Three things you need to know about anger: Is it mentally “healthy”?

The problem with figuring out if anger is “good” or “bad”; “healthy” or “unhealthy” doesn’t allow any opportunity to figure out what anger does, how it works, and why it makes sense.

Think of your living room couch. Is it a “good” couch or a “bad” couch? Wouldn’t it sort of depend on a bunch of different things- such as comfort, style, how old the couch is, how many people can fit on the couch, or if the couch actually suits you? Usually if a couch has a use, serves a purpose, or does what it is supposed to it is considered valuable. While it is possible that you are sick of your living room couch- perhaps you think it is time to get a new one- your couch may be necessary to hang on to for now. On the flip side, you may be very happy with your living room couch. This could make it more likeable and increase your tendency to say, “It is a good couch.”

Emotions- like anger- are like couches. Instead of thinking about anger as being “good” or “bad”, it is more important to consider the following:

How is anger serving a purpose, fulfilling a function, or doing something useful? Anger can function to communicate, get someone to back off or change behavior, or change a situation for the better. Think of it like a red flag, a signal, or a message.

Is the way in which the expression of anger is effective? In other words, is the way you communicate your anger working for you?  What a person can make use of their anger by being aware of it (experiencing, tolerating, and understanding what it does for them) it increases the opportunity for effective expression (ie, another person heard, understood, and responded accordingly). On the other side, ranting or attacking often hurts relationships and doesn’t always send a clear message about expectations or desired change.

What are the relationship consequences for how the anger is being expressed? Relationships at some point might undergo rifts, misunderstandings, and irritation. The ability for people to tolerate these things in relationships sometimes help people grow, initiate important discussions, and bring about change or intimacy. On the other hand, anger that is overly intense can damage relationships, hurt other people, or add insult to injury.

10 Reasons why you need The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon Elephants book this holiday season

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.

 

 

10 things you can do to survive painful life situations

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.

What should you do with the elephant in the room?

The elephant in the room usually refers to the thing that’s not being said. Typically the thing that is not being said should be obvious, but it is not.

Things that don’t get said have a tendency to create a bit of stress! Consider what happens if what needs to get said doesn’t get said.

  • It becomes avoided
  • No one brings it up
  • You think someone else should bring it up
  • By not talking about it, it gets ignored
  • Ignoring it makes it worse
  • Ignoring it makes it so that others continue to do and say things that create problems or are hurtful

Generally the cost of bringing the elephant into the room is one in which people have to contend with something big.

If the big thing is in the room, this might generate anxiety or even anger. The participants in the room would have to tolerate a conversation in which stuff was out in the open, even if it meant dealing with things that are hard to talk about. However, if the elephant could be invited in to the room and managed, it might just be the case that elephants would eventually become easier to handle.

One quick tip for bringing the elephant into the room is to describe in an accurate, matter-of-fact way what you have observed. This helps lower defensiveness and doesn’t come across as an attack. Keep your tone of voice neutral and curious, and be ready to hear the other person out- even if what they are saying is hard to hear. Consider that the other party may find it just as difficult to talk about, and it may take more than one try to bring the elephant into a place where it can be seen for what it is.

Consider: What is it costing you to keep the elephant out of the room? 

Four brief ways in which mindfulness can actually be used to help you cope: Practical applications of being mindful.

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.

Making space for your jumbled, confused, disorganized, messy, or incoherent cartoon elephants (emotions!).

This is a picture of what your elephants (emotions!) might look like if they get bunched up like a bad traffic jam.

A lot of effort may need to go into sorting, identifying, labeling, and describing your elephants. It is quite possible that you neglect to do this because you do not believe in the existence of cartoon elephants. Or maybe you do not think your elephants are important, other people tell you your elephants are not important, other people blame you for the situation that you are in, or other people do not offer very much space to allow the assortment and organization of your true cartoons.

Here are some tips for sorting your elephant situations: Gently notice your elephants. Make space for their messiness, disorganization, or lack of words. Don’t get hung up on WHY you feel the way that you do. Often people feel if they can not explain what they feel, then the unexplained should not have the right to exist.

When you start to make space for experience, elephants will slowly start to sort themselves out. When people can’t really organize and articulate experience, it can result in incoherence. People need coherence to feel organized, communicate effectively, and exert influence.

If you have nothing more right now than a jumbled pile of elephants going on, make sure that you make some space to be curious, allow elephants to exist (cartoon elephants do, indeed, exist!), and give them a bit of breathing room. It is possible that this task is twice as hard when people around you are unable to do this with you. Remember to be patient with your elephants, because impatience can often result in a bigger jumble. And, if you’re not used to making space for your elephants, it may take a lot of practice.

Don’t give up!

Loneliness and the New Year

Loneliness may have to do with a feeling as if something is missing. A loss of connection, a loss of relationship, a loss of well-being, or a loss of what could or should have been.

New Years Eve may bring up a loneliness for several people, and may be related to anxiety or discouragement regarding:

  • Personal failures or setbacks over the course of the year
  • Uncertainty about how to be around the people currently in your life
  • The relationships you think you should have but don’t
  • Comparisons to others who may be having “more fun” or “a better time” than you
  • Not being invited or included in the way that you think you should be
  • Not feeling a sense of connection to anyone
  • Anxiety about what it means for you (on this particular day of the year) to not be in the place you want in your life right now

Loneliness can happen to people who are surrounded by family during the holidays, to married couples, to engaged couples, to divorced people, to single people, to people who are with the people they want to be with, and to people who have a wide range of established connections and meaningful relationships.

Just like pain, loneliness doesn’t discriminate across ethnicity, class, gender, age, or social economic status.

There is always someone who is lonely!

Suggestions:

  • If anxious indecision is part of your pain, accept whatever it is you have chosen to do (who you are with and how you will spend your time) to bring in the New Year
  • Find a way to acknowledge loneliness, even if the only thing you are doing is reading this blog post
  • Bear in mind that loneliness is not a reflection of personal failure on your behalf
  • Spend the holiday in such a way that is the most meaningful to you despite your loneliness
  • If there is someone you could reach out to or make a connection with- consider doing it
  • Remember that this too, shall pass

When trauma forces us to look at what matters: Newtown, CT, and surviving emotional pain

Traumatic experiences have a tendency to shake us to the very core, calling into question our beliefs about humanity, safety, influence, power, control, and faith. When traumatic things happen, our vulnerabilities are exposed. We may feel raw, defenseless, or powerless.

Trauma cracks open our humanity in ways that may bring out the extremism in all of us.  Some people may react to the experience of helplessness by shutting others out. This might be manifested through withdrawal, avoidance, criticism, verbal attacks, or vigilant efforts to control everything and anyone.  Others might reach out, remember what really matters, or connect more deeply to those around them. Some are suddenly more conscious of what they cannot control; thus seeking to strengthen relationships, deepen their faith, or work harder to protect those they love.

Sometimes it is difficult to know how to react to others who are in pain. One way of addressing our own feelings of helplnessness in these situations is to contribute, share, mobilize efforts to help, reach out, or make ourselves available.

In light of the recent school shootings, I’ve put together some tips for how to be with people in pain. I hope that these tips go beyond today and tomorrow, and that they can be considered useful in the everyday experience that connects us not only to each other but to places like Newtown, CT.

  • Make space for emotions- both your own and someone else’s
  • Acknolwedge pain by allowing it to exist.
  • Instead of platitudes, changes of subject, false reassurances, or noisy chatter try to tolerate discomfort and awkwardness
  • Be direct and invite experiences of emotion to be talked about openly. Name the elephants in the room.
  • The more comfortable you are talking direclty and openly about how you feel, the more of an invitation this will provide for others
  • Be aware that others may not express emotions in the way you expect
  • You don’t have to understand why exactly people behave the way they do in order to be helpful. Try focusing on the what of the feelings instead of the why.
  • Be prepared for ambiguity, uncertainty, and lack of clarity. Being emotionally present is more important than analyzing details or intellectually distancing and describing behavior.

Remember that people sometimes need invitations to experience and express a wide range of intense emotion in the wake of trauma. It is a lonely experience to diminish pain or act like it doesn’t exist- when what is needed most is the experience of not having to face it alone.

6 quick tips on mindfully navigating the holidays when you aren’t “feeling” it

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.

7 Tips for handling stressful holiday interactions:

Try to plan your interactions or the time you spend with family in such a way that you can take “breaks” from emotional intensity.  This can include limiting or structuring the time you spend together, planning for short periods apart (ie, going for a walk), suggesting that you need a few minutes to clear your head, or keeping some things routine. Long periods of unstructured time can invite boredom or agitation.

Consider: “My family member is doing the best they can right now.” Instead of thinking “Seriously? That’s all they can DO?” Think of them as limited, finite human beings. Instead of doing this in a condescending way, try a stance of gentle acceptance. We are all bound to be disappointed in people we care about and sometimes it is just hard to deal with.

Appreciations: Try focusing on one thing about each family member that you like, respect, honor, or value. Make it a point to tell this to each family member. Sometimes when people hear what they are doing well they are less likely to generate conflict

If you exit, do it with grace. Don’t add insult to injury, make things worse, or behave in a way in which you would lose your own self-respect. If you can’t do anything to make it better, don’t rub salt in old wounds.  Try to plan ahead how you would cope adaptively if the “worst case scenario” were to happen.

If you are a person who focuses on controlling everything, pick one thing ahead of time that you are not going to try to control. Practice letting go, accepting what is, and acknowledging it openly. No critical comments allowed. 

If loss is a theme for you this holiday, do something special to honor the person in your life who is missing. Talking about what this person meant to you, how much you cared for him/her, or how you spent time together might help. Sometimes family members need to be invited to honor their sadness because they are so busy avoiding it. If no one is there to honor your own sadness with you, see if you can find a way to honor sadness within yourself.

Ways of being together as a family: Topics for everyone to share: Talk about a highlight of the week, a favored memory of a family event, a recent accomplishment, something they did this year to increase their quality of life, what each of you wants 5 years from now, or wishes that each family member has for each other.