Can we train our brains to let go?

When I read the book The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, I identified strongly with a character. May, one of the sisters in the book, feels the pain of others so strongly it’s as if their pain, grief, horror, is hers. Attempting to manage all these overwhelming feelings, she scribbles names or descriptions on small rolls of paper and pushes the roll into the crevices of a stone wall she’s built–that way she tries to externalize the pain and get it out of her own head.

I’ve felt something similar over my lifetime, but more selfishly, usually the overwhelming feelings have been my own emotions of pain, grief, or horror. At my most generous I’ve felt a strong urge to help someone else feel less pain. Even that has often  been driven by the fact that their emotional pain hurts me. If I can help them feel better, more at peace, then I am more at peace myself.

I want to be an empathetic person, a truly empathetic for the right reasons kind of person. I just want to be able to do it with some balance and flair, like one of those people in a circus flipping from high trapeze to high trapeze in a shiny leotard. (Mine would be aquamarine. With feathers.)

Here was the major roadblock: I didn’t even know I could practice my emotional trapeze technique. I thought I was stuck with the techniques I had at that moment. And being stuck in a constant state of Big Feelings is exhausting.

Better late than never, right? If my life thus far has been in thirds–first third childhood/college/single, second two thirds marriage/divorce–does that make the next twenty years of my life the fourth third? However the math works out, I’m hoping to practice practice practice my way to balance and poise in my emotional state. I want to learn to handle my emotions differently, handle the emotions of others differently. I want to be more authentic in my responses to someone else’s harsh situation and the resulting feelings. This means my motive has to be about them, their pain, not mine.

Knowing how to respond to someone’s emotional upset helps me focus on them, their need, and gets my eyes off my own bellybutton. When we don’t sit with the unpleasant feelings that have rushed in, we won’t process all the way through to closure and acceptance. Here are two similar tools I’ve learned and personalized for ways to deal with the Big Uncomfortable Feelings and Words of life:

Observe those feelings. Feelings come and go. Sometimes they feel like we will never get past them, and maybe there are certain ones we default to because of the way we see the world and the people in it. Without trying to change or judge my painful emotions of fear or sadness or grief and so on, I use a visual image–I am a large rock in the middle of a stream or river, with the water carrying my feelings as it runs constantly over my head and around me. As the rock I notice the feelings as they come rushing toward me, over and around me smoothly. “Yup, there’s my sadness in this situation. There goes my anger at the unfairness of it…and my grief that the situation will never be the way I wanted it to be.” We can sit with our feelings as long as we need to for them to run their course, as they do. It’s calming and somewhat meditative to simply observe them.

In the same way but with a different visual, we can observe the negative words put on us by ourselves and by others. I touched on this in a previous post. The wind is hitting my face, and I see pieces of paper with the negative words I’m hearing, no matter who we may have received them from. Close your eyes and picture the words on the pieces of paper: Foolish. Stupid. Less-than. Too loud. Incapable. No voice. etc.. As the wind blows these notes against your eyes and mouth and cheeks, visualize them hitting but not sticking to your face. Those words of self and other judgment are being swept away by the wind. Keep picturing this in your mind until the words run out and you realize they’ve gone and are now papering somebody’s back garden fence.

Both are simple to do. Either could work for words or emotions. I’m a pretty visual person, so this type of exercise is helpful for me.

The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: Do you have repetitive words and phrases in your head or on your lips that label you negatively? Write a list of them. Do you have any big emotions you wish you didn’t have? Write a list. Use your list with either visualization, sitting quietly for 5 or 10 minutes and letting them clear out your mind of the labels, the painful feelings, and help you move forward. How did you feel after completing the exercise?

 

Remember that you have worth simply because you’re on this planet! #Ihaveworth

 

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The Good Girl Lie

I tried not to jerk as her acrylic nail shoved into my closed eye. I was getting a facial and she was attempting to press acupressure points just below my brow bones. I’d had this done before by people a bit more mindful of their fingernails, a very good thing.

Why did I feel I couldn’t say “Would you please pull your nail from my eye” or at least turn my head?

I’m often captive to The Good Girl Lie.

A Good Girl can never make someone Feel Bad. A Good Girl can never make someone Uncomfortable. A Good Girl is never to Stir The Pot, Make Waves, or any other liquid or solid analogy that suggests she might have an emotion/opinion/thought that differs.

The Good Girl Lie that is still written in my bones says that my discomfort doesn’t matter, that I should protect the feelings of others above all else–apparently this includes the safety of my own eyeball.

As I write this I hear how foolish it sounds. This Rule, as my therapist/favorite mental health provider calls them, runs deep. I was the youngest of three kids, so I had plenty of opportunity to see how poorly it went when my older siblings had an opinion, had a feeling, had a thought that ran opposite our parents’. I became the people pleaser of all people pleasers, trying to ensure my lovability.

This is a joy I brought with me into adulthood. Our childhood coping mechanisms rarely work well in a grownup’s world–they’re too simplistic, too far off to one side, lacking balance. “I don’t want to get yelled at therefore I will only be Nice” may make sense to a five-year-old, but it doesn’t work well in the real world, where we need another piece, the “I am responsible for my own safety and well-being” part.

Wanting to be Good above all else makes sense to us when we’re kids trying to stay out of trouble with our parents and teachers, but the problem is that we end up taking care of everybody’s gardens, trying to keep everybody happy. No fences or boundaries in this scenario, just lots and lots of neighbors’ weeds and flowers to tend. It’s exhausting! But when we have our own individual thoughts (this is not the relaxing facial I was hoping for) opinions (I don’t like that the esthetician makes it sound like she won’t serve clients unless they buy the pricey products on her shelvesand our own feelings (when she puts her fingernail in my eye it makes me feel grumpy and annoyed rather than relaxed) then we can still be pleasant in the moment while looking out for our own wellbeing. Listening to ourselves can inform our choices and give us options rather than seeing it all from a single viewpoint.

So I didn’t ask her to remove her acrylic from my eye, but it’s a work in progress, yunno?

And I don’t have to go back to her, right? Well, at least not until after the second facial because I paid for two……. *sigh*

The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: Do you have a personal equivalent to The Good Girl Lie? Something where you haven’t allowed yourself a voice because someone else might not like what you have to say? A place you just give in even though it’s abrasive to your soul? What’s a step you can take, a boundary you can make, to protect your own wellbeing?

Alright, let’s get out there and stay safe!

9/30/2017 Addendum: I realize I totally ate a slimy, undercooked poached egg yesterday just so that I “wouldn’t make a fuss”. It was gross. Still learning.

 

 

 

 

 

The beauty of acceptance.

I get so excited and giddy when it’s time to have my hair colored and cut you’d think I was headed for a month in Hawaii.

My hair appointments are two hours of freedom to simply Enjoy. I get to enjoy conversation with my stylist who has made sense of my hair when it went from straight to curly-ish, and who has fought bravely to tame my difficult grays. It’s a problem I don’t have to solve–I can trust her and RELAX.

There are few times when I’m this good and non-neurotic about letting myself breathe slowly and melt into acceptance of the exact place I find myself in at the moment, whether physical, mental, or emotional. Less pleasurable things are of course harder to accept–think dentist appointments. There I am forced to concentrate on breathing, also on releasing the death-grip I have on the chair arms. Pain of any sort takes more work.

There’s a gift to be appreciated in this place of Accepting and Allowing life to be exactly whatever it is at the moment. My second-guessing goes away, and the judgmental voices in my head are quieted when I’m present in the moment. Balance lives in this space where I’m simply observing my life, not obsessing over the past or the future.

I’m fortunate to have an amazing therapist who has helped me find my way out of the minefield scattered with all the Lies in my bones, and here are some articles I’ve found while wandering through Psychology Today online that speak to the ways we can change our brains and learn to be present:

  • How to develop “Zen Presence”  This is the type of mindfulness that helps us to be aware and observant of our thoughts and emotions as we move through our days.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy I don’t know if my Favorite Mental Health Professional (my therapist) calls it this, but it certainly describes much of what she’s been teaching me. Basically, what good does it do us to avoid/judge/deny our emotions? If there’s trauma or depression or chronic pain etc., denying our feelings will only cause more distress. Better we should learn to accept how we feel, learn from those feelings and find ways of moving forward and being productive.
  • Meditation: Ancient Practice With 21st Century Application In the third sentence the guy uses the word “fart.” Of course he’s my favorite. ANYway, this article does a great job of explaining how meditation and mindfulness practice work together to quiet the mind, ease stress and so much more, all by actually changing our brain chemistry! How cool is that? I’ve seen more self-acceptance and less judgment as I’ve learned these techniques.

I’ve been using the Headspace app on my phone, and it’s been helpful in teaching me different aspects of meditation. The app has a variety of topics like Anxiety, Focus, Pain Management, and even some sport related ones to explore once you’ve completed the basic 30 day introduction meditation sessions. I was relieved to find there’s even a way to look at the inevitable thoughts that start darting about while trying to focus on your breath.

Calm is another app suggested by both my doctor and the therapist teaching the pain management class I’m currently taking. I’ve been playing around with it the past few days, and it has quite a few ways to help you get a better night’s sleep–music, nature sounds, stories read quietly, meditations. Other topics include resiliency to stress, relationships, anxiety, even commuting.

There are others out there, have a look around and find what suits your needs. Both of the apps I’ve tried have some initial parts you can use for free with a cost after that. But if you keep looking I know there are some freebies out there too.

The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: What is a space or activity where you are in the moment and happily accepting of the circumstance? Are you willing to do some work to gain that same acceptance and lack of judging in other areas?

Remember–all of life is a process, and the good stuff tends to take practice!