Last weekend I heard live music and danced with my husband somewhere other than our living room, for the first time in 14 months. My weekends are filling up with out of town trips to visit family and friends, reunions I’ve anticipated since last summer. With vaccinations, relaxed COVID restrictions and a decrease in COVID cases, things kinda, sorta, feel normal.
These developments are good. What I’ve been dreaming of since last Spring. So why do I feel overwhelmed with my burgeoning calendar? Shouldn’t I be thrilled to jump back into life, doing everything and seeing everyone that’s been off limits the past year? I reflected on these questions, and garnered several insights to help me mindfully navigate the reopening of our country. I hope they may resonate with you as well.
Give yourself and others grace. We should always do this, but especially now. There’s no universal way to re-enter after over a year of COVID restrictions, but if we pay attention, we can discern the right way for us. Don’t be surprised if you’re experiencing fatigue, mood swings and possibly anxiety, after successfully enduring the worst of the pandemic. These are symptoms of the exhaustion phase of the stress cycle, which occurs after coping with a long term stressor. Often when the stressor is removed, or significantly decreases, the body and mind release their struggle, and we tumble into exhaustion.
If you’re fatigued, and less jubilant than you expected about the return to normalcy, don’t judge yourself, apply self compassion. Make choices that feel good for you. Focus on the basics of self care, plenty of sleep, regular exercise, healthy food, engaging in meaningful spiritual practices and spending time with loving people.
Have grace with those around you, and don’t judge their choices. Although we’ve all lived through the pandemic of 2020, each of our experiences were unique. Some had COVID. Some lost loved ones to COVID. Some relished the quiet. Others were climbing the walls. Some lost jobs and financial security, while others saw their businesses thrive. Honor what’s best for your well being, while respecting that others will do things differently.
Assess your priorities. A potentially life threatening situation, combined with more time to reflect, often crystallizes our priorities. Your health, and the health of loved ones most likely topped your priority list, but what other areas became more valuable during the pandemic? Nurturing relationships? Time in Nature? More flexible work schedules? Playing with your children? What activities were you mourning while staying at home? Which ones were you relived to be rid of? Make a list of your top 5 priorities, and use this as a guide as you resume more normal life. Do your best to ensure that where you spend your time reflects your priorities.
Personally, I found that solitude and writing time is a priority I haven’t honored enough in the past. I find it difficult to say no to invitations and to create time alone, which I often use to write. During the pandemic, I thrived with fewer evening and weekend commitments, and made substantial progress on my third novel. Now as my calendar fills up, I feel frustrated that my writing time is diminished. My focus, as I re-enter, will be to balance my priority of solitude and writing, with my priority of maintaining meaningful relationships.
Incorporate new strengths into your life. The pandemic of 2020 was an unprecedented event, and required us to adapt to manage these new circumstances. Reflect on how you adjusted to the changes. What strengths rose to the surface that you were unaware of? Did you become more adept at using your computer? Did you access your creativity to keep yourself or your family entertained? Did your compassion for others deepen? Did you create more self discipline while working from home? Once you identify a previously untapped strength, look for ways to nurture this as life resumes a more normal flow. If you’re having trouble identifying strengths, I recommend the VIA Survey of Character Strengths (click on questionnaires and chose this one).
The pandemic forced me to be more flexible than I’m comfortable with. I like a plan, and a routine because it keeps me in control, or so I thought. After transferring my counseling practice from in person to virtual in two days, I realized I can do things differently, without much planning, and still have control. I’d contemplated doing tele health from home one day a week, for almost 6 months prior to the pandemic, but never made it happen because of the what ifs; what if I couldn’t figure it out; what if no clients wanted tele therapy and so on. When I was forced to make this change, things were stressful for a short period of time, but I did it successfully. Even though more clients have returned to in-person counseling, I’ve continued to work one day a week from home, doing tele-health. Flexibility is a strength I’m going to emphasize as life re-opens. When something doesn’t work out as planned, I’ll focus on a new approach given the circumstances, rather than lamenting the disruption to my routine.
I challenge you to intentionally re-enter life this summer, giving yourself and others grace, spending time based on your priorities, and utilizing a strength you exhibited during the pandemic. None of us chose to spend 2020 like we did, but we can mine our experience for knowledge that will improve the quality of our lives.
When I began to focus on my spiritual and emotional growth 25 years ago, I soon realized that a barrier to achieving the life I wanted, was feeling unworthy. On my path I’ve been to counseling, read countless books, journaled, meditated, had silent retreats and been part of a women’s circle. The cumulative effect of my regular spiritual practices, and especially the influence of positive women mentors, has given me tools to manage my sense of unworthiness.
Being fed up, was not a step on any spiritual path I’d studied, but in retrospect, it was the first indication I was improving in this area. I became fed up with intimate relationships that drained my energy instead of filling me up; fed up with worrying about money; fed up with thinking about my weight all the time. Maybe we begin to feel worthy when we no longer accept the negativity in our life, and realize we have the power to change it.
Once I felt this way, I made a decision to release some of the negative patterns in my life. This required changes in my outer and inner worlds. I had to release the thoughts that “I’m not lovable”; “I never have enough money”; “My body is ugly and undesirable”. Well, release is probably not the best word, because these thoughts occasionally still occur, but I definitely give them less attention. At the same time I made changes in my outer world, like ending an unhealthy relationship, making smart decisions with budgeting and investments, and making healthy, moderate choices with my diet and exercise. When I let go of what wasn’t serving my highest good, I created an opening, so the things I desired could enter my life. *
I’d like to say I’ve recovered from unworthiness, but that’s not the case. I am more adept though, at identifying when it’s interfering with my life. I recently dealt with this at a two day training for Reiki. While doing yoga the morning after my first day, I began to cry. I was being taught an ancient and powerful way to heal myself and others, and I felt unworthy of this power. Who was I to have access to this healing energy? Surely I wasn’t good enough, spiritual enough, intuitive enough.
In triangle pose. an epiphany came to me. I don’t have to be worthy. I have to be open. This made perfect sense. For Reiki to work, I need to be a clear channel for the healing energy. Focusing on my inadequacies only hinders its flow and my ability to help others. I went to the second day of class with this perspective and felt the energy more intensely, both in my meditations and when practicing Reiki on my classmate.
Being open, not worthy, is a succinct way of describing how I released unworthiness in the past. Nothing changed in my bank account or mirror once I began to feel more worthy. The positive changes occurred when I released the ridiculous standards I’d set for myself and was open to the good that was always there in my life. What I wanted was there all the time. What I wanted was there all the time! Even healthy, unconditional love, as that had to start within me before I could manifest it in a relationship.
I know these revelations are not new, and I read about them at some point in the past 25 years, but now I understand them with my whole being and not just my intellect. I don’t have the ultimate step by step guide to help you overcome unworthiness and open to what you want in life, but I can share what helps me.
More than ever, we need to heal ourselves, so we can turn our energy outward, and do our part to heal the world.
*I have distilled years of work into several sentences. Each of these topics improved at different times in my life, not all at once.*
Occasionally I notice themes in the challenges my clients have, like negative core beliefs, unworthiness, or the desire to make everyone happy. I’ve come to realize that my attention to these themes is less about a mental health trend, and more about an area of growth needed in my emotional life.
Last week, what captured my focus was how critical my clients were of their feelings. One felt she shouldn’t be angry about having an autoimmune disease, because she had many other things to be grateful for. Another, with both lung and heart disease, felt weak, because she had anxiety about continuing her work as a clerk at Target and another, grieving the death of her mother in February, felt she wasn’t progressing through her grief fast enough.
I validated their core feelings and pointed out that their self criticism was adding to their emotional load and distracting them from dealing with their anger, anxiety and grief. I reminded them that their goal is to pay attention to their emotions and cope with them in a healthy way, and not waste time judging how they feel.
The week progressed and I noticed more negative feelings in myself, like irritability and sadness. I couldn’t ignore them any longer when, at the start of the weekend, I burst into tears over something very minor. My heart was breaking, but I knew intellectually what triggered my tears was not something worthy of this response. After a few minutes of crying and feeling sorry for myself, I paid attention to my thoughts. “I need to get over this,” “I have so much to be grateful for. I shouldn’t be sad,” and “I need to pull it together. I’m a mental health professional.”
I was doing the same thing my clients were. I was sad, and my immediate response was to beat myself up about how I was feeling. Once I identified my self criticism, I grabbed my journal to figure out the core issues beneath my sadness. Through my writing, I identified that I was overwhelmed with my clients’ suffering, and questioning my ability to make a meaningful difference in their lives. These are hallmark symptoms of burnout.
Now I had something to work with, and before I began criticizing my burnout, I immediately focused on self compassion. Kristin Neff, a researcher on self compassion, says that, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.”
Self compassion doesn’t come naturally to most of us, and to help myself along, I talked to myself in the manner I knew my kindest friend would. I’d been working hard the last 2 months providing support and comfort to others, while also experiencing the pandemic at a personal level. I missed family and friends, worried about their health and my own, and had anxiety about the future. I took a breath and told myself it was OK to feel burned out. Being emotionally drained in these circumstances was a symptom of being human, not a symptom of weakness or ingratitude.
This was an interesting internal experience. Within seconds of implementing self compassion I felt better. In the negative feedback loop of self criticism, it seemed clear that what I needed to fix was myself. That I, was the problem. With self compassion, I saw that burnout was the problem, and I have have skills to deal with that.
To address my emotional fatigue, I needed time away from my counseling practice and lots of self care. In the short term, I continued to journal that morning, had a healthy lunch outside with my husband and dear friend, and got a good night’s sleep. For the longer term, I adjusted my schedule to have a 5 day Memorial weekend filled with activities that recharge me like writing, reading, time in nature, exercise, laughing with my husband, and sleep.
I’ve talked clients through this process many times, but am embarrassed to admit I’ve never used it as effectively as I did in this instance, and it significantly decreased my distress. If self compassion helped me, maybe it helps my clients too, and I really am making a difference!
I encourage you to try this process for yourself. Here is a summary:
Like everyone else, I’m trying to make sense of this tumultuous time here on planet Earth. I have worries about the health of my family, friends, clients and myself. I wonder how the financial implications of the pandemic will impact my business and retirement plans. Negative feelings like this are valid, and to be expected. They need to be expressed in healthy ways so we can move to a positive and empowered mindset.
This weekend I was journaling to express some of my anxiety and to seek solutions. After a few minutes of venting my feelings, I spontaneously began writing affirmations to challenge my negative thoughts. Affirmations are statements, in the present tense, about what we want to achieve or experience. They challenge our negative, self sabotaging thoughts and move us to take action where we can, both in our behaviors and our mindset. Below are my affirmations and I hope they may resonate with you as well.
Sending everyone a germ free hug!
In mid October, my husband Bobby and I went on a month long road trip. Since our return, I’ve tried to distill our experience to share its essence in a blog, but there are many layers to choose from. I could share where we went: Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky, Ozark National Forest in Arkansas, Black Kettle National Grasslands in Oklahoma, Palo Duro and Caps Rock Canyons in Texas, Graceland in Tennessee. Or, I could tell you what we saw: lakes, hot springs, caverns, an outhouse race, a haunted hotel, a cowboy museum, canyons, bison, coyotes and Elvis. Or I could talk about the people we met: a couple married 60 years whose first date was at a Roy Rogers movie, women celebrating Halloween at “Down the Hatch” bar, a man with his rock collection in the laundromat (his favorite rock was shaped like a finger), a friend of Bobby’s he hadn’t seen in 30 years and plenty of active, vibrant retirees who were hiking and mountain biking.
These places, experiences and people filled our days and were what we were doing, but I decided to write about my state of being on this trip and the word that best describes this, is free.
To be honest, it took a few days to feel free. I’d created a spread sheet of our itinerary with where we were staying, how long, and what activities we’d do in each area. I began the trip with specific expectations about how it would proceed, but in the first few hours my plan was challenged with traffic and predictions of severe thunderstorms and high winds at our first destination. Circumstances outside my control interfered with the perfect implementation of my plan, and this created stress.
I’m embarrassed when I read this last sentence. Feeling stress while on a road trip for a month with my wonderful husband? Obviously, there was nothing significant to be stressed about, but even in these positive circumstances, I created anxiety with my need to control.
On the third night of our trip (still at Land Between the Lakes and a day off my schedule) my husband, who is thankfully less rigid than I am, said, “We don’t have to go as far west as we’d planned. We can do whatever we want.” Intellectually I knew we could do whatever we wanted, but had difficulty embracing this because I had our “plan”. Once Bobby said this though, something clicked, and I mentally crumpled up my spread sheet and threw it away. I released the expectation that our trip would proceed according to my plan, and that was the exact moment I felt free on our trip. I didn’t have to move through the grids of the spread sheet, and we’d make decisions based on how we felt, the weather, information collected from locals, and the research we’d done prior to our trip : a good reminder that it’s important to do research and have a general plan, but to be flexible as to how that plan will be executed using real time data.
I just described how my thoughts, “we’re off our schedule”, could create stress, even on a vacation. I anticipated this would happen and had purchased a temporary tattoo of the word “free” as a reminder to manage my thoughts. If my head was cluttered with self criticism, anxiety about what would happen next, or the need to control my husband’s behavior, I could be in the most peaceful, awe inspiring, natural setting, and not free to experience it because of my thoughts. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs about my efforts to quiet the negative thoughts in my head, and our road trip was a good opportunity to practice this
Being away from my ingrained, daily routine made it easier to step away from my ingrained ways of thinking, and I was more adept at noticing my negative thoughts. Of course it’s easy to notice my thoughts, take a breath, and return to the present moment when my present moment is beside a 700,000 year old stalactite, looking into the eyes of a Aoudad Sheep who found me meditating at the canyon rim, or driving 75mph on a deserted west Texas highway; a reminder it’s beneficial to remove myself from the familiar and examine my life from a broader perspective, and from here identify unhealthy patterns in my thoughts and behaviors.
Minimal responsibilities also contributed to my sense of freedom. We took care of our immediate needs like food, shelter (setting up camp or finding a hotel) and getting safely to our next destination, but for the most part I had the freedom to chose where I’d go and what I’d do each day. It was a gift to wake up in the morning without an alarm and without a detailed itinerary for the day (thanks to crumpling up that spread sheet). Because my primary responsibility was to myself, it was easier to identify my desires and interests without the clutter of what other’s expected from me; a reminder to be true to myself and not allow the expectations of others to direct my life.
Freedom and responsibility have both a direct and inverse relationship. A reduction in my responsibilities increased my freedom, but increased responsibility before our trip, allowed me to have a month of relative freedom. Leading up to our trip, we made responsible financial choices that allowed us to be away for 4 weeks. In my counseling practice, I took responsibility for my clients by setting up a plan to meet their mental health needs while I was away. These issues had to be addressed beforehand to avoid challenges during our trip; a reminder that being responsible, disciplined and organized, can create the gift of freedom.
A sense of freedom also came from minimal personal belongings. Everything we needed was in our jeep; shelter, food, clothes, books (a necessity for me) and a few favorite toys. All we had to do was hop in the jeep and go. We ate out of the same bowl for every meal, wore some variation of the three outfits we each had, and stared into the fire for evening entertainment, and we were as happy as we’d ever been; a reminder that, after our basic needs are met, material things do not increase our sense of well being.
On our road trip I accumulated many new experiences, and stickers for my travel mug, but my most powerful lessons came not from accumulating, but from letting go; letting go of familiar surroundings, expectations, negative thoughts, responsibilities, and material possessions. Letting go created space for spontaneity, playfulness and freedom, and though daily life is more complex than a month long road trip, the reminders I received while away will influence my choices in the new year. And when I notice myself rigid in my routines, shouldering responsibilities that are not mine, and receiving too many boxes from Amazon, I will consult the atlas to plan our next adventure, so I can be reminded again.
In order for a muscle to gain strength, it must first be stressed with a load heavier than usual. Muscle fibers tear, creating a minor injury and you experience discomfort, possibly pain. Immediately the body begins repairs, and the muscle fibers grow in strength and size so they can better handle the increased load. When your muscles increase in strength and endurance you can walk farther, climb higher, hug tighter. Your world expands, but first, there is the discomfort.
A similar series of events occur when you push yourself to achieve a new goal. A goal or desire comes from the absence of something you want. You don’t have this yet, because your current thoughts and behaviors do not support this desire. To get what you want, you must do something different, and herein lies the problem. Just like lifting a heavier weight causes discomfort in your muscles, creating new habits with your thoughts and behaviors causes discomfort in your brain.
You may have heard the term, “what fires together, wires together”. This means that with each of your thoughts and behaviors, specific neurons in the brain are activated. When certain thoughts and behaviors are repeatedly paired, they wire together, making this pathway feel like the “easy” way. For example, someone who wants to start an exercise program may have wired this series of thoughts and behaviors: ”I should go for a walk. I’m tired. I’ll do it tomorrow”, and the resulting behavior is continuing to sit on the couch or stay in bed. This pattern may have been going on for years, and inserting a new behavior or thought feels uncomfortable, because your brain is saying, “Wait! I don’t have a neural pathway created for this."
The goal is to create new wiring that pairs the thoughts and behaviors needed to achieve your dreams. In this example it would be to pair the thought, “I should go for a walk” with putting on walking shoes and perhaps the new thought, “My day always goes better when it starts with a walk.” To create this new pairing, you must expect some discomfort. The neural pathways of your old habits have been well greased over the years, and when you chose to do something different, you’re forging a new path that hasn’t been used before. It’s thick with briars, undergrowth, and overhanging limbs. The new path isn’t impassable, but it will take some effort to navigate.
The good news is, the most difficult part of this new path is the beginning. It’s the initiation of the behavior that feels uncomfortable, but once you step outside to walk, start a job application, ask for help to leave a relationship, pick up an apple instead of a bag of chips, you usually feel better immediately, because your behaviors are now congruent with your desires. Right away, the new neural pathways that support your desired change are starting to wire together. Even if you only engage in the new behavior for a few minutes, you’ve begun the groundwork of linking new thoughts and behaviors that create what you want.
Here are a few tips to help you push through the stickiness and discomfort of creating new neural pathways.
1. Set the stage for success - Make sure the dream or change you are pursuing is your own and not prompted by the influence of your parents, a partner, or your social circle. Identify any beliefs or fears that may inhibit your ability to change, and replace these with beliefs that support your goal. My last blog addressed this in more detail.
2. Mindfulness - Be mindful of your unhelpful patterns and bring attention to them, without judgement, to increase awareness of your current behaviors. I love the phrase, “Isn’t that interesting….”. For example, “Isn’t that interesting that I want to be fit and healthy, but I’m choosing to sit here on the couch and watch Netflix.” Keep your inner dialogue focused on labeling what is happening without being critical. The neural pathways of self criticism are six lane, well maintained interstates, and do not need more attention. Once you’ve identified your habitual way of responding, you can replace it with your new behaviors.
3. Affirmations - Replace self sabotaging thoughts with affirmations that support your new behavior. An affirmation is a short phrase, in the present tense, like, “My body is strong and healthy”. Create several affirmations and repeat them multiple times a day, use them as screen savers, put them on sticky notes on your bathroom mirror. The more exposure you have to your affirmations, the easier it will be to insert them in place of your habitual, negative self talk.
3. Expect discomfort - Be prepared for the discomfort, the stickiness, the “this doesn’t feel normal” feeling. Label that feeling when you notice it and remind yourself this is part of the change process. If you’re consistent in making new choices that align with your goals, this discomfort will decrease as new neural pathways are created.
4. Visualize - You can help your brain prepare for new behaviors by visualizing them ahead of time. Visualize the alarm going off, putting on your shoes, and heading out the door for a run, or whatever your desired behavior is. The more detail and emotion you bring to your visualization, the more it will help you. Athletes use visualization regularly to prepare for competition, because it works. Your neural pathways are firing, albeit not as strongly, as if you’re performing that behavior, reinforcing the new connections in your brain.
5. Gratitude - Notice the positive outcomes of your new choices and record them in your gratitude journal. You may include positive emotions, strengths you’ve identified in yourself, and after some time, noticeable progress towards your dream or goal. Reflecting on why you’re grateful for your new behaviors reinforces them, and provides evidence to challenge the thoughts that could sabotage your forward momentum.
6. Prepare for stress - Periods of increased stress deplete your mental energy, making it more likely that your brain will choose the “easy” path. Be prepared for this. If you notice yourself slipping back into old behaviors during times of stress, be compassionate with yourself and refocus on the above tips to get back on track.
You can create new behaviors and achieve your dream, but expect the discomfort. When you notice this, use it not as a reason to give up, but as motivation to continue. The goal is to move through this discomfort, over and over, strengthening the neural pathways of the thoughts and behaviors that will create the life you want.
It’s safe to say that having a happy*(see note) and meaningful life is a universal desire. A phrase I often hear in my counseling practice, and I’ve used myself, is “I just want to be happy.” Despite this longing, people have difficulty achieving and sustaining happiness, sometimes even sabotaging themselves when things go well. Why does this happen?
One reason this occurs is because we have core beliefs that limit our ability to be happy. Our belief system does not support our goal of happiness, making it difficult to achieve. We end up making choices that support our belief system rather than our goal. One of my negative beliefs, which I’ve shared in a past post, the-conundrum.html, is that I shouldn’t be happy when others are suffering. I’ve also heard people share their belief that they don’t deserve to be happy or if there’re happy, they’re betraying a loved one who has died. In this post, I want to address a belief that has been prevalent in my practice over the past few months, that being happy somehow puts us at risk and remaining depressed protects us.
I’ve had clients say that whenever they’re happy, bad things happen, so, they’re reluctant to create a more positive mood state. Others say that if they allow themselves to be happy, bad things will still happen, or their depression will return, and this fall from happiness back to depression is more painful than remaining depressed. Others believe that they cope better with life’s challenges if they’re already depressed, that somehow a negative mood state strengthens them to cope with negative events. If we’re not currently depressed, or these beliefs are not ones we’re challenged with, it’s easy to see they are distorted and not based in reality. But when they are subconscious and hidden, these beliefs can play a powerful role in our mood.
Bringing our negative beliefs to light illuminates the conflict between our goal of happiness and our belief system. It’s impossible to achieve a goal if we don’t have the beliefs to support it. The options in this case then are to accept unhappiness based on the current belief system, or change the beliefs to support the goal of being happy.
Assuming that everyone wants happiness, let’s start by challenging the belief that “bad things happen when I’m happy.” This is a true statement, but bad and good things take place all the time. It only makes sense that occasionally something bad will happen when we’re happy, but there’s no data to support this as a cause and effect relationship. We need to release this and embrace the exact opposite, “good things happen when I’m happy.” This belief is supported by scientific research and most likely from our own lives, if we take time to reflect. When we’re happy our brain is not biased towards the negative, and we’re able to notice the beauty, kindness, and abundance that’s always present, and this awareness sustains our positive mood state. When we’re not depressed we have more energy, motivation and confidence. This puts us in a position to create healthier relationships, take care of our physical health, and push ourselves outside our comfort zone to achieve new things, all actions which contribute to positive outcomes. Although bad things happen no matter what our mood, we need to adopt the belief that “more good things occur with a positive mood.”
The other two beliefs, that the fall from happiness to depression is more painful than remaining depressed, and that a negative mood state will provide strength for coping with bad things, can both be challenged by the research on resilience. Resilience, according to the American Psychological Association, is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences. If we’re going to deal with life’s challenges, or a cycle back into depression, resilience is what we need, not a depressed mood.
If we were lucky enough to grow up in a safe, loving environment, free of abuse and neglect, we were given a head start in resilience. Fortunately resilience can be cultivated, no matter what our background. Research has identified that supportive relationships, positive self image, problem solving skills, optimism, adaptability, self regulation and a sense of purpose all contribute to our ability to bounce back from adversity. So, if we want to rebound from a bout of depression or a negative event, we need to learn the skills that foster resilience, not remain immobilized in depression. Our core belief should change to “resilience helps me cope with adversity.”
Rarely does one conversation, or blog post, change a life long core belief, but it can begin the process. Once we’re aware of our negative core belief, the fact that it’s distorted and doesn’t support our goal of happiness, we can identify when we’re letting this belief control our behavior. We can also look into our own lives, and the lives of those we admire, for evidence that contradicts our negative core belief. This work can be done alone through self reflection or journaling, or in the company of others like a trusted friend or therapist. Occasionally, in the case of severe clinical depression, awareness alone is not enough and medication may be required.
Once we’ve adopted beliefs that support happiness, our thoughts and behaviors will align with the new beliefs. We believe in our end goal, so we’ll be more motivated to commit to the habits that create happiness and less likely to sabotage ourselves. This work takes some time and focus, but it’s not a selfish endeavor because when you’re able to experience joy and happiness, you can share it with others. And doesn’t our world need more of this?
*NOTE* I’m not a fan of the word happy, as this denotes a transient emotional state. I prefer the term flourish, from positive psychology. In order to flourish we need positive mood states such as happiness, but also supportive relationships, meaning, engagement and accomplishments. Because most folks use the word happy, I have used it in this post, but know I am referring to the multidimensional concept of flourishing.
When I was young and watched the Wizard of Oz, I resonated with the tin man. I believed the ability to love and be loved was the most important trait one could possess, which was convenient for me, because opening my heart to others came easily. I never gave the lion much thought. In fact I was impatient with him, whining about not having courage. Why couldn’t he just roar and carry on? He was a lion after all.
As I moved into adult life, love, peace, joy, and compassion were traits I cultivated, but courage was never on my radar, until this year. Last month I created a vision board for 2019 and was inspired to put a word in the center of it. My first instinct was to put PEACE, but then I hesitated, because peace is something I often use as an excuse to stay in my comfort zone.
To feel peaceful, I need to manage my anxiety, and to manage my anxiety, I need lots of control and organization. I feel peaceful when the house is clean, all the bills are paid, my personal relationships are free of conflict and I have plenty of time to exercise, meditate, and sleep. Maintaining peace keeps me busy with tasks that reduce my anxiety, but it also limits the time and energy I have to grow and challenge myself.
So, last month I resisted the urge to put PEACE through the center of my vision board and instead, took the first word that popped in my head after that, COURAGE. I had no intellectual reason for choosing this word but strictly followed my instinct and soon it was spelled out in silver glitter as my word for 2019. But what does it really mean? Merriam Webster defines courage as “the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty”
That definition wasn’t specific enough for me. How do I as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle class, well educated woman express courage? I was born with privileges that create safety and minimize obstacles to success. Have I even been courageous in my life ? Well, probably. I bicycled across the United States after college. I ran marathons. I loved, was hurt and betrayed, and chose to love again. I moved to Oriental to start a new life. I self published two novels. I started my own business.
Because I rarely look at my life through the filter of courage, I’ve never given myself credit for the courage it took to achieve these things. Being courageous has brought joy, satisfaction and a sense of purpose to my life, energetic feelings that are difficult to experience when I’m merely at peace.
But I still haven’t answered the question of how I’ll be courageous in 2019. I have some ideas, like being more assertive with promoting my writing, leading women’s workshops, and letting my hair go silver (future blog post alert). Ultimately courage requires me to be authentic and self possessed.
I am here to share my unique version of the divine. My unique version. That means my contribution to the world will be different than everyone else’s and I should not let that scare me. I need to have the courage to express myself through my words, actions and behaviors, and not be restricted by the fear of conflict, disapproval and rejection. And when I experience conflict, disapproval and rejection, peace will restore me, so I have the courage to continue living an authentic life. Peace and courage, opposite sides of the same coin, a silver coin, with glitter on it.
Christmas came early to me. Two weeks before Santa’s arrival I was given a heartfelt, meaningful gift that I would never exchange for a material item, no matter how extravagant. It was given by someone I’d only spent three hours with, and hadn’t seen in three or four years. The gift was four words, “You saved my life.”
These words took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. I instinctively crossed my palms over my heart and tried to receive this offering. I was speechless. The speaker, a former client who happened to be in the same place I was, continued. They said they’d met with me at one of the lowest points in their life and our three counseling sessions provided them with a template for change. Little by little they made adjustments based on our discussions and now were living a more fulfilling life.
This experience touched me in a profound way. In the immediate context, this five minute exchange completely replenished me after a stressful week. One client, who I’d seen every day that week, was in crisis, another was at risk in an abusive marriage and yet another was trying to cope with the recent murder of his brother. I was emotionally depleted after doing my best to be fully present with my clients and their suffering. These four, simple words refilled my reservoir of compassion and resilience. It felt like divine intervention to be given this gift after one of the most challenging weeks of my year.
On a larger scale, this interaction illuminated the fact that I never know the impact I may have on someone. Because this client didn’t reschedule, I thought I hadn’t been helpful or had possibly said something to anger or hurt them. It never once crossed my mind that I had provided what they needed. Their gratitude gave me hope that I was making a difference in the world, something my inner critic often denies. It inspires me to keep doing my best, even though I may never know the impact my efforts have on others. Carrie Newcomer, one of my favorite songwriters, captures this in her song, “Stones in the River.”
So today I'll drop stones into the river
And the current takes them out into forever
And the truth is most of us will never know
Where our best intentions go.
We may question the impact we’re having globally, professionally, and in our personal lives with those we love. We may ask ourselves, “What’s the point of it all?”. My belief is that “the point of it all” is to positively affect others. We must, as Carrie Newcomer wrote, throw our stones into the river, even though we’re not sure where they will land or the difference they will make. Maybe our stone is to help align someone with their life purpose as I did with this client; maybe our stone is our sense of humor that changes a mood; maybe our stone is a piece of art that changes someone’s perspective. Or maybe, our stone is made of words.
Words have power. My words had the power to change a client’s life and their words had the power to change mine. Words are free and require no time commitment, but as my story exemplifies, words can transform a life, or at the very least, a day. Are you aware of the impact your words have? Do you speak mindfully from a place of compassion and non-judgement to both yourself and others?
You are more powerful than you give yourself credit for, so please, use this power for the good. Set the intention for 2019 to use words that teach, uplift, love and express gratitude. Never doubt that you as one person cannot change the world, because you can, and it may only take four words.
Most of us live in an either or mindset. Things are going well or badly. We’re happy or sad. There is peace or chaos. Our brain and our culture like to put things in a box so we can make sense of the world. I see this daily with my clients. Someone will come in declaring their week was horrible, but by the end of the session we’ve identified many positive experiences. Or, a client says their partner has changed and is now loving and supportive, and they overlook the stitches, bruises and terror they’ve experienced in the past.
No matter what our perception is, the world is too massive and beautifully complex to be either or. When we open our minds and hearts and soften our focus, we can begin to embrace the paradox. Life is always both, and, and Hurricane Florence made this more evident to me.
The first place I noticed this paradox was in myself, specifically my anxiety. It escalated in the days prior to Florence, partially fueled by memories of what I saw and heard during my time as a crisis counselor in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately my anxiety provided me with both a challenge and some assistance. I barely slept and couldn’t eat much as we prepared to evacuate. It was difficult to focus and sometimes I literally walked around in circles in our condo, forgetting what I was doing. Thankfully, I became aware of what was happening, pulled myself into the present moment, and looked for where I had control.
I channelled my nervous energy into packing and gathering supplies. All my favorite clothes and sentimental items were packed neatly into bags that I arranged perfectly in the back of my Subaru. We had flashlights, batteries and emergency packages of food to take on our evacuation drive. I had enough water to hydrate the Brady Bunch and calories to sustain us for a week (yes I calculated that out). Thankfully, I was over prepared, but my anxiety incited me to take control where I could which ultimately decreased my stress. I also don’t have to buy water or snacks for the next month.
We evacuated for three days, and when I returned home I experienced both gratitude and grief. I was grateful our home was dry (we only lost ductwork and HVAC) and friends and loved ones were safe, but I grieved the physical devastation of my beloved hometown, and the huge losses friends and neighbors suffered. At times my grief morphed into guilt and I felt both grateful for my dry home, good insurance, financial security and guilty that others were suffering with fewer resources to assist them. Sometimes it was difficult to hold all these feelings at once and I was thankful for the simple task of picking up shingles and dragging limbs to distract me.
The immediate recovery after Florence was not an either or situation either. It provided both complexity and simplicity. Everyday activities like getting gas and groceries, charging our phones and sending emails took more time and effort than usual. In addition there was the complicated and confusing process of calling insurance companies, filing claims, and requesting quotes for repairs. In this midst of this, things were also simplified. That first week after Florence I worked outside during the day, and in the evening sat with my husband as we cooked on the grill. When it was dark I slept. When it was light I got up. There was no where to go and nothing to do except the cleanup tasks in front of me. I couldn’t have done it forever, but I enjoyed the simplicity of spending all day outside with my husband doing physical work, simple meals cooked on the grill and sound sleep with no electronic distractions.
The paradox of Hurricane Florence was also evident in my community. Florence brought both destruction and beauty to Pamlico County. Trees were thrown like pick up sticks, piers crumpled or gone, homes and businesses destroyed by floodwaters, and then there was the quiet stealth of mold making homes unlivable. In the midst of the destruction that devastated many lives, there was also beauty; neighbors and strangers helping one another, lineman from across the country working 18 hour days to restore power, money, time, cleanup supplies, and food readily donated to help those in need, a perfect sunrise just beyond the pile of debris. In the middle of the loss and suffering was love, beauty and resilience.
The recovery from Hurricane Florence will take a long time. Restored power and internet, clear roadways, and access to gas and groceries has created some sense of normalcy, but the reconstruction, financial strain and emotional stress will not be resolved for a while. As we move forward after the hurricane, it’s important to take both action and inaction. We need to repair our homes, attend to insurance issues and help those in need, but this must be balanced with self care or we will burnout. It’s important to return to healthy sleep and exercise habits, a diet full of fruits and vegetable and to participate in the spiritual practices that sustain us. Each day we should look for things to be grateful for and focus on where we have control in the moment.
I challenge you to open your mind and heart, and soften your focus so you can see things as both and, instead of either or. We must acknowledge the challenges we face so we can overcome them, and improve our life and the lives of others, while simultaneously embracing the beauty, grace and love that is available, as this is what will sustain us as we recover from Hurricane Florence.