Aside

Change is on my mind lately, as spring approaches. While the warmer weather is welcome, as usual there are some challenges even with the best of change. Recently I’ve been preparing for a move, some time into the future but impetus to clear out the clutter in my home. As I examine the articles that I’ve collected and kept, the challenge for me is to let go of stuff that represents my past, pondering over clothing, household goods, and memories. It reminds me of old plans, how I thought my life would unfold. It also reminds me of people, gone and changed, who have been important to me. If I get rid of the stuff that brings me these memories, does it mean that I let go of the lessons and experiences they brought me? And if I let go, what will the future bring? If I move forward without these reminders of who I’ve been, what I’ve done, will I have regrets?

In the last few days, I’ve been looking at old vinyl record albums. While pausing at each cover, it has occurred to me that at each stage I thought the music represented me. Yet, I have cycled through almost every musical genre, some of which embarrass me just a little! I haven’t played any of this music for years. So what does this tell me? That I, like you, have been changing, growing, reversing course, and taking on new styles throughout my life thus far, all the while thinking at each stage that I was solidly footed in my identity. And I believe that I will continue to do so.

I reflect on these questions in the context of my work, and the observation of my clients struggling with change. This occurs as life transitions change our interests, roles and responsibilities. Yet, in some ways we struggle to acknowledge that we’ve changed, both gradually and dramatically, that something we believed about ourselves doesn’t need to be true today. I see resentments, anger, hurt, and loss unfolding, as people cling to old beliefs and expectations, not allowing for the changes which time has brought. In particular, I see people personalizing others’ changes. We all want to believe that we grow and change, but sometimes avoid accepting the new realities that this entails.

Some rules for change are becoming apparent to me now:

1. Look at your life as it is today, not how you thought it would be. Don’t hang on to old plans which haven’t been operational in a long time.

2. Examine choices you’re now faced with in terms of the current realities of your life.

3. Accept that others around you have changed, and that the changes may be uncomfortable, but interesting and worth exploring.

4. Accept that you have always been in a gradual process of change. You can incorporate change, whether you sought it or not.

5. You can and will keep your memories, but hanging on to stuff can clog up your ability to welcome new experiences.

6. Change is both exciting and uncomfortable. Don’t reject new ways in favour of trying to stay the same!

7. When you say “This is who I am“, add “today“. Make room for who you will be and what you’ll experience tomorrow.

Aside

Recently, I’ve developed a secret fascination with Twitter. Secret, because I don’t contribute, just follow. It has, I admit, led me to some interesting, funny and worthwhile bits of info and ideas. However, it also often leaves me frustrated as I watch the polarization of ideas, frequently with little middle ground, either “for us or against us” arguments. I find myself wanting to weigh in, but stymied with the challenge of being respectful to both sides of a debate, making a point which encompasses all of the space in between, with less than 140 characters. I also find myself shocked, sometimes amused and often bewildered by the speed and sharpness of the debates.

So what do these thoughts have to do with my blog, usually a bit of stream of consciousness around emotional health and wellness? Well, it puts me in mind of witnessing people in conflict, often in my professional practice where I work with relationships, but also among friends and family from time to time. In the worst of these instances, the biggest culprit seems to be a quick and/or habitual assumption that one knows from a single behaviour or statement all of what the other person represents. For instance, something is said or done, and I have a “gut reaction”, perhaps hurt or anger, and rather than (I admit this is hard) asking myself and the other person more about the situation or what the reaction really is, I assume I know everything necessary to understand and fight back. They may very well have the same process going on for them by now, and the conflict is on.

How we behave when we’re in conflict with another person is usually different than when we’re feeling amicable. We sharpen our points, narrow our vision and firm up our stance. Contradictory feelings are set aside – there’s no room in battle to explore that dissonance. Hence, “if you could say that, you must not love me”, which can lead to looking for all prior instances when we’ve felt wounded the same way and declare this assumption to be also true of those situations. Always or never, black or white, no room for shades of gray, hesitance or uncertainty. In conflict, both sides are likely feeling on the ropes, needing to fight back to preserve a position, and neither are going to find it easy to backtrack and question the original assumptions. Remember that the original assumption may have arisen from a belief that “if I am hurt, that must mean that you not only hurt me, but intended to do so”. To believe otherwise would require holding contradictory feelings, as in “I feel hurt, and I don’t like your behaviour or words, but I love you and believe you love me”, examining whether the situation triggered your own sensitivities, inquiring as to the source of the original behaviour or words, and allowing yourself to stay vulnerable enough to work it through.

The most difficult aspect of this is allowing ourselves to acknowledge that our feelings, real as they are, are not accurate indications of fact. Feelings actually can be seen as sensors or warning signs that something is off, making us feel vulnerable. The most basic response to vulnerability is to try and shut it down, defensively or offensively. The response most likely to preserve and deepen relationships that matter is to allow ourselves to stay vulnerable, open to reflection and alternate understandings of what has transpired. This opens the door for others to seek to understand us, our needs and feelings and the unique contradictions that make us human.

Aside

I had to do some updates to my website recently and noticed that my last post was quite some time ago so started thinking about what’s held resonance for me lately. In the last few weeks I’ve had occasion to listen to several different speakers, in a variety of settings. Although the topics were all over the map, the common threads that held me captive included simplicity in the message and the personal connections they made between what they do and how it impacts the world.

WordPress offered me a hint for inspiration – to think about a line from a song. The song that came to mind is by Everlast – “What it’s Like”. For those who know the song, you can guess where I’m going. For those who don’t, it’s about empathy and our frequent failure to notice or imagine what others might be experiencing. Empathy, in my mind, isn’t about knowing the feelings of another; it’s about being willing to open your mind and really listen to or observe someone else’s story. Empathy is part of my job, and something I strive for, but don’t always reach. Outside my job, I know I fail regularly to notice others, or get impatient. Most often my impatience arises when I am focused on some goal on the other side of wherever I am at the time.

Preoccupation with stuff, things to do and places to get to is probably the biggest source of impatience and the biggest block to empathy, for me at least. If it’s the same for you, I’ll share some things I’ve learned as I’ve listened to the speakers who inspired me recently. All of them are renowned in their fields, and none of them talked about stuff! They talked about ideas and experiences and every one of them talked about listening and watching. As I listened to them, I heard stories from around the world, mostly about other people, although in one case also about orangutans. I now understand that being concerned about endangered species also means being concerned about people. Don’t get me wrong, I also like stuff and pursue it as much as the next person. However, I do know that when I’m deeply absorbed in listening and just being where I am feels the most peaceful and alive.

For those of you who know me, I’m a big fan of mindfulness. For those of you who know me really well, I accomplish it a very small amount of the time. My inspirational speakers and the song that inspires me tell me the same thing. In the moment that you inhabit right now, pay attention, set aside whatever preoccupies you that isn’t right now, and listen and watch.

On winning bronze………….

Watching the Olympics this week has provided me inspiration to write again but don’t worry, this isn’t another armchair analysis of what Canada should or not feel, be doing or not, for and about our national athletes. Others are better or maybe just more prolific at that! What captures my interest is the whole question of whether winning bronze, struggling to stay in the middle of the field, coming in dead last or crashing, being struck by illness or injury, are worthwhile endeavors when you can’t, won’t or shouldn’t take the gold medal.

Enough of the sports analogy……….now I’m talking about life on your own individual level. Lately I’m noticing a theme in conversations with clients, friends and family around goals that aren’t being met. In relationships, it may be goals for your partner, something they really ought to become that bears little resemblance to who they really are right now. Individually, it may be around definitions of yourself that you keep struggling to accomplish, a story of your life that you wish to tell, but have yet to realize. From some folks, I’m hearing of holding back from embracing the reality of today, holding out for the day that perceived obstacles disappear. From others, it’s more about not wanting to look foolish by trying for something they fear they might not accomplish or believing that certain aspirations are only for those brighter, wealthier, thinner, taller, luckier, braver, more accomplished or experienced, more connected, abler………….. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Are any of those limitations familiar?

The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend about a trip I was in the midst of planning, and found myself getting stuck around a part of the itinerary because I was caught up in what I should do as opposed to what I wanted to do. My very wise friend asked why I should, and very kindly refrained from laughing as I got very perplexed trying to justify some very odd and faulty reasoning. This wasn’t a huge life decision, but I know such reasoning affects me sometimes in both the minutiae of daily life and really significant choices. Here is my biggest limitation……….. trying to manage others’ perceptions of me. Fortunately, I have a few people in my life who I trust to hear my quandaries with patience and wisdom, and help me challenge that limitation. Perhaps you have some people like that in your life.

So my question for you today is whether you refrain from really living in the life you have now, or reaching for something more, because of limitations you perceive, some mythical panel of judges who will reduce you to tears by their criticisms or fail you by their bias or cast you out of the ring for daring to show up without some exhaustive list of pre-requisites? If so, try asking these questions:

  • What’s the worst that can happen? (and how long will that last?)
  • Who says?
  • How do you know that?
  • If you try and fail, is there a great story in that?
  • As opposed to what you may believe about yourself, what do you want to believe about yourself?
  • What else were you going to do with your time, money, effort, heart?
  • When will you be ready, the conditions just perfect and success guaranteed?

So whether you go for the gold, strive for bronze or really just want a participation medal for living engaged in your own life, what most likely stands in your way is the perception of limitations. It truly is within your grasp to challenge those limitations, work around them and find a way to pursue your own unique aspirations.

One step at a time………..

So…………I haven’t published a new blog in a while and haven’t really had a good reason, just feeling like life has been complicated lately. Do you sometimes feel like that? For me, there have been a lot of unexpected things to take care of, both good and bad, and it seems to have continued to sidetrack me. Part of my struggle, I’m becoming aware, is a notion that once I get a particular focus dealt with, it will be smooth sailing. Truth seems to be that life is just not that predictable. This is not a bad thing, in fact over the past few months, some occurrances that looked bad have actually created opportunities. What I needed to do, I learned, was to handle matters within my capacity and let the rest play out until I could see what was possible. Fortunately for me, none of the things I faced were real disasters, but it’s led me to think about how one faces those. My best answer?…………one step at a time.

“One step at a time” – a phrase we often use means many things. When life just seems complicated and overwhelming, it’s a good mantra. But how do you take one step if you don’t yet know the road you’re on? Imagine being blindfolded and not sure where you are. That’s often the case in the midst of a crisis, whether it’s a relationship that’s in jeopardy, a life-threatening illness, loss of a job, an accident or other unexpected event.

The problem you often face in a crisis is in trying to figure out what is actually wrong. If a situation feels chaotic, your senses are overwhelmed and your logical brain not very effective in sorting through the data. Fear and hurt do some funny things to your mind.  You may be reaching for a solution, but what you find is instinct you can’t even really define that compels you to either strike out or hide. When you hear advice, it’s easy to dismiss it as meaningless, impossible or critical. When seemingly nothing is offered, you may feel abandoned or hopeless.

What does help, as I’ve seen time and again, is to allow yourself to feel scared, hurt and lost, to accept that your life as you have seen it may have changed irreparably, and to do whatever is within your capacity right now. This means starting small with taking stock of what is immediately surrounding you – people, resources, and circumstances. Probably nothing you can do will seem like an answer to the crisis, and generally it’s not. What it is, is regrouping, starting to find a base of safety, however fragile it may be for now.

Some things to consider when you find yourself in crisis: Who is with me in this? If no-one is sharing the crisis, who is a stable source of support? In either case, literally or metaphorically, take their hand and sit with them. Let yourself simply be connected to another human being. They may or may not have answers…………that doesn’t matter as much as knowing you’re not alone. What is available to me right now, in this moment, that I can be sure of? If it’s as simple as ground to stand on, a chair or floor to sit on, so be it. If you can take one breath after another, you have a place to start. From this place, there are small steps you can take.

I’m not suggesting a solution to your crisis here. There are too many factors that will be unique to your situation to consider. The steps you take will be yours to master and when it all seems too much and you reach beyond your current capacity, pause, regroup and settle yourself again in what you know just for right now. Then begin again………………..one step at a time.

Aside

Help, my phone is talking to me! Thanks, RIM, for the gift, but now what do I do with it? Just one more voice to listen to and convince myself I should be doing something other than what I’m doing right now. Okay, I thought I’d leave the app on that reads me texts and emails out loud, intended to keep me safe while driving. And no, I’m not driving right now, but I think there’s an app that would let me compose and write while on the road. Really?!!!  Not sure that anyone would want to read my verbalized thoughts while I’m on the road, nor would I want to accidentally publicize those thoughts!

Having shut off the voice, what I’m intending to explore here is our recent fascination with being able to do several things at once. Not a new concept, multi-tasking, but one gone viral with the advent of new and better(?) technology. As I use the term advent, some thoughts arise. The term refers to coming or arriving, and traditionally it refers to anticipation or waiting for something of importance, often a time of reflection, hope and appreciation. However in considering the advent of technology, it seems more like one thing arrives and we’re on to waiting for the next, with new inventions becoming obsolete almost as soon as they’re on the market. Hardly time for appreciation of what we have now. Is this a “technology is evil” rant? No, much of the new technology is brilliant, quite beyond my capacity to create and barely within my capacity to interact with. My question is more about what it reflects about our difficulty managing stresses and relaxing in the moment.

So, today, I can drive, talk or write to people nearby or across the globe, identify music that’s playing on the radio, figure out where I am and how to get where I’m going, record memos to myself, update my calendar and plan my day. Probably more than that, but as I’ve said already, I tend to underuse the available technology. But, can I also relax, enjoy the music, check out the view, let another driver in, and focus on only one thing at a time (preferably driving safely!)?

An analogy would be participating in an event, while focused on planning the next. Have you ever been at a gathering or a party, while mentally intent on plans for the rest of the day, week, year? Do you find yourself drifting off in a meeting because you’re thinking about what else you have to do? Managing household tasks, while holding, or trying to hold, a conversation with a loved one? Lying in bed, supposedly with the intent of sleeping, while worrying what the next day will hold? None of this is unusual – I hear about it every day in my work. In fact, a big part of my work, counselling, is to create a space and time in which the focus is right now, the opportunity to explore what one feels right now about the life that goes on outside the therapy room. During the hour, there is nothing else to be done, no voices other than our own to pull attention away. For some, this is a rare opportunity to be free of those other obligations or distractions.

I’d encourage the creation of such moments of focus on only what is within or immediately around us. If this takes the form of meditation or other deliberate ceasing of activity, very well. But it can also take the form of a walk out of doors, a seated conversation with friends or family, the enjoyment of a piece of music or good food, a sport or exercise, reading (not scanning), making art, music or poetry, playing with a child, or anything else that draws your attention. The only requirement is that it is singular, that is without attention divided by other things you are doing, thinking of doing, or failing at doing.

This seems particularly important to me as we enter, post-Halloween, into the winter season, with its’ frequently frantic schedule of activities. Easy to slip into trying to multi-task, meet several goals with often little success at enjoying them. If you want to enjoy the company of others, simplify your expectations of a gathering. If you want to relax, turn off electronic distractions. If you want to get something done, do that only. If you want to deal with your to-do list, drop off the things that don’t really matter. You get the idea………….. priorize your attention and focus on the road you’re on right now!

Aside

Sometimes it’s very subtle, other times so in your face that it halts you in your tracks. Both leave you with a kind of sick feeling in your stomach and self doubt. I’m talking about narcissism. Every once in a while I’m asked about how to deal with a kind of hurt that doesn’t ever really get resolved, whether you just swallow your doubts or you try to address it and end up feeling worse in the process.

A disclaimer here………..this is not about figuring out whether someone in  your life is a narcissist or offering a diagnosis of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  That can’t and shouldn’t be done third hand and really doesn’t matter if you’re just trying to handle a relationship with someone who seems to make you feel diminished or hurt sometimes for no apparent reason.

Narcissus was a youth in Greek mythology of great beauty who was loved by the nymph Echo. He rejected her love, considering himself to be deserving of much more, but in his constant search for a worthy partner, fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. Seeing but never able to touch his reflection, he eventually withered away in sorrow and was reborn as the flower narcissus. His story illustrates the central element of narcissism…………..seeking to be validated in a way which will never really be enough, always feeling rejected and perceiving the fault to be in others’ imperfect appreciation.

Echo’s story is an interesting one, as she had angered the goddess Hera, so was punished by being doomed to only repeat the words of others, deprived of her own voice. Loving Narcissus, she perpetually echoed his sentiments and wasted away in her sorrow.

Narcissism is a personality trait that we all have to some degree. Only at the far end of the spectrum is it pathological. Consider the developing child who has a natural perception of him/herself as central in the world, much as we once believed that the solar system revolved around the earth. We learn as we grow to temper that perception with empathy, awareness of others and the ability to delay gratification through reason and judgement. For a variety of reasons, some individuals don’t develop the capacity to manage the narcissistic wound of not having their needs immediately met, or they do, mostly, but in times of difficulty, retreat to feeling wounded and rejected, striking out and rejecting others in compensation.

I’m addressing you here, Echo! Other than in mythology, you are possessed of your own voice. If you choose not to use it, it becomes harder to recognize. Your Narcissus may call for your validation and may seem to need you to soothe his or her wound. To do so isn’t wrong, but to do so at the cost of your own self will not work in the long run. Consider a real life example. Mary has messed up somehow, maybe forgot Sam’s birthday. Deep down, knowing she was inconsiderate of his feelings, she feels ashamed. The narcissistic impulse is to hold him responsible for her sense of shame and to strike out, calling him inconsiderate, that she’s had a bad day that he didn’t even bother to ask about, even maybe calling him narcissistic, concerned only with his own needs. So who’s the narcissist here? Well the clue is in his response…………….apologizing and telling her she’s right, he’s inconsiderate and wrong and asking how he can make it up to her. By diminishing his own experience here, he’s playing Echo to her Narcissus.

Neither Sam nor Mary is necessarily pathologically wrong  here…………… this interaction or a version of it plays out all around the globe on a regular basis. Am I saying you should never soothe the wounds of someone you care about, or that you should reject all criticism that seems unfair, out of hand? Definitely not………………we can and should recognize when someone is feeling hurt and acknowledge that, even when we think their thinking and accusations are off base. The Echo response, though, denies our own experience in the process. We lose perspective and agree to an unfair and unbalanced resolution to the problem. If that continues, it becomes default mode. Perhaps the biggest problem in it is that the reassurances and soothing become so automatic, that even Narcissus begins to experience them as hollow, inspiring further feelings of being inadequately loved, and so the dance continues.

What’s the ideal response for Sam (or Echo)? “You know, I think you are right that I wasn’t thinking about your day. I was looking forward to celebrating my birthday, and felt hurt when I thought you didn’t care about it. Seems like we both are a little hurt right now. I do want to hear about your day and I do want us to celebrate my birthday as well. Can we talk about how to do both?” Yeah, I know………………good luck sounding so calm and reasoned when you’re hurt and upset! The key here is not to have all the right words at the tip of your tongue……………it’s to look for what you can agree with, find a way to acknowledge that, and let the other person know that you also have a stake in this relationship. In real life, there isn’t a delete or edit button, and it may take a few missteps, some time outs and some reflection before you can get back on track.

If you have someone in your life who strikes out in a narcissistic style, or who seems to chronically fail to recognize your feelings as valid, it hurts. While you don’t have to bash them over the head with it, and you may have little success in remodelling them, you can preserve your own self and sanity by remembering that your voice needs to exist in the relationship. Without your voice, you become Echo, which doesn’t save either you or your Narcissus.