Validate me, please!

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Photo by LBoatwright

Have you ever had your parking validated? Basically, in a place where you’d have to pay for parking – such as a shopping center – if you purchase a product or service therein, that store will sometimes offer to validate your parking. They stamp your parking ticket, and as you exit the garage, you no longer have to pay. In essence, you’re one of us now, so we share with you our benefit of free parking. Parking validation is a wonderful thing! On the flip side, losing your parking ticket or not having it validated can be stressful and costly.

It’s an amazingly accurate metaphor for real life. Personal validation is also a wonderful thing, the sense of belonging. It takes countless forms: people shake hands, or hold hands, hug, have meaningful conversations, get praise, get promotions – even something as seemingly insignificant as a quick “thank you” from a store clerk is a tiny affirmation: you belong.

When we are hurting, our emotional eyesight can easily become impaired. Rejection and failure are real, and they are survivable, but if our self-worth is already damaged, if we struggle with depression and negativity, setbacks such as these not only feel insurmountable – they can seem like an overwhelming condemnation of our entire person. We may be able to see the validation in the lives of others, but can no longer perceive it in our own. Losing our emotional parking ticket can leave us feeling as if we don’t even belong in our own lives. It’s a horrible place to be, and a difficult one to pull yourself out of, but it can be done.

Start by determining the source of most of your personal validation. For some, it comes from within – from their faith in a Higher Power, or from a positive self-image. For those with depressive disorders, validation is frequently sought from outside sources. We desperately want the people around us to say and do kind things which cancel out the critics in our life and in our brain.

The problem with the external approach is, although we may find somebody who validates us at first, at some point they will have a bad day or become critical. When we build our self-image on the opinions of others, that first unkind word – even if it was unintentional – can completely erase all of the previous positives in their entirety, leaving us desperate again to silence the inner critic. We begin to doubt the other person ever meant any of the nice things they said. If criticism is frequent — if a family member, friend, partner, or employer is constantly pointing out our flaws — over time we allow these to criticisms to become our truths.

Try to consider the opinions of others, whether good or bad, as “free parking” – a ticket which can be easily lost, but not a show-stopper. Remember, nobody has ever had to live in a parking garage because they lost their ticket. Likewise, you don’t have to remain lost in your own life because you’ve lost the validation of somebody else.

Spend time each day strengthening your internal validation. I mean, really give it a workout! Begin making a list of accomplishments and go back as far as you can remember. Any “A” on a school assignment, any raises or promotions, even any “thank you’s” – nothing is too small. You may be tempted to self-edit by sorting your accomplishments into buckets of “that didn’t really matter” or “it’s stupid to consider that an accomplishment.” DON’T! If you find yourself editing, recognize your brain has become wired to filter out the positives. Remind yourself the only way to fix your filter is to count every positive, no matter how small it may seem.

You can heal your brain, and you can learn to filter out unwarranted criticisms. You can get to a place in your life where, when somebody says something hurtful, you can recognize it as just a thing which was said and not a guilty verdict about who you are. It takes a lot of practice, and for many it will mean making conscious decisions throughout the day to filter out messaging which tears you down.

For every criticism you hear – whether internally or externally – remind yourself of three of your accomplishments or positive characteristics. Over time, this positive three-point counter-punch will become a habit. Your new way of thinking will allow you to be content within yourself, and to never again lose your sense of belonging.

 

 

 

Forgiveness vs. Second Chances

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Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash

Have you ever known somebody who said something like, “If you really forgive me, you’ll give me another chance”?  It’s such a powerful challenge. It simultaneously manipulates us while evoking guilt and self-doubt. For nearly my entire life, I was led to believe forgiveness meant giving second chances – and third, fourth, then infinite chances. I believed if I wrote somebody out of my life or burned bridges, it wasn’t because the other person was toxic, but because I was faulty.  Have you ever felt like you were a bad person simply because you wanted to protect your self-worth from a bad relationship?

Lately, I’ve come to understand the difference between forgiveness and second chances.  I’ve also learned failing to understand the difference often leads us to make decisions which not only have a lifelong impact, but can worsen or even cause chronic depression and anxiety.  In short, the difference is this:

Forgiveness is about us.  Second chances are about the other person.

Time may heal all wounds, but forgiveness keeps them from festering.  Have you ever heard the saying depression is anger turned inwardWe forgive others and ourselves because it frees US.  It allows us to remember whatever took place as an event and not a reflection of ourselves.  In other words, we don’t have to allow a mistake or another person’s behavior to define who we are.  Instead, we can learn from it, and even appreciate it as a valuable life lesson, then move on.

The movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman teaches some powerful lessons about forgiveness, but I especially loved this idea (paraphrased):  You know you’ve forgiven somebody when the opportunity to hurt them in some way becomes available … but you don’t take it.  Be careful here.  If you are experiencing depression and anxiety because somebody else is continuing with a behavior which you have told them is hurtful to you, you may not actually be forgiving them, but rather feeling guilt about your anger towards them.  We can unwittingly end up in a cycle of you said you were sorry, I said I forgive you, then you went and did the same thing again, unsure of how to get off the roller-coaster.

In reality, allowing somebody to hurt us again and again, whether it is a partner who cheats on us, or a boss who constantly belittles us, is not forgiveness and it’s not second chances — it is low self-worth.  When we don’t learn to love and respect ourselves, we frequently find ourselves in relationships with others who also do not love or respect us.  Some people just have a knack for tapping into our already-damaged self-image, and our brain’s filter translates the message for us:

This person said horrible things to me, so I must be a horrible person, which means I deserve for people to say horrible things to me.

Somehow our brain manages to completely disregard the fact the other person has lied to us, or humiliated us, or made us feel “less than”.  Because of faulty filtering, we stay in relationships with people who berate or bully us.  We stay in jobs with bosses who make us feel worthless.  The danger is not only in believing how others make us feel about ourselves is true, but in believing we have to let it continue because we have mistaken forgiveness for second chances.

Forgiving somebody doesn’t mean you have to allow them to keep hurting you, and only you can decide when “enough is enough”.  When you do reach that point, try not to allow yourself to be guilt-tripped into basically rewarding bad behavior.  I know … It is never as easy as just walking away.  We may be in a committed relationship, unable to change jobs, or have especially difficult parents.  In these types of situations, we have to accept we cannot change other people, but we CAN strengthen the part of our brain which absorbs those negative thoughts and feelings, and teach it to filter those messages out as garbage.  This takes time and practice, but IT CAN BE DONE!

Give this a try next time somebody hurts you. Get your notebook or journal and make two columns.  In one column, list the negative thoughts and feelings you are having about yourself.  In the second column, challenge each of these thoughts.  When our anxiety or depression is bad, it can be very difficult to find something good to say about ourselves, but keep trying.  Your challenging statements don’t have to be anything grand.  They can be as simple as, “I’m not stupid. I might have made a mistake when typing up that report, but now I know what to look for next time.”  Over time, your self-worth will strengthen to a point where those incoming hurtful messages can be processed realistically, allowing you to make changes where necessary, but also allowing you to avoid owning those faulty accusations.

Never for Nothing

This week I had a client tell me the people he used to get high with are harassing him, he’s having trouble finding work, and his relationships are falling apart.  He said, “I feel like I’m doing all this for nothing.”  Don’t we all feel like that sometimes?  No matter what goal we are working towards – saving a relationship, finding a job, losing weight – the journey can be two steps up and one step back for so long that we lose sight not only of our progress, but our purpose.

If we are honest with ourselves, it has taken us months, or even years to dig the hole we are in.  Just because today we decided to lose weight or get clean or be a better whatever, the hole will not magically fill itself in and gently ease us out.  In fact, the opposite is usually true – we are going to face resistance – from other people who aren’t ready to leave their holes, from those who don’t want to see us succeed (sadly), and from our own self-sabotaging brains.

I love watching old episodes of Dragnet, and admire the way Joe Friday handles resistance from people who complain about the police – he invites them to join the force.  When you make a decision to better yourself, you become the force.  You become a source of light, maybe weak at first but becoming stronger with each positive step you take.  Ever see a bunch of people coming out of a movie theater, shielding their eyes from the sun?  When you become the light, you may unintentionally expose the darkness in other’s lives, and they may not be ready to see it.  In most cases, this is where resistance comes from.

Resistance is never a reason to give up.

Stay focused on your progress and purpose.  Hang motivational signs and sayings where you can be reminded why you’ve chosen your goal.  It may feel as if you are only moving forward one inch at a time, but one inch at a time will still get you there.  A lifestyle change begins as a series of conscious choices, but these choices eventually become habits and will come naturally.  Let that one inch become two, then six, then a foot, then a yard, and so on.  Don’t dwell on your setbacks.  Just analyze them long enough to determine where the mistake was and how you might avoid it in the future.  Count each setback as a member of the resistance, and don’t allow them to convince you your efforts have all been for nothing.

It is NEVER for nothing, because YOU are not nothing.

Try taking a tip from the Borg (Star Trek).  Granted, they are an emotionless race and we are emotional beings, but they have an admirable singular-purpose mindset.  When you are working toward your life goals, stay on track.  If you go astray, shake the dirt off and get back on track as quickly as possible.  Be Borg-like and tell yourself,

Resistance may be brutal, but it is futile, because I WILL SUCCEED.

It is futile because you have a singular-purpose mindset.  Just keep going.  When you feel like you don’t want to do it for you, do it for the others who want to come out of their holes but don’t know where to begin.  Regardless of whether you have anybody supporting you in your own battle today, someday you may have the opportunity to join somebody else’s force and give them a hand up out of their hole.

 

3 Steps for Conquering a Phobia

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Photo by Willie Fineberg on Unsplash

Last year our little city was evacuated due to hurricane Irma, so I loaded up the car and headed west to visit family.  Thankfully, our area was spared the worst of the damage, and we were soon able to go home.  The return trip was incredibly stressful, as we were sharing the Interstate with tens of thousands of other people who were also returning to their homes along the Gulf Coast.  It took us over 13 hours to travel the last 300 miles, and although I managed to not lose my sanity, I was unaware I’d gained something along the way – Gephyrophobia – a crippling fear of bridges.

There are a lot of bridges between Florida and Texas, and some of them are quite big.  I’ve driven across them dozens of times, and even recall when going over any bridge was my favorite part of a road-trip.  But for months after Irma, crossing bridges would send me into a full-blown anxiety attack — I mean palm-sweating, heart-pounding, head-spinning panic.  I began planning out alternate routes to everywhere, sometimes going an hour or more out of the way just to avoid bridges.  Not the most practical solution when you live near water.

As luck would have it, an opportunity opened up for me to work one day a week in another county.  I jumped at the chance, but soon had regrets.  The office was on the other side of the bay, and a 3-mile bridge was the only way to get there.  Three miles doesn’t sound like much, but when it’s a three-mile panic attack, it feels like forever.  I knew if I didn’t conquer my bridge fear, it was going to seriously interfere with my life.

For a while, sheer willpower got me to the other side of each bridge, but not without the nausea and dread which accompanied each crossing.  The bridges weren’t going away, so how could I make the anxiety go instead?  After much trial and error — which included everything from controlled breathing to counting backwards from 100 — I finally landed on the three steps which successfully settled me.

  1. Ask yourself, Is This Really a Problem?

First, determine if the fear is even worth your concern.  Is it affecting your life?  For instance, most people can live a perfectly happy lifetime without ever going on a cruise, flying anywhere, or riding a roller coaster.  But, if you live in a town with a ferry, and frequently need to get from one side to another, the fear of being on a boat can be distressful and disruptive.  If a promotion at work will require you to travel outside the country, fear of flying can cost you the opportunity for advancement.  The key is determining:

  • How likely are you to encounter the thing you fear?
  • How realistic is simply avoiding it?

If your fear is getting in the way of your day-to-day living, taking a path of avoidance is probably not going to get you very far.

  1. Study up on your fear

Knowledge is power.  When I did an Internet search for “fear of bridges”, I was amazed to find how common it was.  Just knowing other people had the same phobia reassured me I wasn’t crazy.  Take some time to try and determine the root cause of your fear.  In my case, I traced it to a combination of re-watching “The Mothman Prophecies” a week before being gridlocked on a couple of very tall bridges for hours.  (SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never seen “Mothman”, it recounts the strange, paranormal events in a small town prior to a disastrous bridge collapse.)  When I was stuck on those bridges, I caught myself staring at the steel bolts and rivets wondering, “When’s the last time you were inspected?”

Look for ideas from other people who have conquered the same fear.  I found several posts online, and although these didn’t directly resolve the issue, they did guide me in the right direction.  Most importantly, they reinforced the idea my phobia COULD be beaten.

  1. Be Patient With Yourself

I wish I could tell you conquering fear is as easy as deciding to do it, but it took me a few months.  Give yourself credit for any progress – it really matters!  If you were a little less scared this time than last time, make a note of whatever helped and pat yourself on the back.  If one tactic doesn’t work, try something else.  Keep trying until you find the method, or combination of them, which works for you.

In my case, I found listening to my Spanish lessons was extremely helpful, as it shifted the focus from the anxiety center of my brain to the problem-solving part of my brain.  Focusing directly on the car in front of me was also helpful.  My anxiety lessened with each bridge.  I knew I’d finally conquered it when I recently drove across those same big, dreaded Irma bridges – no Spanish, no staring at the car in front of me – just me listening to the radio and thinking, “Hmm, you’re not as big as I remembered…”

Incidentally, if you are also struggling with bridges, feel free to message me.  I’ll be happy to share a little more details about what I tried, what helped, and what didn’t.  I can’t promise what worked for me will work for you, but it may get you on the path to finding your own solution.

The Power of Now

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Photo by Uroš Jovičić on Unsplash

Ever heard the joke “hard work and dedication pay off with time, but procrastination pays off right now”?  It implies there is some kind of reward for putting things off.  In reality, putting things off can be a source of anxiety and depression.  We find ourselves in a cycle of feeling overwhelmed by what needs doing, then feeling guilty for not doing it.

Unfortunately, our procrastination is frequently interpreted as laziness or rebellion.  We end up on the receiving end of accusations such as, “You never get anything done”, “Why can’t you ever finish what you start?”, and “If it really mattered to you” — or worse – “If I really mattered, you would have done it.”  We accept the labels of lazy, uncaring, and selfish and our already struggling self-worth plummets.

The truth is, most of the time procrastination has nothing to do with laziness or motivation.  Years ago, my sister turned me on to a website where I found helpful tips on cleaning and organization, but the concept which really got my attention was that procrastination is actually perfectionism in disguise.  How could that be?

The writer (Marla Cilly) went on to explain it is fear of failure which often prevents us from beginning a task, as well as the reason we get started and quickly become overwhelmed and give up.  Our brain tells us “if you can’t do it right the first time it isn’t worth doing”, or “you don’t have time to complete it”.  We consider the task at hand and rationalize “I don’t have time to finish this right now, but am off on Saturday, so will do this Saturday”.  We feel a flash of satisfaction at having made a plan.  Saturday comes and we rationalize, “I’ve worked hard all week and I’m exhausted.  I need and deserve a break.  This task isn’t critical, so today I will rest and I can take this task on tomorrow or even next Saturday when I feel more rested”.  Unfortunately, “feeling good” Saturday never comes, and as our list of the undone grows, so do our feelings of self-defeat.  We begin to believe the labels of lazy, unproductive, and irresponsible really do apply…and we accept them.

Some tasks can be delayed with little consequence, but if we are already prone to self-criticism, even these small acts of procrastination can lead to big emotional assaults as we tell ourselves, “I’m so useless – I can’t even do this one little thing.”  We become frustrated and confused, particularly if we are well-organized in other life areas, such as work.  We wonder, “Why can’t I be this ‘on top of things’ at home?”

The simplest answer is perhaps you feel mentally and emotionally rewarded at work in a way you do not feel rewarded at home.  Much of the time, our efforts to clean or repair things around the house go unnoticed, unappreciated, or are criticized.  This reinforces a why should I care if nobody else does mentality, which can quickly morph into why should I care about myself if nobody else does?  When this negative thinking combines with our fear-of-failure-based procrastination, it can be emotionally crippling, and it is super-fuel for depression.

Try the following steps to avoid the perfectionism-procrastination monster.

  1. Make a list of tasks. Include anything you feel needs to be done, from pick up the dirty sock to repaint the bedroom.  Use different colors (or whatever works for you) to sort tasks into two categories – those which take less than 15 minutes to complete (-15), and those which take more (+15)
  2. Select one of the (-15) tasks and do it now, then mark it ‘complete’ — use stickers, smileys, whatever – the point is to feel good about the accomplishment, no matter how trivial it may seem, and to consistently reinforce that good feeling each time you add a new sticker or checkmark
  3. Identify those (+15) tasks which are actually projects, such as those which would take a half day or more to complete
  4. Identify the steps required to complete each project. In most cases you will find many of the steps are actually (-15) tasks, which can be tackled one at a time. Sure, it may take a while to complete a project, but every step completed is not only another accomplishment, it is progress towards your bigger goals

For some of us, the temptation will be to continue tweaking our list to perfection.  The Flylady website has lots of ready-to-use lists, so if you find yourself getting bogged down in your own list-making, consider using one of theirs.  As you approach tasks on your list, note those items which consistently get skipped or saved for later, then think about your reasons for the delay.  Doing so will help you spot the perfectionism monsters hiding in your list, and allow you not only to conquer them, but to find empowerment in now.

4 Steps to Conquering Anxiety

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

A few years ago, I went through months of chronic and distressing anxiety.  I’d be in bed – or getting ready for bed – and a sudden wave of nausea would hit me.  This was followed by hot and cold sweats, light-headedness, and trembling.  My chest hurt and my heart would race like it was trying to escape my body.  My brain went into hyper-drive, blasting a series of run away, run away, run away messages.  A couple of times, I truly thought I might be having a heart attack, and even went to the emergency room.  When no physical cause for my symptoms was discovered, I was sent home, bewildered.  How could there be nothing wrong?  I felt not only several hundred dollars poorer, but also embarrassed and ashamed.  Quite frankly, I thought I was going nuts.  I had no idea these were panic attacks.  What I felt was physical, not mental…right?

I knew I couldn’t keep going to the ER, but also knew something was wrong.  I tried taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds for a while, but these left me feeling zombie-like and numb, and they didn’t actually prevent anxiety attacks.  I didn’t want to be medicated – I just wanted something that would stop these attacks in their tracks.  The doctors didn’t seem to understand (or believe) I wasn’t drug-seeking, and weren’t interested in explaining what was happening to me.  It was demoralizing and discouraging.  I decided to figure this out for myself – to find the safe equivalent of hitting myself in the head with a coconut – something to STOP the panic once it had started.

I started by tracking my symptoms and soon discovered my bouts of nausea were either caused by gastrointestinal issues or a “gut punch”.  You know the gut punch.  It’s the feeling which triggers our fight or flight response, such as when we suddenly get bad news.  Studies have shown people with anxiety have a faulty flight switch.  In other words, it flips on at random, sending panic messages from the brain to the various systems in the body, thus generating the physical sensations of a panic attack.

When the nausea would start, I’d go through a brief mental checklist to determine the source: Is this possibly food poisoning? Did I eat something which could trigger IBS / diverticulitis?  Most of the time, I was able to rule out a gastrointestinal cause for the nausea AND I was able to determine my IBS flare-ups and panic attacks followed similar — but distinctly different — patterns.  Identifying these differences was the key to feeling better.  I made some minor changes to my eating habits which GREATLY diminished my gastrointestinal issues, which in turn reduced some of my stress and meant less confusion between my physical and my mental health symptoms.

I began practicing the following thought-stopping / distraction techniques at the first signs of a panic attack:

  1. Counting backwards from 100
  2. Switching on a funny show and closing my eyes, picturing the action in my head instead of watching it on the screen. This forced me to focus on what I was hearing and helped me turn off the panic switch by activating a different area of my brain
  3. Taking long, deep breaths – three seconds to inhale, three seconds to exhale

These three techniques worked wonders for me, but it wasn’t an overnight cure.  I had to put these methods into practice and repeat them until I’d conditioned a habitual, healthy response to anxiety.  There were nights when I would have to count backwards from 100 more than once, or would lie awake listening to Bob’s Burgers for hours, but now I can honestly say I haven’t had a full-blown anxiety attack in at least two years.  I still get the gut punch on occasion, but am able to quickly calm myself and avoid those horrible heart-attack sensations.

The 4 Steps

  1. Track your symptoms
  2. Separate brain and body symptoms.  If possible, make changes to your daily habits to reduce symptoms related to medical conditions
  3. Find the patterns
  4. Use early distraction

If you are currently taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, DO NOT stop taking them without your physician’s consent.  Mood disorders are complicated and many require medication to restore chemical balance in the brain.  The point of this post is NOT that you do not or should not need medication.  The point is you can attack your anxiety INSTEAD of allowing it to attack YOU!  When you learn to control your brain’s faulty fear factor, you not only minimize the physical and mental distress of a panic attack but also maximize the effectiveness of your medication.  You will start to FEEL better!

 

A Potential Problem

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Photo by L Boatwright

“James” is a Billy Joel song from the 70s.  It’s the story of childhood friends, one who fulfilled his own dreams and another who tried fulfilling everyone else’s.  Has anybody ever told you that you weren’t living up to your potential?  (Don’t you just hate that?) There are always areas in our life where we could stand a little improvement, but there is a difference between self-improvement and living up to potential.

Self-improvement is self-driven – we identify an area of improvement within ourselves and set about changing our thoughts and behaviors in order to improve in that area.  Our potential is rarely up to us, but rather is told to us by other people.  In other words, we are expected to meet somebody else’s expectations.

Very often, there is a mixed message here – one which fuels frustration and depression for many.  It starts in childhood, sometimes with comparisons such as why can’t you get good grades like your brother or you should try to be sweet like your sister.  The comparisons continue into adolescence and adulthood.  So-and-so’s kid is going to school to be a doctor — when are you going to do something with your life? or When I was your age I was already married – when are you going to settle down?  Regardless of the comparison, the implication is we are not good enough because we aren’t…well…somebody else.  The comparisons frequently come with a confusing and contradictory I love you the way you are…now please change the way you are type of message.

We learn early on to compare ourselves to others and in doing so frequently find we are falling short.  We begin to feel less than and dissatisfied, constantly pressuring ourselves to keep doing until we are good enough, then never believing we are good enough.  How then can we avoid the trap of perpetual potential?  Start by examining motives – yours and those of the people you feel are pressuring you.

You can determine your own motives by asking if the expectation you have put on yourself is truly self-driven and self-realized, or if you are simply trying to please somebody else.  If the purpose is rooted in ‘self’, then ask yourself is this something I actually wish for myself, or is it based on my own comparison of myself to somebody else?  Keep in mind, it is one thing to respect a particular quality in another person and seek to build that quality within ourselves.  However, doing so can become unhealthy when we lose sight of the area of improvement and instead begin a fruitless cycle of attempting to be more like somebody else.

Examining another person’s motives can be tricky, partially because they may not even be aware of them, or may be unwilling to admit their reasons for them.  One question worth answering is: is this something they wanted to achieve themselves?  People will often project their own unrealized hopes and dreams onto those around them in an effort to vicariously enjoy the experience they themselves missed out on.  Also, ask yourself if the other person’s expectation matches your own self-improvement goal.

Sometimes it won’t.  When that happens, you may try explaining why that particular goal doesn’t fit into your current plans.  But, let’s face it, some people cannot take “no” for an answer, especially if they think they are “helping you” into being a better whatever.  In those cases — particularly where the person keeps pressuring and pressing those depression and low self-worth buttons in your brain – you may want to consider ending the relationship.  In cases where you are stuck with the person, you might do your best to avoid the subject or quickly change it should they bring the topic up.

The bottom line is, when we try to live up to someone else’s idea of our potential, we will most likely find ourselves feeling inadequate and unfulfilled.  Identify your own idea of potential, set your own goals, and then go for them.  If somebody else’s expectations match yours, hooray!  When they don’t align, try not to sacrifice your own peace of mind by worrying about whether or not you will ever fulfill – in the words of Billy Joel – “…someone else’s dream of who you are.”

 

 

Sometimes, Okay Really is Okay

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I recently had one of those “the whole universe hates me” mornings.  I was getting ready for work, and my dental partial snapped in half.  Do you remember Witch Hazel from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons?  That partial is the only thing which keeps me from looking like her when I walk out the front door each day.  I admit to having an almost desperate dependence on it, and when it broke, all the panic buttons in my brain went off.  Thankfully, the most important section of the partial – which, incidentally, contains one of my front teeth – was intact and I was able to go to work, sort of smile at people, and enjoy a liquid diet for the day.  Still, a lot of self-talk was required to pull myself out of panic mode, and I purposed to identify the root cause of my anxiety response.

I know there are women in this world who would have responded with laughter.  They would have walked into work, flashed a big toothless grin and said, “Witch Hazel’s in the house today!”  I pondered the difference between myself and such women, and I realized; it’s an abundance of joy vs. an abundance of shame.  You may already be familiar with the concept: guilt says I made a mistake, shame says I am a mistake.  Shame is the thing which makes us believe it is somehow wrong to accept our faults, even if they’re not, well, our fault.

I remember a rhyme which was drilled into my head during childhood:

Good, Better, Best

Never let it rest

Until your Good is Better and

Your Better is Best

I hate that rhyme.  On the surface, it may seem harmless enough and many of us have been on the receiving end of similar messaging by well-meaning people.  Ever been told if you try your hardest, you can’t fail or you can always do better?  These may seem like words of encouragement, but they carry a damning implication: If you are not the best, then you are not good enough.  Very often, this is the message received and stored in the depressive brain, and it can generate a multitude of anxieties.

There is nothing wrong with trying to better ourselves.  However, when we “never let it rest” we put an awful lot of pressure on ourselves, and risk losing the ability to accept a compliment.  The depressive brain has a glitch in its filter and filing system.  It will take an incoming signal like “you look great today” and deliver it as “I must not look great every day.  I NEED to look great EVERY day”.  We hear a, “wow, she’s lost weight” comment about somebody else and although we may nod in agreement on the outside, inside our brain is misfiling that message into an “I must look fat, I better lose weight, too” directive.  We run exhausting mind marathons, secretly competing against others as we try to have the better job, better house, better relationship, better figure, etc.  In other words, we never let it rest until we are the best.  The trouble with this is there will always be somebody who is better than us at something.  We will die trying to out-do others and ourselves in our perpetual quest for perfection.

So, where do shame and joy fit in?  Shame leads us to believe okay is never okay.  The person who has found joy has learned — sometimes, okay is okay.  Joy is the life-preserver of self-esteem.  Shame is the ultimate joy-stealer, constantly revealing to us the tiniest flaws in even the loveliest of things, and particularly in ourselves.  For instance, we see a flower and our first response is what a pretty flower.   Within moments, the joy-stealer snatches that thought and replaces it with something like there’s a petal missing.  What begins as occasional pessimism can quickly evolve into a chronic condition of dissatisfaction and self-loathing.  We become unable to appreciate the beauty within ourselves because we are so focused on our own missing petals.

Overcoming this mental misdirection can open the door to joy, but requires a willingness to be very self-aware in order to chase the joy-stealer from our brains.  Try making a point to remember your “up” thoughts, such as what a pretty flower.  When the “down” thought comes, such as there’s a petal missing, counter it immediately by combining both thoughts into one accepting thought.  The internal conversation might go something like this:

What a pretty flower.  There’s a petal missing.  What a pretty, flower – even with a missing petal.

Make a point of celebrating even your smallest victories.  For instance, instead of focusing on the week you didn’t exercise, think about the times you did exercise and know you can do it again.  Write them down in a journal somewhere.  Then, when negativity aims its guns at you, you can reclaim your joy by reminding yourself of your achievements.  There may always be areas where we can use some improvement, but there are also times when “giving it a rest” is the very best thing we can do for our spirit.

Sublimation

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Photo by Ruth Caron

Defense mechanisms are behaviors we instinctively turn to when our self-image needs preserving or senses danger.  Have you ever known somebody to have a bad day at work then take it out on you?  They are demonstrating displacement.  How about the somewhat cliché “I can stop any time I want to” of the compulsive gambler or alcoholic?  That’s an example of denial.  Those are pretty overt defense mechanisms – fairly easy to spot — but sublimation is a sneaky devil, often blinding us to important matters.

We’ve probably all been told at one time or other to channel our grief, anxiety, anger, you name it, into “something productive”.  Great things can happen when we do.  For instance, somebody who was abused as a child may grow up to become a school teacher or social worker in order to help and defend other children.  A person who has lost a loved one may start a local support group for people who are grieving.  These are all examples of sublimation.  These are wonderfully productive ways to cope, right?  They are…unless they actually cause us to avoid coping.

Denial loves to wrap itself in the cloak of sublimation.  The key to knowing lies in our motives, and determining our true motives often requires a great willingness to be brutally honest with ourselves.  To expand on the previous examples, suppose a mom catches her son torturing a small animal and finds it is something he has done more than once.  She is shocked and disturbed because she knows this is atypical behavior for a child and possibly an indication he is missing some important traits such as compassion, tenderness, and respect for life.  She speaks to him calmly about his behavior, explaining why animal life matters, but when his behavior doesn’t change, she becomes even more distressed.  Not wanting to believe her young child is heartless, she decides to lead by example.  She begins volunteering at the animal shelter and hopes he will learn respect for animals by watching her.  When he doesn’t, she finds it difficult to be around him and increases the time she spends at the shelter.  Do you see what’s happened?  She is, in essence, trying to make amends for his behavior as well as for any perceived parenting flaws on her part, but in doing so she may be overlooking the root cause of his acting out.  What if he is being bullied at school?  Or abused by another family member?  This may seem like an extreme example, but you can probably substitute this boy and his mom with two people you know and come up with a similar “ostrich head in the sand” scenario.

The reason sublimation is such a popular defense mechanism (certainly my favorite!) is because it really can lead us to do good things.  However, sublimation lies to us, telling us we are coping exceptionally well with a problem when in fact, we are actually avoiding it.  If a man has an abusive boss, he may make a conscious effort not to discuss work at home believing he is protecting his partner from his work stress.  Day after day his partner asks, “What’s wrong?” and he replies, “Nothing.”  Then one day his partner leaves to find a relationship where the other person will be more present.  The man is shocked because he truly believed he was showing love by not burdening his partner with his problems.

How then to harness the productivity of sublimation without blinding ourselves to issues which need our attention?  Check your motives.  Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to play The “Why?” Game with yourself.  Ever encounter a young child (or remember being one?) who asks “why?” a gazillion times a day?  Do that.  Keep asking yourself “why?” until you uncover your true motive.

For the mom in our scenario, her “Why? Game” might look something like this:

  • Why do I volunteer at the shelter so much? Because I care about animals – I always have.
  • I never volunteered before, though. Why then is it so important to volunteer now? Because my son doesn’t care about animals. I feel guilty and saddened by his treatment of them.

That’s a pretty abbreviated version, but the key is to keep asking “why?” until you reach the following types of statements:

  • I feel / don’t feel…
  • I want / don’t want…
  • I can’t / won’t…

Examine these statements very closely.  If you find your motive is a variation of avoidance, it doesn’t mean you are wrong for doing the productive things sublimation has motivated you to do.  Rather, you can now use those as healthy coping mechanisms while you take the necessary steps to address the issue at the root of them.

Sense and Inability

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Photo by J. Thomas

The past six months have been a bit of a roller-coaster.  I completed my Master’s Degree, then got downsized from my job of 11 years.  I found a new job, but had to temporarily leave my family behind in another state in order to begin work.  Fortunately, every down has had its up, but it has truly been emotionally draining and I have found it difficult to relax and set my mind to doing anything – even the things I love to do – which is why this blog has been somewhat neglected over the past few months.  Why is it during those times we most need to be kind to ourselves, we seem least able to do so?

The depressive or anxious brain has many less-than-useful talents.  One is an ability to sense inability in nearly any situation.  When the unexpected bad happens, our lives become a bit like the broken horse on a merry-go-round – we feel stuck while life continues to spin on around us.  We start to forget we have choices because we are so focused on our problems we can’t see the various paths ahead for us to choose from.  When this happens, we allow our troubles to drive us forward rather than our strength and ideas.  Worry can quickly become a habit if we allow it to take over too much territory in the brain.

Another not-so-useful skill is the brain’s ability to take the energy we need for dealing with the issue at hand and diverting it into a hurtful self-assault.  Instead of attacking our problems, we attack ourselves with thoughts like, “I should’ve known this would happen”, “I deserve this”, “I’m such an idiot” and more.  This negative self-talk can be debilitating.  It simultaneously fuels our depression while halting our effectiveness.

In order to silence the naysayer of the brain, we need to be able to recognize negative self-talk as soon as it begins, then be ready with our counter-attack.  This is where some thought-stopping or thought-delaying techniques can come in handy.  Thought-stopping is useful when you are trying to stop a particular train of thought or eliminate a harmful thinking pattern.  Thought-delaying is helpful when you are trying to rest, relax, or focus but your thoughts won’t let you.

Thought-Stopping

Suppose you have recently gone through a painful breakup and find yourself thinking about your “ex” morning, noon, and night – or perhaps you are trying to give up a bad habit or addiction.  First, select a personal happy place such as a quiet beach, flowery meadow, or peaceful woods — whatever image calms you or makes you smile.  The next time unwanted obsessive or recurring thoughts arise, imagine flipping a switch in your head.  Imagine you are turning off the power to the unwanted thoughts and turn on thoughts of your happy place.  Sometimes it is helpful to even say “no” to yourself when you want to stop the intrusive thoughts.   This thought-stopping method empowers you by interrupting the unwanted train of thought and replacing it with something positive.

Thought-Delaying

If you’ve ever rested your head on the pillow at night, only to have your mind catapult itself into a hundred different things to worry about, try using a thought-delaying technique.  Start by keeping a pen or pencil and some paper near the bed.  At the top of the page, write “For Tomorrow” and as each worry comes, write it down and say to the thought “I’ll deal with you tomorrow”.  This little exercise prioritizes your thoughts (“rest now, worry later”) while providing reassurance you won’t forget about these things because you have written them down.  Some of our problems are absolutely legitimate and real, but sometimes – particularly in times of stress – minor issues feel and appear worse than they really are.  Thought-delaying may take some practice, but after trying it a few times you are likely to find when the new day begins, some of the previous night’s worries are far less overwhelming.