliefs and access creative solutions that will serve you. I have been using EFT or tapping for a number of years, and teach it to my coaching and psychotherapy clients. EFT is a scientifically proven acupressure technique that is self administered. It’s simple to do and calms the emotions and reduces stress. In other words, it’s a great way to tame the mind!

Here are some times you may want to consider using tapping:

When feeling very angry or disappointed in someone’s behavior.
When feeling overwhelmed with a big job or something new.
When procrastinating with any task.
When preparing to make a speech or presentation or public performance.
When you are having trouble forgiving yourself or someone else.

You may access information about EFT by clicking on the “Tapping Solutions” widget in the right column on this blog. You may also want to download the free eBook on the website, or order the movie that is featured there. If coaching for EFT interests you, you may contact me through the page at the top of the blog.  I also recommend a  Tapping Into Ultimate Success by Jack Canfield and Pamela Brunner.

I hope you will be empowered in finding solutions to tame your mind and to reach whatever goals you have in your life.

 

 

 

 

The Bitter Bank

“You can’t have a better tomorrow if you’re thinking about yesterday all the time.”
~Charles F. Kettering~

Joan was described by her family members as someone who never forgot a thing that was ever done to her.  If harsh words were spoken during an argument, Joan could recite what offended her years later.  Her brother argued with her during the last election, and Joan still wasn’t speaking to him. Joan was certain that her mother had disliked her and treated her siblings much better, and she admitted that she experienced frequent bouts of depression as she replayed scenes that had been particularly painful to her.  Her husband had forgotten her birthday one year and she would berate him for it when they argued, which was getting to be more frequent. He had sincerely apologized to Joan, but even though she said she accepted it, she still brought the incident up.

Joan has a Bitter Bank, and her account is quite full.

Do you? Many people have a large catalogue of past hurts and painful experiences that they drag around with them. Some are more than willing to tell you about them. Some wear them like a badge of identity. And then some are very quiet about their “Bitter Bank balance,” even though they are preoccupied by it. You may recognize these folks for their chronically unhappy or angry demeanor.

Some other signs of a full Bitter Bank may be a frequent use of sarcasm, hiding behind humor while delivering a verbal knife through the ribs to someone else; frequent sighing; passive aggressive behavior such as “forgetting” appointments  or agreements with others; frequent and inappropriate references to the painful past; arguments about the same themes that never get resolved; self destructive habits or relationships that repeat the same patterns over and over again; repeated “hobby horse” rants that go on and on about the same theme. As you may guess, it is common for Bitter Bank account holders to suffer from depression, or anxiety as well as strained and broken relationships.

If you recognize yourself as a Bitter Bank owner, please read on.  This is not just unpleasant for you and for the relationships in your life. Holding onto bitterness is hazardous to your health!

Have you noticed how much time and attention you are giving to these resentful thoughts and scenarios?  If you’re waking up in the night and recounting your grudges and grievances, then it’s too much. If you hear yourself complaining frequently about being treated badly or of past abuses, it is taking up a lot of space in your head!  If you have emotional replays in your mind of “what I SHOULD have said or done, then it’s too much.

Once I was approached by a salesperson that was representing a rehab facility and introduced himself as a childhood sex abuse survivor.  I was shocked that such a personal and painful disclosure was the first thing he told me about himself.

And recently on a social media site I was contacted by a woman whose entire online identity is build around the experience of her husband cheating on her. Nothing like making your wounds into a name tag.

The danger of all this negative focus is that it keeps reinforcing to yourself and to others that you are a helpless victim.  Victims have no power, no responsibility and no real impetus to change anything. What happened to them is someone else’s fault, and the more we hammer the point and relive the painful occurrences and repeat our beliefs that this SHOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED, the more solidly we believe ourselves to be victims. This practice will fill your Bitter Bank, and harm your life.

What to do? Denying your pain is not the answer. You do need to acknowledge what happened and to allow yourself to feel the emotion connected with it.  In other words you need to let the feelings be as big as they are. Notice in the front of your body (not your head and extremities) where the emotion registers.  Is your throat tight? Is there a lump? Is your chest heavy or tight? Does your stomach have a knot? Or does your abdomen feel tight?

Focus on that spot, and breathe in through your mouth.  As you exhale allow your body to relax if you can. Continue breathing and give yourself permission to feel it fully by asking “Can I feel this fully?”  You may find yourself thinking, “Hell no!” which is okay.  Don’t resist it or “try to get rid of it.” Acknowledge the feeling and continue to breathe. Ask “Could I release it?” If your answer to that is NO, that’s okay. Just continue to breathe and let it be.

As you repeat the exercise, the answer to “Can I release it?” will be followed by “If not now, then when?”  Sooner or later, you will give yourself permission to release it. That does not mean that you are denying what happened.  It just means that you are willing to release your tension and stress about what happened. This is a variation on a well-known program called The Sedona Method.

Another approach, which I frequently reference, is The Tapping Solution.  It is very effective in releasing negative emotions and clearing the way for positive change in your life.

You are ready to shift your focus from what has wounded you to something else.  I suggest a second practice that will aid you in improving your health and happiness. And that is to focus on gratitude by writing a gratitude list, at least one time a day.  It sounds simple, and it is.  Nevertheless, naming the things that you appreciate and are grateful for has been shown to have great benefits. Don’t forget to include yourself on that list!

Emptying your Bitter Bank is the first step in the process of forgiveness, about which we will be writing future blog posts. Often forgiveness is considered a spiritual matter, and it is. But in a holistic sense, it also concerns us psychologically and physically. When we learn to practice it, our health and happiness take a big turn for the better!

 

Facing the Lion

“Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.”
~Anais Nin~

The events of the past week have provided an opportunity for me, as well as several million other people, to face fear and to observe how we deal with it. Hurricane Sandy, combined with a low flowing jet stream, created what some dubbed a “Frankenstorm” of gigantic and devastating proportions.

I must confess to being somewhat of a cynic about weather reports that are full of drama. It seems that even something as usually mundane as the weather has to bring in advertising dollars.  And on the local level, nothing very exciting has happened for months.

So when news of this threatening weather system began to build, I was not giving it much credence. It wasn’t until a friend suggested that I look at NOAA, the website for the National Weather Service, that I took notice.

After seeing that something certainly was brewing, and heading directly toward the mid-Atlantic, I turned on network news.  As I watched, I noticed that I was becoming increasingly anxious and alarmed.  Predictions of flooding and high winds brought back memories of hurricanes past, and some that really were devastating in terms of lives lost and property and environmental damage.

Talking with friends and family convinced me that I wasn’t the only one listening to the predictions, declarations of states of emergency, instructions for storm preparation, and making plans for coping with the worst. As I ran errands to buy supplies “just in case,” I found that many other people were on similar missions. Before the first drop of rain fell, shelves holding bread, water, batteries and flashlights looked like they had been raided by a proverbial horde of locusts.

When the wind and rain arrived, I was as prepared as I could be.  And I was also feeling pretty anxious. As it turned out, the worst thing that happened here was that I was without power throughout the evening until mid-morning the next day. The house was very quiet. Talk about being unplugged! I read my library book by flashlight (batteries had been on my list) and the place looked much warmer than it felt by candlelight.

Although some parts of the coast were hard hit and have sustained serious damage, my neighbors and I dodged the bullet. There will be some cleaning up to do, and some areas are still without power. Our lives will soon return to normal.

In thinking about fear and the power that it sometimes has in our lives, it’s easier to identify it when forces outside of us are threatening.  What I realized is that really it’s the thoughts that we have about those forces or circumstances that either build up the intensity of emotion, or dispel it.  Thinking of all the “what-ifs” sounds the alarm!  Imagining the worst causes stress hormones to course through your veins, even when the sun is shining and the birds are singing.

In facing fear, whether it is being evoked by weather reports or our own frequently visiting “inner demons” (usually habitual thoughts from the past), we need to face them squarely.  Ask yourself if there are concrete steps to take in order to ensure the best care possible for you and those you love. If so, make a list and do them immediately.  If not, then chances are you have a bad habit of negative thinking that has stirred up fear.

Give yourself what I call “Emotional First Aid” by taking 5 deep breaths and relaxing your muscles as you exhale.  Repeat throughout the day, as many times as you can think of it. Do a reality check with someone you trust and try to reframe your thoughts, or see them in a different light. You can also use EFT, a proven, effective method for releasing stressful emotions.

What really matters most in facing the Lion of Fear is that you are not avoiding it. Taking action will build your strength and resolve as you move forward through the challenges of life.

Photo: “Hurricane” by Victor Habbick

Tuning In Turning Off


Recently I was reminded of a stress reduction technique that Dr. Andrew Weil recommended in his book 8 Days to Optimal Health.  I was bringing a client back to my office from the waiting room, and as she rose from her chair, she tossed the news magazine she was reading back on the end table. “I guess I’m addicted to reading this stuff.  Before I start, I know I’m going to be aggravated by one thing or another!”

She had come to me for help with her anger and some decision making, and she appeared to be stressed and, well, angry.  Many of us experience what I call “normalized stress,” which is a state we come to accept as somehow unavoidable and inevitable.  But I’m here to say that stress is no laughing matter, and we certainly can reduce it and avoid the triggers that cause it.

Even though stress is as common as dirt, and I sometimes suspect is a point of pride for those who push themselves, fill up their schedules with busy-ness and working over time, it has a bad effect on our health, our sense of well-being and on our relationships. In short, stress is a problem worth tackling.

The suggestion that Dr.Weil made was to go for a week without listening to, watching or reading the news. A radical notion that I passed on to my client.  She had no interest in doing that, even though she predictably got angry every time she looked at the news.

If you live in the U.S. you are being bombarded by news leading up to the general election in November.  Regardless of your political affiliation, there are plenty of controversial, frequently mean-spirited and plainly factually incorrect messages being directed at you through any media you might tune into.

Recently my beloved local public radio station changed its format from classical music with periodic news, to a constant news and commentary format.  I still am a fan of NPR which comes the closest to a balanced presentation, in my opinion.  But I sure as heck do not want to listen to people analyzing and talking about what is going on in the country and in the world all day!  Frankly, I find it stressful.

Years ago after reading 8 Days to Optimal Health, I did a news fast.  And after that time I stopped watching network news, which I am certain has been good for my health.  The problem with it is that it comes in sound bites, designed to be alarming and provocative, with little or no real exploration or explanation. And there is no action to take.

I have noticed that even the weather is frequently presented as if we are all in the utmost danger…maybe.  So when it’s all strung together, you see something alarming that you can’t do a thing about, interrupted by commercials, often for drugs that are designed to calm you down or lift your dampened spirits.  What’s wrong with this picture?

So if you are finding yourself stressed and angry or even irritated by what is being dished out as news, I invite you to give yourself a week to turn it off.  Create some space to maybe listen to some music, or an audio book that is entertaining or pleasurable. If you are up for something really radical, try listening to the silence interrupted only by your own breathing.

 

Living with Ambiguity

“Who sees the other half of self, sees Truth.”
~Anne Cameron, Dreamweaver

 

My morning journal time brought me to a chapter on fear and trust in Christina Baldwin’s Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Practice.  This is a book that I have recommended before.  She points out the unavoidable and uncomfortable experiences we have when confronting two opposing or paradoxical things at the same time. 

Fear and trust are one such paradox.  And you may have noticed by now that life and indeed, WE are filled with paradoxes!  We prefer to see the one aspect which is easier to accept.  For example, we make heroes of people and in doing so deny that they are also human beings who are capable of doing cruel and stupid things.

Or we focus on one preferable quality within ourselves, refusing to face what lies in the shadow that is opposing the one we are comfortable with.  We may be kind and caring, but we are also at times selfish and uncaring.  All those qualities that we ascribe to our heroines and villains reside within each and every one of us.  And so our relationships are admittedly complex, which at times can be quite bewildering.

After getting into a conversation about this with my daughter this morning, I remembered writing a blog post about it back in 2009.  Carl Jung has pointed out that there are riches to be gained by facing our shadow qualities, by enduring the discomforts that come up with looking at the “other half of self.”  When we are willing to peer into our shadow, we become more tolerant of ourselves and others for one thing.  We are able to listen better, and to come to mutually beneficial outcomes for everyone.

Here is the post from March of 2009.

Yesterday I was reminded of something in a session with a client we will call Sue. She was talking about her relationship with her mother and feeling angry about her mother’s behavior.  Sue has been working hard in therapy and making changes in her life and relationships.  As is the case for most young adults, she is sorting out how she is similar to and different from her parents, her mother in particular.

Sue has had many successes in being assertive with her mother.  And less success in trying to have some conversations about her psychological discoveries.  When it comes to Sue’s attempts to discuss problems in their communications, her mother avoids answering and in fact changes the subject most of the time.  Very frustrating to Sue!

I was thinking about how most of us have a hidden desire for a parent who is different than the parent that we got.  Sue wants a mother who is open and willing to have deep and personal discussions with her.  Yet she can see that her mother doesn’t have very intimate relationships with anyone, nor do members of that whole side of the family. 

When I was in elementary school, my best friend Linda had a mother who was the president of the PTA, a room mother and was frequently in school, very involved in what was going on.  My mother, in contrast, was shy, lacking in self confidence and very busy taking care of her children and a farm.  Not the least bit interested in the PTA or the school fair.  How I wanted her to be!

Years later I came to recognize my mother’s gifts as well as her shortcomings.  Education was important to her and she passed that on to her children.  She insisted on good manners and good grammar.  Getting your work done and meeting your responsibilities was something we learned from her.  She had keen intuition, and I got my spiritual connection and strength from her. 

In our dualistic way of thinking, we tend to be more comfortable with qualities in “either/or” or “black/white.”  In our perfectionism we strive to be “good” as we see it and struggle to eradicate “bad” qualities.  In others we tend to get hung up focusing on the qualities that annoy us.  Most often those qualities are the ones in ourselves that we can’t stand!  This leads to a lot of conflict and dissatisfaction in relationships of every kind.

What if we could purposely focus on what we appreciate in others as well as ourselves?  Do this by expressing thanks or gratitude to others, and paying close attention to gratitude for ourselves.  And then by truly intending to fully accept those annoying quirks in others (maybe with humor) and letting go of our need to change them, we can extend that same acceptance and kindness to ourselves. 

As human beings, we are each one of us filled with paradox.  We can live in much better relationship to others and have much more peace and satisfaction when we accept the ambiguity within.