Ashley burst into tears within a few moments of sitting down in my office. “I don’t know why I’m crying. I have a loving husband and two precious children. I work out a lot and I eat well–at least most of the time. I have really great girlfriends although I never get enough time with them. I just don’t know who I am any more…and I don’t know where I lost myself.”
It didn’t take long for Ashley and I to uncover the source of her despair. Like so many of us, the noisiness of all the external demands of life had drowned out the needs of Ashley’s inner voice. She was taking quite good care of herself on the outside but simultaneously ignoring her emotional vulnerability, her desire for quiet alone time, and her connection to her soul.
Are You Tending Your Own Garden?
One of the most important lessons I have had to learn (often the hard way)–and continue to teach the many parents who come for counseling–is how important it is to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others. I often use the metaphor of a garden because even the most beautiful garden, if left unattended, will eventually wither and die.
Just as plants need water, healthy soil and regular weeding, so do budding humans need care and attention in order to thrive. Perhaps this seems obvious (as truth often does), but most of us get so caught up in taking care of the kids, the house, the job and all the other responsibilities of daily life that we simply forget ourselves or run out of time to listen to the crying of our soul’s deep inner longings.
What About Your Inner World?
“Scarcity of self value cannot be remedied by money, recognition, affection, attention or influence.” ~Gary Zukav
Most of us know by now–and are constantly reminded by self-help literature and blogs–that we need to tend to our physical bodies in order …
“Let us make one point, that we meet each other with a smile, when it is difficult to smile. Smile at each other, make time for each other in your family.” ― Mother Teresa
This is the time, beginning with Thanksgiving and lasting through the arrival of the new year, that most people think not only about themselves but also about how to help others less fortunate. It is impossible to turn on the news without seeing the needs of others in your community or elsewhere in the world.
Given the difficult parts of the holiday season–extra things to do, children out of school wanting to be entertained, increased financial burdens, bigger crowds, more traffic, and what often feels like exponentially increased pressure from all directions–the attention turned to serving others can be one of the best parts of the season. It can also help you to pause and reflect on what you can be grateful for.
Everyone has something to give. A smile or kind words to a stranger, shoveling snow for your neighbor, soup for a shut-in. No money is required–only willingness to think of someone else. The most precious things we can give are our time, our attention, our touch, or simply our presence.
Even if you are depressed or lonely–or perhaps especially when life is difficult–doing something kind for someone else can take your attention away from yourself and your pain, if only for a moment. Seeing the suffering of others can also make you realize that you are not alone. Every family faces losses–the death of loved ones, the dissolving of relationships, the trials of aging.
From the time our children were toddlers, we went together as a family to sing at convalescent hospitals for the elderly. We always went on Christmas day because the people left were …
The wish to seek and have a deep sense of family connection and commitment is universal. Ask people what is most important to them and their first answer is always the same–their family. In healthy families, there is a sense of cohesion or family togetherness. Without it, we feel more like strangers than kin.
The answer is very simple although often a challenge. We must spend quality time together, just hanging out, or if separated by geography, spend time talking and listening to one another. We need to know that we can count on each other for the relationship to be close. In research on happy loving families, sharing time together is made a priority to build trust and intimacy.
One of my favorite times to talk to my mother is when I am chopping vegetables for dinner with my headset on. We take those minutes to share details of our day, and my mom always asks me what’s for dinner. My husband has long weekly talks with his mom who lives out of town when he goes on hikes to get his exercise.It often helps to schedule talking and listening time in whatever schedule “book” you use, committing yourself to family time instead of slipping into the habit of watching TV, computer surfing, video gaming or answering one more email.
Only by making the time to share the details of our daily lives as well as our successes, hardships, dreams and disappointments can we reap the rewards of our intimate bonds. Researchers at Brigham Young University analyzed results from 148 studies from the last century and found that social support not only makes us happier to be alive but also literally adds to our longevity, increasing our survival by 50 percent.
Another important ritual for spending regular time together is …
How well do you know your ABC’s of mental health and happiness? Let’s start at the very beginning–although you will see that the alphabet of skills below is really a circle that starts and ends wherever you are…
Awareness…because the first step in happiness is to become aware of what you are thinking, feeling, doing and projecting in the world. Awareness leads to authenticity–striving to be yourself, unique and precious, unlike anyone else on the planet.
Believe…not only in yourself and your capacity to grow but believe in something greater than yourself–whether that is God, ultimate enlightenment, the unity of nature, the laws of science, or the power of Love to transform people.
Communicate…with courage and compassion. Humans were given the gift of language and the capacity to invent alphabets in order to communicate our thoughts, feelings and desires.
Determination…is a necessary strength that can be cultivated. Mental well-being emerges from consistent effort and the daily practice of empowering attitudes and decisions.
Exercise and Eat well…since our bodies and minds are not separate from one another.
Family and Friendships... provide the social support that we need to combat despair and loneliness. Take time to develop and nurture relationships that bring you comfort and joy.
Gratitude…helps us change our attitude. Instead of feeling victimized by others and focusing on pain and suffering, when we remember to notice small things each day that to be grateful for, it gives our lives new perspective.
Intention...sets the stage for our actions. Envision the kind of person you want to be, and make it your clear and firm intention to practice whatever skills and attitudes will help get you there.
Joy...helps every journey, however long and perilous. Like gratitude, it can be found in the smile of a stranger, the smell of fresh …
Schweitzer’s quote seemed especially timely given the arrival of the Thanksgiving holidays and this year’s rare convergence of Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.
Both holidays are celebrations of religious freedom and of survival against all odds. Both remind us to be grateful to be alive and to have food on our table, since not everyone on our planet is so lucky. That being said, expressing thanks is both a universal urge and a crucial strength that can be cultivated, not just at Thanksgiving but on any day.
The world’s religious teachers, ancient philosophers, and indigenous people have spoken about the importance of gratitude for over a thousand years, seeing it as an important virtue to be cultivated and practiced. In religious traditions, the saying of grace before each meal is a way of thanking God for the food on your table.
Most parents teach their children the “magic words” of saying “please” and “thank you”. We have always known intuitively that grateful people seem to be happier with their lives and also more able to confront life’s challenges.
The More the Better
Scientists were latecomers to this awareness. Only in the past ten years have researchers started to take a hard look at exactly how and why gratitude leads to increased health and happiness. Now, a growing body of research is emerging that verifies not only this but much more.
Psychologist Robert Emmons from the University of California at Davis is one of the prominent researchers on gratitude, now conducting highly focused, cutting-edge studies on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its consequences. Many other researchers are following suit.
They have found that gratitude helps boost the immune system and is in itself a form of stress reduction. We are also learning that adversity can, paradoxically, bring an increase …
“To use fear as the friend it is, we must retrain and reprogram ourselves. We must persistently and convincingly tell ourselves that the fear is here–with its gift of energy and heightened awareness–so we can do our best and learn the most in the new situation.” ~Peter Williams
Barely a week goes by these days without some mention of the skyrocketing rates of anxiety in our culture. Drugs are offered as a quick fix but they come with a price. As discussed in a previous blog, most psychotropic medications like Xanax and Valium are highly addictive, and can be very difficult to withdraw from.
In the psychotherapy research, the use and benefits of various cognitive behavioral therapies have been widely proclaimed as the answer. New research from a team led by Elizabeth Phelps, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, now demonstrates how there can be a bit of a slipped cog in cognitive methods. Published last month by Raio et al. with the provocative title, “Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test,” this new research got my attention.
What Is Cognitive Emotion Regulation Anyway?
Cognitive emotion regulation is a fancy term to describe managing one’s feelings by deliberately thinking about them in more helpful ways. For example, millions of people override their fear of flying by reminding themselves that travel by plane is far safer than travel by car. Cognitive therapy teaches consumers to question their fear-inducing beliefs and to substitute them with more accurate appraisals, and these tools have been widely shown in the laboratory to be effective in altering the nature of our negative emotional responses.
However, what this newly published study demonstrates is that even mild stress can derail the ability of someone to use these otherwise effective weapons when they most need them–in real life. “In other words, what you learn in the clinic may not be as relevant in the real world when you’re stressed….Our results …
There is a movement afoot across the planet. Since surfacing in England only a year and a half ago, news has spread from Europe to cities in America, Canada and Australia. Who would have thought that so many people would be so eager to talk about death–but they are.
Since the beginning of recorded history, people have come together with other members of their tribe or village to discuss matters important to the progress of their community. Tribal councils, town hall meetings, Greek symposia, European salons–all are examples of forums designed to give citizens a voice. Many ideas and movements for social change or personal transformation have been born in these types of gatherings.
“There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you’re lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.” -Author Philip K. Dick
It will probably come as no surprise that I have been writing since I could put pen to paper–that’s my bias. That being said, I’m not sure what I would have done without it. In my teen years and early adulthood when I would never (and did never) set foot in a therapy office, I created a safe space in my journals to express everything I couldn’t talk about. Years later, when I began my journey of self-exploration and healing in early adulthood, I was able to reflect with new eyes on everything I had written. What had I learned, if anything, and what was I supposed to learn from the lessons life was giving me?
If you are not in therapy because you don’t believe in it, can’t afford it, or it’s against your religion, writing may help you. If you are in therapy, writing may help you deepen your experience and make yourself the hero of your journey. If you are a parent, and want to know how to help your child deal with the recent traumas from Boston or Newtown, here are some ideas. What is the story you tell yourself about your life and what do you want it to be?
There is now a considerable body of research showing how powerful it can be to …
“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
The wish to seek and have a deep sense of family connection and commitment is universal. Ask people what is most important to them and their first answer is always the same–their family. Our families give us a sense of identity and belonging, reminding us of who we are and what is unique about us. They are also the context, the garden soil, out of which our individuality flowers. The metaphor of a garden is an apt one for many reasons. All over the world, there are gardens of vastly different designs, planted at different times, at different stages of growth and decay, with different types of plants. In spite of the fact that no two are alike, all gardens have some common needs–sunlight and water, planting of seeds and cutting back weeds. In short, for a garden to flourish, it needs tending.
What gives families a strong sense of connection? The answer is so simple even though often so difficult to do. We must spend quality time together, or if separated by geography, spend time communicating. Only by making the time to share the details of our daily lives as well as our successes, hardships, dreams and disappointments can we reap the rewards of our intimate bonds. Twenty-first century families are more isolated than ever before. With both parents working more hours than ever and with the demands of work infiltrating family time via computers and cell phones, most everyone we talk to complains about the same thing. There’s just not enough time!
“Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, …
Each January, when the next year unfolds, we are bombarded with articles on goal-setting and New Year’s resolutions. Many of these otherwise helpful articles fail to mention just how difficult it can be to change- especially when tackling old time worn habits. Often we need to be hit in the side of the head with a two by four (metaphorically speaking) before we get up the courage or willingness to address our problems.
As Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, says so eloquently,”The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” If your goal is to create a happy family or have more fulfilling relationships, don’t wait for a crisis. Instead, start with small steps, and make tiny changes one day at a time.
If you want to laugh and think and be inspired about how uncomfortable change can be, watch or re-watch the movie Groundhog Day, made in 1993 with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. The movie is about Phil Connors, a weatherman who is the proverbial “glass is half empty” kind of guy. Phil is self-absorbed, sarcastic, and unhappy. In an odd magical turn of fate, he keeps repeating the same frustrating day, which just so happens to be Groundhog Day, over and over and over again, trapped in a time loop.
Like all the rest of us with our own repetitive tapes of self-defeating behaviors, Phil is doomed to remain stuck if he keeps doing the same thing. On the other hand, if he changes, people will respond to him differently, and new opportunities and realities will slowly but surely begin to emerge. Watch the movie with your …