Balancing Act: Serving Others Without Abandoning Ourselves

The last couple of weeks we have been discussing ways to detach from people we love who are causing us pain and living lives of dysfunction. We have explored the limits of helping and how in some cases helping can be detrimental both to us and those we love.

However, stopping long held patterns of behavior and changing the way we think about things can be difficult. Placing the focus on ourselves, our own lives, our own well-being, our work, our friends, our home, can seem selfish or wrong to those of us who have grown up believing that we could solve problems for people we love and that to be a good person we must give ourselves away.

Society often tells us we should sacrifice our own good for the good of others and in some circumstances that can be the honorable and effective thing to do. For example, as parents and grandparents we often sacrifice for our children and grandchildren. Or, we may care for an elderly relative. Problems develop when there is never a place for our own needs and when we, inevitably, come to resent the very ones we love and wish to care for because we have neglected ourselves and are empty.The answer is to find balance within our responsibility, to give but not give up ourselves.

Have you ever traveled on an airplane? If so, remember the spiel the flight attendants present about what to do if the plane loses cabin pressure and you are traveling with a child?  They tell us that oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling, and though our inclination may be to try to fit the mask on the child, we must instead place the mask over our own face first, so we can be alive and breathing and thus able to care for someone more vulnerable. The same is true in life. We must fill our own lungs: we must rest, we must be nourished, we must exercise, we must socialize, we must create, we must do work we find meaningful, if we are to also serve others.

Breathe. Take a deep breath. You are alive!

This poem by Mary Oliver has appeared in my blog before. Its message, offered in metaphor, can reach us at a level all this logic perhaps cannot. I offer it once again as a way to spur the journey towards balance.

The Journey
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life that you could save.

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Help Yourself: How to Cultivate Inner Peace When Someone You Love Struggles With Life

When people discover I am a mental health counselor they often tell me about family members struggling with mental illness or addiction. They tell stories of trying desperately to help, of money spent, of nights searching bars and calling hospitals looking for their sister, daughter, son or husband. They tell of despair, of hopelessness, of anger and resentment.

They tell about their own marriages falling apart due to the stress of trying to help, or arguments about how much to help and when to give up. They tell of losing savings and homes due to the financial stress of sending their loved one to treatment yet again, or supporting them when they make another attempt at sobriety or healing. They tell of visits to jail, to court, to the emergency room. They are often worn out by it all and feel very alone, as if their family is the only one going through such trauma.

But they are not alone. In fact, many families have at least one member who hasn’t been able to make life work. This fact is kept hidden by the stigma placed on mental illness and addiction. We just don’t talk about it. Instead, we labor on in silence and isolation trying over and over to figure out what to do. Shame keeps us silent. We may be ashamed of our family member and of our inability to save them. We may be ashamed that we could not control their behavior and choices. If we just knew the right thing to say or do, we think, then they would be ok.

However, there is often nothing more we can do for our loved one, and to continue trying to help only damages our own life and the lives of others we are in relationship with. In those cases, the best thing for a family member to do is to put the focus back on themselves, for this is where they actually have some control. This is not an easy thing to do if our focus has been primarily on another person. It requires commitment and practice, and the ability to detach from the person we have been trying to help in a kind and compassionate way. When we can do this it allows us to move ahead with our own lives and let go of the struggle. It allows our loved-one the dignity of making their own decisions and living their own life, even if their choices are not what we would want for them.

The practice of detaching with love is not something that is done once. It is a process that takes place over the duration of our relationship with our troubled loved-one. Over and over again we must make the choice to turn our attention towards our own challenges and joys rather than getting caught up in the drama of another’s life. What follows are guidelines that can help us navigate this process. They have been adapted from a pamphlet developed by Al-Anon Family Groups. Al-Anon is a 12-Step program for friends and family members of someone affected by alcoholism, but the principles they employ are useful to us all.

To detach with love we learn:
• Not to suffer because of the actions or reactions of other people
• Not to allow ourselves to be used or abused by others in the interest of another’s recovery
• Not to do for others what they can do for themselves
• Not to manipulate situations so others will eat, go to bed, get up, pay bills, not drink, use or behave as we see fit
• Not to cover up for another’s mistakes or misdeeds
• Not to create a crisis
• Not to prevent a crisis if it is in the natural course of events

Detachment is neither kind nor unkind. It does not imply judgment or condemnation of the person or situation from which we are detaching. Separating ourselves from the adverse effects of another person’s alcoholism, mental illness or other dysfunction can be a means of detaching: this does not necessarily require physical separation. Detachment can help us look at our situation objectively.
Detachment allows us to let go of our obsession with another’s behavior and begin to lead happier and more manageable lives, lives with dignity and rights. We can still love the person without liking the behavior.

Adapted from Al-Anon pamphlet #S-19

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When a Loved One Has Problems: Are You Helping or Hurting?

It can be incredibly painful to watch someone we love doing destructive things that damage themselves or others. And part of the pain we feel is often our sense of helplessness. Why can’t we figure out how to help the person we love stop drinking, or gaming, get a job, get out of bed, pay their bills on time, leave a terrible relationship? If we think of ourselves as smart, capable people it may make sense that we want to help our friend, grown child or partner. But doing so can have negative consequence both for ourselves and the ones we love.

Those of us who help and help again, who rescue and forgive over and over, often work much harder to solve our loved-one’s problems than they do. We may help without being asked and believe we know what is best. Melody Beattie wrote about this phenomenon in her groundbreaking book Codependent No More. She identified questions that can help us figure out if we are behaving in a codependent and therefore unhealthy and unproductive way. Take the quiz and then read on for ideas about the downside of helping too much.

• Do you feel responsible for other people’s thoughts, actions and feelings?

• When someone tells you about a problem she has, do you feel it is your duty to solve it?

• Do you swallow your anger in order to avoid conflict?

• Do you find getting more difficult than giving?

• Do you somehow seem to enjoy life more during interpersonal crisis? Have you avoided choosing partners whose lives seem to go too smoothly because you become bored?

• Do people tell you that you are a saint for putting up with something or someone? Does part of you enjoy this?

• Is it more tempting to concentrate on the problems of others than to solve difficulties in your own life?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you may be stuck in a pattern of rescuing and resentment with someone you care about. You rescue, they resent it. You rescue again, you resent it, and round and round it goes. This dynamic can go on for years and be detrimental to all concerned. If you think you are caught up in this behavior, understanding why it isn’t a good idea can be a first step towards change. Here is a list of some of the primary reasons why solving other people’s problems isn’t effective:

1. We don’t really know what is best for someone else. Often a person’s greatest growth comes from struggle and pain. If we always fix things for those we love, we rob them of the opportunity to meet life’s difficulties and learn from them.

2. We don’t have control. Trying to fix other’s problems means we focus our energies on people and situations that we have little, if any, control over. Ultimately we really only have control over our own choices and reactions.

3. They will become dependent. If we are successful in solving our loved one’s problems, we teach them to count on us, instead of themselves. We cripple them with the belief that they can’t do it on their own. They may come back again and again asking for, and then even demanding help.

4. They will resent us. Most adults resent being told how to live their lives. They may rebel, or become passive aggressive to avoid our suggestions, prodding, hints or overt demands.

5. It’s exhausting. Trying to run someone else’s life drains the energy we need to live our own life to the fullest. If we are always scheming and planning and manipulating to get people to do things the way we see fit, there is very little juice left for our own hopes, dreams and ambitions.

6. It makes us mean. The strain of trying to keep everything together for everyone eventually leaks out of us as anger and resentment. We may become reactive and say and do unreasonable things.

7. It takes a toll on our health. Trying to control others is extremely stressful and too much stress negatively affects many aspects of health and well-being.

8. Insomnia. Poor sleep is a common symptom of over-involvement in the lives of others.

9. We attract “users”. Those of us who come to care-taking and controlling naturally often attract people who can spot our soft hearts and ability to solve problems. These folks take advantage of us through manipulation, malingering and feigned helplessness.

10. It undermines equality in relationships. The person in control and the person they are trying to help are not on equal footing in the relationship. This is often a barrier to true intimacy.

Join me next week when we explore how to disentangle yourself from the codependency trap and begin creating a life worth living for yourself while giving your loved-one the dignity to make their own decisions and live the life they choose, even if it is one we would not choose for them.

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Do You Have to Be Crazy to See a Counselor?

Many people think that you have to be “crazy” or extremely dysfunctional to seek out the services of a mental health counselor. The truth is that most people can benefit.

Here are some of the best reasons to see a counselor

Manage anxiety. Everyone experiences stress and anxiety. In therapy you can learn ways to reduce the potency of stressful experiences. This improves both your emotional well-being and physical health.

Understand yourself. Sometimes our motivations and feelings can be mysterious. A skilled counselor can help you unearth the origins of your behaviors and emotions. Insight can lead to positive change.

Gain clarity about your purpose. What do you want out of life? What is meaningful to you? How do you balance freedom and responsibility? Counseling can help you discover what is truly important and help you focus your energies towards those goals.

Learn to grieve. Sadness is a normal part of the human experience. Counseling can help normalize your reactions to difficult events and losses and help you express and move through the darkness.

Develop new skills. Counseling can help you learn more effective ways to communicate, to ask for what you need, express feelings and understand the feelings and needs of your family and friends. You can create self-care strategies that include self-compassion and self-forgiveness. In counseling you can learn what healthy boundaries look like and how to stand-up for yourself.

Improve relationships. Many people wait until their marriage or primary relationship is in serious trouble before seeking help. But by then, it can be too late. Counseling early in a relationship or when problems first appear can help set the stage for healthy communication, create understanding of our partner’s personality and needs and help develop realistic expectations of the relationship.

How to Choose a Counselor

Find a good fit. Many practitioners offer a free 30 minute consultation. Take advantage of this by setting up appointments with two or three different therapists. Meet and talk with them about their approach to counseling and typical length of treatment for your situation. What is their training and experience? What are their strengths? How do they collaborate with others on your health care team?

Ask lots of questions. For example if you are interested in treatment for anxiety, ask your therapist if they provide an evidence based approach. (This is a treatment that has been researched and shown to be effective.) Ask how much experience and training the therapist has in providing the treatment you are interested in.

• Get recommendations. For example, ask your primary care physician, your chiropractor, family and friends to recommend a counselor. Ask them why they believe in that person’s abilities and how they know about them.

• Confirm eligibility. If you will be using insurance check to make sure the counselor you have chosen can accept your insurance.

• Ask about sliding scale. Many counselors offer a reduced rate to fee for service clients.

• Trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. While it is normal to feel some anxiety when beginning counseling, the counselor’s task is to put you at ease and build trust and rapport. If that isn’t happening consider switching to a different practitioner.

• Advocate for yourself. If you are not getting what you want from counseling but have developed a strong relationship with your therapist, ask for what you need. Most counselors will be happy you have spoken up and given them the opportunity to be more effective.

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Sleep Glorious Sleep: How to Get More of What We Need For Health and Well-Being

There is almost nothing that can make us more vulnerable than lack of sleep. When we are sleep deprived our ability to cope with emotions, solve problems and act effectively is drastically reduced. Everything seems more difficult. On the other hand, when we are sleeping well and feel rested we are happier and more satisfied with our lives, relationships and work.

In spite of this, many of us experience poor sleep regularly (up to 75% of us according to one study) and most of us don’t know what to do about it. Here are ideas for improving sleep and getting the rest you need to be at your best.

Body

Setting ourselves up for success when it comes to sleep, all starts with the body. If you are full of tension and have consumed a lot of caffeine or alcohol, or if you work on stressful projects right up until bed with no time to wind down, you are setting the stage for sleep difficulties. Instead, follow these guidelines to improve the chances of falling asleep and staying asleep.

• Limit caffeine use. For many of us a cup of coffee or two in the morning will not affect sleep. But caffeine has a long half-life, meaning it takes between eight to fourteen hours to clear our system. So, if getting to sleep is a problem, consider cutting back your daily consumption of caffeine. Eliminate caffeinated food and drink after about 2PM. Look for hidden sources of caffeine in soda, chocolate, tea, energy drinks and some pain relievers and weight loss products.
• Many of us drink alcohol to relax and it can make us feel sleepy initially. But alcohol also interrupts the sleep cycle and can cause mid-night wakefulness. Limit or eliminate alcohol two to three hours before bed.
• Are you tense? It is very difficult to get to sleep when we are wound tight. Use progressive relaxation (the slow tensing and releasing of muscle groups), box breathing, gentle yoga or stretching, or a soothing massage from a bed partner to relax the body.
• If you snore or wake up tired, even after a seemingly “good” night’s rest, consider a sleep study to rule out sleep apnea or other physical issues that may be impacting sleep quality. Consult your physician.

Environment

The sleep environment is very important. We have all heard of people who can sleep anywhere under any circumstances. But for most of us an environment conducive to sleep is a must. Here are some tips to make your sleep environment better.

• Make sure the room is dark and cool. Both temperature and light affect our ability to sleep. It is particularly important for the head and face to be cool as this sends a message to the brain to begin shutting down for the night. A cold mask or ice pack can keep the face cool. This can also work to reset the nervous system if you wake up and have trouble getting back to sleep. Make sure to cool the area around the eyes.
• Recent research has revealed that our exposure to light, particularly blue light that is emitted by computers, cell phones and televisions can interrupt circadian rhythms and the production of melatonin (the naturally occurring hormone that promotes sleep). Exposure also seems to be connected to many illnesses including diabetes and cancer.  Read the Harvard study here. So what can we do? Use dim red night lights instead of blue or white. Avoid bright screens two to three hours before bed. Get lots of sun or bright light exposure during the day. This will help you be more alert and improve mood, as well as increase chances for a productive sleep experience at night.
• Clean sheets can work wonders. Many people report they sleep better after they change the sheets. Try it.
• Don’t work or argue in bed. Keep the bed for sleep and sex only. Setting up negative associations with the place where we are meant to relax, unwind and experience pleasure can interfere with sleep.

Mind

Worry often causes difficulty when it comes to falling asleep or returning to sleep once we have awakened. It can be tortuous to lay in bed recycling all the things you wish were different in your life, our regret, failures and fears for the future. Most of us know that this rumination is fruitless. It is rare that a flash of insight or a problem will be solved during these sessions of anxiety. What can been done to silence the busy brain that won’t seem to let us rest? Here are some things to try.
• Learn to meditate. Many forms of meditation teach us to focus on the breath. When our mind is following the breath in and out it cannot be caught up with worry. When your mind wanders, as it will, just very gently bring yourself back to the breath.
• Do math in your head. Count backwards from 100 by 3 or 7. This technique keeps your mind occupied and allows worry thoughts to dissipate.
• Another similar strategy is to remember a pleasant movie from start to finish or revisit a happy day in your life and try to remember every detail.
• Use a “brain drain”. Keep a journal by your bed and write down everything you are concerned about. This lets your unconscious know that it does not need to hold onto these thoughts.
• Use a “God box”. Write down your worries and give them over to a Higher Power by placing them in a box or mailing them to the Universe in a book or other receptacle.
• Listen to a guided mediation.  Here is an example that works for many people.
• Read a calming or boring book until you can relax into sleep.

For more information read Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health by Michael Breus, Ph.D.

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What I Owe the Tango: Overcoming Fear, Finding Freedom

When I was a little girl my mom said I had stiff back. She reasoned this must be the problem since I had such a hard time doing somersaults and couldn’t stand on my head to save my life. Cart-wheels were out of the questions.

My mom on the other hand was five feet, two inches of athletic prowess. She played tennis, golfed, bowled and danced her whole adult life. As a child she flipped and cart-wheeled across the lawn, played field hockey with the girls and soccer with the boys. She was fierce and comfortable in her body. And, it, her body, was at her command. I remember watching her play tennis when she was in her fifties with twenty- something men, beating them all with finesse and ball placement.

Not me. I wasn’t good at sports and dancing was a kind of torture. I could never understand people who went out on the dance floor, closed their eyes and just let themselves move to the music. Dancing brought feelings of self-consciousness and sometimes even shame, if I happened to shake my booty in a suggestive way. The truth: I was afraid of moving my body, even of being in my body and preferred to live in my head.

So, it was life’s little joke that I married a man for whom dance came second nature, someone who had taught ballroom and performed with a dance company. We were mostly a solid partnership, but not when it came to the dance floor. There, we faltered, because of my fear.

After twenty years of marriage and several aborted attempts at dancing together, my husband finally took up Argentine Tango, alone. This sensuous dance often done in the closest of embrace, is a folk dance that originated in Argentina. It bears little resemblance to American Tango, with its grandiose movements and rose in the teeth bravado that seems to be focused on the audience. Argentine Tango, on the other hand, is a dance done while focused intently on your partner. It is improvised, and danced heart to heart.

I desperately wanted to follow him into this new hobby. I wanted the connection, joy and freedom I imagined him experiencing, and I wanted to share it with him. But, how could I get past my own internal dialogue that screamed: You can’t do that! It’s not safe! You’ll make a fool out of yourself?

The wisest part of me knew that if I wanted to extinguish my fear, I would have to confront it. If I wanted to dance, I couldn’t stay on the sidelines. In fact, one of the things we therapists know for sure is that when something is not life-threatening or even dangerous but we still have intense fear about it, what we want to do is avoid. Everything in us urges us to run away. But that is often the worst thing we can do. Avoiding the things we fear, only reinforces in the brain the miss-placed logic of our anxiety. Knowing this to be true is how I ended up sitting in my car, heart pounding, face flushing, stomach churning, as I contemplated going to my first tango class.

It was spring, still cold outside, though the trees were blooming and the sky clear that late March evening. But I didn’t notice any of that. Instead, I was focused on the sensations in my body. They were so intense it seemed I could die from them. And that’s the thing about fear, panic, anxiety, it feels dangerous. But my situation really wasn’t, and for most of us the things we fear are not going to eat us.

But, as I sat in my car that spring day my feet felt like lead. Ok, just pay attention to your breathing, I said to myself. I counted my breath and lengthened the out breath so that it took twice as long as my in breath and then three times as long. I felt myself down-regulate a little. Then, I looked outside and noticed the way the wind had picked up and a few clouds were pushing across the sky. Pink blossoms on the trees were backlit with rays from the setting sun. I felt myself coming into the moment. More breaths. Some self-talk, You can do this. What’s the worst things that could happen? I’ll be terrible. I’ll be embarrassed. No one will want to dance with me. Ok. Can you live through that? Yes! I won’t like it, but I can live through it. Ok. Get out of the car. Walk. Pay. Put on shoes. Smile. Move like the teacher says to. Breathe. Feel yourself relax a little. Listen to the teacher say this dance is a form of mindfulness practice. Say, “Ohhhhh. That helps.” Just be here. Feel your body. Move it. Hear the music. A partner? Ok. Feel his arms, his body. Breathe. Move. Breathe. Move. Repeat.

And that is how, eventually, I became a tango dancer.

My fear diminished considerably after that first class, but it took months of returning again and again for it to quiet to just a flutter in my heart that I now label excitement. And it has been worth it because tango has given me many gifts.

It is a practice, for those in the follow role, of being as fully present in the moment as possible. Since you never know what the lead will ask of you next, to be effective the mind must be focused only on the very moment you are in. In the times when this is achieved and I can respond seamlessly, there is a delightful sense of union and a sense of mastery over both my mind and body.

Tango also offers the opportunity to give up control within a safe and enjoyable context. For someone like me, with a life fraught with immense responsibility, this is such a relief. In the dance I turn over the major decisions to my partner and in doing so experience moments of pure freedom. I can turn off my busy mind and rest in his arms.

Through tango I have finally found a home in my own body. I think mom would be proud.

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What I Owe My Son’s Mental Illness: Another Dangerous Opportunity

I loved being pregnant. When I carried my first born inside me he was safe and I controlled everything. I ate healthy foods, never drank alcohol or even took a Tylenol. I took naps and tried to think positive thoughts. I just knew he would grow up to be beautiful, smart, talented, motivated and full of joy for life. I would make it so, or, so I believed. That’s not exactly the way it turned out.

Instead, I have a son who suffers from a thought disorder. For me, his disease has been another dangerous opportunity filled with both exquisite pain as well as fertile ground for my own growth.

One of the most powerful insights I owe my adult son’s debilitating mental illness is an understanding of my utter powerlessness in the face of a biological deck stacked decidedly towards schizophrenia. No amount of love, positive parenting or health food could overcome his genetics. Now, no amount of discussion or professional intervention can convince him that his reality is not real. And so far, nothing I, or anyone else has done can get him to take medication or seek treatment.

Understanding the limits of my power with my son has helped me also understand the limits of my control in terms of everyone I am in relationship with. I have learned that I do have some influence, but not any real control over others. And, in order for my influence to take root there must be willingness on their part. In fact, one of the reasons I become a mental health counselor was to help those who are willing, those who want to change. Practicing therapy gives me a place to put all the frustrated impulses to help my son.

Loving my son has taught me a lot about how difficult it is to practice loving unconditionally. We often throw off the term unconditional love nonchalantly as if it is an easy thing to do. But I have found it to be very difficult. How do I love someone who is so paranoid he sometimes thinks the money I give him is cursed, or that I am trying to poison him with a cup of coffee?

How do I stay aware of the sweet soul that lives somewhere behind his vacant eyes? How do I allow myself to feel proud of him just for doing his own laundry or still taking some pride in his appearance? It is definitely not easy.

The greatest help I have found in loving him unconditionally is to radically accept his condition and the limitations it places on him and on our relationship. This doesn’t mean I like it or don’t wish it could be different, but accepting it does shift me. When I can say,” This is my son. “and can accept that fully, I can love him. This is not something I do once. It must be done again and again. Over and over I accept what is, and in that acceptance the suffering loosens a bit. It is as if the hot coal I have been holding in a tight fist is released and rolls out of my hand. Yes, there is still a burn left behind, but the damage has ended.

When I was a young mother and still believed in my invincible power to shape my children’s lives I could be very judgmental. I just knew that if someone’s kid grew up to be an addict or abusive or a criminal that it was the parents to blame. So, one of the true gifts of my son’s illness is a lessening of this kind of judgment. It is sometimes true that parents mess their kids up and cause them to be dysfunctional. It is also true that kids can also damage their parents just as profoundly and that no matter how well they are parented they will still be self-destructive or disordered.

In my counseling office and in life I have met many people who endured indescribable abuse and yet became loving and effective people. I have also met people who were loved and nurtured, given boundaries and structure, and yet grew up to live lives of despair. There are several books that have helped me understand the misplaced blame often heaped on parents. If you are struggling with a teen or adult child and blame yourself for their struggles, but also feel you were a “good enough” parent, I highly recommend the following books:

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along by Joshua Coleman.

Of course, having a son who is mentally ill has had a profound impact on me as a counselor. My compassion for others struggling with mental illness has deepened, and I no longer feel afraid of people with thought disorders. The truth is that despite the way mentally ill people are depicted in movies and popular culture they are less likely that the guy next door to act out violently against another person. They are more likely, however, to attempt suicide, which bespeaks their own deep pain and suffering.

I owe so very much to my son’s illness, including a stronger instinct for my own survival and a fierce determination to protect my own well-being as much as possible. There was a time when I thought that if I gave up enough of myself, enough time, enough money, enough energy, enough love, enough compassion, then somehow I would make it ok for my son, somehow he would heal. But now I know that this is a long game and if I plan to continue to love and care for him, I must first love and care for myself.

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What I Owe: How I Grew Through Crisis

In the Chinese language the symbol for crisis has a dual meaning, both danger, but also critical-point, perhaps a turning point or opportunity. Indeed, crisis is often a dangerous opportunity. I have certainly found that to be true in my own life. For it is in the midst of despair, fear, loss, or a difficult transition that I am stretched and where my habitual ways of thinking and doing can come undone. It is in this undoing that growth can take place.

For the next few weeks I will be sharing some of the dangerous opportunities that have shaped who I am. I will speak about each with gratitude, because I see these experiences, which on their face, seem negative, as gifts, gifts that continue to provide great meaning and purpose. I owe them a lot.

So here goes.

What I Owe my Mother’s Death

This June 20th it will be 28 years since my mom died.

When she passed I inherited a certain amount of wealth. I wasn’t wealthy, but she left me enough so I could make choices I never would have been able to make if I had been struggling financially. So, one of the most obvious things I owe to her death, and to her success and generosity while she was living, is freedom, freedom to choose, freedom to make mistakes, freedom to find an avocation instead of just a vocation.

For example, when I went to college I took a wide variety of classes simply because I loved learning. I volunteered for organizations I cared about, traveled with my children and was able to give them an enriching childhood, filled with plays and concerts, museums, piano lessons and sports. Freedom has shaped my life. I am filled with gratitude for all of the choices I have had.

The second gift, one even more profound, was an abiding awareness of the fragility of life and of how quickly it can come to an end. This knowing has informed many of my decisions and priorities. People and moments have always been and continue to be the most important. I like beautiful things, but without people to share them with, they are meaningless.

My mother’s death also gave me an understanding of grief and the ability to be with others who are grieving, without fear. Though I understand that my experience will not always mirror another’s, going through my own protracted grieving process made me interested in books on grief, on processes for mourning and remembrance. It made me willing to be trained as a group facilitator for Winterspring, (an organization focused on helping people heal from grief and loss) and gave me the honor of witnessing the grief process of many, many people throughout the years.

Her death prompted a long period of spiritual searching and helped me become familiar with many different religions and philosophies. I have drawn strength from some, rejected others, but it was in the searching that I found acceptance of the mystery. Today, I can usually be with all that I don’t know or understand.

My mother’s death, though one of the great tragedies of my life and still painful nearly 30 years later, has been a dangerous opportunity. It has given me meaning, freedom, compassion, reverence for life and comfort with the uncomfortable reality of our mysterious existence. I am grateful.

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It’s a Shame: How to Understand and Manage It – Part 4

Shame often has a long shadow.  Even when we have worked to take responsibility and make amends, or to take a stand for ourselves and reveal our secrets in safety and acceptance, it can hang around and cause pain.

Healing and releasing our shame is a process that often takes time and patience.  In my work with clients and in my own life I have discovered several methods that help many of us through this journey. One of the most powerful is to find a way to transform shame into positive action.  For example, an abuse survivor might speak out on behalf of other victims or work towards greater justice or treatment options.  Becoming a volunteer for an organization like Dunn House, our local domestic violence shelter, or the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) might be good options.  The key is to find a way to make what we have experienced meaningful in some way by helping others, speaking our truth and working for change.

Another approach is to use our shame, guilt and grief as a catalyst for creativity.  We can forge art, music, poetry, story, dance or even a garden from it.  For me, writing has always been a way to heal and many poems I’ve written deal with secrets, with shame, with loss.  It has been transformative.  Not only do I reveal my secrets by writing and publishing them, but I create from the ashes of my shame something I find beautiful.

 Maya Angelou gives us a powerful model for how poetry can be used to throw off both personal shame and the shame imposed by a miss-guided culture.

 

Still I Rise

by: Maya Angelou

 

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

 

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

 

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops.

 

Weakened by my soulful cries.

 

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own back yard.

 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

 

I rise

I rise

I rise.

 

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It’s a Shame: How to Understand and Manage it – Part 3

What do we do when we feel ashamed and that shame is inspired by our authentic internal sense of morality?

The first step is to acknowledge, if possible, the error of our ways.  This means admitting our culpability.  Keeping secrets almost always makes shame grow, so finding someone you can trust and telling them can be transformative.  This is where a skilled mental health counselor, compassionate clergy or loving friend or family member comes in.  Let the cat out of the bag with a safe person.

Next, we can apologize for our behavior if appropriate.  Twelve step programs have this phase down pat.  For example AA members are encouraged to make amends to everyone they have harmed, and part of this is an apology.

But, apologizing is not enough.  Often, repairing the damage we have done is required.  In that case taking responsibility for our actions and doing our best to prevent future harm helps reduce feelings of shame while also possibly repairing the relationship.  A commitment to avoiding the behavior in the future is an essential part of this formula, as is accepting any consequences as gracefully as possible.

Finally, work to forgive yourself and let go.

Check back next week for ideas about self-compassion and forgiveness.

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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