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.

 

 

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!

 

 

The Grateful Brain

“If you want to turn your life around, try thankfulness.
It will change your life mightily.”
~Gerald Good~

 

Gratitude is a cornerstone of every major religion, and indeed a part of North American culture.  (I am thinking here of Thanksgiving Day, which is celebrated in the US and Canada). For years we have been hearing from modern thought leaders such as Dr. Wayne Dyer and Joseph Dispenza, that we have the power to create our lives anew, and that gratitude plays a key role in it.

Recently I have been noticing the work of Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D., who is a psychiatrist researching brain functioning.  He uses the modern technology of brain scans to examine the electrical activity and blood flow in the brains of his subjects.

He discovered that gratitude positively and literally changes brain chemistry.  Especially the frontal lobes and cerebellum show increased electrical activity and blood flow. The frontal lobes are responsible for judgment, impulse control and planning. When your frontal lobes are functioning well, you are making high performance decisions that serve you well.

In a study to determine the effects of gratitude, Dr. Amen scanned each subject’s brain twice. One after asking the person to focus on things in life for which she felt grateful, and another after asking her to focus on things that made her angry.  The scans were amazingly different!  Feeling grateful showed a dramatic benefit to her brain.  Blood flow and electrical activity increased in the area of the brain which would result in better decisions, focus and judgment. By contrast, angry or hateful thinking resulted in a draining or restricting of blood flow and overall brain activity!

When we are taught that fear, anger and hatred are constricting and limiting, this is more than “New Age” mumbo-jumbo. And when the ancients indicated the way to expansion and a better spiritual life, we can now see how our human physiology is directly affected by our thoughts and resulting emotions. If you doubted the truth of what you were hearing, now science has demonstrated why they are true!

When you write a gratitude list and focus on the feeling, your pituitary gland releases endorphins and other neurotransmitters that contribute to a feeling of overall well-being.  This is not just your imagination, because we now understand more about the power of that imagination.  Improving your mood leads to improved brain functioning, making it easier to make healthy decisions that will make it possible to create the life of your dreams.

Practicing gratitude is the key.

Listening: the Key to Connection

Recently I had surgery to remove a cataract from my right eye.  Despite feeling some jitters ahead of time, everything went smoothly.  My ophthalmologist and her staff had explained all the details, and I prepared for the procedure as instructed. Now while my eye heals, I am waiting to have the left eye done in a few weeks.

I’m fortunate in that I have not needed surgery for many years, and was struck by the developments in technology. When I walked into the OR, being in a Star Trek episode came to mind. The smooth and quick procedure reinforced that impression.

Several days later an acquaintance asked me how I was feeling. I opened my mouth to reply, and was startled by her saying, “You probably feel like…” and then went on at great length to tell me about her cataract surgery experience. Without missing a beat, she went on, not seeming to notice that I just nodded and smiled and had never responded to her question before she turned and addressed someone else.

I hadn’t really had a chance to respond. And more to the point, it seemed obvious to me that she wasn’t really interested.

This incident came to mind later when writing a report about building better relationships.  Often when someone tells me that a relationship fell apart because they “can’t communicate,” that may cover a lot of different meanings.

But I suspect from working with couples, that most often it means that someone, and often no one, is really listening.

The power of effective listening cannot be overestimated.

 “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
— 
Henri J.M. NouwenThe Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

 

Most of us have been guilty of poor listening at some point. You know what I mean; you may see the other person’s lips moving, but you are busy thinking about what you want to say when they stop. Or you’re thinking about what great points or interesting experiences you have been reminded of. Or you have a funny story to tell. Or you can’t wait to tell them how right you are about an argument you are making. Or you’re bored or preoccupied and your mind is wandering and you really don’t have the faintest idea what they are talking about.

Being on the receiving end of that inattention doesn’t feel good.  Whether you intend it or not, what you are really communicating is that you don’t care about the other guy.  You are saying that she/he is unimportant to you. It can be the death knell of a relationship because you have failed to make the connection.

To help you succeed with learning better listening skills and in the process, improve relationships, I would suggest a few simple steps:

  • Maintain good eye contact with the speaker. You don’t have to stare, but look frequently and directly into their eyes.
  • Take care to reflect the expression and body language of the speaker.  Our body language needs to match up with the emotional tone of the conversation.
  • After the person pauses, reflect back to them what you hear them saying. Ask a question to make sure that you are picking up both the meaning of their words as well as their emotional experience.
  • Stay with them without changing the subject until they have finished talking.
  • Avoid the temptation to give advice, fix things, come up with solutions, etc. This is not always easy, especially when you have been reared to be a problem solver or healer. It is not always easy to just “be” with someone who is in emotional pain. Remember this is not your problem to solve!

The greatest gift that we can offer anyone is to be fully present with them.  And the way that we demonstrate that we are, is by careful listening.  As Stephen Covey wrote, “When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it is like giving them emotional oxygen.”

 

Making Connection

“With That Moon Language”
by Hafiz

Admit something

Everyone you see, you say to them
“Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,
The great pull in us
To connect.

Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,

With that sweet moon
Language,

What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear.

 

Source:  The Gift

 

Keeping the Social in Social Media

 

Generally this blog is about the psychology of being human, and in to provide some help in making changes to become the best humans we can be.  I enjoy sharing resources and experiences of people I know as well as my own. After all, we’re all on this road together. On a good day maybe readers can gain a bit of Positive Psychology or increase their EQ or Emotional Intelligence.

Sometimes I do comment on events in the news, or on cultural developments that gradually affect us all, sooner or later.  There isn’t any doubt that one of the most profound technical developments, next to the personal computer, is the proliferation of social media. Every aspect of our lives are being shaped by it whether it is keeping in touch with friends, families and co-workers; business and commercial or political influences.

There are lots of jokes about Tweeters telling their followers about the great triple latte they are drinking. And Facebook has provided a forum for sharing everything from the ridiculous to the sublime and everything in between. I have colleagues that are very skilled at developing business connections on Linked In. And of course the list goes on.

When I first joined the Facebook contingent, I intended it more as a business tool.  And I do have business connections on it and find helpful in keeping up with the publishing aspect of my business. But what is probably more rewarding and interesting to me are the friends and acquaintances that have formed a sort of “net” of community and commentary. I have reconnected with childhood friends and relatives that live at a distance, most still living in the part of the country where I grew up, and I love hearing from them.

I confess to also liking silly cat pictures and the occasional funny video of someone’s dog bringing in the mail or howling with the toddler. Pictures of new babies, friends’ kids and grandkids are precious and provide a way of keeping up with family developments. I seldom post pictures because I am technically challenged and am too lazy to figure it out. It’s a trick that my grown children haven’t taught me yet.

It’s interesting to me how varied the opinions and perspectives are. Sometimes those opinions get pretty heated, especially around election time.  And of course political and religious views continue to be posted, along with the suggestion that “friends” click on the “Like” button.

I am a defender of the right to free speech that is outlined in the Bill of Rights. So just as I think that a man has the right to wear his drawers drooping off his behind, but wish he wouldn’t, so it is that I think everyone has a right (unless it is harming someone) to post what they want.  But sometimes I really wish they wouldn’t.

This morning when I checked out Facebook and saw two consecutive posts made by a distant friend, I had that same reaction. The first one was one I have seen before from a page entitled something like “wanting to hit people on the side of the head.” It advocates making drug testing mandatory for welfare recipients; the reader could click “Like” if they agreed. The second post was a picture that was followed by a message to click “Like” if they followed Jesus.

Is it just me or is this at least ironic if not offensive? It promotes a stereotype of poor people that is a tad shocking if not ignorant of the facts.  Could we force the lawmakers who would draft and pass such a bill also be subjected to mandatory drug testing? Many of the drug addicts I have treated over the years were well educated, professionals, none of whom were on welfare. Addiction is a painful and awful affliction, and no class or group of people is exempt.

Then to follow that post with another one about following Jesus is really too much. Is there some newly discovered, mean-spirited and hateful addendum to the Gospels that I don’t know about? Was there a mis-translation of “God is Love?”  1 John 4:8, if you want to look it up. I don’t remember a reference to Jesus hitting anyone on the head.  Is the Son of Man suddenly a member of a political party, or promoting a particular agenda? I could have sworn that the message of love and forgiveness is available to every human, regardless of race, creed or financial circumstances.

Americans in particular seem fond on invoking the Almighty’s favor and applying it to our favorite causes or passions. In the process, we shape God in our image. We seem to think that whether we are waging war or a football game, He is on OUR side. This never made any sense to me, although I understand the temptation. My theology doesn’t include a god who prefers blondes over brunettes or jerseys that are blue instead of orange. I can’t believe that certain people are excluded because of their race, nationality or lifestyle or because they face East to pray instead of West. And I don’t believe that our bombs are blessed.

Of course this is my perspective, and I will respect your right to express yours as well.  As a friend of mine would say, it’s all grist for the mill. And it’s what keeps the conversation, as well as life, interesting. I am happy to read your comments.