Happy Birthday, Me!

It’s my birthday today, and I’m one of the rare people I know who actually likes birthdays.  So yay!  Happy day to me!  It’s funny to me that at some unspecified point – after you can get your drivers license and before you are old enough to run for congress – people stop asking you how old you are.  Or they may ask in a hushed and somber tone, “May I ask …?”  At least I have seen this habit with the women in my life.  It seems to be somewhat less true for men.

People, I am 35 years old today.  I earned every darn year and age spot that I have thus far, and hope to get many more behind me before I’m done. (Well, more years.  And I can accept that age spots are part of the package.)  I appreciate why folks aren’t always comfortable sharing their age, especially if they happen to be an actress in Hollywood over the age of twelve trying to get a job.  For some reason I’ve never felt the need to be demure about it.  Perhaps it’s because I was always somewhat of a pipsqueak growing up and I couldn’t wait to tell someone proudly that I was in fact 13, not 12.  Over the years it just became reflexive to say my age.  Just as it seems reflexive to so many people I know to keep quiet about it.  So please understand that I am not saying I am better than anyone for being so open about my age.  It’s just a quirk about me, one of the zillion things that makes me who I am.  And with this quirk I have a heightened awareness about this funny cultural practice of hiding our age like that family secret about the dog going to live on the farm.

Over the years, when I would respond to the question about my age I would add, “Oh, I don’t mind telling you.”  And oh the responses I have gotten…

“Well that’s because you are still young.  You’ll change.”

“If I were old enough I would also say it, too. I’m so embarrassed being so young at this job.”

“Well, good for you.  That’s brave, I guess.”

Consider the Alternative

People, any chance we can stop acting like it’s cute to not say our age?  It has become an unexamined habit that sends unintended messages.

By not sharing our age, are we implying to those coming up behind us that there is something wrong with our continued existence?  Are we embarrassed that we dare to still draw breath after our first gray hair?  Or that there is more value in one age than another?   You couldn’t convince me to be 23 again for all the free shoes in the world.  I’m glad to have done it, but what a confusing time!

Age is what it is.  As we get older, our stories grow more complicated, filled with joys, and fill with regrets.  There is no way around it.  But here we all are.  We are all on this journey together.  And as trite as the next thing may be, I always get tickled by remembering that each and every one of us has never been this old before.  Everyone is new to the age they are now.  With each age and stage, things shift.  Some things get easier.  Some things get harder.  But that’s the deal.  Almost everyone who has ever had the chance to live is no longer here.  And here we all are, a beautiful mix of ages and faces and bodies and dreams and hopes and challenges and even the occasional moment of joy.  Life is complicated.  That is the nature of the journey.  And even if the journey feels just too much at times take comfort in knowing that this too shall pass.  For now, perhaps try to enjoy knowing that today is one more day that you can take a slow deep breath, hear the birds singing outside, and try again.

So happy birthday to me.  And a very happy unbirthday to you, unless you happen to be Richard Gere, Debbie Gibson, or my mom (Happy Birthday, mom).

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Game Time

August 15, 2012

What I Did with My Summer Vacation

Y’all, I am not exaggerating when I say that a few days ago I had the biggest scare of my adult life.  I was about a fifteen minute swim from shore in a floating raft (the kind more commonly used in pools) with my boo and two others.  Being that far from the waves, it was peacefully quiet and people on the shore looked like little Fisher-Price figures.  Each of us had a hand on someone else’s raft so we wouldn’t float away from each other.  We were making jokes that we were like otters who hold hands when they sleep at night so they don’t drift apart.  Adorable times.

Most people were facing towards the open ocean while I was facing the shore.  And then…  oh, goodness, my stomach knots up and my throat gets tight even now…  I saw a huge black dorsal fin rise up from the water about 150 feet away and cut past us, parallel to the shore.   It stayed up for a few seconds and then went back underwater.  This fin was huge – way bigger than my head.  And this was no dolphin fin.  I know a dolphin fin when I see one and this one was bigger and definitely not attached to a mammal.  There is no doubt in my mind that there was a shark attached to that fin, and that shark was freaking huge.

Ugh, it’s hard to write this post because it’s reminding me how scared I was.  I can now feel myself sweating and typing is getting more difficult because my arms are tensing up, causing me to make more typing errors.  My heart is also beating faster.

So back to the ocean.  I really couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it.  I looked around and no one else in my otter pack had seen it.  My boo reports that I said something like, “Guys, I just saw something in the water that looked like a shark.  I’m going to head in.”  He reports that I sounded fairly calm.  I can tell you from inside my body that the following thoughts were occurring, “Remain calm.  If you freak out then everyone will freak out.  If everyone freaks out then they will leave you behind because they can swim faster and you will be eaten by that shark.  Whatever you do or say, remain calm.  Just remain FReakING CALM!!”  As they were busy telling me that it was just a dolphin (and I repeat, that was no freaking dolphin) I saw the fin rise up again.  I got a really good look at it.  And there was no doubt in my mind that it was a shark fin.   I thought to myself, “I could direct everyone’s attention over there and they will realize that I am right.  And man to I love to be right – I’m not proud of that fact but I have to admit it’s true….  But if they realize that I am right then they will FREAK OUT AND LEAVE ME HERE TO BE EATEN BY THAT NOT-DOLPHIN!!”

Please allow me to pause my typing and unclench my jaw.  Funny that I didn’t even notice that sensation until now – how long has my jaw been that tense?   Inhale through the nose.  Exhale slowly out the mouth.

And Now It’s Time to Freak Out

So I decide to not say a thing about the reappearance of the fin, and instead tell my boo as calmly as possible that I want to go in.  NOW.  I had told the others that I saw something that I thought was a shark.  They weren’t taking me seriously.  I felt like I had done my due diligence and it was now time to get my still intact body to shore.  Now the only way for me to maneuver this raft is to lie on my back, put my head in the direction I want to go, and propel myself with my arms.  And so I did that with gusto.  I was flapping like a chicken on a hot tin roof.  My boo was doing the same motion in his raft right next to me, although more smoothly and less flailingly.  Things quickly went downhill for me.  Within less than a minute of heading back to shore I was in full freak out mode.  I was a maniac.  Whenever he got even ten inches ahead of me I would apparently say something like, “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME!” And in between this plea I was adding, “WE AREN’T MAKING ANY PROGRESS!!”  I said that second phrase a lot.

It was when we reached about the distance from shore where I had seen the shark that I really went into overdrive.  On a scale of 1-10, I was at 17.  I had the thought that all of my flapping probably looked to the shark like a seal with a broken fin who needed some eating.  And there was no doubt that the shark was smoothly and gracefully turning around to snatch up his snack.  I had one leg out of the water, figuring maybe if the shark went for my legs I’d at least have one good one left to use.  I had just barely enough wits about me to realize that I was about to hyperventilate.  This situation was game time.  I was about to have a panic attack, and I needed to take care of business.

And so I took a deep breath.  I quickly made a plan.  Things I had in my control:  my thoughts and my behaviors.  Things I did not have in my control:  whatever that freaking not-dolphin was currently doing.  I looked up at the clouds and resolved to keep my eyes there.  Looking around for a shark swimming towards me was not helping me with my task.   I observed that there were currently no sharks attached to me.  I took one long, strong pull with my arms through the water.  Way less flapping.  Way less broken seal fin vibe.  I took another long pull.  I told my boo that I was really scared and ask him to talk with me about something else to distract me.  He stayed right next to me and started talking with me about dinner that evening.  I tried, but the conversation about eating local seafood still reminded me that I was at the beach and things eat things.  “Can we talk about something else?”  And so we talked about the Olympics.  Actually, he spoke.  I’m pretty sure I was free associating on words I had just heard.  But he stayed with me and we tried to talk about soccer.  I counted the clouds above me.  I counted the rays coming out from the sun. I noted that I was still currently terrified.  And there were still no sharks attached to me.  I felt terrified but in that very tiny moment I noted that I was in fact safe.  And I kept swimming.

Zen and the Art of Fear Maintenance

Dear readers, there is not some beautiful zen experience coming at the end of the story.  I stayed terrified the whole time.  I teared up a few times.  But I pulled myself back from really losing my marbles.  I made progress in getting towards the shore.  My boo stayed with me.  He asked a couple of times if I wanted to hold onto his feet and he’d pull us both in but I figured that would slow us down so I said no.  When we finally started feeling the rise and fall of the wave swells I felt better because we were close.

And that’s when the second wave of complete all out horror flooded through me.  Earlier in the summer I was on my annual summer family vacation on a west coast beach.  At that beach there are schools of leopard sharks in the water.  They are much smaller than what I had just seen and harmless and swim right past you as you play in the waves.  Those sharks love to hang out around the waves.  Sharks can be found in waves …  sharks in waves!  Bam!  That one thought entered my head and I completely lost my cool.  Tears came back, breathing got difficult.  And so for a second time I realized it was game time and I needed to take care of myself.   Again, a deep breath.  Again, I note that I was in fact safe in that teeny tiny moment.  And this time I accepted help.  I put my raft behind my boo and held onto his feet like they were the only thing keeping me from falling off a cliff.  I took deep breaths and counted the clouds.  And my boo got us safely back to shore.

Morals:

  • Feelings are real.

    That is easily the most scared I have been since I was 10.  Was I ever really in danger?  I honestly don’t know.  But I do know that I felt like I was in danger, and feelings are real things. It doesn’t matter how other people reacted.  I felt scared, that feeling was real, and I needed to take care of myself in that moment.

     

  • You must practice coping skills before you need them.

    Once I realized that I needed to take care of myself, the plan arose within me.  It really did.  Honestly, I was very surprised how quickly I was able to gather my thoughts and make a game plan in that situation.  This only happens with practice.  I am reminded of work I have done with many clients.  We practice coping skills in session and they are given homework to practice out of session.  And so often they come back the next week to say that they didn’t do the homework because nothing major happened.  That phrase is like a high diver saying she didn’t practice until the competition.  Bananas!  You must practice coping skills until they are second nature.  You must practice them when you are not too anxious or scared.  Only then does learning happen. There is no “practicing” coping skills when you actually need them.  That’s game time.

     

  • Handling your fear or anxiety does not mean making it go away.

    I was still terrified after I decided to manage my anxiety in the situation.  But I wasn’t being ruled by my terror.  By acknowledging my feelings and managing them, I then had more resources available to deal with the task of getting myself out of the water.

     

  • “If you don’t have your feelings, your feelings will have you.” –Rachel Simmons.

    In other words, if you don’t check in with your body and label your current emotional state then you run the risk of being controlled by your emotions.  We have no control over how long unwanted feelings will linger after a triggering event.  It’s tempting to ignore these uncomfortable emotions.  But ignoring emotions will cause more problems, often by driving us towards unhealthy coping strategies.  I am writing this post three days after the event and my body is still working through the experience.  I was really tense and jumpy for most of the next day.  I continue to have intrusive thoughts about sharks, despite the fact that I’m back in Durham and have a better chance of seeing an alien.   In fact, I just ran into a friend at a busy store after writing the first draft of this post and I was feeling really nervous about all the people walking past.   Thankfully I was aware enough to realize that my body was holding a lot of anxiety that I stirred up in writing this post, and my brain was just reading my body’s anxiety and looking for a reason in the current situation.  I felt so much better once I could say, “I feel anxiety in my body from that darn shark story.  My brain is confused by thinking my body is saying something anxiety provoking is happening now.  I’m not really anxious about anything in my current environment.”

    And finally,

  • It’s probably not the best idea to watch Shark Week if you happen to be on vacation at the beach.

I Heart Contradictions

July 16, 2012

Growth and Flourishing

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
US poet (1819 – 1892)

The Dangers of Consistency

We do a huge disservice to ourselves when we try to make sure we appear consistent.  Consistency is a dangerous illusion.   It is dangerous because when we start telling ourselves that we are one thing, then we start choosing what things we want to say and do in order to be consistent with that one thing.  And this is a great way to disconnect you from your inner drive towards growth and flourishing.

This concept is complicated but can play out in labels large and small.  Here is a small scale example. I tend to be a bit of a goofball when I am not working.  While in goofball mode on a recent trip to Florida I bought a neon green tank top that says, “I heart Fl. Lauderdale, Spring Break!”  It’s deliciously terrible.  I was wearing this tank top on the way to the grocery store the other day when I caught the thought in my head, “Oh no – what if I run into a patient?  I am a psychologist, for goodness sake!  Psychologists do not wear neon green spring break tank tops in public.”  I evaluated that thought for a moment.  Is this thought really true?  My job is to be a psychologist.  I am wearing this tank top while not at work.  So apparently psychologists do sometimes make terrible fashion decisions.  There is no position paper put out by the American Psychological Association on the merits of the neon color palette (thank goodness).   There is no problem here.

The Power of Observation

Instead of making sure all aspects of my identity are consistent, these following steps occurred:

  • I chose what I wanted to do in the moment
  • I observed my choices
  • I learned about myself (e.g., I dress differently in different settings)
  • I carried on with my life

Of course, in this example there was nothing serious at stake.  In other more important situations I would add the step of considering whether my actions could potentially harm myself or others.

And from this silly little example I added in the smallest of ways to the rich complexity that is me.

Authenticity Does Not Need Consistency

The dangers of trying to be consistent relate to staying connected with our authentic self.  There is a lot of chatter these days about the authentic self.  Sometimes I worry that this concept gets misconstrued as just another label to stick on our selves.  The authentic self is not a thing.  I prefer to think of authenticity as a drive towards growth.  We all have this drive, although if we have been out of the habit of listening to this drive then it can take some effort to uncover.  Growth means sometimes taking risks, doing things you haven’t done before, observing if that thing felt right to you, and then choosing whether or not you want to do it again.  The opposite of growth is first labeling your self, then choosing actions to be consistent with this label.  As you explore all parts of who you may want to become, different interests and forms of being may grow.  Like different branches on the same tree.  And in my case one branch prefers Talbots while the other branch prefers neon.

1.  Killing is against human nature.

2.  Wealth makes us less compassionate.

3.  People are motivated to help others by empathy, not reason or numbers.

4.  Power flows from social and emotional intelligence, not strength and viciousness.

5.  Social connection trumps power and independence.

Go here to read the blog entry in full – it’s worth a read.

This Can’t Be Good.

This Can’t Bee Happening

I am feeling a deep sadness today for a few reasons.  I shall share one of those reasons here.  Yesterday morning I was sitting at my downstairs desk and heard a buzzing.  When I looked up I saw that the side of my house was being swarmed by tens of thousands of bees, or hornets, or something.  Tens of thousands of them.  It was truly like out of a horror movie.  I have never seen anything like it in real life.  There were so many of them that I could actually hear the steady buzzing of their thousands of tiny wings from inside my house.  I wasn’t sure what to do or even what to feel.  I certainly was trapped in my house. I certainly wasn’t going to risk going outside only to have them chase me like an angry mob back to my front door.

(Funny aside that isn’t relevant to this post:  I really didn’t know what to do so I sheepishly called 911 and explained the situation.  The operator politely directed me to a different entity.)

The next part of the story gets even more menacing. After about 40 minutes of seeing these things in numbers so numerous that they began to cover my window, they slowly disappeared to the point that I felt comfortable going outside to get a better look.  And that’s when I understood the full reality:  those buggers had just taken 40 minutes to take up residency IN MY HOUSE! They had ALL moved in through a slit on the outside wall.  They were building a nest in the walls of my home.  Now I had a better idea of how to feel, and the feeling was not excitement.

I was finally able to have an exterminator come check things out in the early evening.   He got out of his car, took one look, and started laughing in between making comments like, “Ooo, boy!” and “This is like straight out of some horror movie!” and “Hold on, I’ve got to call the office and describe this – they aren’t going to believe it!”  Not the most reassuring words to my ears.  He told me that they were yellow jackets, and they were not here to make friends.  For a fair price he could get rid of them, but they were going to be pissed so I should be sure to not be in my front yard garden for a day or two.

Fair enough.  Just then my boo got home.  He was getting into the drama so I left him and a small gathering of neighbors to watch from the garden while I slipped back inside.  I had seen enough of them while they were moving in.  I didn’t need to be around to see their reaction to getting poisoned.

The Huge and Unfixable Mistake

Twenty minutes later my boo came in with an ashen face and news:  those weren’t yellow jackets.  Those were honey bees.  The same honey bees that are slowly disappearing from places all over this country.  The honey bees that we need to pollinate our garden.  They honey bees that could have been rescued by a local Durham bee keeper so they could have gone on to live peacefully and pollinate for years to come.  WE, GARDENERS AND FRIENDS OF THE EARTH, WERE HONEY BEE MURDERERS.  The horror.

I’m not sure if the shame or the guilt hurts more.  It was a rough night.

This morning my sadness continued to throb as I listened to this morning’s news and drank my coffee.

Recalculating

I found my mind pulled back to a recent episode of On Being, with guest Sylvia Boorstein.  Sylvia describes herself as a wife, mother, grandmother, author, teacher, and psychotherapist.  The full interview is worth a listen.  In an age of lots of opinions she shares the more rare gem of true wisdom.  I’m sure I’ll discuss more about this episode at some point.

In this talk, Sylvia shares with the audience what she always says to herself in moments of fear and anxiety.

“Sweetheart. You are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we will figure out what to do.”

Bam.  Self compassion.

She also discusses the wisdom of GPS devices.  “It never gets annoyed at me.  If I make a mistake it says, ‘Recalculating.’  And then it goes on to say “Make the soonest left turn..”

Bam.  Action.

So this is my plan for this morning.  First, I will take a moment to be compassionate with myself.  And yes, I will most definitely do that by referring to myself as “sweetheart.”  Second, I shall recalculate… observing without judgment the recent events that have made me feel so profoundly sad… and then I shall choose a direction and move forward, with compassion for myself and for others.

Better Gets You.

May 4, 2012

Friendly Fire

One day I was hanging out with a really good straight male friend of mine.  I happened to mention that I was pretty sure I was going to get a tattoo.  Without missing a beat he grimaced and said, “Oh don’t do that.  I think women without tattoos are so much more attractive.”

I was a little caught off guard by his response.  I can’t remember what I said in that moment.  I think I stammered something like, “Well, I actually wasn’t asking your permission.”  And I’m pretty sure I threw in a light little laugh to let him know that I wasn’t trying to be aggressive by sharing my opinion, despite the fact that he had just shared his opinion without blinking an eye (some old cultured gender habits die hard). Something about his comment was unsettling to me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it so I left it alone.  I have come to better understand why I was bothered by his comment after a few days of reflection, and I think this topic is worth discussing here.

It’s funny that this beloved, sweet friend’s honest (if unsolicited) reaction to my announcement of getting a tattoo was to help me decide what I wanted to do with my own body.  What’s more, his help was to have me think about my body from his white, straight, male perspective.   News flash – I’m a woman in the United States in 2012.  The file in my mind on “What Others Think My Body Should Look Like” is so full that if it were printed out I’d need to rent a U-Haul to drive all of the paper to the dump.

Body Politic

These days I happen to be reading a lot about how our over-developed western culture shapes our thoughts about our bodies, and how we people in the culture play a role in this pressure to conform.  These readings helped me figure out what bugged me about my friend’s comments.  But honestly that is the only reason I figured out what was nagging at me.  A few years ago I wouldn’t have thought anything of it.  Now that I’ve seen these toxic messages all around me I just keep seeing all the more ways we are told that we need to change our bodies in order to better ourselves….  or to be more attractive to others….  or to prove to the world that we can control our body so we must be in control of our life.  These messages come from popular media but it is important to see that they also can come from well meaning people in our personal lives.  This guy meant no harm.  In fact, he probably truly thought he was helping.

Oh, I can hear you now, dear reader, thinking “Oh wow.  Thanks for helping me see that my body doesn’t fit what my culture says it should be.  SOOO insightful of you.”  But wait!  That is just the thing.  I don’t know who you are.  I don’t know what your body looks like. The odds are that you think your body needs to change to be better (maybe a little, maybe a lot).  This is also true of people I know in my personal life.  How can it possibly be that I have friends from so many different walks of life who all carry around this other, “better” image of themselves in their minds?  And what’s worse, they somehow measure self-worth based upon how close they are to this “better” them.    And let’s be clear – “better” is not typically anything about developing new skills, helping others, or being more patient with themselves.  My awesome, compassionate friends STILL carry the idea that “bettering” the self largely has to do with changing the body.  This is complete and utter poppycosh.  I am not laughing when I say this.  I am not happy.  In fact, I am angry!

Here is the extremely brief answer to why this happens:  we are awash in toxic messages that we need to “better” ourselves through changing our bodies. How this toxic culture came to be is a discussion for another time.

Here is what happens:  all of these messages coming into your poor defenseless ears blend with all of your fears and insecurities that tell you that you need to keep working on becoming something different before you are allowed to accept yourself.  And before you know it, there is a little beast known as the “better” you floating around in your head, like a mirage always just at the horizon.  Always visible but out of reach.  Always taunting you to keep trying to working on changing before you can be truly happy.

Freedom is within your reach

Here is the part I want you to remember.  Read this twice.  Write it on your hand in case you forget.  Call everyone over to the computer, for these next few paragraph are for the whole family to enjoy together.

What I want you to understand…  like deep in your bones understand…  is that you have a choice.  You can change this situation.  You can choose to find these toxic messages (sometimes from well meaning friends) and drop them in the waste bin.  If you don’t try to find these messages and discard them then these harmful “better” messages will continue to sneak into your head and control you from between your ears.

Time for Truth.

You are worthy now.    You are enough now.    You deserve love now.      And finally,  you deserve self-care now.

Self-care is not denying your body calories even when it feels hungry.  Self-care is not making sure that everyone around you will approve of how you look or how you act.  Self-care is taking the time to nourish your body and your mind.  Self-care is learning listen to your body and treat it with respect.  Self-care is making sure you always have at least one thing in your life that you are doing just because it gives you pleasure to do it.

And so here is your call to action.  Find that beastly “perfect” other you, hiding away in your mind.  She is probably hanging out somewhere near your Crazy Freak Out Voice*.  Right now they may even be conspiring to tell you that you are the exception to what I wrote above.  Most people are enough now, but YOU aren’t…    until you are “better.”  See her??  Great!  Now grab her by her judgmental arm and toss her out!  She’ll come back, so toss her again.  Learn to find her sneaking into your thoughts, then toss her again.  You may have to spend the next year throwing her out, but it’s worth the work to eventually get rid of her all together.

Truth:

You will never be perfect, because perfect doesn’t exist.  You will never be attractive to everyone, because each person is different from the next in what they find attractive.   You will never finally have everyone’s approval.

True freedom is taking the risk to do what you want to do now.  Today.  In the body you have now.  With the time you have left.  The rewards are finding genuine connection with other lovely beings in your life.  There are people out there who would love to know you.  Today.  As you are right now.  Really.  Perhaps those people even have a few tattoos.

*”Crazy Freak Out Voice” is from the wonderful work of Rachel Simmons and the Girls Leadership Institute.

ALWAYS MOVE FORWARD

April 29, 2012

Yesterday I heard someone telling a story about his therapist who liked to say, “Always move forward.”  I liked the idea and wanted to think more about it so I wrote it down on a slip of paper and put it on my desk next to the few other notes that always seem to be floating around my workspace.  It seemed like something that might be handy to pass on to my patients.

Move forward to today.  Sunday afternoon.  Prime gardening time.  This is one of my favorite times in the gardening cycle.  We started our seeds in January in our indoor grow room.  (As you can imagine, the glowing grow lights from the second story of our house are the start of many jokes from neighbors.)  There they live in near jungle like temperature and humidity, slowing breaking through the soil, slowly growing, slowly turning from little wisps of green into the huge plants they will become.   Just after the last frost (as best we can guess) we move our little darlings outside so they can harden to their new environment.   It’s a rough transition for them.  Many go limp and look like they have given up the ghost over the first few days.  But almost all come back, stronger than ever.  Ready to go.

As so here we are at one of my favorite times:  time to lie out the garden.  The tomatoes are in (all seven kinds), as are the okra, collards, beans and corn.  But this is a Big Weekend.  This weekend we are putting in our 11 (!!) kinds of peppers, which will take up almost a third of our yard.  I guess you could say we are a pepper family.  One of my very favorites is the ají dulce, which tastes and looks almost exactly like a habanero but has none of the heat.   We almost didn’t get to have them this year because we couldn’t find any seeds but I finally was able to get some and start them, although they were about five weeks behind the other peppers.  And so here we are at the big moment.  What were once dormant seeds are now robust plants ready to be put in the ground.  We began by counting the pepper seedlings that are still with us.  But wait?  Where are the ají dulces?  Where are my beloved not hot habaneros??

Now yes, I am a psychologist.  But let’s get something straight.  That doesn’t mean I don’t carry some of my own bananas.  And something that can make me a little bananas is a plan that hasn’t gone according to plan.  My boo and I tried to figure out what went wrong with the ají dulces.  My boo is able to dedicate 100% of his brain power to this task.  I’d say I am at about 50%, as the rest of my brain is now being taken over by my awakening Crazy Freak Out Voice (CFOV).  My CFOV is starting to remind me that “This just cannot happen” and, with a creative spin, “This simply just cannot be happening.”  We walked through the steps of seedling care over the past few months and realized that he probably threw them out while moving the seedlings outdoors, mistakenly thinking that they were just some bad seeds since they had not yet broken through the soil.  He had forgotten that they were much younger in their growth and doing just fine.  But now we are almost in May.  Without so much as a seed for one of my favorite peppers.  My CFOV is going for her bananas, getting ready to strike!  How could this happen??  Hadn’t I planned sufficiently???

And suddenly, out of no where, the thought comes to my head:  ALWAYS MOVE FORWARD.  Yep, my favorite peppers are gone.  Yep, that sucks.  Nothing to be done here.  MOVE FORWARD.  And I’ll be darned if it didn’t (mostly) work.  Now admittedly this wasn’t a big thing.  No one was hurt.  Life will go on.  But I am not really known for being flexible when plans change.  And then here today it was just a little bit easier to get past it by moving forward.

So I think maybe I will try out this idea of always moving forward with some folks I see in my practice.  And like, duh, looks like I will be starting with me.

How Not To Create Behavior Change: Willpower

Somewhere along the way, it seems a lot of us got the message that the best way to change an unwanted behavior is to guilt and shame ourselves into action.  I like to refer to those nagging thoughts of guilt and shame as the guilt gremlins.  Recent research on behavior change tells us that using our guilt gremlins to motivate ourselves to change is actually one of the best ways to ensure that we won’t create any change at all.  Such a strategy is also a great way to feed the guilt gremlins and make them even stronger, thus making behavior change seem even more difficult.  “This is Why I Will Never Be An Adult,” a post on one of my favorite blogs called Hyperbole and  Half, captures the cycle wonderfully.   (WARNING:  some naughty words are used).  The good news is recent research is shedding light on a much more effective (and nicer!) way to help us change.

Let’s look at how believing our guilt gremlins can throw us into the cycle of struggle.  It all begins when a behavior that used to help, or at least not cause harm, now seems to bring problems of its own.  We find ourselves contemplating things like changing the way we treat our bodies, our family and friends, or our email inbox.  We want to change in a way that is healthy and more balanced.  Our desires to change are good.  But change is hard and it is natural to look for motivating thoughts.  And so the guilt gremlins roll into the scene.  The guilt gremlins are happy to provide some motivating thoughts.  They tell us that we are a terrible person for not “doing better” and we can’t possibly be worthy of love/respect/friendship until we change.  Often this thing that we want to change feels like a Really Big Secret, making us feel all the more isolated with our feelings of guilt and shame.  The more we think about how terrible it is that we do this unwanted behavior, the louder the gremlins become. Eventually they wear us down.  Exhausted, we decide we need to be a different person RIGHT NOW!  And so we tackle change like it is a fight to the death.  We throw ourselves into change, accepting nothing less than total reformation into what we think will make us a better, more functional being.

Trying to change habits in this way – completely and immediately – relies almost exclusively on willpower.  Willpower, it turns out, is a lot like your gas tank.  We know this it true because there is a lot of great research is being conducted to shed light on how willpower works.  Willpower is not an infinite resource.  The more you try to change all at once, the more quickly you will run through your resource of willpower.  Willpower is a biological fact.  Unless you are a cyborg then you cannot escape the annoying truth that you won’t get very far using willpower alone.  Soon you will be running on empty and when you run out of willpower you will likely fall back to the habits that you were trying so hard to change.  Meanwhile, the guilt gremlins know nothing about the science of willpower (they are too busy making us miserable to have time to read the latest psychological research).  The guilt gremlins will use this “failure” as evidence to tell us that we didn’t successfully change because we are just a loser all along and we aren’t capable of change.  And so what started out as an attempt to grow and change becomes another painful experience that we’d rather just forget ever happened.

So let’s recap.  We decide to change a behavior in the direction of living a more balanced healthy life.  We start the movement towards growth by telling ourselves that we should feel guilty and ashamed about ourselves until we “do better.”  The guilt and shame catapults us into using all the willpower we have to create change.  This willpower works for a little while, but eventually runs out because that is the nature of willpower, and so we return to familiar behaviors.  Suddenly our guilt gremlins are jumping up and down screaming, “I told you so! I knew you’d fail!”  The guilt gremlins may start screaming so loudly that we will do anything to drown out their voices.  And where does that push us?  Right back to our old behaviors.  In fact, often our very noble attempts at change end up pushing us even deeper into our unwanted behaviors.  It’s a cycle that is all too familiar to many of us.

How To Create Behavior Change:  Self-Compassion

Just as science can show us the pitfalls of using guilt and willpower, science can also show us a more effective way to create lasting change.  This way is to harness the power that comes from self-compassion.  Pause for a moment.  Did you hear the gremlins?  They LOVE talking about self-compassion.  They often say things like, “Self-compassion?  You mean accepting myself as I am now?  But I’m a mess!  The last thing I want to do is love myself as I am today.”  They often say things to therapists like, “You clearly don’t understand where I am at.  If I wanted this wavy-gravy stuff I could have found a mountaintop to sit on.  Remind me, just where did you say you got your degree?”  I certainly can sympathize with that sentiment.  I was skeptical myself when I first heard about the role of self-compassion in behavior change. But after reading some of the research, particularly the work done by Dr. Kristen Neff,  and working with real people with real problems I have come to understand that self-compassion is an essential ingredient in achieving long lasting change and growth.  It isn’t the ONLY ingredient, but it does need to be part of any attempt at behavior change.

Self-compassion is what allows us to set a goal of a big change, and then take small steps towards this goal.  Self-compassion helps us cultivate the patience that is needed to accept that changing long repeated behaviors takes time.  Self-compassion helps us gain the long view, helping us remember that occasional slips toward a goal is not a fall or a fail.  Self-compassion does not always come easy but it can be learned.  If you are having trouble knowing where to start how about try this.  The next time you hear your guilt gremlins chiming in, acknowledge that they are there, acknowledge that most people have them, and acknowledge that they might not be the best source of wisdom on how to take care of you.  Then take a moment to think about what you would say to help a friend in the same situation.  So often we already have the seeds of compassion within us and we use it to help others.  Now science can help us understand the value of also being compassionate with ourselves.