How to Create Freedom? Embrace Limitations.

Life is so full of paradox, isn’t it?

My entire life, I have done my best to deny, run from, and rebel against limitations. My hippie parents taught me that the rules didn’t have to apply to me, and I still sometimes find myself believing in the fallacy of that sense of entitlement. I’ve always looked for ways out of the grindstone, and I have often found them.

I dropped out of high school after my junior year, took some time off to party and work and party some more, then I went directly to college. I’ve taken many extended vacations to travel and “find myself,” and my family repeatedly gave me a place to stay while I got back on my feet financially after each of these extended leaves. I didn’t experience consistent rules and consequences as a child, and learned to walk all over my mom as a result.

When I finally got my driver’s license at the age of 18, I learned that if I ignore tickets, they get bigger and bigger, and they turn into arrest warrants. This was when I began to learn that the rules do in fact apply to me. Still, I continued and continue to look for ways out. How can I support myself, make good money even, without having to work a grueling 8-5 job? How can I make a lot of money working just a little? How can I manifest a permanent vacation? I know it’s possible, and I am just the special person who will figure it out.

Not.

The longer I live, the more experiences I have that teach me the responsibilities continue to grow. More and more people grow to depend on me. What I considered stressful 10 years ago would feel like a vacation now. I’ve come to accept this little by little, yet I still fight it at times, in subtle ways, like in my habit of always running late.

Cut to an EMDR training I attended last weekend. Trainings are great in a therapist’s world, because not only do we learn new skills to help us become better practitioners, but we also get therapy in the process. We practice on each other, which is awesome, scary, and exhausting.

I can share more about EMDR at a later date if requested, but right now I just want to share my process as it relates to this post. As the “client,” my job was to come up with some kind of stress or trauma trigger that is current in my life. I chose the recurring experience of driving in traffic while running late. I create this scene in my life A LOT, and I am so over it.

The process: track my “therapist’s” fingers with my eyes as she moves them quickly side to side in front of my face while I hold the mental image, feelings, and negative belief about myself that correspond to driving in traffic while running late. After each set, describe what I see, think, or feel, “go with that,” and continue sets until I come to a place of resolution (or run out of time). Sounds strange, I know, but the shit works, and is evidence based to boost.

This process took me all over the place, from issues with my parents, to core issues with myself. Basically, it took me to the root of why I tend to run late. Here is an abbreviated version of my mental movie stream of consciousness: Running late, yelling at myself in my head, I’m a bad person, I always do this. That critical parent part of me yelling and the small child cowering in a corner. The rebellious adolescent popping up, yelling back at the critical parent, this is all bullshit. Fuck limitations anyway. I don’t need to deal with any of this. Tired. Don’t want to fight. This isn’t the way. Maybe this inner critic, that looks and acts like a monster has something valuable for me to learn, and I should try to listen. Don’t want to. Try. Try. This monster wants respect. This monster is here to teach me about limitations. Limits are real, and they do apply to me. I can be friends with them. When I work with them, life is better. I have more choices and mobility. This part of me that wants to throw them off and be on permanent vacation is dead energy. I thrive when I honor my commitments. Running late is how I try to deny limitations. That is dead energy. Life is less stressful, more relaxed and free, when I give myself extra time, when I respect and honor limitations.

I am an alchemist. I can manipulate limitations and create freedom. I am part of this web of life, but I am not trapped in it. I can move all around. It is a sacred honor to be responsible to others, to have that trust placed in me. And I am not alone. I can let go, and let others support me and help me. Limitations have to do with being connected. Rebelling against them is actually antisocial. Life is a dance of shared responsibility. I want to be responsible and I can still rest. Interdependence.

By respecting and learning to manipulate limitations, I become a magician, creating exactly what I want in my life. I build skills, which brings more cash flow into my life, which gives me more mobility and freedom. I can do all of this in an effortless manner, because I have support just as I undertake the joy of supporting others.

So you see: the paradox of limitation and freedom. One does not attain freedom by shirking off the limitations. One attains freedom by diving into the limitations, getting to know them intimately, weaving one’s own web of interconnectedness.

And so it goes. 

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How to Support Loved Ones in Grief

ImageGrief: an experience that many of us don’t know what to do with or how to react to when we come in contact with it. Before my recent experiences with grief, I really didn’t have much of an idea of how to support others in grief. I had my therapeutic training, but that only goes so far and doesn’t always translate to being there for loved ones. It seems to me that in Western culture, at least in the U.S., we are so far removed from the concept of death that we become extremely uncomfortable when it touches us. For this reason, I wasn’t surprised when many of those close to me had no idea how to support me in my grief after the loss of my mother. For those that did give me support that worked, I was pleasantly surprised. For those that didn’t, I mostly understood.

Below I have compiled a few pieces of advice for those close to someone grieving. These are things that did and didn’t work for me while I was (and continue to be) marching down the grief highway. They may or may not be true for others!

  • Do call and check in regularly. Ask if I need anything, including practical things like food or childcare. Keep calling after the loss happens. Keep checking in and offering help, regardless of whether or not I call you back. Don’t expect me to call you back. Hearing your voice and knowing you are here for me is worth so much, even if I don’t respond to you.
  • Don’t say you “can’t imagine” what I am going through. I know I’ve been guilty of saying this to people before I experienced major loss in my life. Having now been on the receiving end of this one, I can see it really doesn’t help. For me, when I heard this, I felt isolated and separate, as if I was going through it alone.
  • Do express to me your understanding that death is a natural and normal part of life. A friend of mine simply said about my experience, “We are all going to experience that.” Even though he hasn’t experienced it yet, and maybe can’t imagine it, I felt his solidarity with my experience. I felt supported.
  • Do share your grief stories with me. This has been one of the most valuable forms of support to me. Seeing other people who have come out the other side of grief helps immensely.
  • Don’t pay me unexpected visits. Give me space to be in my cave. Call if you want to visit, and wait for my response.
  • Do show up for me, especially if you are a close friend. I was really dismayed that a person I had considered one of my closest friends barely acknowledged the loss I experienced, and simply did not show up. I even confronted her about it. She promptly apologized, explained herself, and then continued to not show up. I was especially disappointed because she is one of the few people I know close to my age who has lost a parent, and she is someone I have felt very comfortable with in expressing these difficult emotions in the past. I can only guess that she either A) hasn’t dealt with her own grief around the loss of her father a few years back and is therefore not comfortable showing up, or B) is not as good of a friend as I once thought she was. I haven’t felt very compelled to reach out to learn which one it is. Okay, excuse the rant! Any feedback will be appreciated.
  • Don’t give me the sad face the first time you see me in passing after the loss. Seriously, this is the worst. I’m at the grocery store, in a great mood, weeks after my mom died, her death being the last thing on my mind at the moment. And there is my friend, who sees me and immediately associates me with all things tragic. The overly concerned, “How are you?” Well, I was just great, until I ran into you! I am absolutely sure I’ve done this in the past. I remember bringing it up to a friend who’d recently lost her dad the first time I saw her out at a concert after her loss, and she told me straight up not to talk about it. Understand, with grief come myriad emotions. It is not just about depression and despair. For me, there has been a surprising amount of joy in the release of my mom’s spirit. So, don’t project your idea of what grief is onto me. Instead, when you see me, greet me with an uplifting smile. Let me know how happy you are to see me. Tell me you heard about my loss and are available to talk or help out in any way. Pay attention and respond to my response. If I just nod and smile and say thank you, move on to the next subject.
  • Do share your memories with me. In the time of my mom’s passing, family and friends gathered together on several occasions. It was such a treat for me to hear stories about my mom from those in her generation, stories I had never heard that helped me get to know her in ways I never did before. Another extended family member sent me old pictures of my mom. These stories and mementos are such a sacrament, like healing salve on an open wound.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Please gift us with your contribution to this list, because I know that everyone has a different experience with grief. Thanks for reading!

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How to Change Habits

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I’ve got quite a few habits I’d like to change, and it’s been on my mind a lot lately. From daily actions I take that harm me more than help me, to automatic thoughts that limits me in major ways, I have plenty of room to grow and change in positive ways. My inspired quest right now is exactly this: how do we change habits in a lasting way? Here’s my brainstorm so far:

1. Mindfulness meditation. This works especially for unconscious, compulsive actions or automatic thinking habits. We keep engaging in habits that don’t serve us because we are not thinking. It’s routine. It’s what we know and find comfortable. It’s a pathway that has been carved in our brain that is of least resistance, much like a river that cuts a pathway through rock and earth will not flow any other way unless a dam is built and a new pathway is carved. This takes a lot of work! Mindfulness meditation can help us wake up from the trance of habitual thinking and action. With practice, we can start to notice the moment we make the decision to act on a habit, or the moment a thought arises that does not serve us. If you want to know more about mindfulness meditation, ask me. It will inspire me to get off on my butt and write!

2. Monitor and change behaviors. This includes several steps.

  • Choose the habit you want to change, and state the habit you want to create positively. For example, instead of, “I am not going to eat crappy food,” you would say, “I am only going to eat healthy foods.” This is important, because your brain follows your thoughts, so if you state what you are NOT going to do, your mind will be more likely to fixate on the forbidden than to focus on the positive change.
  • Commit to creating this new habit. There’s no room for half-assed goals here. You need to make a decision, and it needs to be definite.
  • Consider accountability partners.
  • Break down the practical steps you need to take to actualize the change into your daily life, and make these steps measurable goals. Create a schedule to support these changes. For instance, if my goal is that I want to exercise more, I need to decide how much more, and what I need to do to make my schedule accommodate this. I will then have a definite plan, and it is more likely to become routine. Guess what? Routines become habit!
  • Track your progress. Keep a note of it in your scheduler. Check in with it every day. Feel good when you see yourself doing it more and more.
  • Reward yourself as you meet your goals, that is, if changing the habit and meeting the goals is not reward enough itself!

3. Take it deeper. Sometimes a purely behavioral approach doesn’t work. This is generally because we did not truly commit or because we have deeper work to do around the habit we wish to change. Here are some ideas that you may find fruitful:

  • Examine resistance. A lot of times when we try to change habits, resistance comes up. Looking at this resistance may give you some clues to the deeper issues that may be present.
  • Look at the underlying needs. People engage in bad habits to fill needs that are not being filled in other ways. Ask yourself what is the need you are meeting in engaging in something that you see as unhealthy. Find another way to meet that need.
  • Be compassionate and allow yourself to cheat at times. Rigidity can create a narrow black and white view that makes change impossible. Create some space for yourself to make mistakes. Let yourself breathe, relax, and refocus.
  • Go deeper still. Changing habits can bring core issues to light. Spend some time exploring these issues if you feel they are ripe for healing. Journal. Talk with a friend or counselor. Dream on it. Take time to truly tune into yourself. You are so worth it!

I’ve got a list of 9 new habits I want to create. Now I just need to choose one and take some of my own advice. What about you, readers? Do you have any useful strategies for changing habits that you can share?

7 Ways to Heal from Stress and PTSD

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the damaging effects of chronic, overwhelming stress. Today, I will follow this up with some ways I learned to heal from these conditions. This all came from a very informative PTSD training with John Preston, Psy.D.

1. Hold and be held. Particularly with babies, tactile stimulation does wonders. In one study, a control group held babies for two hours a day while an experimental group held babies for four hours a day. After six weeks, the babies in the experimental group cried 43% less. This applies cross-culturally. Babies who are held more are least likely to develop PTSD or hypercortisolemia. While the first year is so critical for lifelong brain development, I don’t think human touch ever becomes less essential. Sure, maybe we don’t need four hours a day, but hugs, cuddles, and massages go a long way.

2. Medication. I am not one to believe in going straight for the magic pill, but there are several medications that can be helpful if you are feeling very overwhelmed or out of control. Several types of medication can activate Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which strengthens neural pathways and can protect the brain from damage by extreme stress. All antidepressants activate BDNF (this is their one common denominator). Others that can be used for this purpose are Lithium, Depakote, Tegratol, Lamictal, and Seroquel. And guess what? Omega-3 fatty acids are also neural-protective. If you think you may need medication, of course talk with your doctor or psychiatrist.

3. Movement. Exercise also activates the neural pathway protector BDNF. It increases seratonin levels as well. Much of the feeling of PTSD is that of being “frozen.” Movement of any kind can immediately snap one out of that feeling.

4. Make choices that increase safety and structure in your daily life. In events of trauma and abuse/neglect, a common theme is powerlessness. Looking at brain chemistry, BDNF decreases when an individual experiences perceived powerlessness. Of course, it is not possible to always be in control of one’s circumstances, but it is possible to make choices that increases the chances of safety. It is also possible to have a regular schedule that increases predictability in your daily life. This will help. If this point interests you, look into the Seeking Safety program.

5. Mindfulness-based stress reduction. I love this one. It is a form of meditation and  consists of simple exercises one can do  to increase one’s mindfulness, which strengthens the brain and increases one’s ability to have control over where attention is placed. There is a lot of good science out there showing that this stuff really works.

6. Facing fears. The act of facing fears actually increases the frontal lobe’s ability to dampen down anxiety. It also gives one a restored sense of self-efficacy and control. When I am at my best, I try to face one fear every day. it is amazingly uplifting.

7. Exposure therapy. This can be useful for people who have been traumatized and feel strong enough to face their trauma. It is one of the most common therapies used for PTSD. Research has shown that exposure therapy strengthens the Arterial Cingulate (AC) and expands neural pathways between the AC and amygdala (remember the top-down control dampening down the anxiety/arousal I talked about last time?). Being able to look at the traumatic event while calm and centered in the present gives one the ability to handle stressful situations more effectively. It also minimizes the effect of the trauma. However, this needs to be executed carefully. An individual needs to learn emotional management skills before he/she begins this work in order to avoid re-traumatization.

Hold Me Accountable to Myself, Please

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Meditation (Photo credit: atsukosmith)

I’ve been running like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland lately. Between studying for my LCSW exam, parenting, working, and keeping up with my social life, I haven’t been allowing myself time to write. More importantly, I haven’t been allowing myself time to take care of myself.

When I don’t take care of me, I tend to get grumpy and melancholic, and I find myself talking to myself in a whiny voice a lot of the time. I get into this victim, “poor me” mindstate, and I forget about how incredibly blessed I am.

When I take just a little bit of time to take care of myself, everything shifts. When I stop and think about everything I have to be grateful for, my whole perspective changes, and suddenly life seems to be so worth it; I don’t want to miss even one moment feeling sorry for myself.

I’ve decided to challenge myself. For the next three months, I am going to spend a minimum of 15 minutes a day meditating and/or doing yoga. I can skip days, but I need to make the time up within a week. This means I need to do a minimum of one hour and forty-five minutes of meditation and/or yoga weekly.

Breaking this down even more, I know I will engage in these practices at least twice weekly, because I simply won’t do this much time in one day. And another great point, if I start my meditation and/or yoga practice on any given evening, it is very, very rare that I spend only 15 minutes. See, the hard part is starting. The challenge is getting myself away from the infinite amount of distractions and bringing myself here, to this present moment. Once I am here, I don’t want to leave.

Tonight, for example, I spent 45 minutes. I did some simple leg stretches, then started working on some swan stretches (not using proper yogic names, I know).

I noticed a weird stitch in my lower back, so I started working on some movement I learned years (& years) ago in a class with a yoga teacher who incorporated continuum movement. Basically, this means I got into hands and knees position, and wiggled and swayed my spine and hips whichever way felt right. This is so simple, yet so powerful, because it gets your body out of its stuck places, out of its habits, and opens it up in new, delicious ways.

Then I did some hip shoulder stretching, lifting my arm up (elbow next to head) and wedging my hand underneath whichever shoulder was stretching, and massaging myself this way, underneath the weight of my body. Complete bliss, and…ahhh.

I then did some sitting meditation (after a brief break from comforting my screaming 3-year-old, who woke up feeling too hot or too stuffy-nosed or whatever). I tried this Happiness Meditation, by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Breathing in I calm my body.

Breathing out I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.”

I fucking love meditating. And when I don’t do it, I forget, and I think of it as work. But the really great thing is that the effort you put into and progress you make with meditation and yoga does not go away. When you come back, there you are, right where you left off. The wisdom you learn, you learn so deeply, and you naturally apply it to every aspect of your life.

Tonight with the meditation, I remembered something in a book I am reading about how one day for Brahma (the Hindu creator of the world) is 4 billion years for us humans. And I started to think of every second, and how teeny tiny that would be in this perspective. And then, I thought of some insects, who live to be just a few days old, and how maybe for them, in their experience, they have these incredibly long lives with a vast amount of experiences.

Gazing into the infinite also always brings up existential angst for me, but the smiling and the constant coming back to the present moment really helps with that. And the realizing that I need not fear loss and death, because, really I have nothing. I am a part of this cosmic dance, and I am in relation to other people, and I like to believe, or at least hope for, reincarnation, or something after death, in which I am still connected to my loved ones.

So, please, readers, help me on this journey. Hold me accountable to this practice. And join me, if you’d like. I would like, very much.

Perfectionism

I’ve been studying the Bible of treatments for anxiety and phobias lately (also known as the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook), for my work, but the thing I love about my job is how much everything I learn along the way can be applied to my life, or just about anyone’s for that matter. What I would like to share from that book, over a few posts, are the four personality traits most linked to the experience of anxiety. Tonight, folks, it’s all about perfectionism.

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“Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”  -Leonard Cohen

Perfectionism is all about having high sky-high expectations (that are never met), and the inevitable disappointment that comes from focusing on small flaws and mistakes. Perfectionists tend to become so critical, that they are not able to see the positive. Perfectionistic thinking leads to low self-esteem. You try sooo hard, but always fail (because of that one small mistake you made on the way to glory), and therefore are a good-for-nothing nobody. Perfectionists will also completely stress themselves out and often become completely burnt out, just trying to be good enough, constantly fighting this inner critic that will never be satisfied.

Sound familiar at all?

If your answer is yes, here are some steps for shifting your attitude. 

  1. Let go of the idea that your worth is determined by your achievements and accomplishments. That’s right, you are good enough, just being you, doing absolutely nothing at all. Say that to yourself now. “I am good enough. I don’t have to strive to be anything. I am inherently good and worthy.” Stop comparing yourself to others. We all have unique gifts and it only takes the right circumstance to bring them out. Consider this quote by Alice Miller, who wrote the Drama of the Gifted Child. “One is free from depression when self-esteem is based on the authenticity of one’s own feelings and not on the possession of certain qualities.” 
  2. Recognize and overcome perfectionistic ways of thinking. Get a notebook, and listen to the way you talk to yourself. When you hear yourself “shoulding” on yourself, write it down. If you hear yourself using all-or nothing thinking (such as, If I can’t do this all right now, I’ll never get it done.), write it down. Finally, if you find yourself overgeneralizing in a negative sort of way (I messed up, just like I always do, or I made a mistake, which means I can never ever do anything right.), write it down. After you have a good idea of the specific ways you beat yourself up, write down some statements that counter these negative ones (Everyone makes mistakes and learns from them. I did one thing wrong, but I did alot of things right; I will do the best I can; I don’t have to finish this all now. I can do part of it now, and the rest later.) Post these new, more forgiving statements where you will see them. Write them down over and over. Say them out loud to yourself, very slowly, every single day.
  3. Focus on Positives. Take inventory every day of everything positive you accomplished. Notice when you disqualify a positive statement, with a “but…,” and stop yourself.
  4. Stop magnifying the importance of small errors. Seriously, how important is it? Enough to lose sleep? Enough to drive yourself crazy? We all make mistakes. I make one at least every minute. Haven’t you heard the famous quote? “The road to success is paved with failure.” -Unknown
  5. Work on goals that are realistic. If you’re not sure what realistic is, do some reality checking. Talk to people around you. Ask them if it seems attainable to them. If you continuously set goals you fail to attain, it’s time to break them into smaller pieces and give yourself more time. We all have limits. Accept yours.
  6. Cultivate more pleasure and recreation in your life. My favorite!!! Perfectionism tends to make us rigidly focused on attaining goals, denying our need for unstructured time, and as a result, our luscious creative life-force becomes stifled. Who wants that? Not me. So, take a break. Make a list of things you like to do just because they bring you joy or comfort. Do one of those things every day!
  7. Develop a process orientation. That old cliche about the journey being more important than the destination? It. Is. So. True. If nothing else, remember this. Everything continuously evolves. There will be a-ha moments when everything feels perfect and clear, and then there will be challenging lessons. Mostly, there will be challenging lessons. Focus your hunger on the growth, the learning, instead of the finished product. You will be much more satisfied that way. You will be more content, more relaxed, and more accepting of your mistakes. I promise.