Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Psstt...I've Got a Secret...

Boundaries are a frequent focus in counseling: how to create healthy ones, learning when to flex or enforce them, understanding their importance for emotional and physical safety. Privacy is a boundary that can be tough to navigate in intimate relationships, families and close friendships. It's not uncommon for people to confuse privacy with secrecy. These concepts are actually very different. Privacy is an innate human right. All people need to have thoughts, space, behaviors and belongings that are theirs alone. Contrary to some beliefs about communication snd relationships, NOT EVERYTHING needs to be shared. A person's thoughts, wishes or desires can remain unspoken. And sometimes NEED to be. (Really, what good will be gained from me telling my son that I don't like his haircut? Or from correcting my relative's constant pronunciation of "pitcher" to "PIC-ture"?) I often tell clients that privacy is as vital to a healthy sense of self, safe boundaries and productive relationships as is good communication. However, many people confuse privacy with secrecy, it's not-quite-healthy close cousin. Generally, secrets create distance, mistrust, fear and a sense of being unsafe. A good rule to discern the difference is to ask the following questions:

1. Does this behavior or choice impact the well-being of someone else?
2. Would knowing or not knowing this information affect someone else's behavior or choices?

In general, if my behavior affects only me, or if sharing information has no bearing on another's well-being or future choices, chances are that information would fall into the category of "private." Think of whether I choose to avoid exercise for a week, or if I choose one path of education versus another. Conversely, if information I have, or behavior I enact, involves or impacts someone's welfare -- whether they know about it or not -- withholding that information could be construed as "secrecy" and therefore be destructive. Consider a spouse who is sexting a work colleague, or a child who witnesses bullying and doesn't alert an adult. While secrets exist, of course, that can be playful and exciting (a surprise party, an engagement) , in general most secrets in relationships and organizations are the downfall of a thriving, healthy system. Privacy enhances safety; secrets can destroy it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

To Schedule or Not to Schedule? (or, Why Can't I Manage to Wear Real Clothes When Im Driving the Car Pool?)

This time of year is dominated by school clothes shopping, last-chance trips to the pool and my son trying to stay awake as long as possible on the few nights left of summer. Before we know it, we will be immersed in email reminders from teachers, midnight runs to the all-night drug store for forgotten poster board, and interminable hours spent in our cars: picking up, dropping off, shuttling less-than-grateful offspring from one activity to the next. Regularly, I hear complaints from my parent clients that, by mid-October, they are depleted and snarky about the time and energy requirements their kids' busy lives suck from their parentS' energy stores. And there are still more than 7 months left of the school year. I routinely give my clients the same recommendation. SCALE BACK. And do it without guilt!! Well, this year, I hang my head in shame to realize I have fallen into the very same trap I warn other parents about. Physician, heal thyself? Ha!! At this point, I'd need a team of Harvard-educated specialists to scale me back to any sane expectations of myself or my abilities. This year, my soon-to-be high schooler was accepted to his school's auspicious show choir. As part of his participation, it was "suggested" that he make the most of his "vocal gifts" by beginning weekly voice lessons. With a member of the Lyric Opera. (Cha-ching!) And of course, show choir members must also participate in the school's regular choir. Both groups, of course, rehearse on different days, for several hours at a time. Add to that menu of all-things-singing related the various fundraisers each student is expected to run, to augment the FOUR-FIGURE fee that's been passed on to parents for their little stars' inclusion in these illustrious organizations. Not to mention the time, money and energy that will be added to our energy depletion when he tries out for the four plays and two musicals produced yearly by the school. And now my future Hugh Jackman would like to hone his critiquing skills by reviewing current movies, with the mission of saving his peers from wasting time and money on a film unworthy of them. Now, I know that WE choose to have these children join our lives, and I believe in providing my child with every academic and cultural opportunity in which he's interested. But, when he got a role in a summer theatre musical, and I was sitting in a church parking lot at 11:30 pm on a rainy Wednesday night (the fourth consecutive day, I might add), sweating in my pajamas because I was afraid I'd run out of gas if I used the energy on the defroster, I seriously considered praying that my son be struck mute or, at the very least, suffer a week-long bout of laryngitis. I am coming precariously close to becoming one of those parents who earn the mockery and eye-rolling of other (read: saner) parents. One of those parents who will sacrifice sleep, groceries, and the wearing of daytime clothing to further their little performer's budding career. While I would love nothing more than to see my son make his debut on the Great White Way, in my more logical moments, I have to question whether I am truly HELPING my son by supporting all these activities. I can't remember the last time my child complained, "I'm bored!" How could he? He can rarely remember to bring his backpack/song sheets/glasses home from his dad's or to eat more than a granola bar before we rush off to the next rehearsal/lesson/performance. I've never been a big fan of technology, but isn't part of being a teenager spending hours on the phone with friends talking about nothing in particular, and playing video games until he qualifies for carpal tunnel surgery? I may sound like I'm advocating for our kids to lower their sights for their futures, that I'm suggesting they skip a few classes and hang out on the "smoking lot" (remember that?) rather than aim for developing their artistic gifts or athletic skills. But don't we want our children to learn that success takes all forms? While getting into Harvard or being a first round draft pick is commendable, I'd like my son to value his ability to be a good friend, to be creative in his use of free time, to be willing to stretch and try activities he's wretched at just to see if they are FUN. The time has come for me to put my money where my mouth is. When the show choir director "recommends" dance class or acting tutorials, I may best be advocating for my son if I answer "No, I don't think so." Keeping my night shirt and sweat pants ensemble INSIDE my four walls is a gift my neighbors will appreciate.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Yen for Zen

Meditation. Contemplation. Prayer. Clearing the mind. All concepts being touted as helpful to sustaining the ability to live in the moment, to be "mindful". Meditation has been shown to help with emotional issues including anxiety and stress, and to enhance physical health by lowering blood pressure, increasing oxygenation of the blood via deep breathing and improving sleep. But here in the West, meditation practice is often linked to the idea of long hours twisted into the lotus position, chanting mantras and gaining enlightenment. Not that enlightenment wouldn't be a welcome visitor to our stressed, harried lives. But, unlike cultures who grow up with meditation being as much a part of their daily life as bathing or eating, we Westerners (wrongly) assume that there is a "right" way, time or duration in which to meditate, and we simply can't fit it into our already packed schedules. The truth is, meditating can last as little as a few seconds, and can be done standing, sitting, laying down or in almost any position in which we find ourselves. Standing in line at the grocery store is a particular favorite of mine. I use the time to take deep breaths, focusing my attention on the sensation of my lungs unfurling in my chest, and the feeling of the breath exiting my body as I exhale. Walking my dogs is an opportunity to try walking meditation. Instead of planning my grocery list or perseverating about an argument with my wife, I notice how my heels make contact with the sidewalk, the different parts of my feet following suit until my toes push off the cement for my next step. When I am feeling an intense emoTion, like fear or anger, I try to remember to "watch" my thoughts that are fueling those feelings. I imagine the thoughts filling my mind like a cloud, and then a breath of cool air clearing the cloud from the field of my mind. These simple, short exercises have a remarkable ability to positively affect my mood, my energy and even the tension in my body. As experienced meditators know, these efforts are called a "practice" for a reason - we will never become experts. More than a few veteran practitioners have reminded me that the truly wise know that the practice of meditation will never be mastered, and the more one practices, the more one realizes there is no "end point." And there's something freeing in feeling like I don't have to do it "right" to reap the benefits. So instead of berating yourself for not having the time or knowledge to effectively clear your mind, try washing the dishes with a focus on the rainbows glistening in the soap bubbles, or noticing the individual feathers on the robin outside your window. Enjoy your next cup of coffee with a focus on the swirls your spoon makes in the liquid as you stir. Remember, you don't need to do it perfectly. You just need to start.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Pollyanna WHO?

A wise old sage once said, "You can't swing a cat without hitting a life lesson." OK, so no sage--wise, old or otherwise-- ever said that. Just a tired, middle-aged working mother whose skills with metaphors sorely need a jumpstart. But you get the gist. We are daily confronted with challenges that are ripe with learning and growth. Now, I'm not going to get all Pollyanna-ish about these challenges. Indeed, many of the hiccups, obstacles and plain ol' terrifying choices we face are nothing short of brutal and harrowing. A nasty divorce, a frightening diagnosis, the death of s beloved pet are all experiences that many of us barely survive without resorting to fantasies of fleeing to another country under an assumed name and living out our days aa far from the site of our tragedy as we can humanly get. I'm not parroting the gems like "everything happens for a reason" or "God won't give you more than you can handle". (Try saying that to the Lost Boys of the Sierra Leone or to a parent who has lost a child. ) No, I will struggle all my days with the grief that comes with undeserved suffering. But I'm starting to believe that the smaller, daily irritations, failures and mistakes are chances for me to challenge myself to be my better self. Who hasn't wanted to respond snarkily to the co-worker who criticizes our project/ideas/latest do-it-yourself hair color? (You know who you are.) Yet, I've found that, when I can muster up the patience, or courage or self-discipline needed in such moments, I walk away feeling not only better about myself, but more optimistic about us as a species. (OK, call me Pollyanna). After all, if a flawed, fearful weakling like me can choose to wish grace on s noxious neighbor, or practice patience when my son loses his $150 calculator for the THIRD time, then there is hope for all of us. Life will never be a smooth, even road. Being willing to see the bumps as opportunities to practice those life skills that make our daily lives easier, more peaceful, even just more bearable, is a lesson I try to be willing to sign up for every chance I get. And like most of us, I get plenty of chances. So much for being a freckle-faced redhead.