Going into the bookstore has always been a positive experience for me. I am always filled with wonder at the millions of things I feel I could learn when I visit a big bookstore. I get the sense that I could just pick up a book, read it, and acquire a new skill, craft, or some time of knowledge that wasn’t there previously.
A few years ago, though, I wanted to write my own book. I was working on The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon Elephants. I would go into a bookstore and I would have the sensation that there were so many delightful, treasurable, and competing ideas and books that it almost felt as if I would just become one more competing voice. That my contribution wouldn’t make a difference. That all the ideas were taken. That people had accomplished so much more than I would ever be able to accomplish. The experience of going into the bookstore, as exciting as it was, had the potential to tap into my anxiety and prompt me to stop writing my book.
Sometimes “good” stressors open up in our life. What we really want is at our fingertips. Feeling good, contributing our own ideas, finding our voice, speaking up, influencing the world, and getting out of a place of feeling trapped, helpless, or stuck becomes an option. It’s there in front of us. We have the choice to be powerful and make a difference.
Sometimes these options cause us to shy away, shut down, stop believing in ourselves, not think we are good enough, or feel as if we are undeserving. These types of beliefs get in our way of taking action, having a better life, and surrounding ourselves with things we really want.
Here is a question for you: What is the cost of sitting back, becoming inactive, or avoiding what you want the most? How might your life be different if you approached -and got- what you want?
Ultimately, I was able to finish my cartoon elephant book. My confidence may still vary when I am around lots of beautiful books, smart people, or fabulous contributors to society. But I know that by not giving up on my goals, people have enjoyed my cartoon elephants, given me positive feedback about my book, and have found the cartoon elephant book to be a fabulous resource in addressing their own painful emotions.
1. The Cartoon Elephant book, after being temporarily unavailable through Amazon, is now back on the market. The retail price is $26.95, but sometimes Amazon will let it go for a bit less.
2. Cartoon Elephants approach painful emotions with humor. If there is an elephant in the room in your family, this book is the starting point for approaching avoided conversations. You will recognize yourself and others in this book. There is no finger pointing or blaming.
3. Cartoon Elephants is something you can put on your coffee table. Because it is a graphic book with pictures and fun fonts, it is an easy read. The elephants will fit nicely next to big picture books about Africa and Asia.
4. The Cartoon Elephant book is being used to teach people in Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills groups about emotions. Loaded with psycho-educational material and teaching points, it cleverly accomplishes the task of making people think they are reading something fun yet giving them something valuable.
5. This book is not hard to read. There is no “plugging away” at chapters. If you want to bring something to someone’s attention in a way that is universally applicable, this book will do the trick. You don’t need to have painful emotions to appreciate elephants- you just need to have emotions.
6. If you are going to buy someone a self-help book for Christmas, this is safe bet.
Whether they believe it or not, everyone has cartoon elephants. The research proving this to be true is cited in the back of the book.
7. This book can be used and re-used, read and re-read. You can share it with family members, friends, or long lost relatives. It won’t go out of style. Emotions, as a rule, will be with you as long as you live.
8. You will get some food for thought about how and where you see yourself in relationship to your elephants. This is great for discussion groups, weekend retreats, and writing workshops.
9. This book is great for people of all ages. If you’re trying to get your kid to read something important, heavy, and deep, you can give them this book. It won’t take long to read and it is much more fun with illustrations.
10. The book will be the perfect introduction for my live series on emotions starting January 20, 2014. Of course you don’t need the book to sign up, but if you have the book you will have a better appreciation for cartoon elephants in general.
1) Remember what matters. Consider the connections you have and what your current relationships mean to you. Do something today to honor those relationships, even it if is just expressing appreciation or liking.
2) Look for meaning in the current situation; including spirituality, faith, understanding, vulnerability, and connection. Sometimes our own painful situations get us to take our guard down, soften our stance, and risk letting others in.
3) Keep in mind the “bigger picture.” How do you think you will be looking at this situation in ten years? Sometimes focusing on our current pain prevents us from seeing reality in perspective.
4) Sometimes, when we are in pain, we look around us and see how other people don’t have to go what we go through. Instead, consider what you have right now that someone else would want (A job, an able body, health, a place to live, a relationship, a child, a parent, someone to love you, a garden outside your window).
5) Consider rehearsing, imagining, or writing out a scenario in which you cope adaptively. The key is that you don’t avoid reality and that you respond in such a way that you maintain your self-respect.
6) If you can’t solve a big problem right now, solve smaller problems. Sometimes taking care of smaller problems gives us a sense that we are doing something as opposed to being passive or helpless.
7) Give your mind a “break” by planning adaptive distractions that have nothing to do with your current life stressors. Sometimes perseverating on a painful situation makes us think that we are actually doing something to solve it.
8) Take care of your health. Remember that physical activity can help you “shift gears” by releasing endorphins and changing your physiological arousal. Don’t forget to eat. When you eat, pause and actually taste the food.
9) The only way to get through a situation is to survive the moment. Instead of denying, avoiding, or escaping the moment, breathe into it. This moment too shall pass.
10) Consider how you typically respond to a crisis. Do you do anything to make it worse, such as complete avoidance, threats, or escalations? Take the first step towards doing what works. Be effective and do what is needed, even it if is hard.
Here are a few simple ways in which learning and using mindfulness can help people.
Quiet the mind. A simple mindful activity such as focusing on the breath for a few minutes can help people slow down racing thoughts, lower emotional arousal, and feel a bit more settled. If a person can take emotional arousal down a few notches, he or she may feel more prepared to face a situation that evokes anxiety.
Focus attention: When people are wholeheartedly involved in one task (focusing all of their attention on whatever they are doing), their mind is typically not racing, jumping, or scattered. Focusing on one thing can help a person feel less disorganized.
Become grounded, centered, or more connected to ourselves, our environment, or our surroundings. This can be important if you have a hard time relating, enjoying, or benefitting from pleasant experiences. Sometimes the focus of attention is on pain, threat, or impending crisis and it’s hard to absorb the stuff that makes us feel better.
Help you be clear on what you feel: We know what we feel because we sense it in our bodies. Some people spend a lot of time trying to ignore, hide, repress, or inhibit what’s going on inside. Being mindful can help us get back in touch with emotion, discomfort, and even desire.
Want to learn how to be mindful? Click here to try my 30 days of mindfulness program and receive one e-mail a day for 30 days with a mindfulness tip, suggestion, skill, or practical “how to”. If you’ve already done it, click here to do the 30 (more) days of mindfulness- for a total of 60 days of opportunities to learn mindfulness.
Notice what you feel without judging. Sometimes people believe that if they don’t feel a certain way, they are missing out on some kind of grand, spiritual, or wonderful experience. I am reminded of the Charlie Brown Christmas special in which he doesn’t feel like he “should”. Not everyone is awed, exhilarated, or spiritually “moved” this time of year.
Accept and acknowledge the mundane, the everyday, or the not-so-wow experiences this season. Remember that the glue that holds us together in the smaller, everyday nuances of our existence and our relationships also has meaning. Foster the relationships that matter.
If you want to feel more connected and less detached, practice ways to participate willingly, go with the flow, risk being open, and become involved. Volunteer, show up for the holiday parties, attend services, and remain attentive and awake to what is going on around you. Although it is possible that exerting energy takes effort (and may not completely diminish loneliness), it gives you an option to temporarily shift your mood.
Find the stillness within– Crowds, shopping, to do lists, and holiday planning can be overwhelming. Finding stillness within yourself can help you cope adaptively, slow things down, find your wisdom, and stay grounded. Bear in mind that you have the ability to find inner wisdom, but sometimes emotions and other people can get in your way of finding it. Try the suggestions below:
Find 2-5 minutes once a day from now until Christmas to sit quietly, observe your breath, and gently pay attention to whatever sensations arise within you. After sitting quietly, try writing: I notice… I would like… I feel…I sense…I think…I am aware of…I am most worried about…
If you are out shopping or involved in intense holiday planning, make sure that you don’t skip meals or shop on an empty stomach. Take periodic breaks that include sitting down and being away from loud noises, bright lights, and crowds. Consider what you need and the cost/ benefit of overestimating your energy and pushing yourself too hard.
One way in which we buffer negative emotion, stressful life events, and painful circumstances is to create opportunities for positive emotion, tell people about these opportunities, and plan activities and events in our lives that we look forward to doing.
One way of doing this is to build mastery. This means doing things that are challenging or hard and provides opportunities for growth and achievement. Building mastery generally gives us a sense of purpose, accomplishment, or an “Aha! I did it!”. Not having enough challenges can make us bored, which can be a contributing factor for depression. Approaching something that we have been avoiding, taking an emotional risk in sharing what we are feeling, or speaking up when we usually don’t might all be ways of building mastery.
Another way to create positives is to really notice and experience the small comforts throughout your day. Small daily pleasures or simple “little” things often get taken for granted, ignored, or neglected when we are focusing on our pain. When we plan for pleasant events and opportunities, resulting positive emotions show up more often. Consider spending time with someone you care about, fostering a relationship, attending and listening carefully, or being emotionally present when you are with someone. Consider sharing recent pleasant events, ways in which you are building mastery, how you are working on short or long-term goals, or what you are looking forward to this week.
Has anyone ever told you to simply turn a negative into a positive? Maybe people have told you to get over it, move on, keep your chin up, or let it go. At some point someone may have suggested returning unfavorable actions with kindness, acting happy when you were not, or being pleasant despite unpleasant circumstances.
Is this kind of feedback actually helpful? Here are some thoughts on this manner:
There is some value in being able to shift perspective, look at the bright side, or even create positive emotions by doing things that are enjoyable and pleasant. It can also be quite beneficial to “shift gears” by getting your mind off your problems and distress, see things differently, or look at the bigger picture.
Sometimes, however, when the focus of our attention is always on the “positive”, it can prevent or inhibit us from fully experiencing emotion, approaching or addressing conflict in an adaptive manner, and having those “difficult conversations” in which disagreement means risking sharing what we really think and feel. Sometimes focusing on the “positive” can create environments in which there is very low tolerance for negative emotion, pain or sadness is never acknowledged, and people remain isolated in their inability to connect more deeply with each other.
However, the other extreme for this situation can also be that persons are chronically down, depressed, moody, irritable, or aggravated. Sometimes emphasizing or holding onto these experiences are a testament that pain exists, that pain is real, and that the world should acknowledge it more. Sometimes people get “stuck” in these places, however- and have considerable difficulty shifting out of it.
A full, rich, and meaningful often involves the ability to connect to others in a meaningful way, to express vulnerability and not be alone in our pain, to take emotional risks in sharing what matters, and to (also) show up for the pleasant, mundane, simple, and joyful experiences that life has to offer. This means neither getting “stuck” in painful emotions nor living a life of hiding, masking, “sucking it up”, or denying what is painful. In reality, emotions come and emotions go. Sometimes they are intense and sometimes they are extreme. The key is to allow them to be there when they come and allow them to leave when they are ready to go. When we can both acknowledge our own pain and participate in the happiness of what life offers (taking into account the truth of both perspectives), we will have better ways of managing the lemons of life.
Acceptance is considered to be a critical component to being able to cope adaptively. People who are able to accept what is (or what has already happened) are generally able to move more fluidly through life. They have less problems getting “stuck”, “hung up”, or “unable to let go”.
When I first learned about acceptance I thought it meant that I had to just deal with it. This angered me because I felt very alone. I thought it was another way in which I could not speak up or have a voice. Just dealing with it was a way in which I didn’t feel as if my pain, grief, or loss was being acknowledged. The concept of acceptance was difficult because it seemed as if the rest of the world was able to “move on”, but because I had strong feelings about it I wasn’t able to.
Accepting something is different from approving or liking something. I think this distinction is important, because some people think of acceptance as giving up, being hopeless, or becoming passive. Acceptance somehow gets translated into nothing ever changing.
However, being able to radically accept something is a way in which all of reality can be fully acknowledged. A person cannot change the past or avoid what has been lost. It is hard to live a rich, fully, and meaningful life if a person can’t see reality for what it is. In order to change reality, we have to first fully accept it. Often this means seeing all that is in front of us. Sometimes if we can see what is in front of us, we can access the resources and information we need to change it.
Often acceptance of something brings pain. The benefits of not accepting often have to do with keeping doors for sadness, loss, grief, or other kinds of emotional pain closed. Sometimes not looking at reality means not having to deal with reality. Acceptance of reality can also mean the acceptance of our own emotional responses and our own distress. While it may seem paradoxical to work on acceptance our own distress, this acceptance will help us grieve, understand ourselves, figure out what matters, and be more fluid in our ability to handle life’s losses.
I don’t think anyone could be in accepting mode all of the time. Acceptance sometimes comes in small parts, and sometimes there are some short-term benefits to non-acceptance. I don’t think anyone wants to live with loss, but sometimes the full acknowledgement of reality as it is enables us to get “unstuck.”