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.

 

 

Celebrating Independence Day

Of course it’s July 4th everywhere, but if you are living in the United States, you know that today is Independence Day.  For most, it’s the first holiday of the summer, marked by picnics, outdoor festivals, ball games and fireworks.  And there are some more solemn ceremonies observing the greater importance of the day and the establishment of a young country which would function independent of the English crown.

All of that came about with a great deal of struggle, idealistic differences of vision, and loss of life.  Certainly our visions and ideals continue to differ, and no shortage of argument and conflict goes on as we continue to shape our governing laws and the environment we live in.

What we can appreciate is that we have the freedom to express our differences, persuade others if we care to, and ultimately decide at the voting booth.  And although I get as aggravated with the endless debates as anyone else, I deeply appreciate that we can argue and vote and change the politicians in play if we choose to, without fear of recrimination or blood in the streets.

There are some other kinds of independence that I celebrate today.  You may notice that while we have these freedoms, we don’t always claim them. What kind of differences would it make in your life if you did?  Maybe you can add some of your own to this list.  I would love to hear them.

  • Independence of thought:  much of our thinking is still intact from our early life; you know the attitudes and beliefs that you absorbed even before your birth from your family.  And we are constantly exposed to beliefs and habits of thought by the media. Some of this may serve your life; but much of it doesn’t.
  • Become independent of the good opinion of others.  This is an empowering one! How much do you wonder what people think of you? How much do you tailor your behavior or speech to being pleasing to others?  Are you wearing camouflage in order not to be noticed?  Do you spend a lot of energy to avoid rocking the boat?
  • Free yourself from your own Inner Critic!  The chronic, perfectionistic, harping voice in the head that most of us carry around with us is responsible for most fear, pessimism, doubt and depression.  And stress, for that matter.  Formed in early life, this voice becomes such a constant companion that we aren’t even aware of it…unless we make an effort to tune in.  Your fourth grade teacher, or your dad might have said some mean things to you, but you have internalized those voices and act it out as if it were true.  It’s not!  Time to declare your independence and live the life you intend and desire.
  • Be courageous and examine your lifestyle; your job, your relationships, your state of physical health and well being; your intellectual life; your spiritual life.  Is it all that you want it to be?  Are you going along out of habit or real choice?  Are you settling for something because it’s easier than shaking your life loose a bit?  Are you having new experiences that stretch your awareness and your sense of being alive?  When was the last time you were filled with joy?  Is it possible that your own fear is holding you captive?
  • Are your habitual patterns limiting your quality of life?  The part of our brains that we have in common with the rest of the animal world likes routine and finds it comforting. Many of us have a routine that takes us from morning to night in a pretty predictable way.  Does that include zoning out in front of the TV every day?  Do you walk in the door from work, go to the fridge, open a beer or pour a glass of wine?  Do you comfort yourself with a big bowl of Ben and Jerry’s even though you aren’t in the least hungry? Do you go shopping even when you don’t really need anything, or it’s not in the budget? If you think that none of your routine is a problem, try changing it by doing without, and simply observe your reactions, thoughts and feelings.  You might want to go talk with someone about what you observe.

The beauty of independence is that when we claim it, we are open to fresh insights and new possibilities and the infusion of new energy that emerges.  Claiming our independence brings with it responsibility and if we can handle that, great empowerment.

Happy Independence Day!

 

 

A Gift For Yourself

‘Tis the season, as they say, and most of us are preoccupied with family obligations, social engagements, decorating, cooking and gift giving.  I certainly have more things written on my calendar this month than any other time, and I know I’m not alone.  The “to do” list can get oppressive if we’re not careful.  And doing those things on the list can also be exhausting and stressful.

You may be tempted to just accept that this is the way it is, and to think the stress is inevitable.  But I don’t think it is.  In fact, I would go so far as to say this is a choice.  In the previous two posts I encouraged you to give some conscious thought to what gives meaning to the season to you.  I understand the power of culture whispering in your ear, but it is possible to stop and challenge the thinking and resist the pressure to conform to perfectionistic images that you may think you “should” create.

Anyone who has experienced remorse over credit card debt in January may find the motivation to rethink options for gifts.  Putting yourself in financial straits is not a healthy or happy practice for you or the recipient of the gift.  You have an opportunity to think creatively for pleasing the ones you love.  You could offer them a certificate for your services, such as car detailing or babysitting or some other task that they would enjoy.  Or it could be for a home made dinner and a game night.

Whatever your holiday tradition, ask yourself what do you enjoy about it the most?  Or what might that be if you would really allow yourself to enjoy it?  When I asked myself that question, music was the answer.  And so I have made it a point to hear more music this year., and to make music myself.  Attending live concerts is the best!  And I also dug out CD’s that I have stashed away and haven’t heard in a long time.

A friend of mine has been making it a point to really pay attention to her activities and her level of energy.  She has avoided over-scheduling activities, and takes plenty of time to eat well, drink plenty of water and to rest.  Imagine that!  Actually resting!  This of course means being willing to prioritize, say no to some invitations and to be mindful of where she is expending her resources of money, time and energy.

Being in touch with friends and family is something else that my be meaningful and important, especially during this season.  I know there are lots of jokes about the obnoxious annual Christmas letters in which mom brags about Muffy or Buffy getting into Harvard.  But I must say that there are several letters that I look forward to receiving every year, and I really appreciate the time and effort it takes to compose and send them.  Knowing that others feel the same way, I consider writing and sending my own to be a gift to some people on my list.  If connection is important to you, consider sharing the events of your life over the past year or years, and giving that gift yourself.

Whatever it is that gives this end of the year holiday season special meaning to you, I hope that you will put yourself on your gift list and be generous.  It will improve your mood, I promise, and no doubt your health will benefit as well.

In The News: A Riff on Penn State

 

“May God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you really can make a difference in this world,
so that you are able, with God’s grace,
to do what others claim cannot be done.”
~The Fourth of a Four-Fold Franciscan Blessing~

 

As a citizen of PA I have been, like thousands of others, reeling in the wake of events that have occurred in our state over the past week.  A child sexual assault scandal has rocked a hallowed institution, and ended the careers of a number of powerful men.  Arrests have been made and further investigations are ongoing.

Besides being shocked and appalled by what has been happening under our very noses for many years, we hear expressions of outrage, disgust, fear and sorrow.  Personally I have felt them too.  Admittedly I am not a Penn State graduate, nor am I am fan of college football.  I follow sports only at Olympics time and whatever commentary or news is covered by NPR.  I have been known to go into a coma at the sound of football commentary on TV.  So my concerns don’t really extend to those entities.

What I think this is about is the assault on innocent children, and the abuse of power by people who apparently believe that sustaining  institutional structures and the cash cow of college football  (in this case) is more important than protecting those who are vulnerable, unprotected and have no power at all.

It isn’t even really about Penn State and college football;  unfortunately this misuse of power and scandal has besmirched the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, (probably every other church to some extent), other professional sports teams such as the Red Sox, and maybe even a local day care center in your community.

At the risk of sounding like an alarmist or shocking you, what I am saying is that no group or community is immune to it.

These acts are not perpetrated by monsters, although we like to call them that.  They are not mentally ill people who have some “chemical imbalance” or brain dysfunction which keeps them unable to control their impulses.  They are ordinary people who make awful choices.  That they themselves were once similarly abused is likely the case.  However, they have other options for dealing with pain, rather than inflicting it on others.

And what about the silent witnesses?  They are ordinary people too.  People who look and live an awful lot like you and me.  And when you think about it, the witnesses by far out-number the monstrous perpetrators who inhabit so many nightmares.  And the situations of abuse that seem to go on and on before they are finally (if ever) reported, are only made possible by people who turn a blind eye.

In one of many conversations I had last week, someone suggested that the witnesses at Penn State didn’t call the police because they feared for their jobs.  As it turns out, their jobs would not be protected, at least in this state, because only certain occupational groups (teachers, counselors, doctors and nurses) have a duty to report.  Ironically, coaches who deal with hundreds of minors, do not.  Neither does John or Jill Q. Public.  So protecting one’s career and financial interests can certainly outweigh doing the moral or ethical thing without legal consequences.

It would certainly be uncomfortable to buck the power of the institution, to risk disapproval and maybe even the ire of those who are at the top of the heap, wielding the most power.  Lord knows it is uncomfortable standing up and opposing any existing order.  Most of us are way too invested in pleasing other people…especially our “superiors” or those we see as authorities or deities (with a small “d”).

But what I want to remind you of is that there is tremendous power in the simple witnessing of anything you see or hear.  There must be some sociological law that serves as the counterpart of nuclear physics which says that anything being observed is changed just by that process of being observed.

Can even one single individual change the world order?  Yes, I have to believe that we can.  The fate of one potential victim or one injured victim can be changed if we are willing to endure our own discomfort and stand up, dial a phone number and say, “I have seen this, or I have heard this, or I have reason to be concerned about this. “

Institutions of power can only abuse that power if the witnesses are all complicit in denying what they have seen and heard and been concerned about.  One individual, especially when joined by others, can topple the biggest house of cards.  You may think it is foolish to believe, but history is rife with examples of those who dared to speak up and of those who did not.  The consequences are clear, and the children are still suffering.

 

 

Remembering

In preparing a post for this weekend, I confess to feeling some ambivalence.  In light of the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the attempt that was foiled on Washington DC, writing about goals, successful living and positive psychology seem amiss.  But writing about the terrorist events and all the losses involved is daunting too.

There no doubt will be many wiser and more inspiring words said.  But as I have been thinking about it for the past week, one point popped out at me.  We all got a graphic and horrifying reminder that life is unpredictable and we have very little control over events that occur.  We don’t like to recognize how vulnerable we are.

That being said, it is also true that each of us has untapped potential, as well as unclaimed personal power.  I’m not talking about aggression, which unfortunately often is confused with personal power.  But rather I am thinking of the abilities, gifts and resilience that is a part of each person.  When we accept ourselves and our responsibility to make the most of what we have, we are empowered.

And it seems to me that one of the messages of September 11 is that sometimes life is short, and that time is precious.

I believe that we have the responsibility to make the most of it.  One thing that we can resolve from the experiences of September 11 is to commit to our continued growth and to take action that will express ourselves as the kind of human beings we intend to be.  Maybe most of all, the message is to pay attention to where we are every day.  Not to think of ourselves as some never ending rehabilitation project, but to be fully present, accepting and grateful.

We can notice and celebrate the most simple and beautiful and commonplace things that are a part of everyday life.  Beauty surrounds us; we can see it, breathe it in and love it and know that we are a part of it.  Love your life and treat it with the reverence and celebration that it deserves.  That is the best memorial for September 11 that could be.

 

A Map to Health And Success

 

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.
Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
~Carl Jung~


We live in a world where our attention is always in demand.  My email program has ads running at the top, on the sides, some of them moving and some flashing.  We are constantly checking our phones, looking to see who is calling or texting.  Reading new email messages that come in, searching for directions or looking for bargains and making restaurant reservations.  We are reading books or playing Angry Birds, listening to music or processing some kind of information nearly constantly.

The images that flash past us are a more rapid version of images that we are very familiar with from the movies, television and magazines.  With them we begin to piece together the “ideal” life.  Pictures of what we are supposed to look like, feel like, and what our lifestyles should be.

It may be the woman in the pencil skirt and jacket, holding a briefcase, hailing a cab on a busy city street. Or a man leading a business meeting in a corporate board room.  Then an image of both of them, handsome and beautiful, with the requisite 2.5 children and the golden retriever, relaxing in their beautifully appointed home.

Most of us have a nagging sense of uneasiness when we look at them.  Even though we have bought into the underlying message and are busily buying the products that ostensibly got them this ideal life.

The goals you have set for your life may be possibly heavily influenced by these messages and pictures.  Your notion of success, in other words, may possibly be dictated by all those bits of information streaming through your day.  Are you fully conscious of them?  Do you stop to ask what values they express?  Have you ever turned everything off and sat in the silence by yourself?

For some that is an outlandish and frightening idea.  On those occasions when I suggest it, I often get a reply that “Someone may be trying to contact me!”  Yes, Someone is.  Mother Culture is whispering in your ear.

The problem is not that you want to be a success.  After all, my work has been dedicated to helping people build happier lives by removing the impediments of beliefs and behaviors which are blocking them.  I’m enthusiastically all for success!  But you cannot find the answers to that from your Blackberry or Madison Avenue.  It’s not possible to find the perfect man/ woman/ child/ career/ bank account/ social group/ Jimmy Choo shoes that will fix it for you.

What I would like to say is that what determines your success has to begin with a deep understanding of who you are.  And this is an ongoing process that will continue throughout your life span.  In other words, it is never completed.  Until your life on earth is completed, and who knows?  Maybe not even then.

As Carl Jung points out, we must look inward (search our hearts) to see enough to take the journey ahead.  We must discover what matters most to us, what our passions are, what our strengths and our weaknesses are.  How have we created the life we already have?  And that means being brave enough to tolerate being in the shadows, feeling scared, vulnerable and uncertain.

The ego loves being certain, right and righteous!  In some sense, it’s much easier to avoid the “abyss” and endlessly look to those people and things that “should” make us happy and feel safe.  And when they don’t, criticizing and blaming them and going off to look for the “right” person or the next thing.

That is how many live their lives.  And certainly they have a right to do that.  Personally, I believe that while they avoid the “abyss” by avoiding the hard questions and the silence and space that is required to hear answers, the mysteries still await them.  And they will bumble around, running into walls until they must stop because their energies or bodies are exhausted.

I would like to invite you to do the work that is at times daunting, but ultimately inspiring, energizing and meaningful.  There are resources, people, tools and signs along the road that will point the way.  And you can develop your innate intuition; learn to listen to that still, small, voice to design your own success and the life that you desire.

 

Intentional Living

The past few days have been like a sort of crack-the-whip experience, coming from a laser focused, fast-paced getting ready for Christmas, then the slow down of several days in the aftermath.  Followed by a return to the “real world” and a need to get organized again and ready for the New Year.

My son-in-law asked me if I set New Year’s resolutions.  Do bears live in the woods?  Does water run downhill?  For as long as I can remember I have spent some time after Christmas reading my journal from the previous year (yes I do skip around) and pondering the possibilities for the coming year.  Making a comparison of where I intended to be as opposed to where I am.  And then clarifying my intentions for the days ahead.

This year was a little different.  No journal reading.  It just didn’t occur to me until now as I write this.  I did make some observations about areas of progress and areas of not-so-much progress.  This time I was prompted to consider a question about what kind of person I aspire to be.

And I offer the question to you.  What kind of person do you want to be? While your most intimate relationships may be more clearly seen, most of us recognize each other by our behavior.  We are known by what we do most consistently.  And what we do most consistently determines to a great extent, the quality of our life.

As I was considering this, I began writing down the areas of my life which require more attention (if I am to be the person I intend to be).  It is easy to get bogged down in the details of how you may bring something about.  Beware getting mired there.  You don’t have to know at this moment how to do bring your desired results about.

It occurred to me that if I were to focus my attention on a few areas, and do this regularly, even several times a week, that something important will change.  The focus of your attention is a powerful thing!

Here is what I mean.  Suppose that you intend to become a more loving partner or parent.  Focusing your attention on that other person in a positive way, and doing that several times a week will make a profound difference.  Suppose you want to become more creative by learning to paint.  Focusing your attention by taking a class or simply practicing with brush and canvas and doing it consistently will bring about change.

You do need to be specific about what you intend, and then you need to take inspired action as it occurs to you.  Yesterday someone pointed out to me that most people don’t do this.  She said that most people are satisfied to get through life, going to a job and coming home to a routine.  I acknowledge this is true.

For me, I prefer to live intentionally, if imperfectly.  And I assume that if you are reading this, you do too.  I am encouraged to remember this quote from Earl Nightingale: “People with goals succeed because they know where they are going.  It’s as simple as that.”