When life hands you lemons and you can’t make lemonade

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.

Is your anxiety helping or hurting you?

1)   Figure out the benefit(s) of your anxiety. Anxiety is beneficial when it activates us to solve problems or gets us moving on a task or activity. Our anxiety may be the push we need to speak up or speak out, to make changes in our life, to meet deadlines or study for tests, or to confront a difficult or situation. If anxiety is ignored, it might get stronger. What do you think your anxiety is telling you? What action is your anxiety getting you to take? Failing to take action when action is necessary may be one reason why anxiety is extremely strong.

2)   Figure out how or if anxiety is getting your way. Anxiety can inhibit or interfere with your life if it prevents you from doing the things you want or love, prevents you from accomplishing life goals, causes problems at work, or causes problems in relationships. Crippling anxiety can severely restrict people from having a quality of life they want.

3)   Figure out if it’s worth it to change. Some people moderate their anxiety by avoiding everything that makes them anxious! In some cases, this can create even more problems.  Missing work, relationships, important social functions, conflict, or events that lead to connections and success can all be good reasons to get treatment for anxiety. However, if you expect a different outcome, you would have to be willing to do something different in order to make that happen. Otherwise, you will get the same results that you’ve always gotten.

4)   The most effective treatment for non-useful, too much, or extreme anxiety is exposure. What is exposure?  Exposure is when people come into contact with things that cause anxiety- and don’t push away, deny, escape, or avoid the feelings or thoughts that arise when in these situations. Over time they get better at tolerating painful sensations associated with fear and panic. Their brain also “gets” that the feelings and thoughts themselves are tolerable. This new learning leads to a reduction in anxiety.

5)   Obviously, exposure wouldn’t work in a situation in which fear is functional, useful, or valid. It makes no sense to change your anxiety if it is working for you. However, if your fear isn’t working for you, what risks would you have to do take to approach what you are afraid of? What would you have to tolerate? Consider how doing the opposite of what you have the urge to do can be uncomfortable in the short term, but help you have a better life in the long run.  After all, YOU are the one living your life!

Too needy? Too dependent? Too clingy?

When we desire or want things that other people aren’t able to give us, one option is to blame ourselves for wanting or desiring it in the first place. This can be especially true for people who feel misunderstood or unacknowledged.

When we blame ourselves for wanting or needing something from someone else, we not only fail to solve any problems- but also feel worse for being in this situation in the first place. Sometimes people believe that by determining fault they’ve actually solved a problem! The field of psychotherapy confuses this issue even further by using condescending labels like narcissistic and entitled, and implies that it is simply bad to want or need things in the first place.

If you have been in the business recently of sitting around, feeling bad, and blaming yourself for desiring something from another, here are a few things to consider that might help your relationships go more smoothly:

1) Are you clear about what it is you want in the relationship that you aren’t getting? Consider the intensity behind your request and the urgency of how you come across. Is there any particular pain involved that you are trying to avoid feeling, don’t want to accept, or don’t think you will be able to tolerate if the person can’t accommodate you? Sometimes urgency and intensity is increased when we don’t want to grieve, acknowledge our own loss regarding the relationship, or move on.

2) Consider that no one relationship can placate or accommodate all demands for affection equally. Intense and intimate relationships need periodic breaks. Is there a way in which your relationships complement different areas of need for you? Is there a way in which your need for affection, acknowledgement, or understanding can happen with more than one person?

3) Consider the diversity in which people in your life express caring, show appreciation, or give their support. See if there is a way you can focus on acknowledging this, and be willing to let go of focusing on what the person isn’t giving you.

4) Bear in mind that all people need and want things from other people: The ones who don’t get called narcissistic or entitled simply have ways of getting it effectively. One way of being effective is being able to read and interpret interpersonal cues accurately. If you know when to back off- and you are good at gaging what other people can tolerate- you will be easier to get along with and better liked. Forcing a square peg through a round hole in any relationship can hurt or even destroy the relationship.

5) Not having affection, acknowledgement, validation, or understanding now doesn’t mean that you will never have it or no one will ever give it. It may mean that you have to search around for it, you need to find it in other relationships- and you may have to tolerate the emotional pain of not having it right now.

What acceptance means in the face of loss

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.”

The particular sadness of lemon cake by Aimee Bender

Recently I read this novel and started thinking about the ways in which sensitive people have access to sensory information that the rest of the world doesn’t have, doesn’t pay attention to, or isn’t bothered by. The particular sadness of lemon cake is about a young woman to tastes other people’s emotions when she eats foods that they have made. Being able to access these experiences gives her all sorts of information that she doesn’t necessarily want- or know what to do with.

I think that sensitive and observant people often pick up on emotional tones, nuances, shifts in energy, and other aspects of behavior that not everyone sees. Knowing where to take this information, what to do with this information, and figuring out how to use it wisely can involve some growing pains. Some of the people that I treat have tendency to dismiss, attack, or hate themselves for having access to it in the first place. The character in The particular sadness of lemon cake even goes through a period of time in which wants nothing to do with her mouth.

Emotional sensitivity can be seen as a gift. Being reactive, tuned in, and responsive to others’ emotions can be difficult and painful- especially if people in the environment don’t get what you get. Instead of hating yourself for having the information in the first place, consider what you might do with the information.

Being perceptive and picking up on things that others aren’t picking up on doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to react or say something in the moment. It may be noticed, attended to, or worthy of discussion down the road. How do you think what you notice about other people that they don’t notice about themselves could be useful information? If you had this information and you wanted to respond to it in such a way that you felt good about yourself, how might this information help you 1) give someone accurate, meaningful, and relevant feedback 2) help you keep a relationship by (possibly) not saying anything- or by waiting and finding the right time to say something? In any case, consider a stance of openness and curiosity: What could it mean for yourself and the relationship?

When you get stuck in the spin cycle with your cartoon elephants (emotions)!

Some people spend their whole lives stuck in the spin cycle with their cartoon elephants- going around and around and around and around and around.

If this is you, it may feel as if getting out of the washing machine is simply not an option.

This is what you need to do: Notice.

When you start to notice, you may have to work hard on noticing things. One of the things you might start to notice is where the elephant is in relationship to you. If the elephant’s foot is stuck in your face, and it’s knee is under your armpit, then you are at least starting to notice something.

Noticing something is one step removed from noticing nothing. Once you start noticing the something you can try to notice if you can notice anything more. What characteristics, nuances, or subtleties can you pick up on? What else is it about the cartoon elephant that puzzles you, draws your attention, or keeps you focused on it?

You may notice that the cartoon elephant is stuck to you. It may feel like you can’t get away from the elephant, or the elephant is too close for your personal comfort. You may notice not liking or wanting the cartoon elephant around.

What is it about the cartoon elephant?

Often when I am confused, surprised, or agonizing over a particular emotionally charged circumstance I’m asking myself what IS it about this circumstance, or this situation, or this feeling…and I try to step back and get as much information as I can. If I pay attention carefully, without dismissing or judging, the feelings actually give me information.

What information can you get- even if it seems subtle or irrelevant- when you start to observe your cartoon elephants?

Mindfulness for the holiday season: Christmas and the New Year

December is a time of year in which our sensations can be easily bombarded. It’s easy to get stressed about Christmas shopping, overcrowded malls, travel plans, holiday parties, familial obligations, and in some cases, snowstorms.  The practice of being mindful is the intentional practice of focusing attention on one thing. Focused attention calms and settles the mind, and circumvents the rat race of disorganized, divided, and unfocused attention. It is a way to come back to the current moment and show up for everything the moment has to offer.

Here are three different ways of being mindful this holiday season:

Five minutes of breathing:

Sit quietly for five minutes and focus on the rise and fall of your breath. Every time you notice your mind wandering or your attention scattered, bring your attention back to the rise and fall of your breath. This may be a useful exercise to do after driving in bad traffic, being in a crowd, or after coming home from work.

Savor sensation: Take a few moments to take in the entire experience of the following:

  • The taste of peppermint. Do you really taste peppermint when you eat it?
  • Do you ever notice how the air changes as it grows colder? Try figuring out how the air smells or tastes. I’ve noticed the winter air to be crisp, bitter, biting, heavy, cold, damp, salty, and even woody.
  • Pay attention to tastes and smells that you enjoy- in other words, don’t pass them up or take them for granted when you notice them.

Show up for the moment…even if the moment brings pain

Sometimes people experience a great deal of sadness during the holidays: Spending holidays alone, spending a “first” holiday after losing a loved one during the year, or being reminded of recent losses or relationships ruptures.

If sadness is part of your holiday, consider:

  • Reflecting on what is important and meaningful
  • Allowing yourself to grieve deeply and fully, to cry openly, to acknowledge everything you experience with your heart wide open
  • Honor what has been lost
  • Be gentle and tender with yourself

Singing, carols, generosity of spirit, pageants, and performances can move people deeply.  If joy is part of your holiday

  • allow yourself to be moved to tears
  • fully experience, absorb, take in, and reflect on what you have
  • share with others what you appreciate or love
  • allow for the positive
  • recognize times in your life in which things have been difficult- and how different they are for you now.

Wishing you a holiday in which your experiences are rich and meaningful- I will be back at my blog posting in 2012!

An exercise in mindfulness: Thanksgiving turkeys

In my groups, we spend time at the beginning doing some sort of exercise to slow down, pay attention, come into the room, and notice what is going on.  Some of these exercises are specifically directed at paying attention to the breath. When breathing is slowed, paced, and regulated, a person has a better tendency to think clearer and become organized. Using the breath to regulate emotion, attention, and physical arousal is a very critical skill that frequently gets forgotten about in the heat of the moment- especially a very emotional moment.

Breathing exercises can sometimes be difficult. If you were to spend five minutes trying to focus just on your breath, you may notice spacing out, thinking about other things, and generally not paying much attention to the physical aspects of your breath. Therefore, breathing exercises may sometimes be paired with counting, walking, or other more concrete methods to help you get in touch- and stay in touch- with your breath.

Here is an exercise that is a tangible way of following the breath– and can easily be taught to young children as a way to self-regulate. Place your hand on a piece of paper and trace around it. Every time you move up to the tip of a finger, inhale. Every time you move down to the crevice between your fingers, exhale. Try to work on slowing down your breath so that it is even and steady. When you are done, start over. Keep Mindful Turkeygoing until you notice feeling calmer, slower, steadier, and perhaps more connected. Be gentle and notice any frustration if it doesn’t “work” right away.

One way to do this exercise is to keep tracing and re-tracing back your hand on one piece of paper. Another way to do this exercise is to not use paper and pen at all, but to trace your fingers with your other hand. This method can be used when you are out and about, in a meeting, or (depending on subtly it’s done) even talking to other people.

However, if you trace a new outline on new paper each time, you can start to accumulate several pieces of paper. If you’d like to add a beak and draw in some feathers on your “hands”, you can start to ask yourself: How many turkeys does it take to get calmed down? If you get really good and regulating your emotions by regulating your breath, you may find that over time the number of turkeys it takes will eventually go down.

Are your walls keeping people in or keeping people out?

With crisis comes vulnerability. When the unexpected happens, we are often confronted with the limits of our mortality. We realize that we can be deeply affected and influenced. The walls that we build around us get shaken, questioned, or torn down.

Fear is on our horizon.

Sometimes, when we are really scared we try to build more walls. We don’t want other people to see us. We snap at people we care about and become strict with ourselves about who sees our pain. We deny our pain to others. We can’t let other people in. We make promises to ourselves that we will never be that open, intimate, or invested in a relationship again. We can’t let other people care about us, and we become calloused to influence.  We aren’t able to receive compassion or see how much alike we are.

Last week I read a post about some people who were trying to make sense of 9/11. This book really touched me when I read it. Ultimately, there was a question of what walls we wanted to build. And in general how much of the world we want to let in. Surviving a crisis forces us to consider those questions.

Sometimes disappointment can be so unbearably painful that it makes sense to be a little cautious. On the other hand, allowing our fear to dominate our ability to be human, to make mistakes, to feel pain, to take risks, and to be vulnerable can prevent us from experiencing intimacy and connection.

Are the walls you build keeping you safe and protected or are they preventing you from reaching out, taking risks, and having a fulfilling and meaningful life?

 

Give your full attention to what is now.

Your life is about what you pay attention to. Your life may be about pain, joy, sadness, searching, getting rid of, or avoiding. It may be about the discomfort, the uneasiness, the anxiety, the emptiness. It may be about the looking for, the lack of, or the not enough.

Your life is about the very moment you are in.

Bearing with just this moment means being able to be okay with who you are in just this moment.

If this moment is about trying to get rid of all the experiences that come with it, your life will be about NOT tolerating the moment.

Being present with yourself is a willingness to acknowledge whatever is there- including pain.

Return to the breath. When you inhale, allow air into the tiny spaces, the tight muscles, the constricted areas, and the place of being stuck.