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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Growing Up.

“As a child I was molested by a man who was really hairy,” she told me. Now a middle-aged woman she went on to say of her husband, “I make him shave his body.”

“Oh!” I said, filing this startling fact away in my brain for later perusal.

Today I understand why her actions were unsettling to me: she was still living in that place of early trauma rather than working to heal and move away from it.  Trust me, I’ve been there, and it’s a terrible neighborhood to buy a house.

I’m happy to be identified in a myriad of ways–as the woman who laughs at her own jokes (I can’t help it, I crack myself up!) As a creative soul. Someone who listens. Someone who keeps growing and learning to be a better human on this planet, the best one I can be this side of heaven. Remember me as someone trying to get her foot out of her mouth. As someone with far too many hobbies, far too many books. Someone who forgets the occasional appointment, and who walked 50 feet away from the four-year-old at Disneyland forgetting for a moment she was there.

I don’t want to be identified by my early trauma, like I remember the woman from the beginning of this post: “Oh the things that poor dear went through, no wonder she makes her husband shave his armpits.”

Being a slow learner, I definitely took my time to begin the healing process from the Triggery Badness of my childhood. But I’m getting there. For me that’s the goal–to move out of that neighborhood. Become a grown-up in all ways. No longer a traumatized seedling, but a well-watered and mature tree. (Perhaps you’ll also think of me as a woman with mad metaphor mixing skilz. With a Z.)

Some of the steps I’ve taken toward that goal (with the help of my favorite Mental Health Provider, my therapist) have been:

  • Looking at the Truth of my experiences
  • Admitting to myself what is true of those years and what were the Lies I told myself to keep the pain of those events at a distance
  • Allowing myself to grieve over what were very real hurts and losses
  • Making a practice of staying aware of my emotions and their messages
  • Learning to pay attention in my life, to be present.

These sound like wonderfully psycho-babbly steps, but what does any of that look like?

As a child I coped by hiding from what terrified me by literally closing myself in my bedroom closet with my books and toys. Sometimes I disappeared by running off to the swings at the park–anything that would silence the loud, mean voices of my parents arguing, the shoving of furniture and too often of each other.

I felt responsible for how I was treated–for being touched inappropriately by my father, for not being as interesting as my older brother and his friends. I turned off my instincts and stopped listening to my emotions and pain because I didn’t like what they were telling me, that life wasn’t so positive. The truth of what I went through? Not nice. Not nurturing. Lie #1, No Mistakes, only Goodness and Getting Along.

As a child my home never felt safe. When was the next explosion or long cold spell coming? I couldn’t know, so fear started making a lot of my decisions. Fear’s kind of safety for me looked a lot like hiding, staying out of harm’s way. Stay Under the Radar and Don’t Have a Differing Opinion joined No Mistakes as firm (but not helpful) beliefs I carried into adulthood. Let me just say here: the coping mechanisms of a five-year-old child do not serve one well in the six and over age bracket.

Disentangling lies like those from how I move about in the world changes things drastically. What? I can go out into the world and be mindful for my own safety? It’s okay if people don’t like me? I can have my own ideas even if someone doesn’t agree?  Staying aware in my life helps keep me safe and lets me wander farther afield, a good thing since this is a big old world.

Coming to terms with the Truth that I cannot be perfect sounds so simple, but those early Lies run deep in us, they etch themselves in our bones. It takes awareness and practice to heal them and learn better, truer ways of thinking and acting. What is my body saying to me? What emotion am I feeling? What is my pain saying?

Grief is probably nobody’s idea of a good time. But without grief there’s no closure. One thing I had to recognize as true was that I would never have the kind of mother I yearned for–someone who appreciated me simply for being me, who’d want to call me up to ask how my day had gone and was there anything new with the kids? I felt ripped off and I felt guilty for feeling ripped off. I judged myself as Bad and shoved that pain into a box and into a dark corner of the garage. Unfortunately, that box and the next box and the next box just weighed me down and kept me living in the house of that old trauma neighborhood. Few of us really want to clean out the garage, but sorting through those dog-eared boxes? I felt relief. Acceptance. Moving day was coming!

My hope for what I share of my story is that you’ll be encouraged to see that even at 63 I’m learning, growing, changing. And any of us can if we want to–we can trade those old, unhelpful Lies for Truth. We may have to sort through some boxes of junk to get there, but we can. We can accept what’s true about the garbage we’ve been storing, and then we can send those boxes to the dump.

My mind is so much more at rest these days. Next week I’ll share one of the tools that has helped me learn to let go of some of what was never mine to store in the first place.

The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: What ways did you learn to cope with difficulties when you were young that don’t serve you so well anymore? Did you develop certain beliefs about people or life that don’t make much sense for you now if you’re honest about it?

 

 

 

 

 

The good about giving up. 

I want to be one of those patient and dedicated slow-pour coffee types, I really do.

I admire anyone who can take  precious extra minutes waiting for their fine, fresh brew. I even bought one of those tiny one cup pour-over cone shaped thingies since I drink alone in the mornings. And I tried, I did. I attempted a bleary-eyed dribbling of the hot water kettle into the cone of grounds–for about 5 seconds before I said “oh poop” and poured enough water to fill the cone and drip into my large mug. Morning is not my friend, and Slow applies to me in the hours before 10 a.m. but it dare not apply to my coffee. (And I use a paper filter to make it easy to clean up! Sacrilege, right?)

My friend Susy (author of the marvelous blog Animalia) and I laughed over this the other day. Her son is one of those who is gifted in Slow-Pouredness. I on the other hand know exactly how many times I can fill the paper cone of grounds with fast-pour kettle water for each mug I own. Oddly, I am okay with this. I accept there are many things that I will never be gifted in.

I will never be: naturally thin, naturally tidy, naturally energetic. I will never naturally feel my age. BUT I will always: laugh–often at embarrassingly inappropriate times–and believe the best in others, and love my family and friends ferociously.

The Lies in my bones have often told me I should Fail In Nothing. The Lies in my bones have said that who I am will Never be Enough. Oddly and unexpectedly, I am slowly learning that I quite like the imperfect and complicated person I am. That I can choose to grow or choose to be stagnant (by the way, I choose Grow. It’s more interesting.)

So what if I’m never thin? What if I can never be a successful slow-pourer, or even be desirous of becoming one? We all have our strengths and weaknesses, the things we feel passionate about and the things that we strive to succeed at that don’t really matter.

Today I will: celebrate what makes me unique–my passion for words, love of laughter, and ferocious love of those God has brought into my life for good and growth. I will celebrate the crazy and colorful (and possibly untidy) collage of books and dishes and art that surrounds me in my space and makes me smile.

The BringYourOwnBeverage conversation: What success are you striving for that honestly doesn’t make that big a difference in your life and you could quit wasting that time? What will you celebrate about yourself today/this week/this month that the world may look at as Less Than? What might happen if you saw your reflection and smiled instead of judged?

Till next time!

Acceptance and the gift of THERE-ness

I leaned over the hospital bed and whispered “Please be okay–I’m running out of fathers” and kissed my father-in-law on the forehead. He was going in for a biopsy of a spot on his lung, and I was afraid.

My own father had died, my step-father had died, but in all honesty my father-in-law would be the hardest personal loss. He had always loved me and accepted me, right from the beginning of my relationship with his son. I could feel his appreciation of me shine out of his pores, and it was an amazing feeling.

When I had a miscarriage he sat with me after I got home from the emergency room. Just sat. Stayed in the same space with me as I cried quiet tears he pretended not to notice. But I could feel his love. I don’t know how to explain it, but his there-ness spoke loudly to my aching heart.

Mostly in my life I’d had people who were too busy with their own problems to just be with me, too critical to see the person I thought I was, and I had believed those people’s lack of there-ness was somehow my own fault. If only I were more this, less that, thinner, then I’d be lovable. THEN I’d be deserving of someone’s time and attention. But here he was, this father-in-law of mine, not making my pain about him, not judging my reactions, not telling me how to be over it, not doing anything but making me feel loved and Visible by the sweet gift of his presence.

He’s been gone for years now, nearly 2 decades, but I can still feel that love-without-condition for me and see the warmth in his face and the twinkle in his eye when I think of him.

I’m still struggling to get to that same place with myself, where I can remember and acknowledge the person I am–the one with flaws and frailties and a good heart–without letting the harshness of others bring me down. But I know how important an honest assessment of myself is since it’s the receptacle of balance.

Today I feel like I need to turn this post around from its usual position of “what will I do for myself.” Today, especially after the venom of this year’s presidential election, I want us to look at it this way:

What will I do for the people in my life today?  Today and every day, I will extend the there-ness I crave to anyone who is hurting. I will choose to live by the passions of my own heart and mind to accept and love people of all sizes/shapes/ethnicities/lifestyles/beliefs. The same God who made me made them.

The BringYourOwnBeverage Conversation: Have you craved the accepting presence of someone? Who gave you that gift of themselves? Who can you give it to today?

Not very Mary (Tyler Moore)

Today as I was trying to back out of my spot in a very crowded Sprouts parking lot, a woman next to my car gave me the stink-eye and muttered loudly. I had a sudden compulsion to roll down my window and yell “IF I’D WANTED TO HIT YOU I WOULD HAVE!! BETTER STEP LIVELY!!” Normally I’m the essence of Kind Thoughts and believing everything including global warming is my fault, as in I’m sorry I made you feel threatened for your personal safety. Or as in My car door touched the the car next to mine when I tried to get back into my car…if I wasn’t so fat I wouldn’t need to open my door that far. Today I’m sure I huffed and muttered something about them parking diagonally like a drunk.

I’m not feeling Nice. I’m not feeling Generous. I’m also not feeling like beating myself up for the rudeness of others.

Normally I would judge myself HARD for these thoughts. I’m sure Jesus wouldn’t mutter in parking lots…and Jesus would never be too fat to squeeze into an impossibly tiny space…

Do you remember the eternally effervescent and kind Mary Richards from the Mary Tyler Moore Show? She was single and making it on her own in the big city as an assistant director of a 6 o’clock news show. Sure, she was sometimes a bit goofy, but LOVABLE goofy, the best kind. I loved that show! Of course since it started in 1970 I could only possibly have watched it in reruns…ahem….

Today lacked a certain effervescence. It lacked a certain self-flagellation. Maybe they weren’t the kindest, but I did manage to bite my tongue and not yell my immediate thoughts at the aforementioned driver and pedestrian.

But what would have happened even if i DID yell? It’s likely that no small children would have died. It’s likely I would not have been swallowed up into the asphalt.

Where many people could stand to be a little harder on themselves for their actions (know what I mean?) I go polar opposite. I’m fat because I fail, and why do I still have Fibromyalgia, certainly if I had self-discipline in all areas I would be well. Why am I not yet over all the traumas of my early life? WHY WHY WHY???

What will I do for myself today? Maybe I could just give mySELF a little room for error today and not use it all up on others.

The BringYourOwnBeverage conversation: Do you beat yourself up regularly about anything, and if so, What? (i don’t want to feel alone here people, spilling my guts.) What do you think is the Lie in your words to yourself? Heck, in my words to myself?