For those of you who read my blog regularly I have no explanation for why I haven’t written a post in a long while. I just didn’t feel like it. That’s all. Some days…or months! are like that. We are all doing well, including Anna.
Thanksgiving in the US is tomorrow. Normally my family has a large gathering. This year it is not happening. I know this is the case for many others. Our plans have changed in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We are also trying to be mindful of the impact this pandemic is having on many medical facilities. Given all that, what can we do to honor the reality of the changes this year while still celebrating the holiday?
I think it’s helpful to be aware of what you are feeling and why. This is not new to anyone who reads this blog. I frequently write about the importance of awareness: knowing what you are thinking as well as what you feel physically and emotionally. Stuffing our feelings inside does not taste nearly as good as the stuffing we shove inside a turkey! It might make the moment easier but in the long run you are setting yourself up for some kind of unhealthy leakage or explosion. I know this first hand 😉
So start by honoring your true experience but not letting it dominate you. You notice what you are thinking and feeling. You find the parts of your thinking that are based on made up stories or predictions i.e., “We’ll never have another family gathering!”, “Thanksgiving is ruined forever!”, “This pandemic is never going to end!” Those predictions could come true but we don’t know for certain. All we know right now is it is safest to limit our gatherings, our usual Thanksgiving traditions will need to be altered, and we are living in the midst of a pandemic. Keep your thoughts reigned in to what is true. The truth is painful enough for us. We certainly don’t do ourselves any good by adding the emotionally crushing predictions.
Next, consider what you are grateful for. When the pilgrims celebrated their first harvest celebration, they had already endured tremendous hardship, illness, and loss. Sometimes the less we have, the more grateful we can become. The little things begin to take on more meaning. Many of us have a roof over our head, food to eat, and technology that allows face to face communication. We can step back and be grateful for those. We can look around us, at nature, the sky, sun, moon and starts and marvel at their beauty. Take a moment, breathe as deeply and slowly as you can, and soak in the beauty…the gratefulness. Let this moment bathe you and nourish your soul. Carry it with you and share it with others.
Our feelings about situations or relationships can be misleading yet we often base our understanding of reality on a feeling we have. Shift your thinking to the data. Does it prove your feeling is right or does the data offer up a shadow of doubt? If you feel your friend doesn’t like you ask yourself why. What tells you your friend doesn’t like you? Is it because she hasn’t called in awhile? Do you know why she hasn’t called? Probably not. You are likely starting to build a case for your feeling but it’s based on assumptions and skewed data in an unwise attempt to prove your theory. Be very careful how you read into information. Step back and take on a neutral stance. Then sort through the data. Also, it helps to contact those involved, in this case the friend, and ask. We have a tendency to create stories without checking our facts.
There’s lots to worry about right now and if we aren’t careful those worries will swallow us up. The run on toilet paper got me thinking about humans’ thinking process. I have toilet paper. Not a stockpile, the leftovers from my last purchase several weeks ago. But now, I WANT toilet paper. I feel the fear settling in, “Oh my gosh there’s no toilet paper! Will we run out?” and I want more toilet paper. I want to be sure I don’t end up without it. If I let this scarcity/panic side of my brain take over I will become animalistic in my search for toilet paper. I really don’t want to sink to that level. I have paid far too much money for therapy to literally flush it down the toilet. So what do we do? For starters, recognize your thoughts and walk yourself through the following thought and emotion processing technique:
- What are you thinking?
- What are the accompanying emotions?
- Identify your thoughts that are based in reality and those that are based on a created story.
- Throw out anything that isn’t beyond-a-shadow-of-reasonable-doubt true.
- Now what do you feel? Acknowledge the emotion for a few minutes.
- Take a few deep breath cycles, look at nature, and let the emotion go or just know it’s there but not let it capture all of your attention.
- Regarding the situation, where do you have control that is healthy, legal and wise?
- Do what you can.
- Get in some good, healthy, legal and wise self-care.
For my toilet paper scenario, here’s what I did (and am doing as it tends to crop up now and then…this isn’t a once and done practice, it’s a rinse and repeat practice):
- I’m thinking I don’t have enough toilet paper because there’s none on the store shelves and everyone is talking about a toilet paper shortage.
- I feel anxiety about not having enough toilet paper and confusion about why this is happening…where did all the toilet paper go?
- The true and real thoughts are: There’s no toilet paper at the stores I have been to or online. Even the horrible but eco-friendly Who Gives A Crap toilet paper is gone. (I bought a case of that awhile ago. I’m so sorry. I really want to be good to the environment but that is the worst toilet paper ever!). The made up, not true, future-tripping, created story thoughts are: I’m going to run out of toilet paper. I don’t really know this will happen. It could happen but hasn’t and likely won’t for a few weeks. If it does happen we can figure something out.
- I don’t need to focus on the coulds because they aren’t in the present and it’s not going to help me at all to focus on this particular could. I’m throwing those thoughts away – figuratively of course!
- Now I feel a little nervous about toilet paper but not panicky.
- I’m breathing in “It’s going to be ok” and breathing out “Let it go” (the toilet-paper-fear that is)!
- My healthy, legal and wise control is to use our toilet paper responsibly, let go of the toilet paper panic, don’t get caught in the herd mentality, stay aware of my thoughts and keep shushing the crazy-making toilet paper voice.
- I’m doing it right now, #7 that is.
- I’m going for my daily walk as soon as I finish this post.
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Do you remember a time when you did not prepare adequately for something that resulted in a negative experience and then you spiraled into a pool of shame? I do! I’m an Adjunct Professor for Dr. John Townsend’s Masters in Counseling graduate school at Concordia University in Irvine CA. Recently, I was teaching a live class and couldn’t get a video I wanted to show to work. I did not prepare, I just assumed I would have no problem.
After class I started beating myself up for not having taken the time to prepare the video for class. I went into an accurate yet harsh spiral that moved into an inaccurate and harsh spiral. I could feel all of this icky energy in my stomach and hearing the message, “You should not be a professor! You are not good enough for this task!” I felt the all too familiar pull toward a shame spiral over it.
Eventually I also employed skills to battle the spiral. I reminded myself that I was using a harsh voice. The truth is I wasn’t prepared and it took away from valuable class time. The harshness came from a meanness toward myself which then shifted to inaccurate shaming statements that I shouldn’t be teaching and that I’m not good enough. I made a mistake, yes, but that is not a definition of who I am.
I didn’t magically feel better after battling the shameful harsh judge inside of me, but I did stop the powerful avalanche of all the ways I fail from dislodging and suffocating me. The next day, I shared this experience with my husband and later a trusted group of women (we had scheduled this gathering weeks before-I’m so grateful for God’s perfect timing!). It felt good to speak it aloud and also hear their encouragement. We all need it!
This reminds me of the power of Dr. Townsend’s book, People Fuel. We need others to hear our hurts and help us activate our healthy coping skills. Our healing journey is just that, an ongoing journey. For me to ignore or dismiss the disappointment I felt would only set me up for further damage and deny my actual experience. That denial would lead to stuffing my authentic experience and pretending I was fine. This pretending leads to disconnection with others because I then project the “I’m perfect” facade and no one can relate to that. The disconnection with others leads to unhealthy behaviors like quitting things I love after making a mistake (I have a history of doing this!). Instead, I embrace my reality because it gives me an opportunity to choose community over isolation, healthy over unhealthy, and growth over stagnation. This embracing also reminds me that perfection is unachievable and never what God intended. 🙂
I was pondering the struggle of a butterfly as it makes its way out of a chrysalis. I was thinking about the word for that and catharsis came into mind. That isn’t exactly the right fit but I was considering how important it is not to stop a person from releasing deep emotion; just like the butterfly who struggles to get out of the chrysalis. If we snip the chrysalis and free the butterfly it will drop to the ground, its wings useless. The struggle is what strengthens its wings and enables it to fly, a critical component to a butterfly’s life. If we do the same to a person, pluck them out of their internal struggle, they may not strengthen necessary parts within.
Catharsis involves a process to free oneself of profound emotion. If I say, “Oh you’re fine, just move on” or “Look at the bright side of life”, the person is being encouraged to ignore or push down his real emotional experience. There is power and freedom in allowing our emotions to rise to the surface and spill or even gush out of us. If we can do that with others who are willing to hold that emotion with us, the healing is exponential. The job of the holder is to be there, which communicates, “Yes, I see your pain. I will not ignore it. I will not tell you to ignore it. I’ll sit with you as you feel it. I’m here. You are seen and not alone.”
Sometimes people need words, some need silence. Some people need physical comfort, some don’t. As one who sits alongside another in her pain, ask how you can best support her in her pain. She will likely tell you. “Just be here with me.” “I need a hug.” “Tell me it’s ok to be so sad.”
Stay away from moving her to fix or solve her problem. She will either get there on her own as she allows her pain to be felt or she will ask for your help in what to do about the situation. If she doesn’t, at some point, after lots of tears, you may ask, “Would you like help figuring out what to do about this?” If the answer is no, accept the no and don’t press the issue. You can say, “If you ever want to talk about the pain or solutions, I’m here. Just ask.” If the answer is yes, search together for solutions. Avoid having all the answers. Let her explore, too. Even the searching for the next step is part of strengthening her wings.
For some, simply the experience of purging the emotion and being literally or figuratively held in that space is all he needs for healing. Some pain doesn’t need a solution or a next step, some simply needs to be felt and released. And sometimes that same pain comes back again, and needs to be released, again. It’s all a part of the healing process.
Sitting with someone in their pain is not easy. That’s why many of us avoid it or try to smooth it over so the person doesn’t make us uncomfortable. Press into that. What’s that about you that you avoid emotional pain? Maybe you have your own catharsis to experience!
Sometimes the best self care is being heard by someone who cares. I was recently feeling a bit down. I spent time with God, reading His words (the Bible), sat in my favorite chair with my dog, did yoga, and went on a walk. These are all self care activities I need on a regular basis to fill myself up but on this day, nothing seemed to help. By the end of the day, I finally called my husband and told him I was down. I told him why and he just listened. He was compassionate with me and gently said things like, “That’s hard,” and “I hear how sad you are right now.” He didn’t tell me what to do to feel better or how I should just snap out of it. I didn’t need any fixes, I just needed to be heard.
As I talked with him I also explored some of the factors contributing to my sadness. It felt good to connect the dots. He didn’t connect them for me but instead just listened with compassionate responses so I knew he was listening to me. Toward the end of our conversation I started to feel the darkness lift. Just speaking my experience was helpful. That was what I needed to move through my sadness and out onto the other side.
I know that in all circumstances there is no one size fits all. There are times when I want help figuring something out and will ask for ideas. It’s important for me to keep up my self care as well. That said, there’s something super powerful and healing about being heard, being seen, and validated in our experience.