Fighting Reality Makes you Crazy! My son was bitten by a brown recluse spider two days before going on a long awaited trip to California. After treatment, he was left with a 2x1 inch open hole in his thigh. Once I found out he was going to be OK, I found myself repeatedly asking, “Why did this have to happen now?” As if there's ever a good time to get a potentially fatal spider bite! He wasn’t going to be able to swim or hike in the woods. Did I mention that we were going to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite and had planned all kinds of outdoor water and hiking activities? Every time I said to myself, "I can't believe that this happened,” I could feel my stress level rise. This is because I was fighting reality. The reality of the situation is that it did happen. One definition of crazy is lacking touch with reality. The only way to relax was to accept that this is what has happened now! This was so much more effective — I then had the creative energy to move forward in adjusting to our trip.
Do you find the above cartoon a little offensive? I heard a story about a computer virus that may or may not be true but it is a great metaphor for how we can begin to change our habitual ways of thinking. Apparently, if the virus attacked your computer, the screen would go blank and then words to the effect of, “You are a big idiot” would appear. The only thing that would make the virus go away was to type OK.
I can imagine that it was frustrating to hit OK in response to this statement. However, if you did click OK, your computer would return to normal. It occurred to me that we could do the same thing with our thoughts. If you hear yourself say something that you probably wouldn't say to someone else (even if they did the same thing you were criticizing yourself over) then it likely isn’t an effective thought. Shaming thoughts are very ineffective in that they take away energy rather than give us energy to change.
Therefore, if an old negative thought pops up in your mind, especially one that is difficult to specifically refute, it would be very effective to just say, “OK” and move on to the next thought. This would neutralize the thought. It would take the wind out of its sails so to speak. The very best way to move on would be to follow it with an affirmation. An example would be if you said to yourself, “That was a stupid thing to say and they won't like you.” To then say, “OK, but I like the way that I was kind to that person yesterday.” This way you are giving no air time (or neuronal activity) to the ineffective thought so that the screen in your mind can change to a thought that actually helps you be the person you want to be.
Radical Acceptance is a mindfulness concept that refers to the necessity of accepting what is. When something isn’t the way we wish it were, it can cause us discomfort or pain. But when we don’t accept how it is, we add suffering to the pain. Accepting what is doesn’t mean that we like or approve of it or even that we wouldn’t work to change it. It does mean that we accept that, in this moment, it is what it is. Whenever I hear myself say, “I can't believe…,” I am not practicing acceptance.
Examples of lack of acceptance:
I can’t believe my son got that spider bite.
I can’t believe I forgot that meeting.
I wish my parents hadn’t divorced.
I wish I were taller.
I can’t stand this traffic.
I can’t believe we lost that game.
I can’t believe I was treated that way.
Follow these kinds of thoughts with, “It is what it is,” “It could be worse,” or “Well, what now?” and notice the shift in the level of negative emotion that you feel. This shift then releases energy to move forward or seek change.
Gratitude Can Help You Sleep!
I've written often about how gratitude is the most life-giving emotion and it may even help you get a better night's rest.
As Tim Denning writes:
"Appreciating one thing helps you to realize how much you already have. Every
day, you get one gift of something going right amongst all the stuff that goes
wrong. This gift is a good focus point to reflect on and be at peace with. Every day,
one thing is going right for you. What is it?
Did the car start? Did someone hold the door open? Did the customer do what
you wanted them to do? Did you get to read that book?"
End your day by thinking of these things to put the worry part of your brain to rest.
The Beauty is in the Journey: In our society we are primarily focused on the goal of our endeavors. Of course this is sometimes necessary, but it is also necessary to notice the path along the way. There is a phrase that you hear in recovery that states sometimes it’s good to “just do the next right thing.” You may not know where that’s going to take you, however you know that the step seems right. Don’t slow down just because you can’t see the end of the path clearly. If you take steps based on your values and your wise mind, this will most likely lead you to a place you will want to be.
Be in the Present
As the weather begins to change, one of my favorite things is a sunny day when the air has a slight chill. What a relief after the long cold summer. However, if I'm not careful, I can miss those days by being preoccupied and in a hurry. Through mindfulness, we are able to breathe in the experience. To pause, if even for a moment and notice the sun and air can bring a measure of joy to anyone's day -- at least for that moment. Use the core mindfulness skills of observing and describing to yourself how delightful the weather feels. We spend so much time thinking about what we need to get done or what we wish we had, that we miss or barely notice the moments of our lives that are truly worth living. Truly enjoy your spring!
What's in Your Narrative?
If you are struggling with feelings of insecurity of any kind, it is probable that you are being influenced by a story that you developed in childhood. Stories such as, “My parent left because I'm not good enough, so I better try to be perfect” or “People can't be trusted, so I better not share my true feelings,” may have been guiding you ever since — sometimes without your awareness, and it may be ruining your life. All of us develop ideas about how the world operates and our place in the world as we grow up. We then weave these ideas into powerful narratives that guide us how to interact with our world and what to expect from it. However, it’s as if you are living according to a narrative written by a child who was attempting to make sense of your unique experiences — but from a child’s perspective.
One of the saddest things I encounter in my work as a psychologist is to hear about the painful experiences people have lived through and then watch as they create the same pain in their adulthood due to their previously formed false beliefs. The path out of this downward spiral is to become conscious of your story and begin reevaluating your beliefs so that you can have the life that was meant for you. This endeavor will take openness, curiosity and courage to think in new ways.
"For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone." ~ Audrey Hepburn
Of course, people will notice your appearance, but what they will truly be impressed by, is how they feel while in your presence. Do they feel like you listened, cared, or did you make them laugh? This is what counts. When talking with someone, instead of focusing on what they are thinking about you or what you will say next, try considering for a moment how they are feeling as they are talking with you.
I was at dinner with some dear friends recently (all of whom are therapists, so we can get into some weird discussions) and we started talking about the different experience of feeling like a victim versus feeling empowered. My friend Bunny Webb who has taught graduate psychology classes throughout her career, told us about an exercise that she would do with her students around exam week. She would ask them to write down several things they felt like they had to do that week. They would write things such as, “Finish a paper,” “Prepare for an exam,” etc. She then asked her students to change each sentence to read, “I choose to…” rather than “I have to...” This led us to a discussion about the famous quote by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Frankl was actually a prisoner, but the way we think can, at times, virtually put us into a self-imposed imprisonment in our mind.
It is so sad to think that when we’ve been betrayed, felt overwhelmed by life’s demands, lost a loved one or something else that we felt like we had to have, we add suffering to our pain by forgetting to grab hold onto what we can control. Take a minute to think of five things that you feel like you have to, should, ought to, or must do. Write them down in full sentences. Now change the have to, should, ought to, or must to “choose to.” Do you notice the difference in how it makes you feel? Mine right now is, “I have to go make dinner” and it feels like a burden. But the truth is I am choosing to go make dinner, which feels very different.
This week I was at the Atlanta airport getting food from a restaurant at the food court. There was an older gentleman with a limp working as an employee at one of the fast food restaurants. He was bringing people their trays, grabbing anything they needed, finding seats in the crowded space and thanking people profusely for... well I’m not sure what. Essentially, he was helping in any way that he could think to. Whenever there was a break, he hummed a happy tune and then hurried to help the next person.
He made my day! Every time I think about him, I smile. As the quote (from a song in Mary Poppins) says, “No matter what type of job you’re doing, you can find the good or fun in it for the moment, even if you hope to be somewhere else in the future.” This man truly made his own happiness and it rubbed off on the rest of us.
I saw the Eagles in concert last weekend and they are still amazing! The lyric, “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy” from their hit, Take it Easy, struck me in a new way. Do you ever ruminate over things you can’t change? Worry about the future? Repeatedly review a past mistake? Obsess over a wrong committed by someone else? Are your wheels sometimes turning in ways that make you crazy? These ineffective thought processes could become habitual and in a way, make you crazy!
Ask yourself when ruminating, is there anything I can do about this and if the answer is yes, do it. If the answer is no, turn your mind to another thought. Even if you have to turn your mind every few minutes, that’s great exercise for your brain. If you are worrying about all of the things you have to do, consider the moment you’re currently in and notice that you can do this moment. If you focus on the present moment, stuff will get taken care of.
So... “Lighten up while you still can and take it easy” (now if you’re an Eagles fan, you might be singing this song in your head for a couple of days. I certainly have been!)
Before You Speak: What a wonderful quote! If everyone practiced this, there would be so much more peace in our relationships, families and communities. I think the same applies to the words we speak to ourselves. Before you speak to yourself, consider these gates. Are the things you say to yourself true? Many of us tell ourselves things that aren't true such as I must be perfect to be accepted, I shouldn't feel anger, I'm not smart, I'm not pretty enough. Are the things you say to yourself necessary? Do you ruminate over things that already happened or obsess about things yet to happen. These thoughts are not helpful and certainly not necessary. Finally, are the things you tell yourself kind? Unkind thoughts are actually very unproductive as they affect your mood and decrease your energy for self improvement. If your words to others or self don't meet these three principles, hold your tongue.
I love the song, I Hope You Dance, by Lee Anne Womack. One line that I find fascinating goes, “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.” I guess there could be many interpretations of this line. What does it mean to feel small beside the ocean? To me this says that there is something very desirable and comforting in acknowledging that there are things bigger than we are. There are limits to what we can control and what we are responsible for. No person can stop the waves from coming and going.
There are things in our lives that we can control and there are things we can’t. The things we can’t control are bigger than we are. We cause ourselves much stress when we don’t accept, let go and even luxuriate in the things that we can’t control (and do not have to) that are bigger than ourselves. For me the daily decisions made by my college age son, my husband’s difficulty keeping up with time, my daily advancement into old(er) age and God are all forces that are bigger than my will to control. When I’m mindful of those truths, I let go and find peace. Take a minute and write down five things that are bigger than you that you cannot or do not have to control. You may feel a bit smaller, but in the best way!
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.”
― Henry Ford
What you tell yourself creates outcome. If you are telling yourself that you can’t do something that you would like to do, check to make sure that it isn’t simply your automatic, habitual way of thinking. If it is, you certainly will not be able to do it! When setting goals, some simple principles can make all the difference:
1) Focus on the process, not the outcome. What is the first step? The specific goal should be small enough to work on right away. For instance, “I want to do volunteer work” versus “Today, I will Google volunteer activities in my area.”
2) The specific goal should be positive, behavioral, measurable and specific. Such as, “I am not going to keep wasting my time,” versus “I will make three phone calls today to set up interviews.” Good luck!