Build yourself up with a little bit each day

Humans have a knack for turning good things into moral tests that we are failing. Many of us have a list of things in our heads that we believe we “should” be doing but for many reasons end up putting off. Eat more vegetables, go to the gym every day, watch less TV, meditate, etc. And then we feel guilty or like we’re bad people when we don’t do them.

The problem, often, is that we have an image in our head of how things things “should” look (there’s that word again — is it actually useful?). We imagine ourselves doing the thing perfectly, and when that isn’t possible we just don’t start. You’re waiting for the magical (never to be seen) day when you can spend an hour at the gym or 30 minutes on the meditation cushion. Stop waiting! Start with something. Start anywhere.

Tara Brach tells a story in many of her books of struggling as a young mother with maintaining a meditation practice. Her solution? Sit every day, even if it’s for 5 minutes. And it helped. Something (positive) happens when we make and keep a promise to ourselves, when we start small and give ourselves credit for that success.

So, friends, here is an experiment for you. Let go of the perfect image of how you want to be and just start. Do a little bit each day and LET THAT BE ENOUGH. Meditate for 5 minutes. Clean for 10 minutes. Walk for 15 minutes. Eat one extra serving of vegetables. Drink one less soda.

Drop your grand goals and be where you are. I remember some great race advice from a seasoned marathoner that has stuck with me: Start slow and slow down.

Do a small thing, keep doing it, and see what happens. I’d love to hear what you discover!

Not enough time? Slow down.

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Do you get up in the morning already feeling behind? In a rush? Forgetful? Stressed?

It may seem like the solution is to go faster, multitask more, get more “efficient.” The truth is, what you need to do is slow down. Slow down to calm down. Simple, but not easy.

But I don’t have time to slow down!

Yes, you do. First, put down your phone. Stop checking it at red lights and in line at the grocery. When you get the urge to grab it, or find that it has simply appeared in your hand, put it down, take a breath and focus on what you’re feeling inside.

Anxious? Bored? Tired? Find out what happens if you just breathe into those feelings. If you’re bored or tired, look around. Really look, really listen, really feel your feet on the ground. If you’re anxious, again, look around and try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Notice 5 things with your eyes, 4 things with your ears, 3 things in your body, 2 things with your nose and 1 thing you can taste (coffee breath, anyone?).

Getting there faster is an illusion

Do one thing at a time. Walk more slowly. Take a breath before speaking. Stop rushing through your life. The two minutes you save aren’t going to make a difference to anyone waiting at the other end of your rushing.

Many years ago I was a person who Scheduled Things Exactly. I had it down to a science. I knew precisely how long I could snooze before I had to get up, hit the shower and do all the things to get ready. I knew exactly how many minutes my drive to work would take, door to door. I had no margins, and I felt like I was In Control — unless, of course, there was extra traffic, or I spilled my coffee, or other humans got in my way.

Meanwhile, my husband would get up and piddle around, drink his coffee, read the news, whatever. He’d be dressed and ready 20 minutes early, sitting on the couch chilling out like he had nowhere to be and it didn’t matter if his pants wrinkled.

One day he looked at me rushing from room to room and said, “why do you do this to yourself?” I argued that I was a Swiss watch, baby, with precise gears. He pointed out that I was frazzled and not really present. Eventually I saw that he was right. I was in love with the idea of being in control, but I really was teetering on the edge of anxiety all the time.

Step back from the cliff

So let’s try one or two steps back.

Get up 10 minutes earlier. Pause to breathe as you are about to yell at your kids to hurry up or honk at a slow driver who’s “in your way.” Literally slow down as you walk to your car.

Water the seeds of patience and love rather than of impatience and anger.  See what happens.

“To lose patience is to lose the battle.” Mahatma Gandhi

 

 

 

 

My wish for you

dandelion-1373309-1598x1193I have started no fewer than 6 blog posts since my last entry, and I have finished none of them. Everything I write sounds self-righteous to my mind — as if I have everything figured out and if you just listen to my advice, you will figure it all out, too. Of course, this isn’t true, and probably I should stop listening to the negative voice in my head. Let’s try that together, shall we?

It seems that we humans have gotten the idea that being happy is a moral imperative, and if we’re unhappy we’re doing life wrong. A lot of people seem to have no tolerance for their own mistakes, their own faults, their own humanity. Since we can’t give away what we don’t have ourselves, this makes people less able to tolerate others’ faults and humanity, as well.

My purpose in writing this blog is always to encourage you to accept yourself (that’s why I called that, duh!). More and more evidence shows that self-compassion is the key to lasting happiness. Not money or love or being The Best At Everything. I also happen to believe that the old saying that charity begins at home means, literally, inside you. Be kind to yourself, and this allows you to offer more kindness to others. I want to live in a kind world, man.

So today I’m just going to offer some things I believe, based on my own experience and on the experiences of hundreds of clients, friends and loved ones. Maybe it will be helpful.

Shame is not a useful tool

You can’t shame yourself into behaving better. You can’t shame anyone else into behaving better. Shame is the feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with you. Stop kicking yourself for your mistakes. We all make them, and we can always learn from them and do better tomorrow.

Don’t cultivate anger over minor* things

When someone cuts you off in traffic or is rude to the cashier in front of you or does some other –Thing People Shouldn’t Do– it’s easy to get self-righteous. Anger like that makes us feel like the good guy or girl in the story. Be careful how you tell this story to yourself. Whatever that person did, it made sense to them at the time. Someone out there has been mad at you for something like this at some point, too. Don’t call people names, even inside your head. Angry people aren’t happy. Do you want to be happy?

*Obviously I’m not saying don’t be mad at someone who abused you. Some anger is warranted and healthy.

What you focus on gets magnified

The human brain has a massively complex job. Every second of the day, your brain is taking in multiple streams of information from all five senses simultaneously, plus lots of internal senses you don’t even know about. The only way the brain can do this is by filtering most of what it’s sensing so that you are only noticing a manageable part of it. Your attention is the main tool it uses for this.

If I sent you outside and asked you to count cigarette butts on the sidewalk, when you came back you would not be able to tell me how many candy wrappers you saw. But you might be convinced that everyone in the world smokes and throws their butts on the ground. In short, what you are looking for is what you will find. Look for good people doing loving things. They’re out there. Clean that filter you’re looking through.

Happy all the time isn’t possible

There is no perfect formula of things that will make you happy every day. Life has ups and downs. Learn to surf them. Being unhappy in this moment isn’t a failing; it might, in fact, be reasonable. Death, divorce, job loss, fights with your kid, all suck. You’re supposed to feel bad sometimes. This, too, shall pass.

Fill your cup every day, or at least regularly

Good self-care is underrated. Drink water. Get sunshine. Move your body. Have quiet time with your thoughts. Do something you enjoy every day. Pursue a hobby. As I said above, you can’t give away what you don’t have. Cultivate yourself.

Go easy on yourself

Wherever you are in your life, that’s where you are. You cannot be anywhere else at this time, so stop dwelling on the perceived mistakes that got you here. You are exactly where you need to be. Be kind to yourself. Show yourself some grace. See what happens when you do.

Be well, friends.

Aiming for perfection? Don’t.

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Let’s talk about how we measure things, specifically how we measure ourselves.

I meet people every day who measure themselves in ways that lead to depression, anxiety and general unhappiness. Part of the problem comes when we use the wrong tool, applying standards that are appropriate for one thing onto something else. Sometimes we have only a vague idea of what we’re judging ourselves on and so cannot possibly ascertain whether we’re hitting the mark or not.

Let’s use a school-related example. Suppose you take a spelling test. There are 20 words on the test. Success is defined typically as getting above a certain grade, and this is easy to measure. If you’re aiming for 100% and you miss a word, you know you have “failed.” If you’re aiming for 70%, and you miss a word, you know you have “succeeded.”

For adults out of school, the goal might be losing 10 pounds or doing a certain number of push-ups every day or quitting smoking. These also are (fairly) easy to measure. What does the scale say today? How many push-ups did you do? How long since your last cigarette?

But is pass/fail really the best method for measuring human effort? If you want to lose 10 pounds and you lose 8.5, did you really fail? What if you lost one pound but it’s the first time you’ve lost any weight in 20 years? And suppose your goal is to get Job X, but they hire someone else? Perfection can’t be the standard by which you measure yourself — not if you want to be happy.

And how do we measure ourselves on other things like being a “good parent,” a “loving spouse” or a “successful professional”? These are what matter most to people, but we tend to use crappy, haphazard ways of assessing ourselves. You’re a good mom if you don’t yell at your kids? Good luck meeting that standard 100% of the time. You’re a successful professional if you meet every deadline and the boss always seems happy with you? Those things are not always in your control.

I’ll say it again: Perfection can’t be the standard you use if you want to be happy.

Goals vs. values

It’s also important to point out that good parent, loving spouse and successful professional are not goals so much as values. A goal has a defined end point. A value is something we move toward and, by definition, can never actually reach. There is no end point of “good parent.” You are engaged in an on-going process of growth in parenting that shouldn’t really stop.

One of the first things you learn in the human services field is how to set goals with clients. This is common to social work, psychology, nursing, occupational therapy, etc. The common acronym is SMART. That is, goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

So rather than “I want to get healthy,” you set a goal that looks like this:

Goal: Eat a healthier diet (specific) including at least 1 serving of fruit/vegetables at every meal (measurable, achievable via frequent grocery trips, and relevant to the goal) for one month (time-bound).

The time aspect is important for a couple of reasons. First, any goal-setting is essentially an experiment. You can’t ascertain the outcome of an experiment that never ends. Second, goals sometimes need to be tweaked to fit your actual life. If you discover that you can’t get to the grocery more than once per week, you’d better not plan to eat salad at every meal unless you like them wilted. If getting up at 5 a.m. to work out results in worsened mood due to sleep deprivation, you might need to pick a different workout plan.

Use the right yardstick

How we define success has a direct effect on how we feel about ourselves. How do we know if our definitions are healthy or helpful? Well, you should be measuring things you can actually control. Success can’t be defined as getting someone else to do something (hire you, marry you, obey you, etc.). That’s a trap, and you can’t ever be “successful” if your definition of success focuses on anything except your own behavior.

So instead of “get Job X,” measure yourself on “prepare for interview by thinking of 10 possible interview questions” or “manage interview anxiety by arriving early/praying/meditating,” etc.

One of the recent buzzwords in psychology and education is “growth mindset.” This basically means orienting oneself toward improvement. It means looking at success as a spectrum rather than a bulls-eye we either hit or miss. It also means looking at the “misses” as opportunities rather than reflections on our competence or worth.

If we go back to the spelling test example, a growth mindset uses a test as a teaching tool. The one word you missed? You probably know it now, thanks to testing yourself and discovering that you couldn’t remember if i came before e or the reverse. And what about the 19 words you did learn for that spelling test? or the 8.5 pounds you did lose? or the 14 days you did go without smoking (your lungs are better for it)? A growth mindset also sees value in what you have, rather than focusing entirely on what you lack.

We’ve all heard the glass half empty/half full analogy, yes? Seeing clearly means noticing that the glass is half empty AND half full, and discovering whether that is enough water to meet your need. Let the act of noticing the water lead to figuring out where to get more, rather than kicking yourself for not having gotten more the first time.

Go easy on yourselves, people.

May you be well.

A calm mind creates no suffering

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Recently I attended a long (very long) silent meditation retreat. When I told people I was going to meditate for 10 days, I got one of two reactions.

1: “Wow! That sounds amazing and relaxing!”

2: “That sounds like torture.”

Funny how the same thing can create such opposite reactions. Both perspectives turned out to be true, and not true.

Things I learned by shutting up:

Meditation sometimes sucks

It wasn’t relaxing, at least not very often. Being able to focus your mind intently on something and keep re-placing it there all day long is hard. It’s boring. Sometimes your body starts to hurt and you have a whole conversation with yourself about pain. Sometimes your mind brings up painful content. (Sobs were heard at times).

But sometimes it’s really great

If you’ve ever gotten really into an activity and entered what some call the “flow” state, you’ll understand this. There sometimes comes a point in a long period of meditation where the mind slows down, the chatter quiets a bit, and you’re just doing what it is you’re doing without really thinking about it. This is the feeling I think most people are trying to get from meditation.

Which brings me to:

Hope is not your friend (i.e., drop all expectations)

You cannot try to achieve the flow. You might as well try to catch smoke. The effort has to be entirely in maintaining focus on your meditation object, not in generating a certain feeling or experience. One of the real purposes of meditation is to achieve equanimity (calm non-reactivity to good as well as bad experiences). If you’re moving away from or toward any thought or feeling, you are not equanimous. (I promise that’s really a word.)

Balance is dynamic, not static

If we drop our favorite illusion, that we can achieve happiness and keep it forever, we learn that staying calm is a journey, not a destination. True balance requires constant monitoring and adjustment. Try standing on one leg and you’ll see what I mean. Many small movements are required to maintain the balance.

Most of what runs through your mind is useless

Seriously, all the stories that your mind generates aren’t helping you. The belief that your life is full of problems that you have to manage is false. Unless someone is bleeding out, urgency is a mind creation. Most things can solve themselves. You don’t have to listen to every urge or emotion. You don’t have to scratch every itch.

We all talk too much about too little

On the last full day of the retreat, we were allowed to talk again before venturing back out into the loud, loud world. We didn’t talk about our favorite TV shows or the president. After 10 days of silence, we talked about real things in our lives. With complete strangers who felt like friends. It was weird, but refreshing.

A calm mind is a happy mind

One thing the teacher said which struck me is that in order to harm anyone else through speech or action, we first harm ourselves. Anger is actually really painful if you examine it closely. The pain starts with you, and what you really are trying to do when you “lose” your temper is to give away your anger so you can be free of it.

But if you never let anger ramp all the way up, you never yell at the driver who cuts you off, or at your spouse or your child. You have to be really present with your feelings and take responsibility for them all — ALL — in order to maintain internal balance. If you stay balanced, lashing out becomes impossible because there’s no need to give your anger to someone else. Make sense?

Wayne Dyer gave this example in a talk once. What do you get when you squeeze an orange? (Orange juice, obviously). Why? (Because that’s what’s inside). So if I squeeze you, and out comes anger, why did that happen? Because that’s what’s inside you. It has never come from anywhere else.

Take good care of your mind. Take good care of your heart. May you all be well.

 

But what if I can’t relax?

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Last week’s blog made anxiety solutions sound fairly simple: Relax! Meditate!

“But, Richelle, how do I meditate when I can’t relax? How do I relax when the world is full of dangers? How do I calm down when life is so hectic?”

I know that’s what some of you were thinking, because that’s what my clients tell me in therapy, as well.

First, get your mind right

In order to relax, we need to get clear about the difference between danger and perceived threat. Before I go further, I have to give a shout-out here to Dr. J. Eric Gentry, whose work fleshed out many of these concepts for me.

So I’ll begin by asking you a question: Are you 100% safe right now? This almost feels like a trick question. I was at a professional seminar recently with Dr. Gentry where he asked this of a room full of therapists. And a room full of therapists said what everyone says: No! Of course not! We’re never 100% safe! Anything could happen in the next five minutes.

But it’s not a trick question, and you are (more than likely) 100% safe right now. If you’re sitting in front of a screen reading a blog, then you aren’t in the midst of falling off a cliff, getting kidnapped or watching a tornado tear off your roof. I know you may not feel  safe, and anything actually could happen in the next five minutes. But we’re talking about now. Is there anything in your environment right now that requires you to take action right now to protect your body or your life? If not, then you’re safe, and it’s time for relaxation mode.

Second, relax your body

Your body can only hold tension for so long before this becomes unhealthy and exhausting and you become ultimately less able to respond to a crisis.  A lot of people — especially those who have experienced extremely scary or painful things — fall into the trap of becoming hyper-vigilant for danger. This is an over-response and reduces our effectiveness in a crisis. When we are tense or anxious, certain brain functions become impaired. When we’re too stressed, we can’t think straight or process information quickly and appropriately.

There are many relaxation techniques out there. Some take a while to do. I’m thinking particularly of progressive muscle relaxation. This is a great tool to use at bedtime if you have a hard time sleeping, but it’s less useful in anxious moments at work or in your car, since it takes several minutes to complete and requires you to zone out for a bit.

Today we’ll focus on things that we can do quickly, in the moment. First, do not underestimate the importance of a deep, long, cleansing breath. Try taking one right now. Breathe in through your nose for 4-6 seconds, hold for a count of 2, and then breathe out through your nose for 2 seconds longer than your in-breath.

Now do it a second time, but on the out-breath, relax your whole body, like a wet noodle. Go limp.

Do it one more time, but on this one, focus just on relaxing your core and your pelvic floor — everything between your belly button and what you’re sitting on. If it’s hard to connect with that area, try contracting all those muscles first and then releasing them. Once you know how to do this, you can simply release these muscles when you notice they’re tight. Instant physical relaxation.

Third, start facing the world with relaxed muscles

The idea is to use these relaxation strategies as soon as you notice internal signs of anxiety or tension. These signs are unique to each person, but they generally include tightening in the diaphragm (the breathing muscle), the pelvic floor and often the shoulders and jaw or forehead. Some people notice a physical sensation almost as if something is literally squeezing their body, or feeling an urge to lash out at the other person (more on this in another blog post) or exit the situation ASAP.

Most “threats” we face on a daily basis are social or ego threats. The boss is criticizing us or our kids won’t do what we’ve asked. There is no actual danger, so we have to calm down our body’s anxiety circuits or we lose our ability to act effectively.

You can do this relaxation in mid-conversation and it’s essentially invisible to the other person. You may notice a lot of interesting effects. In my experience, my vision instantly improves — my peripheral vision widens and I am more acutely aware of the face of the person I’m talking to, instead of being distracted by my internal worry machine.

So other than deciding whether you’re in danger or not, thoughts are really out of the picture with these techniques. Telling yourself mentally that you should relax is far different from doing a specific thing with your muscles. Don’t argue with yourself, just release your muscles and see if new, calmer behaviors become available to you in stressful situations.

Try it, and please comment if you find this helpful.

May you be well.

Anxiety isn’t helping you … probably

Fear is useful, but anxiety is often a lying son-of-a-gun. Fear is what you feel when faced with an actual threat to your life or health. Anxiety is a thought about something that might be a threat sometime in the future, maybe. See the difference?

Suppose you’re on a hike in the forest. You come around a bend in the trail and see a bear. It turns to you and stands up. That feeling you get? It’s fear. This is an actual threat to your life, and your body is preparing to face that threat.

Suppose, instead, that you’re hiking in the forest and there is no bear. But you’re worried that you will see a bear. That feeling is anxiety, and most of the time it is not your friend.

Notice I said “most of the time.” Anxiety is necessary and helpful at times, but most of us are pretty bad at recognizing when and how to best use it. Let’s think of it this way: The only reason you exist is because your ancestors figured out how to avoid danger long enough to reproduce. How did they do that? Well-honed fear/anxiety circuits and the ability to relax them long enough to obtain food and shelter, build community and, uh, “get busy” with their partners.

When it’s useful

One of my cats is deathly afraid of thunderstorms. At the first crack of lightning or thunder, he’s off in his hidey hole, and you will not see him for the duration of the storm. But as soon as it’s over? He’s back to his normal self. Eating, playing, etc. He’s not nervously pacing at the window wondering if the storm is coming back. He has moved on.

Mammalian nervous systems are intricate and finely tuned. We have basically two channels — the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic is engaged when we perceive a threat, and its job is to charge us up to fight or flee. Heart rate and breathing rate increase; digestive and reproductive functions slow down; vision and hearing ranges narrow, and there is often an urge to do something with the excess energy we feel.

The job of the parasympathetic nervous system is basically everything else. It decreases heart rate and breathing, relaxes muscles and allows functions like digestion and reproduction to resume. (If you have trouble remembering which system is which, I use this memory aid: the sympathetic is speedy and the parasympathetic is peaceful).

We function better and more happily when we have parasympathetic dominance — that is we are in the peaceful mode more often than not. If we stay in sympathetic dominance when there is no current threat, we have trouble sleeping, relaxing, enjoying ourselves. We snap at people and feel squeezed all the time. We may even develop panic attacks or agoraphobia.

Let’s go back to my hiking example. It is useful in bear country to have a small amount of anxiety about bears, if this anxiety leads you to take appropriate actions such as buying bear spray (yeah, that’s real) and learning how to use it, storing your food appropriately while camping, etc. If it leads you to avoid hiking altogether, and hiking is something you value and enjoy, then anxiety isn’t helping you, it’s constricting your life.

A little bit of anxiety helps performance. If you’ve ever wandered into a restaurant for a late lunch, and you’re the only customer there, you may notice that the service is surprisingly slow. Why? The staff are too relaxed. A little anxiety makes us move faster and more efficiently. Too much makes us run around like Chicken Little, unable to take effective action.

Controlling the “dose”

Anxiety management is not anxiety control. It’s learning to live with, not get rid of, something that can be very useful. Staying in the useful anxiety “window” is key, and here are some ideas on how to do it:

First, it’s important to drop the belief that you can avoid anxiety entirely through some magic formula. You can’t, and you wouldn’t want  to for reasons stated above. The key is learning to act with anxiety instead of from anxiety.

Second, you need to learn to notice and experience your feelings, even the unpleasant ones. So many people don’t recognize anxiety building because they’ve dissociated from their bodies. They’ve bought the cultural message that uncomfortable feelings are bad, so they jump right to trying to fix, manage and avoid; or they act out in anger because of their discomfort. Mindfulness training can help you recognize when anxiety is starting to build in your body and make effective choices about what to do with it.

Third, you need tools to use in the moment if anxiety is overwhelming your ability to be effective. Relaxation skills are important here, as is the ability to use them while in traffic or in a board meeting without having to exit the situation. The key is to practice them in the moment, over and over until you can use them consistently. Such skills mainly focus on muscle relaxation and can be learned in a few minutes.

Feedback appreciated

I would love to hear from people who have found effective ways to live with anxiety. You can also click “Follow” and input your email address to get notified when new blogs are posted. I welcome any questions, as well.

Now go for a hike or do something else you enjoy. Life is short, my friends.

 

Accept it, then change it

There is a story of a Zen master who told his students this: “You are all perfect just as you are. And …you could use a little work.”

It’s an interesting paradox that I have noticed in my therapy practice: The thing people hate is the thing they cannot change. Once people accept whatever “the thing” is, then it is amenable to change.

If you have anxiety, you can’t change it while refusing to have it. You can’t lose the extra weight you’re carrying while actively hating your body. You can’t refuse to have a thing and expect to be able to do something with it. If I asked you to fix my broken coffee cup, can you fix it without first opening your hands to receive it?

People often misunderstand what we mean by accepting something. It doesn’t mean resigning yourself to it, but simply seeing clearly that which is already here.  It is an active type of surrender. It’s a recognition. If you have panic attacks, it means actively noticing the anxiety in your body, and the judging or fearful thoughts about it, and the witnessing presence that is you. It means seeing that you’re having a thought about anxiety, but you are not anxiety. Anxiety is not you, but it is a thing that shows up in you sometimes.

You are bigger than anxiety, or obesity, or PTSD, or whatever you struggle with. Moving away from something you don’t want is much less effective than moving toward something you do want. How do you move toward health rather than away from your problems?

There is a great metaphor that we use in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Suppose you’re driving a bus (your life), and a few unwanted passengers (your problems) get on. You want to get to your destination (health, happiness). So does it make sense to stop the bus until the passengers get off? Of course not. You keep going, knowing that the passengers are coming, too, at least for now. You move toward what you want rather than struggling to control what you don’t want, no matter how loud and annoying those passengers get.

You have urges to eat chocolate even though you want to lose weight? OK. See the urge, know that it’s there whether you eat the chocolate or not and know that it will pass whether you eat the chocolate or not. Don’t hate yourself for wanting the chocolate, or for choosing to eat it sometimes.

You have anxiety every time you’re in a new social situation? OK. See the anxiety, see the thoughts that show up with it. Know that you can choose to introduce yourself to someone at that networking lunch even if anxiety tells you that you can’t. You don’t have to get rid of it first. You can have the life you want right now.

So, your problems are coming along for the ride.

Now — where you will go?