Holding the Space for Shadow Behind the Light

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Have you ever been in an argument and suddenly realized the perfectly mean thing to say, that ultimate verbal weapon that would render your opponent categorically mute and ambush them into abject submission?  It’s an exhilaratingly powerful feeling, isn’t it?  What did you do?  Did you bite your tongue and take the high(er) road?  Did you blunt the skewer and lob something passive-aggressive instead?  Or did you let loose that ax with the full force of rage behind it, just to see what would happen?

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I had another convergence experience last week, in a series of articles on my Facebook newsfeed.  It started when I saw this piece on reconciling the parts of ourselves which we subconsciously hate, in order to live more integrated, fulfilling lives, particularly in our relationships with others.  The author discusses Carl Jung’s core ideas, stating, “To heal a split in self, a person needs to work with their shadow and learn uncomfortable truths about themselves in the process. Our inner war is softened when we allow ourselves to be seen. Not just the side of ourselves that matches our intersubjective ideal — that is easy. We show those feathers prominently. No, we need to accept our failures and shortcomings too.”

Yes, I know.  It’s the Sh*tpile all over again.

The Remembrance

I attempted to read a book several years ago, Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers.  There is an exercise on page 69 of the 2010 paperback edition in which she lists a set of negative words, such as greedy, phony, cheap, lazy, wimp, fat, passive, coward, etc.  The instructions are as follows:  “Identify the words that have an emotional charge for you.  Say out loud, ‘I am ________.’  If you say it without any emotional charge, then move on to the next word.  Write down the words that you dislike or react to.  If you are not sure…ask yourself how you’d really feel if someone you respected called you this word.  If you’d be angry or upset, write it down.  Also…(think about) words that are not on this list that run your life or cause you pain.”  The list is almost two pages long.

Back around 2011 I did this exercise in earnest.  I wrote down words like controlling, bitchy, rigid, egocentric, better than, arrogant, defensive, judgmental, condescending, oversensitive, and many more.  I’m looking at the list right now, written on a napkin while I sat alone reading at lunch—so long and depressing.  Who knew I hated so many things about myself?  I got through another 40 pages of the book, as evidenced by the bookmark still wedged at the end of the chapter entitled, “Embracing Your Dark Side.”  All I remember is the profound, visceral discomfort I felt after that exercise, the unshakable fear and shame, and how I basically came home that day and picked a fight with my husband that lasted for two weeks.  Not my proudest moments on this journey of self-discovery….  I remember thinking, ‘This is f*ing hard.  How will I ever get on the other side of it all?’

These days, things feel very different.  I’ve done a lot (a lot) more inner work, studied and learned, and enlisted professional help to overcome my aversions to emotional vulnerability.  I’m thinking I could probably pick this book up again, redo the exercise, and have a very different experience.

The Emergence of a Thread

While I pondered this, another article came across my newsfeed, entitled, “What Nice Men Never Tell Nice Women.”  Basically it describes the internal tension between men’s competing impulses: “The nice man is democratic, egalitarian and deeply sympathetic to the feminist agenda – and yet in sexual fantasy, he loves the idea of being tyrannical, bullying and really very rough. He himself can’t understand the disjuncture between competing parts of his nature; he is spooked by the drastic switch in his value-system that occurs the very second after orgasm.”  Wow.

The article concludes with, “It’s clearly very hard for the partners of the nice to take on board the darker sides of their lovers. But if they are robust enough to dare to give them some attention, the result can be an extraordinary flowering of the relationship beyond anything yet experienced. However close we may be to someone because they have been nice to us, it’s as nothing next to the closeness we’ll achieve if we allow them to show us, without shaming or humiliating them, what really isn’t quite so nice about them.

“Out there, in the politer corners of society, nice guys are – without saying a thing, that’s not their style – waiting for nice women to start to gently take the weighty burden of their ‘badness’ off them. And, of course, vice versa too, for no gender has any monopoly on the sense of being bad.”  This last sentence gave me pause and hope.  It turned the tables and made it okay for women to also have a dark side, for us to also struggle with our ‘niceness.’

One of my friends commented, questioning, “So all men are either openly hostile and misogynistic, or are burying their dark feelings?”  I almost reflexively I replied, “I took the article as saying we all bury our dark feelings somewhat, and we can live fuller, healthier lives if we both acknowledge them and manage them effectively.”  Again, I found myself returning to this core idea of grappling with our inner demons.  By now I started to wonder about cosmic timing.  What has the re-emergence to teach me now?  We all have some base impulses, parts of ourselves that we would sooner deny than acknowledge, let alone show to the world.  I wrote about this, rather spontaneously and unexpectedly, at the beginning of the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  Little did I know then that this would become a recurring theme this summer.  It’s as if the universe urges me onward, perhaps sensing that my motivation to dig in my shitpile wanes, when I ought to be digging deeper, integrating more?  Isn’t this what I’m always preaching, to Own Your Shit?  Okay then, I thought, I will stay on the path.

The Dark Side of the Dark Side

The next article to converge on this shadow-themed week came in the form of tweets by a reporter from a Trump rally on August 18th.  People were saying Hillary Clinton should be executed, calling her a ‘f*ing witch,’ calling President Obama a ‘goddamn Muslim terrorist,’ saying ‘reporters need lobotomies, and maybe that’s what Trump will do after elected,’ wanting to ‘hurt the press,’ mentioning ‘a civil war if Trump loses,’ and it goes on.  It occurred to me that these are examples of us not managing our dark sides very well.  The article on Carl Jung and Debbie Ford’s book both embrace the idea of uncovering our less generous traits with compassion, and integrating them for a healthier whole.  These people’s behavior, by contrast, demonstrates the profound risks of allowing those darker impulses to overtake our consciousness, words, and actions.  The container of repression has its limits.  When someone outside applies incendiary words and rhetoric, the fire drives internal pressures beyond the container’s capacity.  If that person then provides a release valve in the form of a similarly aggravated group, well, violence and mayhem are born.

In my previous posts I have reminded myself to remember to look beyond the mob mentality, and listen for the individuals’ personal experiences.  I have to continuously remind myself that we must have more in common than not.  We are all human, after all, and we love our country.  So what could drive people to abandon all social norms of restraint, and unleash such profound loathing into the world?

I came across the final piece in the convergence on Sunday, which offers some insight.  Veteran journalist Joel Stein wrote this blog post exploring the nature of internet trolls.  In it he describes how despite the profoundly abhorrent things these people may write to their online prey, they are not the dregs of society that we may imagine.  He quotes a social media exec: “’The idea of the basement dweller drinking Mountain Dew and eating Doritos isn’t accurate,’ she says. ‘They (could) be a doctor, a lawyer, an inspirational speaker, a kindergarten teacher.  It’s more complex than just being good or bad… It’s not all men either; women do take part in it.’  There’s no real life indicator,” he writes.

Stein describes his experience confronting his own troll of two years, a 26 year-old, small-framed, female freelance writer who on multiple occasions tweeted that she wanted to “kick (his) ass.”  He invited her over Twitter to meet for lunch in order to confront her, and she cheerfully agreed over email.  Excuse me??  During the meal she admitted that she was just lashing out at what she perceived as his ‘smarminess,’ and told him outright, “’It’s clear I’m just projecting. The things I hate about you are the things I hate about myself.’”  And though she had been trolled worse than he, she experienced no sympathy that prevented her from doing it to him.  She expressed incredulity when he asked why she never carried out her threats to beat him up, even when she had the chance.  “’Why would I do that?’ she said. ‘The Internet is the realm of the coward. These are people who are all sound and no fury.’”

So more and more, in both large, impersonal groups and online, our dark sides are given free reign with few, if any, meaningful consequences.  Under cover of the mob and anonymity of the internet, we can freely relieve our repression.  But it comes without any insight, and there is no lasting benefit, for ourselves or those around us.  There is only offloading, a temporary pressure release, only to continue re-accumulating, with unpredictable and potentially very destructive outcomes.

This is not, I think, the manner in which Carl Jung envisioned us coming to grips with our shadow selves.  This is not integration.  Rather it is advanced separation— perpetual splitting of self from self and from others.

The Lesson

So what have I learned?  We all harbor coarse, corrupt, even barbaric tendencies.  We are descendants of cavemen, after all, and still hardwired as such in our limbic brains.  Still, most of us exercise discretion and civility in everyday life, and find ways to get along in society—we exert neocortical controls.  Every once in a while, though, something gets the best of us, catches us off guard, and the ugly slips out.  Sometimes it’s pretty scary ugly.

Once again, I conclude that shaming ourselves or one another for the repugnance is the opposite of helpful.  Just like the offloading behavior that incites our disapproval, automatic ad hominem negativity toward perpetrators of such words or acts only serves to further alienate them, adds fuel to the fomenting rage fires.  When we berate ourselves for our shortcomings, we make ourselves smaller and less resilient–more likely to react with rage rather than respond with gentleness.

In the end I think it’s about judgment.  We can and should judge which attitudes, policies, and behaviors we deem right and good.  At the same time we should exercise caution and extreme patience when we find ourselves judging ourselves and others on worthiness.  The default assumption must be that we are all worthy, that we all deserve a voice, no matter how vulgar and objectionable our words.  We must apply boundaries, and we should expect mutual respect and tolerance; we can find ways to deal with disrespect and intolerance that do not invalidate one another’s innate humanity.

As we each pursue our own inner work, dig in our respective shitpiles, we contribute to the life gardens of those around us, and lead by example.  It can be back- and sometimes spirit-breaking work.  But we must continue.  There is too much at stake for us to take the path of least resistance, the path of separation and alienation.  Let us stay on the more demanding and more rewarding path together, friends–the path of connection.  Let us hold one another up through the shadows, and seek always the light within each and all of us.

#AtoZChallenge: Applying Zen And Zeal

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Here we are, friends, the sprint to the end!! If I get this up by midnight that will be 5 posts in 2 days, a personal record!  I shall carry that pride for a while yet.  Many thanks to all who have visited from the A to Z Challenge this month, to all those who supported me through it, to the regular readers, and to the writers whose work I have had the distinct pleasure of reading.  We made it!!  And now, the last…

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, again:

Zen:  a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation. [On this last post I interject my own connotation for this word, as synonymous with peacefulness and thoughtful serenity.]

Zeal:  eagerness and ardent interest in pursuit of something: fervor, syn(onym) see passion.

Today listening again (still) to Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, I learned a new relationship between cortisol and testosterone, in terms of power and behavior.  Cortisol rises under threat, when we feel powerless.  Testosterone rises when we feel confident and powerful.  But they are not mutually exclusive, and just like meaning and stress, they can coexist in variable amounts.  By Applying Zen and Zeal, I mean to describe what it looks and feels like when we think and act in the combined state—a low cortisol, high testosterone milieu:  Confident, strong, calm, powerful, and proactive.

One more time, through the alphabet:

Attitude.  Peaceful passion.  Confidently Aspiring to higher goals.

Behavior.  Measured, less impulsive.  Intentional, purposeful.

Conduct.  Consistent.  Steady.  Forthright.

Demeanor.  Welcoming, friendly.  Inviting.  Quietly exuding a mission.

Effect.  Inspiring.  Aspiring.  Cohesive, motivating.

Focus.  Clear, directed, sharp.

Goals.  Meaningful, worthy.

Happiness.  Derived from within, determined by Honoring core values.

Influence.  Stirring, benevolent, collaborative.

Judgment.  Wise, responsible.

Kinship.  With all of humanity, transcending skin color, ideology, rhetoric.

Lessons.  Lifelong Learning in humility, applied with grace and gratitude.

Mantras.  Expressive, centering, grounding.  Ideas to foster engagement with the world.

Narrative.  Analytical, honest, ongoing.

Objective.  Peace in action.

Pursuit.  Integrity, fairness, equality.

Query.  Self-awareness, withholding judgment, telling new stories.

Rest.  Respected, taken in intervals.  Recharging, never slothful.

Strength.  When collaborating with others—Synergistic.

Timbre.  Deep.  Resonant.  Moving.

Universe.  Vast, inclusive, mystical.

Vibration.  Stimulating.  Multi-synchronous.

Wealth.  Deep connection.

Xanadu.  World peace.

Yield.  World peace.

Zenith.  World peace.

 

Peace to all.

#AtoZChallenge: Xerophyte People

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

Xerophyte: a plant structurally adapted for life and growth with a limited water supply esp. by means of mechanisms that limit transpiration or that provide for the storage of water.

AC cactus 2016

Photo courtesy of Cyndie Abbott, Green Valley, Arizona, 2016

 

Water is essential for growth and survival—of plants and animals alike. So how is it that some plants can not only survive, but thrive and even reproduce, with so little water?  On top of that, they also provide beauty, habitation, and even sustenance for others.  Their short-lived flowers splash color onto monochromatic landscapes.  Regional animals are adapted to live nestled among some xerophytes’ barbs.  Survival programs tell us to seek these plants as a source of essential hydration when stranded in the dessert.

Humans share many of these tough flora’s adaptive qualities. We evolved as omnivores, able to eat most things that grow in nature.  Our big forebrains allowed us to cultivate plants to eat.  We learned to capture, then herd, animals for our own use.  We have come so far as to alter and control our environments, in order to live in places where nature may never have intended.

But the more interesting parallel between xerophyte plants and Xerophyte People is resilience.  If we consider metaphorical water for human life, many things come to mind: joy, security, connection, purpose, meaning, love.  Think of all the people who live with little or none of these things.  Think of those who once had these things, and then had them forcibly taken away, often indefinitely—by war, abuse, illness, death.  In medicine, we witness this kind of suffering regularly.  Our hearts break alongside those of our patients and their families.  But it’s not always forever.  In primary care, where I have the privilege of knowing patients over long periods, I have also celebrated remarkable reversals.  New relationships, revelations, births, treatment innovations—you never know what will happen to turn the tide.

So what keeps us hanging on? Like plants, maybe we figure out ways to prevent further loss—limit transpiration.  Thick skin and prickly spines keep us protected.  Only the very persistent or the specially equipped can penetrate our defenses.  But more important, we have adapted to store what we need.  Even if we cannot readily identify or articulate it, something keeps us going.  Maybe it’s hope, remembrance, or some core value or aspiration we have yet to realize—some inner pilot light that never goes out.  Some might call it the human spirit.  Whatever it is, I stand in reverence of its mystery, its utterly saving presence.

To all the Xerophyte People in our world, I say as Glennon Doyle Melton does:  Carry On, Warriors.

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Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico, June 2015

#AtoZChallenge: Of Trials and Tribes

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Since my last post, I’m thinking more about this Tend and Befriend response to stress–to Trials. When I first mentioned it in this post, I did not really understand it, though I thought I did.  I thought it was about empathy, responding to others’ stress.  Later I started calling it the ‘mama bear’ response, but this is not exactly right, either.   It is attributed to a maternal aspect of human nature, but the bear metaphor conveys too much of the ‘fight’ reflex.

As I reread this summary article, I modified my frame to the ‘mama anything’ response.  The author describes work by Michael Meaney at McGill university, that shows the ‘tend’ aspect:

“He and his colleagues remove rat pups from their nest for brief periods–a stressful situation for pups and mothers–and then return them to the nest and watch what happens. The mothers immediately move to nurture and soothe their pups by licking, grooming and nursing them. This kind of tending response stimulates the growth of the pups’ stress-regulatory system.”

Further in the article, the ‘befriend’ aspect is explained:

“Taylor and her colleagues detail evidence from rodent studies and studies in humans that when they are stressed, females prefer being with others, especially other females, while males don’t. Indeed, in humans, women are much more likely than men to seek out and use social support in all types of stressful situations, including over health-related concerns, relationship problems and work-related conflicts.”

YES! It reminds me of a post I wrote last November about Teams.  Now I’m thinking about prides of lionesses, herds of elephants, and Tribes of people.  Throughout my life, I have had Throngs (okay maybe not, but it’s a great T word!) of people to reach out to in times of need.  Off the top of my head, here are some tribes I belong to:

Mamas

Docs

Mama Docs

Mama Docs of Children With Anaphylactic Food Allergies

My Cheng Cousins

My Hwang Cousins

American Born Chinese (ABCs, the so-called second generation)

AHS Warriors

Patient care Teams (including medical assistants, nurses, receptionists, ultrasound technicians, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and other physicians)

Northwestern University

The University of Chicago

Conscious Life Journeyers

The Counsel of Wisdom and Caring, convened on my 41st birthday

 

More from the article, research by Nancy Collins, PhD:

“…tend-and-befriend may be just as adaptive for men as for women in certain contexts, says Collins, whose research finds no gender differences when examining how often husbands and wives seek support from their most intimate companions–for example, each other.”

So really, as the article concludes, Fight or Flight(, Challenge,) and Tend & Befriend are just a spectrum of human stress responses.  Not mama bear, not just mamas, not even just parents, but all of us.  Tend and befriend simply describes and exemplifies the basic human need to belong—we all need our Tribes.

#AtoZChallenge: Stress Assessments in a 15 Minute Clinic Visit

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In my practice, I focus a lot on stress management. Over the years I have developed a series of questions that facilitate an efficient and productive assessment of stress and its impact on health.  I share this approach here.

 

Meaning to Stress Ratio

  1. On a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being very high, how high do you rate the overall stress of your work?
  2. What are the sources of stress?
  3. On the same scale, 0 to 10, how high do you rate the overall meaning of your work to you? I mean personally, subjectively, regardless of how you think the world perceives your work, how much fulfillment to you yourself get from your work?
  4. What are the sources of meaning?

Examples of stress sources would be volume, hours, intensity, risk, pressure to perform, and toxic relationships. Examples of meaning sources might include contribution to society, providing for the family, mentoring, supportive relationships, creativity, and intellectual stimulation.

I started asking these questions to patients about seven years ago. I remember the first time I thought to use the trusty 0 to 10 scale to assess stress.  It made the conversation instantly faster and more focused.  Most people answer the first two questions easily, especially if stress is high.  A fair few, however, find the second two much harder.  They often get pensive for a moment.  This is when I know I might be cracking open an important door in a person’s consciousness—a door that, I believe, leads to important discoveries of self and overall health.

Everybody wants high meaning, low stress. But before we idealize ‘low stress,’ let us remember that all stress is not bad, and some stress is required for motivation, challenge, and productivity.

I soon realized, both for my patients and myself, that both the absolute values of stress and meaning, as well as their ratio, play significant roles in health. Let’s take a look:

Low stress/low meaning : Boredom; disengagement.

High stress/low meaning: A different form of disengagement:  Burnout.

Low stress/high meaning: Restlessness: Lack of challenge, looking for something useful to do in service of a cause.

High stress/high meaning: This one is significant.  In my interviews, the people who are happiest in their jobs report this combination.  The key is that meaning must outrank stress—the meaning:stress ratio must be one or greater—and meaning itself must meet or exceed 6/10.  We can tolerate high levels of stress, even for prolonged periods, if we perceive intrinsic value in what we’re doing.  It moves the peak of the stress/performance curve to the right.  In other words, the stress has to be worth it.

 

The Three Awareness Questions

  1. When you are stressed or overwhelmed, where do you feel it in your body? For example, some people get headaches; others feel fatigued. Others get constipated or short of breath/palpitative. Still others notice mood swings and angry outbursts. While we all likely manifest each of these some of the time, most of us have a telltale sign or two that are specific to us.
  2. What are your existing resilience practices? What do you already do that keeps you from falling off the edge? What keeps you sane on a daily basis? We all have these practices, though it may take some contemplation to identify them. This awareness is important, though, so we may actively monitor. For so many people, exercise is a key stress reliever, and also the first thing cut out of the schedule when life gets busy.
  3. What are your de-escalation practices? When you feel yourself slipping off the cliff (the headache returns, your bowels grind to a halt), what do you do that brings you back from the edge? Examples here might be physical (running, boxing, or otherwise tantruming), verbal (journaling), or other.

When people make the connection between physical symptoms and subconscious stress, they can let go the fear and dread that often accompanies these chronic and often bothersome sensations. They can use them as smoke alarms—signals to take a step back, look around, and see what is out of balance, smoldering, or actually on fire.

Threat-Challenge-T&B Pie Graph

I previously referenced three major responses to stress here.  In summary:

  1. Threat stress: This is what we generally mean when we say ‘stress.’ It’s the fight, flight, or freeze response, when we sense a treat to survival, or we appraise that we lack the resources to cope with our circumstances. It’s mediated by cortisol.
  2. Challenge stress: We face a challenge that we feel at least somewhat qualified to tackle but it will be hard, test our limits. If we’re lucky, it’s something we care deeply about and we rise to the occasion—I’m thinking this could lead to a state of flow. This stress results in increases in DHEA and testosterone.
  3. Tend and befriend stress: This is the Mama Bear response. Under stress, we reach out and protect those around us.  We circle the wagons, bring in the kids, make sure everybody’s okay.  Oxytocin rises here.

If you were to draw a pie graph representing the proportions of these three stress responses in your work, home, or life in general, what would it look like? All three responses are natural, functional, and serve a purpose.  But when threat stress, in particular, becomes chronic and unrelenting, health suffers—we suffer.  Fortunately, there are strategies to convert threat stress to challenge stress.  Here are some resources for that, if you’re interested:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjklePAq6jMAhUBZiYKHYjRAaMQFggcMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ascd.org%2Fpublications%2Feducational-leadership%2Ffeb14%2Fvol71%2Fnum05%2FConvert-Stress-to-Challenge.aspx&usg=AFQjCNEoBg56lNydHzXTJcXs-9WwoNxmRg&bvm=bv.119745492,d.cWw

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjklePAq6jMAhUBZiYKHYjRAaMQFggvMAM&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhbr.org%2F2011%2F06%2Fturning-stress-into-an-asset%3Fcm_sp%3DTopics-_-Links-_-Read%2520These%2520First&usg=AFQjCNGCm6kfdy2ElyCRFilRd__NQ3TX8w&bvm=bv.119745492,d.cWw

http://believeperform.com/performance/stress-appraisal-challenge-vs-threat/

This is now the framework with which I interview all patients about ‘stress’ and its impact on their health. It’s my favorite part of the patient encounter.  This is when I really get to know a person, and learn, from every encounter, how people experience life.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s a tremendous privilege to be allowed into people’s lives so intimately.  My job is to help people live their best lives.  In the hectic culture of the twenty-first century, we cannot underestimate the importance of stress management in that endeavor.

#AtoZChallenge: Never and Now

Fire swamp

Photo found at http://www.cinemablend.com/images/reviews/6079/main.jpg

Scampering into the Fire Swamp to escape Prince Humperdink and his cronies…

Buttercup: “We’ll Never survive.”

Westley: “Nonsense. You’re only saying Never because no one ever has.”

 

“I will Never pay more than $___ for a house.”

“I will Never be able to swing a 14kg kettlebell without hurting myself.”

“I will Never get through all 12 weeks of this TRX Force program.”

“I Never thought it would turn out this way.”

As we all know (“’to blave’ means to bluff…” and holy cow, if you don’t know, please stop reading this instant and watch The Princess Bride!), Westley and Buttercup make it through the Fire Swamp, albeit with a few bumps and bruises.  Despite Buttercup’s grim forecast, Westley leads her one step at a time: past the Flame Spurts, out of the lightning Sands, and in spite of the ROUSs, or Rodents Of Unusual Size.  Having believed him dead, then being rescued by him from a trio of bandits, tumbling down a mountainside after him, and following him through the Swamp, Buttercup learns a critical lesson in overcoming passivity and nihilism.  Okay maybe that’s a stretch, but whatever, this is my post.

We all have our Nevers. The ones above are just a few of mine.  I spent more than I ever planned on my house and regret nothing.  I can wing a 14kg kettlebell with confidence—I rather kick ass, if I do say so myself.  I Never could have predicted my life looking this way—the good, the bad, the gorgeous, the ugly—and yet here I am.  And it is, really, mostly good (as opposed to “mostly dead”).  I’m starting to see possibility around the TRX thing, but I still think, I’ll believe it when I see it.  No, actually, I look forward to it.  On any given day of the program so far, I have thought, No.Way. It wants me to do what?  I try anyway, just to see how far I will get, and lo, turns out I actually get through.  So who knows what I can really do?

What helps us overcome our Nevers? In Buttercup’s case it was clearly Westley’s courage and love.  For me, the kettlebells, and the TRX, it’s Melissa, my trainer.  She has completed the program herself, she knows what’s required, and she knows what I can do—better than I know myself.  As for the rest of my life, well, it’s everybody else—my family, friends, colleagues, mentors, patients, et al.  I’ve said and written it ad nauseam—it’s my relationships that hold me up and save me.  I have very few Nevers anymore, because I’m surrounded by people who give me the courage to try.

And, there is another important practice to overcoming the Nevers: Mindfulness, the practice of the Now.  Never is about the future or the past.  Often it’s a shadowy, catastrophizing perspective of things.  But we cannot predict the future, despite our arrogant human certainty.  And we cannot live every day to come based solely on what has already happened or not happened.  Circumstances and attitudes change.  Landscapes change—at times literally, and in an instant.  We evolve, we learn, we grow.  How can we be so sure that Never is real?

Mindfulness teaches us to redirect our attention to what actually is.  It invites us to let go of what and how we think things should be, or will be, or were.  We don’t have to like it, and we also need to be comfortable with, or at least accepting of, our dislikes.  When we practice mindfulness, we slow down.  We see and think more clearly.  Anxiety and depression loosen their vice grips on us.  Mindfulness liberates us from the constraints of Never.

We are better off thinking, speaking, and acting in the Now. It is the mindset of agency.  This is what I know Now.  This is what I can promise you Now.  My sincerity is real Now, and I ask you to trust me.  I will keep my eyes and ears open to the new Nows; I will roll with the punches.  Westley makes no guarantees.  He simply forges ahead with conviction, bringing with him all (and only) the knowledge, skills, and wit he has acquired until this moment, when he realizes the only way out of the Fire Swamp is through.  He is present to the swamp’s dangers, and also to the potential tools available to him in this harsh environment.  He has no idea what will happen, whether they will actually survive.  He only refuses to accept the Never, and focuses like a laser on the Now.

There may be some things to which we can truly apply the word Never. I think we need to reserve it for the truly deserving statements, and leave the rest of our minds open to possibilities and growth.

Still, most of me thinks I will Never try bungee jumping…

#AtoZChallenge: Cursing, Curiosity, and Connection

Welcome to my first attempt at the Blogging A to Z Challenge!  26 posts starting April 1, one for each letter of the alphabet (I get Sundays off).  I’m exploring meaningful words to apply to perceptions, attitudes, behaviors, and relationships. It’s a personal journey, part of my mission of self-assessment and development through writing.  Thank you for stopping by, and please feel free to comment! 🙂

 

Sometimes we get angry, and we need an outlet. But often we need to suppress, get through the situation with grace and smiles.  Sometimes the need for professionalism and control can turn into chronic repression, which can then lead to sudden and violent explosions, often on those we love most.  Psychology tells us that children (and adults, as well) do this because it’s safest to lose it among those who truly love us, and we know this subconsciously.  But the scars left on these relationships can be disfiguring.  It’s dysfunctional, and there is a solution:  Curse It All.

A colleague in mind-body medicine told me once that he recommended to his patients to tantrum. I was incredulous at first, but then I saw the light.  Venting, done appropriately, can be cathartic and liberating.  One day I became abruptly livid, I won’t tell you why, but suffice it to say it was over something small, that represented a chronic dysfunctional pattern in a longstanding relationship (Cryptic is also a word for this post!).  It occurred to me that this was the perfect opportunity to try the tantrum method.  I was home by myself, and I share no walls with my neighbors.  I took a pair of jeans, held them by the cuffs, and proceeded to pummel at the bed, all the while screaming expletives at the top of my lungs, stomping, and flailing wildly.  It took maybe 45 seconds, tops.  Afterward I felt a new calm, a lightness that had seemed impossible just minutes before.

Cursing, or swearing, has some interesting benefits. It can increase pain tolerance, strengthen bonds of solidarity, and help us convey conviction and passion.  So I endorse it, as long as we use these words strategically.  A follow up experiment to the pain tolerance study found that daily swearers, people habituated to the practice, had less analgesic benefit compared to occasional swearers.  We now also have access to adult coloring books, giving us a visual route to unload intense emotions.

sh-t storm coloring book cover

image from Google

But then there is more work to do. Sometimes it’s enough just to have vented, but I think we serve ourselves best when we can take some time and energy to evaluate.  The first step here is to get Curious.  I first learned this from my life coach.  In conflict, it’s so easy to only see our own point of view.  Emotional hijacking causes tunnel vision.  So once the emotions have dissipated by way of swearing and chopping bed with jeans, we can once again see and think clearly.  Curiosity asks open-ended questions:  What just happened here?  How did I get to this place?  Why do I fly off the handle like this whenever (fill in the blank)?  Advanced curiosity is where assumptions can also be challenged:  What story am I telling about the other person that causes me to react this way?  What other story can I tell that would help us both suffer less and get to mutual understanding?  These are well-established techniques in coaching and psychology.  I refer you to Rising Strong, Brené Brown’s newest book, in which she describes the process of using curiosity as the springboard for healing from adversity and living ‘wholeheartedly.’

 

Why is this important? Because humans live to be connected.  Anger can be blinding.  It arises first and so intensely when we have other, more distressing feelings underlying, such as sadness, shame, rejection, and guilt.  Anger serves to protect us from the pain of those emotions, and also keeps us from moving through them, healing them.  The repression-explosion cycle costs us energy and connection (to self and others), and ultimately keeps us from living truly, freely, joyful lives.  Cursing decompresses emotions, allowing us to open the door to relationships with curiosity.  Then, when we uncover the answers to the open-ended questions, we can start to reconnect with what we love about our partners, our children, our friends, our colleagues, and ourselves.

So go ahead, detonate those strategic f-bombs!  Find the padded space to rail and flail.  Then savor the possibilities of newfound clarity of mind and heart.  How much better could it get?  We never know, but it could be spectacular.