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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Everything I needed to learn about boundaries I learned from my garden.

Okay. Let’s imagine.

You have a lovely garden, full of climbing roses and lilacs and other colorful flowers that make you happy.

Your neighbor across the side fence has crabgrass and volunteer tomatoes from seeds dropped by birds in flight and walnut trees springing forth from nuts buried by neighborhood squirrels. And oxalis. There’s always oxalis. (It’s pretty till it takes over your whole garden.)

This neighbor pays no attention–for them, what happens in the front yard stays in the front yard. Their mess of weeds is quickly working its way between the slats of the wood fence. However, the foxtails are now cozying up with the geraniums halfway across your yard, so you decide to try to make the neighbor see the error of their ways and see the much more logical and let’s face it, RIGHT, way of yours.

You practice in the mirror. “Hey, neighbor!” you say to your reflection in a cheery tone, “here are some cookies I just baked. I wondered if we could chat a minute about our front gardens,” you say, holding up an imaginary tray, smiling pleasantly.

You find yourself quite convincing, so you try it face to face. They take the tray of cookies but stare at you like you’re speaking Space Man when you perkily mention they should take care of the weeds on their side of the fence and keep them out of your garden.

You think, I must not have said it right. What better words could I use? Or maybe they’ll listen if I make them pie instead of cookies.

You keep trying–pie after cake after fresh squeezed orange juice. Still the neighbor takes the gifts but ignores the weeds. Their weed seeds are falling on your fertile ground, but your words are falling on cold, lifeless gravel.

So where am I going with all this floral flatulence?

Last week I shared some of the ways I’m learning to retrain my brain and do life differently. Then I promised to blow your mind with an amazing tool I’m finally beginning to understand. (Okay, so there was no promise of mind-blowing. There was, however, the promise of a tool. I was trying to get you so excited that you will come back every week to see if perhaps your mind will be blown this time.)

BOUNDARIES. All this garden-speak is about learning that you can control what’s in your own garden, but you can’t control what’s in your neighbor’s.

Most of my life I worked under the misguided idea that I just hadn’t found the right way to get that neighbor to clean up their side of the fence. Turns out, they can even plant weeds in their yard on purpose, who knew? Because, after all, it’s their yard, not mine.

Our individual job in this world of analogies gone wild? To simply mind the fence and all that is on our side of it. Stop taking them cookies. To stop using our words when that other person isn’t even listening. It’s not only a waste of your breath, it’s a waste of your cookies.

The other person’s weeds can represent many things: negativity, blame, shame. Guilt. Patronizing opinions. Manipulation to get you to bring them those cookies, even though they’re totally messing with your lantana.

If we are to take care of our own responsibilities–the space on our side of the fence–we may need to build a better fence so the foxtails can’t get through. We may need to find a method to stop the weeds from growing if they do make it under the fence. Point is, we need to use our precious energy to cultivate the beauty in our own garden. We need to recognize that all the sweet talking and baked goods in the world will not make someone listen who doesn’t want to listen.

This is a difficult lesson for those of us who think that if we can only find the right words, the right mixture of flour, butter and cinnamon, the other person will suddenly see our side. This is called Wishful Thinking.

A wise woman once told me, “The only person’s behavior we can change is our own, all other is merely wishful thinking.”

For me it turned out that all the Nice I tried to take on a decorative plate to my mother *Wishing* she would see I was worth loving didn’t make any difference long term. At the end of her life she still heaped negative and hurtful words on me via sticky notes on the backs of her possessions sent after her death by her lawyer. Those were her choices, those were her decisions. My job was to not let the hemlock of her words and actions poison me. My job was to decide who I wanted to be in the face of that pain.

It took my mother’s death to realize I couldn’t have pleased her if she didn’t want to be pleased. I don’t regret anything I did for her, but I do regret the wasted energy of all my Wishing. Boundaries, they’re our friends!

The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: Does any of this ring true to you? Have you wasted time and energy believing that if you just tried hard enough someone would change how they treated you? Does the garden analogy make sense to you or did I just have a darned good time naming flowers? 

And remember, be kind to yourself.

 

 

Standing up in the ocean.

 

WHAT do you suppose happens when on a hot day in Roatan you struggle to manage the ocean, to change its properties, to avoid yielding to the water’s warm, salty invitation to relax in its arms, to be the only one on this earth allowed to remain upright and still snorkel? It says, Oh no, honey, that’s not how it works! Just accept my invitation…give in, loosen up, enjoy.

Sure, I may have perjured myself when I checked YES next to Can Swim on the entry form to the beach in Honduras. I mean, academically speaking I do know HOW to swim. I know where the arms go, what the feet should be doing, and that bit where you turn your head from side to side and remember to breathe only during the above-water segment. But when I’m actually IN water?? All sense of calm and, well, sense take a hike and I start trying to manage the ocean.

I believe my feeling about oceans and lakes and the deep end of a swimming pool is what people like to call a Phobia. As if my fear is irrational! There IS something just waiting to SUCK-ME-TO-THE-BOTTOM-FOREVER-YOU-KNOW-I’M-RIGHT-GAAAAAHHHHH!

Okay. Perhaps a tad irrational.

I’m a struggler. I’m a long time try-er. I have believed that if I flex and tense my muscles and muster enough of my own effort I can manage anything–even change the minds and individual properties of people or situations. Shove myself into being Healed and Triumphant Over the Troubles of My Life on my terms and in my time. All simply by my own striving.

Finally at 63 I’m learning to relax, to give in bit by bit to this process called Life. To tell the Lie that says I have enough power to manage the ocean that it has permission to take a long walk off a short dock. I’m learning to let go of the belief that I alone will be allowed to stand in the depths of the ocean and keep my head above water.

Fortunately I had a kind and loving friend with me at that gorgeous beach. She understands the whole relaxing-into-the-arms-of-the ocean thing, and yet she also understands my overwhelming-desire-to-remain-upright in the water. She helped me understand my snorkel gear, guided me to find the calm breathing I know but couldn’t locate. She helped me relax and float and breathe and see fish and sea creatures–but in water close enough to the shore that I could stand when I needed to. She let me hold her hand, for crying out loud, and never once mocked me for my fears. (Thank you, Susy!)

She helped me access the abilities that lay dormant within me to settle into the water and accept its invitation to rest in its salty arms while still breathing air. It was amazing! And a huge step forward in conquering my fear, demonstrated by my daughter Cori’s response to my telling her what I’d done with the exclamation of “You SNORKELED? In WATER??”

My experience was much the same as Life altogether: learning to accept, learning to move forward, relaxing my own stubborn will. Step by step I’m learning to give in to the reality of things–to know I can’t change the ocean, to see the sea for what it is. I couldn’t enjoy Roatan’s clear waters and schools of fish dashing about until I made peace with the actual character of the water. Once I did that I could embrace the truth that the beauty beneath was revealed only when I stopped striving to remain vertical.

The bring your own beverage conversation: Is there some belief you’ve held onto that’s kept you from moving forward in your life? One of mine has been that I have enough power to change people and situations I have no actual control over. Do you like me try to manage oceans? If not, what’s one of yours?  What truth do you need to start seeing and accepting in order to unstick? Think of friends or family who are willing to help you take baby steps into positive change, and if you don’t have some, GET SOME!

AND BE KIND TO YOURSELF THIS WEEK.

#lessstrivingmoreacceptance

 

The blame game

Somewhere in my teens I was informed by my mother that was the reason she had to get her teeth pulled and replaced with dentures. My birth that early September had followed  an extremely hot summer, so she was forced to chew ice.

Picture, if you will, mojo exuding from the tiny splayed fingers of my unborn hand as I reach toward my mother’s mouth while chanting, “Chew ice! Chew ice!” in a tiny demonic voice.

I’ve never known such power since.

What causes a mother to blame the child in utero for her own actions? I’m frustrated to only be able to make lame guesses since nothing about that makes sense to me. All I know is that she did, and that I felt guilty–and that doesn’t make sense either.

I can’t know what motivates someone else since I can’t see inside their head, as much as my nosy self would like to. And even they may not know why they blame us. Yet we’re the ones left trying to figure out what to do with their big steaming pile of…. guilt.

One of the deeply written lies in my bones was (I’m improving!) that I had the power to show others how capable/smart/creative/wonderful/loved they were, and how happy they could be. Turns out others also carry lies written in their bones (surprise!) and it’s up to them to do their own work to change. Most importantly, they have to want to do it differently in the first place. So, if my mother didn’t want to bear the responsibility of ruining her own teeth, Damn the Truth! Blame the unborn!

Finally I had to face the billboard size fact: I am not responsible for anyone else’s happiness/unhappiness–or teeth. Sure, I needn’t be a giant headache inducing pain in someone’s hiney, I still need to make my own choices daily/hourly/minute-ly to be the best me I can be. I still need to be the empathetic, laughing at my own jokes person I am. But Other Person’s steaming pile of guilt? Here, let me put you down over there with the others….

What will I do for myself today?  If I carry guilt from my own poor decisions I will learn from it, I will make changes. I will also remind myself that I can’t force someone else to carry their own *pile*. I will practice saying “No thank you!” to those who would make me liable for their choices.

The bringyourownbeverage conversation: What situation are you currently in where someone wants you to carry their judgment/unhappiness/blame etc.? How can you remind yourself to Just Say No to their guilt?