How I Became Radical: The Power of Acceptance

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers

My initial encounter with radical acceptance took place when I lay down for the first time on a yoga mat. Our teacher, Mari Gayatri, taught mindfulness yoga. She instructed us to follow our breath in and out and to embrace with equanimity anything that arose within us. She told us to internally name the thoughts, feelings and sensations that came and went. She said, to watch thoughts blow across the landscape of the mind, like clouds in a windy sky, and not grab hold or follow them.

I have to admit, that at first all this didn’t make that much sense to me. My mind was so busy, my gut so taunt with worry and fear, that following her instructions, even for a few moments, seemed impossible. This was a time in my life when things were falling apart for me and the ones I loved, and I blamed myself.

In the midst of trauma and loss, I scanned my mind constantly for some solution, some hope, some angle. I struggled and clawed at the reality of the situation and clung to the illusion that I could solve problems for those I loved. So how, I wondered, could I focus on my breath or allow thoughts to arise and fall away, when it seemed so important to hold on fiercely to every shred of internal dialogue, in case, in case, a rescue plan was to be hatched from one of these fragments.

But in spite of my confusion, I kept going back to Mari’s class, and over the weeks and months, began to get it. There would be moments on the mat when I could watch anxiety rise in my chest and watch it fade in intensity and then rise again more powerfully and then fade again. There were moments when I could follow my breath for a few inhalations and exhalations, find I’d gone away in my mind to ponder some dilemma, then notice that, and gently bring myself back. I began to loosen my grip a bit, began to let go of the delusion that I could somehow arrange things so they would turn out the way I thought they should.

This was the beginning of my radicalization, of making radical acceptance a central aspect of my life. Eventually, I learned to bring what I had experienced on the yoga mat into my daily existence. I learned to pause in the midst of things to take what Tara Brach, in her book Radical Acceptance calls, “the sacred pause”.

Brach describes pause this way, “A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving toward a goal…We may take a pause from our ongoing responsibilities by sitting down to meditate. We may pause in the midst of meditation to let go of thoughts and reawaken our attention to the breath. We may pause by stepping out of daily life to go on retreat or to spend time in nature….We may pause in conversation, letting go of what we’re about to say, in order to genuinely listen and be with the other person. We may pause when we feel suddenly moved or delighted or saddened, allowing the feelings to play through our heart…You might try it now: Stop reading and sit there, doing, ‘no thing,’ and simply notice what you are experiencing.”

Learning to pause, like adopting the stance of radical acceptance takes practice and it can be tough to wrap our heads around what accepting things just as they are really means. It often helps to start with what it doesn’t mean.

Radical acceptance does not mean we like what is happening. In fact, what is happening may be incredibly painful. But, when we can accept what exists rather than struggling against it we experience less suffering. Suffering it is said, is the naturally occurring pain of life, in the grip of non-acceptance.

Radical acceptance does not mean apathy. As Carl Rogers (the father of humanistic psychology) so aptly put it, accepting ourselves, including all the circumstances in and around us, really does open the door to the possibility of change. Once we have let go of rumination about the past, the woulda, coulda, shoulda’s, and released the anxious planning and plotting about the future, we are free to truly embrace the present moment, which is the only moment we have any real control over. It is in each of these present moments that the catalyst for change lives and breathes and has meaning.

Radical acceptance does not give us permission to act on the difficult emotions and urges that exist in all of us. On the contrary, acceptance and the ability to be with ourselves in whatever state we are in with compassion and tenderness, is one of the gifts of practicing radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is not something you do once. It is a practice. It is something we never truly master. We humans like control. We like to think we know. We like to believe we can purge ourselves of “negative emotions” and become fully healed and happy. But this is not the human condition. Radical acceptance helps us live with this reality and find peace and even meaning from the difficulties both inside ourselves and in the world at large.

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt – marvelous error! –
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Antonio Machado
Translated by Robert Bly

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Your Brain on Love

As far as the brain is concerned, the first throws of love are no different than the high that comes from heroin. In fact, when we fall for someone our brain goes into overdrive producing adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, powerful naturally occurring brain chemicals that put us in an altered state.

Dopamine creates a sense of euphoria and invincibility, and dulls pain. Adrenaline makes our heart pound when the beloved is near; while oxytocin (also known as the “cuddle drug”) bonds us with the one we love and makes us crave their touch, their smell and being near them. When we have sex, oxytocin floods the brain creating a deeper bond. Serotonin just fills us full of joy at everything about our new love.

During the first months of a love relationship the brain and body are washed in this delicious cocktail. It is the height of passion, the inspiration for love songs and poetry. It is one of the most awesome powers on earth. But, it also has its dark side. There are two significant dangers when we are in this state.

The first problem occurs when dopamine is at its most dominant in the first six to twelve months of a love relationship. At this time, we ignore, or more likely don’t even see our beloved faults. Red flag behaviors are often accepted and forgiven. Dopamine makes us blind.

The other major drawback to the dopamine rush is that some of us become addicted to it. We have all known people who just can’t seem to sustain a relationship past the two-three year mark, the time when the chemical balance in the in-love brain often shifts from dopamine dominate to ocytocin dominate. Or, if they are able to hang on in the relationship, they may tell themselves they’ve fallen out of love and begin to blame their partner, head to counseling, or try to reclaim those ecstatic feelings in affairs.

What these folks don’t know is that the transition from crazy in love to a more subdued but substantial love is the natural way of things. If we think about it, it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The first period is about bonding with mate. It’s a time when we only have eyes or time for each other. But, the next stage is designed to support and nurture the offspring that are the result of the first. It wouldn’t work very well for parents to be so into each other that they neglected their children.

It can be tough to accept that the euphoric state is temporary. We long for the high, for the sense of merging with the beloved, of losing ourselves in bliss. We think there is something wrong when this rapture fades into a steady comfort and profound sweetness. But if we believe that, we are wrong. A mature love sustains us when life gets hard, which it will. It is a love of choice, rather than of forces that seem beyond our control. It is a love that makes room for other love, of children, of friends, of meaningful work, or spiritual calling. It is a love that can survive illness, aging and separation.

So, enjoy the love you are experiencing, no matter what stage you are in, and if you are in the initial stages, take time for it to mellow and your head to clear before you commit yourself.

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Toxic Love: How to Identify an Abusive Relationship

Every week I listen to clients tell about partners who scream at them, who ignore them, who demand sex, who call them names or belittle their very being. Sometimes, someone even tells me they have been beaten or raped by the one they love. But all of it, the verbal, the emotional, the physical and the sexual abuse, are deeply damaging to both partners. They leave wounds that are difficult to heal.

So how can we know whether the relationship we are in is abusive or just stormy, toxic or simply passionate? Here are some of the warning signs of a toxic relationship.

• Toxic partners isolate their mates. They may restrict contact with friends and family. Some go so far as to move far away so that your resources and support is limited or non-existent.

• Toxic partners control or severely limit access to money. You may not be allowed to work, or are forced to give up your paycheck.

• Toxic partners undermine your sense of sanity and sense of yourself. They often tell you you’re crazy, or unstable, over and over, until some part of you begins to believe it.

• Toxic partners use threats to control. “If you leave you’ll never see the children again.”

• Toxic partners often yell or scream.

• Toxic partners use name calling, put-downs and shaming to undermine self-esteem.

• Toxic partners demonstrate their power by hitting walls, beating the dog or by breaking or damaging cherished objects.

• Toxic partners are jealous when there is no evidence or history of infidelity.

• Toxic partners do not allow for privacy.

• Toxic partners may demand sex or use force to obtain it.

• Toxic partners may say things like, “If you didn’t make me so mad, I wouldn’t hit you.”

• Toxic partners accuse you of being violent if you do anything to protect yourself.

If any of these warning signs sound familiar, you may be in a toxic relationship.

What to do:

Get help. If you or your children are in immediate danger call 911. Or, if you are safe right now but have identified your relationship as toxic, contact the Helpline 541-779-HELP and ask talk to an advocate at Dunn House, the domestic violence shelter. They can give you with a safe place to stay ( no matter your gender) resources to start a new life and support to begin the healing process.

Make a safety plan. Click here for a step by step guide.

Learn more about intimate partner violence and toxic relationships. Download the Power and Control Wheel and other helpful resources by clicking here.

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Breathe Away Anxiety

When we are anxious it is usually because we’re fixated on the future. What if? is the mantra. We fret and worry about all the things that could happen. We plot and plan ways to avoid catastrophe. But most of what we worry about never happens. Or, we are powerless to do anything about it. And so, we spend time and a great deal of emotional energy fruitlessly agonizing.

This behavior comes naturally to we humans. It is our evolutionary inheritance. Only our ancestors who were able to imagine the future and take precautions against hunger, predators and the elements were able to pass on their genes.

So, we are stuck with brains that become anxious very easily. Then, when we cultivate this state of mind, even stronger connections are made in the brain that reinforce anxiety and make it our go-to when we feel stressed or afraid. But, because there are no sabertooth tigers running around our neighborhoods and most of us have plenty to eat and a warm place to sleep, this adaptation doesn’t work so well for us in the modern age. Instead, it causes much suffering.

The good news is there are ways to reprogram the brain and create a greater sense of peace and well-being in our day-to-day lives. One of the most effective strategies is to use our breath to bring ourselves into the present moment and to reset the nervous system.

When we focus on our breath we are more able to be calm and mindful. We can leave behind the “what ifs?” and enjoy what is. Here are three of my favorite techniques:

1. Alternate Nostril Breathing: This is an ancient yoga technique that just about anyone can do. It is extremely calming and is said to balance the brain. Click here for a full description and how-to video.

2. Box Breathing: Begin by breathing out to the count of 4. Then hold the breath for the count of 4. Breathe in for the count of 4. Repeat. Continue until you feel centered and calm. The count can be customized. Some people prefer longer breaths, such as 7, 7, 7 or 5, 5, 5. There is an excellent free app for smart phones that walks you through box breathing and helps you set a breath length that works best for you. It is called Virtual Hope Box. It also contains many other helpful tools for coping with high emotion.

3. Calming Breath: This technique, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, has been touted as a cure for insomnia. Breathe in through your mouth for the count of 4. Hold your breath for 7. Breathe out for 8. Repeat 3 times.

These specific techniques are time tested. They work. However, it can also be effective to simply bring your attention to your natural breath. Here’s how:

Notice the sensation of the air coming in your body. You may feel a coolness at the nostrils as the air comes in and warmth as you breathe out. You may notice your chest rising and falling. If you are taking a deep breath, you may feel your abdomen expand. Just bringing your awareness to these sensations can be calming and is the basis for many forms of meditation. If your mind wanders while you are doing this exercise, just notice that you have stopped watching your breath, and gently bring yourself back to it. Don’t judge yourself. Just observe. Just enjoy being right here, right now.

Instead of a mantra of  “what if?” we can create a mantra that helps us focus the mind and let go of worries and emotions. Here is one I like:

Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky.
Conscious breathing is my anchor.

For more advanced breath work check out the book by mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hahn, called  Breathe. You are alive!

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Dont Let Fear Run Your Life

Your heart pounds. Palms sweat. Mouth is dry. Your stomach may feel sick or your thoughts race. You are experiencing fear.

Fear can be both ally and foe. It can inform us of imminent danger and help keep us safe. Or, it can paralyze us and make it impossible to live life fully and realize our potential.

So, how can we tell the difference between fear that is reasonable and valid and fear that stifles?

One effective strategy involves checking the facts. Fear thrives in the limbo of the unknown and unexperienced. Gathering information can reduce fear or eliminate it. For example, someone facing a divorce may be in a constant state of worry about their future until they see an attorney and gather the information they need to understand how divorce will really affect their finances and living situation. With that information they can take the steps necessary to protect themselves. Having facts doesn’t always eliminate fear, but it can make it more bearable by pointing us towards solutions.

Once we have facts, we can make more informed decisions. We can discern what is in our power to change and take action. And, we also understand what we must release because it is outside our sphere of influence. Letting go of things we have no power to control offers freedom.

Fear comes naturally to us all. Our ancestors relied on fear to keep them alive and so this trait has been passed down. Fear is generated in the oldest part of the brain where other instinctual behavior such as sex and anger are initiated. When we are stuck there it can be impossible to access logic. It is the part of us built to act quickly and think about it later.

Taking deep, mindful breaths, changing body temperature quickly, or doing something relaxing can move us out of the old brain and into the pre-frontal cortex where we can think more clearly and make more rational decisions. When experiencing fear, worry or anxiety, first, work to calm yourself.

To Manage Fear:

1. Breathe slowly and deeply. Take a hot shower or use a progressive relaxation exercise or yoga to calm the mind.

2. Face the fear. Avoiding what we are afraid of can reinforce the fear and paralyze us.

3. Check the facts. Gather information. Is your fear justified? In other words, is your life, health or well-being threatened in some real way. If so, take steps to keep yourself safe.

3. Decide what is within your power to change and, if possible, take action to improve the situation.

4. Choose to let go of things that are not within your power to change. Trying to control the actions or reactions of other people is often fruitless. If you are fearful about the consequences of another’s behavior, do what you can to protect yourself and then accept that we often cannot solve problems for those we love.

5. Letting go is not something we do once. It is a process that must be repeated over and over. Fear will return. Begin again by breathing deeply and slowly.

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Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work and What to Do Instead

This is the season when many of us are taking stock of our lives. The Christmas holiday and another year is behind us and the new year looms with all its promise and possibility. On New Year’s we may make resolutions, to lose weight, stop drinking, follow a budget, spend less time watching television and more time learning Spanish, focus more on our primary relationship, communicate more effectively or look for a better job. But most of us will fail in our attempt to let go of old habits and begin new ones. Why is it so hard to change and why don’t New Year’s resolutions work? It all starts in the brain.

Anything that we have done over and over again has created a strong neuropathway. The saying goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” What this means is that over time our habits have created powerful connections between neurons in the brain that make doing what we have always done more comfortable, easier, than doing something different.

It is as if we have taken a walk in the woods every day and stayed to the same trail. Eventually that path has become very easy to follow. There are no branches or brambles in the way and no grass growing where we walk. The path is clear and well-trodden. Changing our behavior and thus our neuropathways is, at first, like bushwhacking a new trail through the forest. There is brush to clear and weeds to pull and if we aren’t consistent the branches and weeds will quickly grow back.

So, changing behavior is a process. This why resolutions don’t work. Making a decision to change and expecting yourself to just wake up the next day and do things differently is denying the powerful pull of the well-worn trail in the brain.

So what does work if you want to change behavior?

1. Taking small steps towards a goal works much more effectively than an all or nothing approach. This is called shaping. For example, research has shown that a strict diet which totally eliminates certain categories of food almost always fails in the end. After some initial success, we feel deprived and go back to old eating habits. We tell ourselves, “Well I’ve already blown it, so what does it matter?” A more effective approach is to gradually reduce portion size and keep healthy, low calorie foods within easy reach and high calorie foods in a place that requires some effort to access.

Simply taking a few potato chips out of the bag to eat, putting them in a small bowl and then returning the bag to a high shelf, can help deter over-doing it. It is like placing a log across the well-worn path in the woods. Yes, we can still scurry over it, but chances are the new path looks easier, so we are more likely to follow it.

2. Research has taught us that what is within easy reach is what we will gravitate to. So, if you want to learn Spanish and watch less TV, hide your remote and put your Spanish text next to the chair you sit down in regularly. If you want to go for a run in the morning, put your running clothes out the night before right beside your bed. Make your new behavior the path of least resistance.

3. Reward yourself. Small rewards can help reinforce behavior. Something as simple as making a check mark on a calendar or crossing something off a list can be rewarding. For dieting and exercise, tools such as My Fitness Pal, an app for smart phones, can also help reward your efforts, by recording what you eat and your activity level. Devices you wear that track number of steps taken throughout the day have also been shown to be helpful in increasing activity levels. Rewards don’t need to be elaborate or expensive, they only need to be consistent and give you a tiny feel good boost of endorphins each time you engage.

4. Get support. It is often easier to accomplish something if you have a buddy doing it with you. Will you cancel if your friend is waiting at the gym to work out? Or, if the teacher you hired has given you Spanish homework, will you be more likely to follow through? If you are like most of us having another person involved will be motivating. Enlist a friend, colleague or family member to be your trail buddy.

5. Don’t give up. Changing behavior takes time and persistence. But the good news is that no matter your age your brain is able to develop new neuropathways that support new ways of being. You can blaze a new trail.

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A Dark Night of Healing and Hope

We are nearing winter solstice (December 21st) a day that will be the shortest in this cycle around the sun, a day with more darkness than light.

When I think of this celestial event it reminds me of the expression, “a dark night of the soul” and how our human experience can parallel the cycles of nature. When darkness comes into our lives it can be hard to remember the heat of summer or the lilt of spring. It can seem as if destruction and decay are the only things we will ever experience and that rebirth and growth, light and heat are impossible. And indeed, in the midst of winter’s cold, grey days, they are. But below the surface of things nature is preparing for the new and so can we.

In working with clients and in my own life, I have noticed that a time of turning inward to grieve, to reflect, to dream, to understand, to make peace, often comes before a burst of growth and greater well-being. We need the dark, quiet time for this underground work.

It can be challenging during the holiday season to pull back from the frenzy of doing. But because this time of year often brings up memories and loss, it can also be the perfect time to accept our own darkness and truly be with it in a way that heals and prepares us for spring.

To Honor the Night:

1. Let it be dark. Turn off lights and electronics for an hour in the evening. Savor the quiet. What arises inside you when things are damped down?

2. Light candles.

3. Write a letter to someone you have lost and express your appreciation for the role they have played in your life. Mail it by placing it in a book or special box.

4. Listen to contemplative music.

5. Cry.

6. Bundle up and go for a walk. Notice how trees and plants look this time of year. Remind yourself that though they look dead, they hold all the richness and splendor of blossoms and leaves and fruit within them.

7. Forgive someone. Forgive yourself.

8. Look at the stars.

9. Watch the sun rise.

10. Read a poem like this one by Mary Oliver:

 

Lines Written in the Days
of Growing Darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends

into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims for the world
be true?

So let us go on, cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

 

 

Remember, on December 22nd the days will begin getting longer.  Light will return. You can begin adding light to your life too. If you need help letting the light in, get in touch with a counselor, a supportive friend or family member or call our community helpline 541-779-HELP. 

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Redefining Family

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” Jane Howard

As an only child, who lost both of my parents by the time I was 25, I have long struggled with a sense that I struck out big time on the family lottery. By that age most of my family members were deceased or unavailable. I never met my father’s parents. They were gone before I was born, as was my maternal grandfather. The only grandparent I knew lived far away during my childhood and then appeared when I was a spiteful teen. We were never close.

There were no family reunions or holiday gatherings to shore up my sense of heritage or clan and the few aunts and uncles that survived were not part of my life. And so, I entered adulthood feeling alone.

I was often sad about this and saw myself a victim, particularly at the holidays or when others spoke of family get-togethers. I imagined those folks spending summers camping and boating together and winters tucked snug in their homes telling stories around the fire and sipping cocoa.

It didn’t take long, however, for me to realize that these pretty ideas about other people’s families were probably unrealistic. I learned that it is rarely effective to compare the surface of other’s lives to the brutal clarity with which we see our own situation. I also realized that even though I didn’t have a family to call my own, it was possible to create one.

Some people call these creations “families of the heart”, or their “tribe” or “peeps” or perhaps, “a sister or brother from another mother”. These are people who feel like family even though we are not biologically related to them. They are people who are there for us and who fill some of the roles that a healthy biological family might.

My own mother created some of this. She found an older woman in our small town who sewed gorgeous ballet costumes for me and often invited us into her pink and white storybook cottage. Her home was filled with dainty figurines and I spent hours looking at them while she and my mother talked. My mom also found a family of untamed children for me to run amuck with. Karen, the oldest girl in this family, became a life-long friend and one of the few people still living who shares memories of jumping out of a hay loft into piles of sweet, new hay, or the precarious climb up the steep, muddy cliff to the rope swing at our swimming hole. She also remembers how Della’s Variety Store, where we went to by candy and prizes for the “carnivals” we were always planning, looked when it was filled with a thick haze of Della’s cigarette smoke. I am thankful there is someone who knows that skinned-knee-kid part of me.

But it wasn’t until I was grown that I began adding to my family of the heart myself. The first to sign on is a woman I met in group therapy. We were like oil and water at first. She, angry and adamant about her views, me, scared and judgmental. But through the deep work of healing together, we bonded. These days, 25 years later, we call ourselves sisters and she says she feels closer to me than to her own far-flung siblings. If I was hurt or in trouble, Cathy is one of the first people I would call. She has moved me…several times. I have cleaned out her drawers and painted her kitchen. We have cried over our kids and husbands and over the pace of life and how it all keeps slipping away. I was the one who told her she was being unreasonable in her marriage, and she confronted me when I needed to let go of one of my kids. We are truly family.

Then there is my congregation of moms. For the last ten years I have belonged to a women’s writing group in which I am the youngest member. It is made up of a contingent of powerful, sensitive, talented and engaged women, most of whom are old enough to have given birth to me. We sit around a big dining room table every week and share, not only our writing, but our lives, and when I’m with them I feel my deep need for the maternal satisfied.

As you can probably tell, I believe we can create family. If the biological clan we have been given is absent or toxic, it is possible to still have the sense of belonging and support that most of us want and need by building a family from the relationships in our lives that are healthy and deep.

Doing this involves a shift in consciousness. We have to let go of our preconceived notions about what “should” be and imagine what “could” be. We must be willing to grieve the void and perhaps the pain that our bio-family has left us with, and then become open to the possibility of a rich and satisfying new family of our own design. Richard Bach says it best, “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.”

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Appreciating Clouds: Year-Round Gratitude

Listening to the radio the other day I heard a man describe an organization he created called “The Cloud Appreciation Society” (Listen to this TED Radio Talk Here.)  He told about how he and a small group of people often took time to stop and admire clouds in all their billowy, feathery, transitory beauty.  That simple act brought them greater well-being and contentment. This reminded me of how taking stock of beauty, love, purpose and process can be a powerful anti-depressant. It is noticing that is the catalyst.

We don’t need to have material wealth to be thankful. In fact, after our basic needs for warmth, food and safety are met, more possessions usually don’t make much difference in overall happiness, according to folks who research such things. It is instead, the quality of our relationships and our ability to focus on the sweetness and beauty in life that determines mood and thus our sense of overall well-being. (Read about some of the research on gratitude here. )

But many of us only notice what is wrong. We may have a negative mental filter. This way of seeing the world and ourselves keeps out the positive and our attention stays on what is difficult, uncomfortable, anxiety provoking, or mistakes we or others have made. This keeps us locked in depression, anger, anxiety and fear.

One way to work with a negative mental filter is to pay attention to the clouds. In other words, look for and highlight the good things, the beautiful things, in your life. They can be simple. For example, whenever I go for a walk I think of how well my body still functions, how it moves me from point A to point B, and how much it has been through and yet keeps going.

Or it could be like yesterday, while waiting for my son in a grocery store parking lot. I watched the sun set in a burst of orange and gold striated clouds, and thought how lucky I was to catch those ribbons of color at a time when I had nothing else to do but drink it in.

When I step into a warm shower after a long, tiring day, I am grateful for the abundance of water I have at my disposal and how good it feels to stand under a warm cascade of it. And at night when I snuggle up against my partner’s body and hear the rhythm of his breathing, I notice how safe and how loved I feel and am filled with gratitude.

In this time of year, when we are asked to pause and celebrate Thanksgiving, it is also a good time to begin a year-round practice of gratitude. Being grateful on a regular basis just might change your life. Here are some ways to begin:

1. Be mindful. Notice what is happening around you and find something to appreciate. Really pay attention to all the details of what is happening, of what you see or what you are doing. Be in the present moment.

2. Keep a gratitude journal or list. Every day at the about the same time, take five minutes to write down what you are grateful for. You may be surprised at the power of this one small change in shifting your mood and outlook.

3. Say thank you. Express your gratitude to people you care about. Do it in writing, in person, by text. Catch your children being good. Catch yourself being good.

4. Share some of what is good in your life. If it is possible for you to write a check to an organization you believe in, do it. If not, find some other way to be generous. When we share, we feel more prosperous and sharing highlights the abundance in our lives whether it be money, time, talent or skill.

5. Make a choice to notice the positive in people around you. Yes, that irritating thing your friend or co-worker, or partner does will still be there, but what about the way he always wishes you a good day, or how she knows when to give you space and when to offer a hug. Pay more attention to those kinds of things.  Pay more attention to the clouds.

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Cloud Watching.

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Happy Holidays? Surviving and Even Thriving in the Dark Times

The winter holidays come in the midst of ever darkening days when long afternoon shadows and cold winds seem to whip up feelings and memories along with the shaggy leaves. The weather and the short, dark days reflect for many of us a season not of joy and celebration, but instead, a time filled with disappointment and even despair.

What is it about the holiday season that can be so challenging? And, what can we do to weather it with greater peace and even a bit of joy? Read on for ideas about the origins of our misery and steps we can take to survive and, yes, even thrive, this time of year.

Expectations
Happy smiling faces, a perfectly set table, children dressed in red sweaters, a sparkling tree with presents stacked high, friends and family sharing eggnog under the mistletoe. These and many more are the mythological images we are bombarded with at the holidays. The message: This is what it should look like. Yours doesn’t? There must be something wrong with you.

For many of us, our families, homes, finances and even our cooking, are not perfect, far from it. But, we often long for the mythological holiday, that has probably never really existed. Instead, our reality could be loneliness, loved ones lost to death, dysfunction or distance. We may be unable to afford presents or a tree, or are afraid of Uncle Bob’s tirade after too much eggnog. Comparing our situation in all its gritty reality to the mythological images in the media can be disheartening and thrust us into melancholy. Those pretty images can prime us with unrealistic expectations that are a set-up for feelings of failure and disappointment.

It has been said expectations are premeditated resentments. This is especially true during this time of year. Work to minimize expectations, and make those you have realistic. Create back up plans to call on when things fall through (which they will), and don’t rely on others to make your holidays special. Take control of the things you can and let go of the rest.

Celebrate Meaning
Whatever holiday you choose to celebrate, take time to reflect on the essential meaning it holds for you. Are you just going through the motions because that is what you’ve always done, or what others expect of you? Or, are you in touch with and honoring beliefs or traditions that have meaning? How can you make that meaning more a part of the celebration? What could you eliminate that does not seem to be consistent with meaning? What could you add that would make this time more meaningful and memorable?

Invest in Moments Instead of Things
For many of us, this time of year is full of high stress and harried schedules when there never seems to be enough time, energy or money. And while we are rushing around trying to create a perfect holiday experience, we often miss out on the very thing that could build relationships, positive memories and create well-being. We miss out on the moment happening right now.

It can help to slow things down, and when we limit our expectations, that happens more naturally. Take time to really be with loved ones. Listen. Laugh. Be in the silence. Breathe. Look around and find the beauty in whatever is. Count your blessings. Consider how you can create more opportunities for connection and relationship building.

What most of us really want is more love and attention, not more stuff. This goes double for kids, regardless of what they might say.

Create New Traditions
It can be painful when things change in our lives and cherished traditions are no longer viable. Divorce, relocation, death, estrangement or changes in finances can make upholding past traditions difficult. Make a decision to be flexible and creative. Create new traditions that fit current circumstances.

For example, one divorced mom decided that rather than argue with her ex over who had the kids at Thanksgiving, she would create a new way of celebrating gratitude. So, every year she held a harvest potluck and musical jam session two weeks before Thanksgiving. She invited all her friends and family and told her kids to do the same.

Eventually, this occasion grew into an annual event that took on great meaning for this family and the many people who participated over the years. They discovered that being with people they were grateful to have in their lives, eating, drinking and making music together, was a great way to honor gratitude and what day they did it, didn’t really matter that much. In fact, celebrating early meant they were able to share the experience with many people who otherwise would not be available. During the Thanksgiving holiday itself, this mom treated herself to a day of reading and relaxation while her children celebrated with their father. It was a win for all concerned.

Opt Out
Can’t find meaning in the holiday? Not sure why you’re doing it all? Sick and tired of the commercialization? Do what another family did and opt out. They decided together when the children were 7 and 10 they would spend their Christmas budget on travel instead of presents. They held a meeting each summer to decide where they would go and what they’d like to do and see. The kids were involved in planning and research. Together they made many wonderful memories on their holiday get-aways and never felt deprived.

Acts of Service
Another way to opt out is to make the holidays about service to others. This can create more meaning both for us and for those we serve. And, serving others often is an excellent remedy for the holiday blues. You might choose to buy a gift for a needy child, serve food at a homeless shelter or walk dogs at the Humane Society while other volunteers spend time with their family. Or maybe you just bake a pie and leave it on your neighbor’s doorstep (even if you don’t like him much).  They are many ways to help and they all get us out of ourselves and into meaning.

Self-Care
If you are rushing around, eating lots of sweets, not taking time to exercise, drinking more alcohol, worrying about how you will pay the credit card bill, and staying up late to wrap gifts or put together bikes, it can be a recipe for irritability, illness, anxiety and conflict. Now is the time to increase self-care strategies rather than letting them fall away. Get enough rest. Eat your veggies and be careful about alcohol consumption. Monitor your thoughts for negative self-talk and keep within your budget. And, remember, it will all be over soon.

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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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