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 F Word: Frailty

 

I’m just coming through another one of the times that tries my soul: a Fibromyalgia flare. If you’re not familiar with Fibromyalgia, it’s a chronic pain and fatigue condition allegedly caused by an overactive/oversensitive Central Nervous System. It can be managed to some extent on a daily basis, but the owner of the aforementioned Frailty doesn’t know from day to day whether it will be a good day or a bad day, a normal pain and fatigue day or an F word day (er, of course I meant Frailty there…..)

A few weeks ago I hit the perfect storm for a flare–the decision to have my 14 1/2 year old dog euthanized, the 5th anniversary of my sister’s death, among other things. Even weather changes seem to contribute. A bad day turned into bad weeks. It seemed like sleeping and trying to ease the extreme pain of this unwelcome flare were the only goals I could work toward. I had no extra brain cells to use.

I hate this scenario, one that I revisit on an unexpected basis, though it feels more like it drops in on me like a surprise guest–“Here I am! Hope you don’t mind if I drop in unexpectedly to stay awhile and change every plan you’ve made for what is as yet an undetermined amount of time!”

It’s brutal.

And how I tend to treat myself during this state of Frailty is brutal too. I tell myself I’m useless. I tell myself it’s my fault, I must not be doing something right or this wouldn’t happen to my brain and body. I get angry. I get sad. I feel sorry for myself, and then I get angry at myself for feeling sorry for myself, and that makes me sad. It’s a real party of one.

This particular flare was so bad that the friend I rent from told me she actually came in to see if I was still breathing. (And here my imagination goes a little TV Fabulous and sees her leaning across my curled body with a tiny makeup mirror to see if I have breath to fog it or is it necessary to call 911, at which point she looks around at the shoes, books, and electronic devices tumbled by my bed that the paramedics would need to navigate and decides it’s better to just close the door and let nature take its course.)

Frailty. It’s a big bad word to me that begins to define my worth and take me to a dark place of Not Good Enough and Worthless and Too Weak. And–dare I say it–UNPRODUCTIVE. (GASP!!)

Once I realize the party is headed for StinkTown, one thing I do is to allow the words of self-flagellation to fly at me but simply glance off. To recognize that while this Frailty may derail me for a time it won’t shut down the railway altogether–I have a temporary Out Of Service sticker on my forehead, but in time it will lose its sticky and the train of my body and brain will begin to run again.

A couple of things I like to do for myself in these times: I’m a fan of visualizing. Whatever makes sense to you will be the best, but for me I actually visualize myself with big pieces of crumpled paper being blown at me like I’m in a storm, and on those papers  are the negative words and phrases written in large, dark print. They hit me but then continue on in the wind past me. They don’t stick. I also love to listen to affirmations. My favorite at the moment is from Belleruth Naparstek, “Healing Trauma.” Her CDs usually have an intro, a guided imagery segment, and then an affirmations segment. The affirmations in her voice are deeply soothing to my mean-spirited brain, and help me treat myself more gently.

IMPORTANT: all this takes practice. When you try to change your thinking be gentle with yourself–it won’t change at once.

The BringYourOwnBeverageConversation: What do you see as your frailties? What frailties cause you to belittle yourself? I saw as I wrote this post just how big of a deal being Nonproductive is for me, and how little grace I give myself when I need it.

Hope to hear from you!

 

 

 

 

 

STUPID STUPID STUPID!

“YOU ARE SO STUPID STUPID STUPID!”

No, these weren’t the words of Mommie Dearest being spit at her daughter at finding wire hangers in her closet. These were my words to myself. Last week, in fact. And I don’t even remember why I said them.

It could have been after eating a Krispy Kreme donut. It might have been because I couldn’t figure something out, as happens often with my Fibromyalgia-brain. (And with the Everyday-brain as well.) It could have been nothing at all: simply not fitting the key into the door, dropping something, not reaching the (low) daily steps goal on my Fitbit.

The point isn’t what was happening that conjured those horrible words to myself, the point is, would I EVER say those words to a single other soul on the planet?? The answer is simple: NO. I would not. I know how hurtful that would be, how long the words last when the event is long forgotten. So why the heck say them to the person I should be loving and protecting–me?

I don’t remember ever hearing those words directly spoken by someone else, but I do know I learned that I was Stupid and Less-Than by the way I was treated. I’ve always been a tender and sensitive person–OVERsensitive to some–so the slightest growling look could devastate me as a child, let alone hurtful words. I expected myself to be psychic, needing to know the answer to something I had no way of knowing, so I wouldn’t be ridiculed. And so rises the ugly head of Perfectionism again. Never make a mistake, never eat the “wrong” thing, (Dear Donuts: if loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right…) never fumble and be clumsy with your keys, never be less than kind to others…. The list goes on for me, and probably does for you, if you feel any sense of commonality with this blog.

So–a couple of the Lies I still seem to tell myself are that I Must Be Perfect. I Must Never Fail (if fumbling with my keys is a failure, which I sort of doubt in the grand scheme of things). Someone can say a hundred-and-fifty-nine mean things to me, but if I utter two unkind words back, there I am judging myself with that growly look again.

What I’m learning lately: STUPID (or “steewwpud” as one friend’s mother would call her and is now a lie written in her bones) seems to be more of a judgment than a feeling. What is it I’m actually feeling when I berate myself so unkindly? Inept/clumsy/hopeless/discouraged/inadequate/regretful, maybe. But I know I’m not actually stupid. And yet I say it.

What can I do the next time I spit those evil words at myself? Can I stop and admit that I feel frustrated/inept or any of a million feelings I have in a day?  I love this definition of grace (thank you, Siri!): “courteous goodwill”.  I extend it to others constantly–people in traffic, standing in line at the Post Office. Why not myself?

SO–today I will do this for me: hear the words I say to myself, acknowledge what I’m feeling, and tell myself “I’m extending Courteous Goodwill to you. You’re welcome.” And not get sidelined by the unkind words, but keep moving forward.

The BringYourOwnBeverage conversation: What are some of the words you say to yourself that you would never say to another being in the known universe? What are you feeling when you say them? How will you practice Courteous Goodwill with your own wonderful self today?  🙂