Monday, August 22, 2016

Go Gently

Take the gentle path. -- George Herbert

We celebrate achievement. We encourage effort, determination, "giving it the old college try." We are impressed when someone overcomes adversity, and we appreciate a good "coming-from-behind-to-win" upset. But what if true peace, accomplishment and esteem is best reached a gentler way?

Easy Does It
Being gentle with ourselves and others is not a manifestation of laziness or an indication we don't care. Rather, approaching our problems, efforts and relationships with care and quiet is a loving gesture, a stance that projects trust and hopefulness. Effort is not bad, but neither is waiting. Easing into change can be more productive than forcing. Forgiveness and gratitude provide healing and grace that anger and resentment cannot. Moving gently affords us the time to see and appreciate our environment, to let the wisdom around us seep into our bodies and our consciousness. Going gently, with awareness and openness, can bring us results steeped in the deepest layers of truth and allow us a stamina for more demanding aspects of life. Approaching life with gentleness can soften us, and others, providing a fertile landscape for growth and enlightenment. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Beware the Anti-Mother!!

I can imagine the movie poster for the film about my life: a hideous, giant monster, with fangs and claws dripping blood, terrorizing the young children in her path with punishments, recriminations and selfishness. "Attack of the Anti-Mother!" the poster would proclaim. Kids would cover their eyes and other parents would simultaneously be outraged at my horrific parenting and grateful that their transgressions could never be as catastrophic as mine.

Growing into Motherhood 
While this description is (I hope) quite an exaggeration compared to the reality of my mothering, the truth is that I never really planned on being a parent. I wasn't one of those kids who enjoyed playing "house", or loved holding babies or couldn't wait to teach my offspring how to throw a ball or ride a bike. And my gag reflex is instantly triggered at any and all bodily fluids. I was somewhat bewildered at my lack of "mother lust" -- growing up I was more interested in books and writing than hanging out with kids my age, and as I grew older, I fantasized more about the kind of career I would have than how many kids would fill my house. I didn't especially enjoy being a child. Always a serious person, I was also acutely invested in justice from the youngest age, not a very productive stance for someone under 4 feet and lacking in all power whatsoever. When I did think about parenting, antiseptic images of family vacations and my kid's acceptance to Harvard dominated my vision. I avoided considering (YEARS. I meant it. YEARS.) sleep deprivation, before-school frantic rushing, learning disabilities, divorce. And of course, my life as a mom has included more harrowing, anxious, self-doubting experiences than the rest of my life combined. But, to my absolute surprise, it has been a part of my life that I have enjoyed, savored, and grown from more than any other. Getting to really know this other little person from day one, to love so completely and unconditionally another being that my own happiness and even safety ceased to be my focus, to revel in the miracles abundant in every stage of development, has gifted me with a blessedness and grace I could have gotten no other way. Now, I am FAR from a perfect mother, and my catastrophic nature kept me from rolling the baby dice more than once, but, most of the time, I feel pretty good about the job I'm doing. No doubt, my work as a therapist has afforded me a view of some of the most sorrowful and painful moments a human can experience. My kid's development, and my efforts in that direction, have been thankfully free from some of those more egregious scars. And I've always been a consciously grateful for any good mojo that comes my way. But now, as I anticipate my son's final year at home, I can't imagine my life without mothering as it's center. I am a softer, wiser, better person for having taken this path. Who knew a step I never considered taking could be my life's greatest joy?

Sunday, July 31, 2016

It Is What It Is

Radical acceptance is the process of making the choice not to fight against "what is," but to lean into the reality of an experience with awareness and curiosity. This challenging task has its roots in Buddhist teachings, but the result of avoiding unnecessary suffering is a benefit everyone can enjoy.

Accepting Our Experience 
There is much in life we have little control over -- the traffic jam impeding our journey to work; our partner's surliness; our boss choosing a co-worker for a position we covet. But our lack of control rarely stops us from fuming, brooding, fretting or grieving over the reality in front of us. We think about how we could have garnered a different outcome, or rage over the unfairness of our "loss." We look for opportunities to sneak past the obstacles. We respond with similar frostiness to those who offend us. And while we may assume these reactions are instinctual and unavoidable, we truly have choices. And those choices offer us freedoms from negative, toxic or harmful emotions. If we instead embrace the time in a traffic jam to catch up on a phone call with an old friend, or pop in a favorite CD to enjoy some "car dancing," we'd likely feel much calmer when the cars ahead of us started moving again. If we choose not to assume our partner's bad mood is because of something we did or said, and instead allow them the respect to their own experiences without judgement or the attempt to change them, we may feel a freedom that comes with staying on "our own side of the street." If we refuse to give into bitterness or jealousy toward our colleague, and instead commit to supporting them in growing into their new role, we afford ourselves the luxury of directing our energy stores to those things at our job that can move us forward. Radical acceptance does not mean we don't hold others or ourselves accountable, nor does it curtail us from trying to change or improve situations when we can. Rather, by relaxing into radical acceptance, we allow ourselves the relief that comes from loosening our grip on what, in truth, was never in our control to begin with. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fear and Violence

When violence occurs, we may assume feelings like hatred, rage, or vengeance motivated the destructive acts. But more likely, fear is the impetus behind acting out. When humans feel threatened or at risk, our fear can propel us to lash out in an attempt to protect ourselves.

Fearing Fear Itself 
We may like to believe that we are "different" than people who behave violently. We are more civilized, intelligent, self-controlled. We are rational and logical. Perhaps. But we all feel fear. We fear being outcast; we fear conflict and expressions of anger; we fear falling short or disappointing others; we fear physical and emotional pain. These feelings are universal to humanity, and we can recall instances when we ached with the pain of each potential threat. While most of us don't react with physical violence when we are afraid, it isn't difficult to imagine how a deep, pervasive and constant sense of being unsafe could leave someone vulnerable to striking out. Violence is never the answer, but fear will always be with us. We have the responsibility to respond to our fears -- and others' -- in a way that heals and doesn't hurt. And that starts with acknowledging our fear. Far from being shameful or weak, feeling fear is a protective response leftover from our reptilian ancestors. Fear wakes us up to threat, calls us to be aware and ready to fight, fly or freeze to survive. Without fear, our species would not have lasted long on this planet. Respecting and appreciating what fear has to teach us, without hurting ourselves or others, can promote deeper understanding and empathy for what it means to be human. By accepting that we do and will experience fear, we provide ourselves with the opportunity to choose our path, rather than react with impulsive action. Violence is a learned behavior; the experience of fear is not. When we can understand what triggers fear in others, we can approach them with options that offer safety and freedom to choose from a place of empowerment. When we identify our own fear triggers, we increase our empathy for one of the most tender of human experiences. Embracing fear is a path to knowing, and holding, and protecting each other. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Remembering Our Best

Perhaps it was the time we screamed at our kids, or belittled them in an effort to curb misbehavior. Maybe we snubbed a friend instead of pursuing a difficult conversation. Cheated on our taxes. Took something that wasn't ours. Manipulated a situation to get our way. We all have these kinds of regrettable moments in our pasts -- for some of us the list of transgressions seems woefully long. How can we look ahead with confidence and self-esteem when such poor choices and behavior lurk in our backgrounds?

Releasing the Worst 
Researcher and clinician Brene Brown writes, "We cannot be defined by our worst deeds." At first reading, my cognitive mind embraces that statement, 'Well, sure, everyone makes mistakes. We are all human and deserve forgiveness." But then my knee-jerk emotional self is quick to add "at least, everyone else does." So quickly and unconsciously, we hold ourselves to a different standard than we do others. In the face of someone else's moral failing or atrocious behavior, we may be willing to offer compassion for their flawed humanness, or at least to rationalize that they had some reason for their actions. But most of us are just as quick to not only judge ourselves more harshly for bad behavior, but also to roast ourselves over the mental spit of reliving these shameful moments over and over. As if grinding these cringe-worthy moments into our memory banks will somehow motivate us to better decisions in the future, shaming ourselves for our failures does the opposite of urge us to do and be better: it defeats and demoralizes us into believing our brokenness will forever keep us from being the "good" and "honorable" people we long to be. In therapy, I see proportionally more clients who berate themselves for long-ago misdeeds, rather than minimizing their wrongdoings. In general, I think most people internalize the voice of a faceless, harsh authority figure, one set on reminding us of every misstep we have ever made, even if it erases every shred of self-love we have managed to stockpile over the years. I've yet to see shaming effectively urge people to access their best selves. Similar to the way unconditional love helps young children to feel safe and confident stepping out into the larger world, our own positive self-regard is the path to behaving, choosing and speaking in ways that enhance our lives and others. We must let go of the negative loops of memories that condemn us for our failings. Instead, we can train ourselves to cast the spotlight on our moments of bravery, compassion, kindness and altruism. We can choose love -- even for our selves. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Resolution Revolution: Living in the Unknown

Resolution provides answers, certainty, peace, even the opportunity to let go and move on. Resolving an argument can bring people together, allowing a deeper knowing of each other's viewpoints. Receiving test results from your doctor, even if the news is less than ideal, results in a choice of treatment plan and the power to be in control of one's path forward. But resolution is not always possible. How do we find peace when we are left with the "unknown"?

Moving from Black-and-White to Gray 
Young children operate largely in a black-and-white world. Rules of right and wrong govern their behavior, and they believe if something is "this," then it cannot be "that." We feel comforted when the world fits neatly into available "boxes" and we can predict the next steps based on what came before. However, most of us grow into more abstract thinking as we age, understanding that very little in life, in fact, is absolute. Grayness rules our world much more frequently than black and white. Finding stability and confidence amidst "what-ifs" is a perennial challenge. Some people take comfort in religious beliefs that offer meaning to life's difficulties. Others expend energy and resources in a search for answers that may result in deeper self-awareness, regardless of whether the answers appear. Ultimately, we must embrace the truth that much of life will remain a mystery, regardless of our energies to discover and define what we feel we "must" know to feel at ease. Rooting ourselves in the fertile ground of the unknown and unknowable can be the realist form of acceptance, setting us free from the  pressure of "doing" and allowing us instead to "be", a flexible and potent posture that will help us weather whatever lies ahead. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Turn, Turn, Turn

Summer is a time of beginnings. Birds are re-building their nest in the maple tree out back. My son is planning activities with friends to make this the "best summer ever." We can venture to the farmers market again each weekend in our small downtown. My peony bush is bursting with magenta blooms. But endings accompany all beginnings. I've packed away my winter sweaters and drained the snowblower. The end of the school year means some friends will depart for colleges near and far. For children, structured schedules fall away to wide-open days of lazing in the yard, long bike rides and water balloon fights. The longer days and higher temperatures invite us all to consider ending or beginning a new chapter for ourselves.

To End is to Begin
What project or hobby have you been putting off? Do you want to decorate your porch with a container garden? Maybe try your hand at knitting, or woodworking? The joy you found in crayons and coloring books as a youngster might encourage you to sign up for a pastels class. Caring for yourself can create the perfect summer "to-do" list. Commit to walking each evening, even just around the block, to enjoy the extra hours of daylight and sumptuous summer smells of barbecues, blooming gardens, fresh cut grass. Enjoy healthy treats like cold slices of watermelon and tart Bing cherries. Take your dog to the park and replenish both your spirits with a vigorous roll in the grass. Or maybe you'd prefer to bid adieu to a bad habit. Banishing self-criticism or negative thinking are "endings" worth the effort. Putting an end to a toxic relationship could free you to the beginning of more fulfilling connections. Shedding old beliefs of limitation or lack provides us with an outlook of possibility.  Whatever your choice, embrace action with the fervor we enjoy these sunny days. Make a conscious choice to a beginning - or an ending -- that brings you freedom, joy and peace.