What’s Keeping You Stuck

I’m a to-do list type of person.

I could make endless to-do lists. When I was a kid, I used to have a list of things I could do when I was bored. “Making more lists” was on that list. I kept the sheet safely tucked away in my trapper keeper. 

Whenever I move to a new city, a tourist to-do list is one of my first to-dos. Living in DC, I made a to-do list of all the different restaurants to try, parks to visit, museums to walk around. Didn’t matter if I had any real interest seeing the things those boxes represented. It was mostly to make sure that I didn’t miss out on anything. Now that I’m in Uganda, I went through one of the popular tour books, starring all the things I wanted to check out. Lists are my happy place.

I make checklists for everything.

Recipes to try – there’s a list for that.

Books to read – there’s a loooooong list for that.

Places to visit – there’s a list for that.

I even made a list of different workout classes to try at a gym I joined and made it through 15 by the end of the month.

New Years eve has a special place in my heart, not because of all the fanfare, but because it’s a GREAT time to plan out another list of goals. September iis a close second since it’s associated with the start of a new school year – more goals!

There was a time period in my life where I used to write out all of my yearly goals, then my quarterly goals, and even my monthly goals. When I’m really on it, I break those further down into weekly and daily goals. I’ve made and remade these lists a half dozen times, if not more. There’s something insanely satisfying about keeping such a list, and of course, even more satisfying when I get to check or cross off an item on said list.

Yet regardless of how amped I am when I make these lists, that energy rarely carries me through to completion. I don’t know how many times I’ve attempted to get myself to do something, only to find that my motivation was not where it needed to be. Sometimes I lament this fact.

I lay around saying “ugh….I don’t feel like it”. 

“I’ll do it tomorrow”.

“I’m not in the mood”

And that, my friends, is the problem with motivation. It’s like a mood. It fluctuates. It shifts. It certainly isn’t consistent nor is it something that you can count on. It reminds me of a ripening avocado. I mean, maybe you can time things perfectly so that your motivation is sky high right at the moment you’re ready to make some life-altering change. But most changes don’t require a one-and-done mindset. They require sustained effort for DAYS. 

You may be thinking – hah. Motivation is not a problem for ME. I have incredible self-discipline. That’s how I got to be so successful. My bullet journal explicitly details how and when I will achieve all of my goals. This is SO basic.

Perhaps.

BUT.

If this were true, then what gets in the way of being successful in every part of your life?

Motivation for Change

Many of us, myself included, have areas of our lives that come easy. Perhaps you excelled in academics. You figured out the system of studying (or just generally being a genius) and were able to get the grades you needed without too much consternation. Other kids around you would complain and stress and suffer through poor study strategies, but you seemed to figure it out.

But just as often, success in one area doesn’t automatically translate into ALL areas of our lives. While you might have figured out one area, for some reason, another completely confounds you. If your career is on fire, you may find that your relationships are lukewarm at best. Or maybe you have an awesome family life, but you’ve let your physical health decline over the past few years.

What is it about these problem areas that you can’t quite figure out? Why is it that you find yourself facing the same problems at work, at home, in relationships, with yourself over and over and over again? You’re not dumb, so what’s going on?

For many of us, dare I say – all of us, as we go about the world, our minds are constantly providing us with the narrative of our lives. It’s like watching a movie with the director’s commentary enabled. The mind tells the story of who we are and why things are happening the way they are. Sometimes this works out awesomely. Why did we get that promotion? Because clearly we were the best candidate for the job and because we worked way harder than anyone else did. Is that factually correct? Who knows, but the brain has latched on to that as its version of the story.

Sometimes though, this does not work out in our favor. Why do we have trouble in relationships? Oh, it’s because no guy has ever been good enough and chances are they’ll just leave you and break your heart anyway so what’s the point of really letting yourself be vulnerable anyway? Factually correct? Again, who knows, but the brain has latched on to THAT as its version of the story. 

The brain as your narrator

Right this moment, your brain has a full and comprehensive story about how you became you and what challenges you’ve had to face, and chances are, you accept this story without question. Because really,  how often do you review this story for accuracy? For utility?

Think of a problem that has plagued you. What are the stories your brain tells you about this problem?

For example – I self-identify as an introvert and for a long time felt that I was socially awkward and did a poor job of making friends. Now, imagine walking around with a brain banging a drum about how you’re so weird and socially awkward. Would you guess that it would be easier or harder to be socially successful? Answer – HARDER. If your brain is yelling at you that every social interaction is going to end in failure, why on Earth would you ever bother making an attempt? But that’s the crux of it – when you buy into these messages, your behavior changes in response. When I believe that I’m socially awkward, I’m more likely to not interact with others, to turn down social invitations and to perceive every interaction as awkward. Does it matter that my brain might not be right? Nope. Do I stop to question the assumptions my brain makes for me? Nope.

But…what if your brain is RIGHT you ask.

You know, it may be. There are times when I AM socially awkward. There are times when I DO find it challenging to make small talk with others. But my brain would have me believe that BECAUSE I’m socially awkward, I should give up all socialization. My brain wants me to believe that socializing is hard and uncomfortable so I should avoid it. In the short term, that may feel a little better, but in the long term, I’m not able to form the relationships I ultimately want because I’m too busy avoiding the things that feel uncomfortable in the present moment.

So… does my brain hate me you ask.

Your brain doesn’t hate you. If anything, your brain is agnostic about you. It’s in survival mode and unfortunately, survival brains are wired to find threats. They aren’t wired to easily find joy and satisfaction, so we can’t get pissed off at Brain just because its doing its job. Instead, we need to shift focus to change what CAN be changed. That’s where YOU come in. Your job is to question the narrative. If your brain is making assumptions about life, don’t you think you should check in with those assumptions to see if they’re at least on the right track?

It’s not something we often do, and certainly wasn’t something I often did until I immersed myself into the world of psychotherapy, self-help and personal growth. Now I think about my thoughts all the time. I question whether they’re accurate or whether they’re helpful. I question where they came from. Sometimes I tell them to go away. Sometimes I tell them “Right on!”.

With my own social anxiety, I didn’t always feel awkward, so what changed for me? It’s hard to even pin-point a specific something that my brain responded to, but instead several situations occurred over a few developmentally important years that left me questioning whether I was okay. What started as subtle self-doubt morphed into a practically paralyzing fear of social rejection, and here I am 20 years later, still needing to challenge those beliefs that my 10 year old self first latched onto for who knows what reason. I can choose to let those beliefs direct my life, or, I can see them for what they are – beliefs rooted in my personal history that may or may not serve me in my present.

How do you write a new story? By first acknowledging that you want a new story AND that there’s a part of you who is afraid of what it might take to be the hero of that story. When you think about this recurrent problem in your life – what are you afraid might happen if you take the steps necessary to confront it?

I want to be in a relationship with an equal partner who loves and respects me for me, but that might mean I have to show who I really am, which leaves me feeling exposed. 

I want to meet new people and make friends, but that might mean putting myself out there and risking rejection.

I want a promotion, but I fear that I’ll risk failure and humiliation if I go for it.

I want to have a healthy relationship with food and my body, but that might mean I have to give up the previous ways I’ve dealt with feeling lonely, upset, uncertain, or afraid.

I want to have kids, but I fear what doing so will do to my relationship with my partner, not to mention my body.

I want to be closely connected with my family, but I fear that might mean confronting hurts from the past which may create new hurts or tension.

I want to leave my current relationship, but I fear having to let go of the stability I have now.

I want to move somewhere else, but I fear making a bad decision and getting stuck somewhere worse.

I want to start exercising and getting in shape, but it’s going to take so much time, energy and effort, I fear I’ll just give up, so why start.

I want to be able to bond with my kid but she is ALWAYS pushing my buttons and we both just end up mad and frustrated with each other, so maybe it’s better if I just let her be.

The closer you get to actually making a change, the stronger the narratives become about why it’s going to be so hard/a disaster/not worth it. So if you really want to make a change – you need to be able to address and challenge those messages your brain is trying to sell you on.

My goal is to continue writing and speaking on the subject of change, motivation and emotional avoidance. If you have a question related to these topics – I’d love to hear it.

You may find that you get stuck trying to change your narrator. If this is the case for you, seeing a therapist could help. One of the roles I play is as an objective observer to your process, so that we can identify any blindspots in your that may be keeping you stuck in a set of unhelpful beliefs.

The Gold Star: Micro Steps Towards Progress

“Snake!” I yelled. The over-sized green mamba swung its head to look at me. No one else in the 7-11 seemed to care.

“SNAKE!!” I yelled louder, holding my left foot in the air as if I were the Karate Kid preparing my crane kick. Sure, that would take down a green mamba. Again the patrons ignore my pleas and debated Cool Ranch over Spicy Nacho Doritos.

Why was no one as freaked out about this as I was? Why was the green mamba single-mindedly focusing on me? The mamba U-turned and reared up its head. I darted its head at me, trying to strike while I batted it away with my foot. It dove again, this time connecting with my flesh.

Tap tap tap

Something sharp and cold poked my forehead, but I can’t say it’s what I expected from green mamba fangs.

Groggily, I opened an eye to see my 5 year old standing in front of my fully dressed in a pair of pepto bismol pink shorts and a turquoise blue shirt with sparkly dinosaurs all over it.

“Mmmprg. What time is it? Is your lady bug green?” (Lady bug is actually not a lady bug at all but an OK to Wake alarm clock that looks more like a little green alien than a lady bug).

“I think so. Lizzie is awake too. Can we have breakfast now?” I hear my husband stir and shift out of the bed.

Oh thank goodness. A free pass to roll over. This is unlike me. I’m generally an early bird. I prefer waking up before the sun, before the kids, and having that moment to myself to do whatever I want. It’s like starting the day with a gold star because you know you did something good for yourself.

But instead of that scenario, each night this week I go to bed jittery and alert and every morning I awake feeling as though someone squirted Elmer’s in my eyes.

Jet lag is a bitch.

My family and I flew back to Uganda last weekend from the US. It was relatively direct as far as African travel routes go, but still , there’s nothing easy about 36+ hours of travel with two little kids. Despite my efforts to shift my body to its new schedule, my brain is just not wanting to cooperate. I’ve found myself staying up into the wee hours without a single yawn urging me to bed. I end up working out at 11. Skimming through marriage therapy texts at midnight. Meal planning at 1am.

So back to this morning. My husband lured my daughter away from my bedside with promises of warmed banana bread for breakfast, and while I could have taken that opportunity to attempt to resume my dream, I didn’t.

Instead, in the words of Anna (of Frozen II fame), I did the next right thing. Which in this case was to drag my butt out of bed and jar myself out of my groggy stupor.

But how was I to function in this state? My head slowly scrolls through the information I accumulated over the years about behavioral change.

State. I need to change my state. I need to think opposite thoughts and do opposite actions.

I chugged a bunch of water. Shook my head vigorously a few times. Eighties danced around my room while unpacking one of my still unpacked suitcases. And I frankly pretended that I wasn’t nearly as exhausted as I felt.

And you know what? It kind of worked. Go figure. As it turns out, the whole Cognitive-Behavioral paradigm of changing your mental state and your behaviors as a way to change your mood played out. Thanks CBT! Secondary credit goes to Alfred Adler for his ‘Act as if’ mantra.

While I was proud of myself for not caving to the sleep fairies, I won’t pretend that I felt like my toddler the other day after she lapped down her first DumDum lollipop (Flavor: strawberry. A reward for surviving her COVID test), but I was able to get through my day without napping. And that’s what it’s all about for me. Not napping.

Kidding. What I mean to say is that making these small changes in our day may not feel like much. They may not feel like something to celebrate or even something to acknowledge. But often, progress does’t come in big swoops and leaps. More often, progress comes about through those tiny little nudges that shift the needle ever so slightly towards our own unrealized potential. So when you notice yourself challenging your own status quo, make sure to give yourself credit for it. Maybe even a gold star.

Exercise: What small progress have you made in your own life? Did you give yourself credit for it? If you can’t thinking of something, what small step could you take right now?

Emotional Responsibility

Welcome to 2020
From Reddit u/atomicprimeo

There’s a lot of shit going on right now. It seems like in every corner of the globe, something is exploding, imploding or on the brink of doing either. Makes you question if Earth or God or whatever higher power you ascribe to is a little annoyed with the human race experiment.

Some people are dealing with the end of the world as we know it better than others. That’s perhaps not particularly surprising. Some people are better at dealing with everything better than others. But what nugget do these magical unicorns have, that maybe the rest aren’t quite aware of.

I feel like I’ve been having the same conversation over and over again. Sometimes it’s with friends or family members. Sometimes it’s in sessions. and sometimes it’s even in my own head. It usually starts with an awareness of something happening, and that something being no good. What follows is a wide range of emotions – anger, frustration, distress, sadness, helplessness, etc. Then there’s the secondary reaction – the anger, sadness and frustration that one would even have to experience these feelings in the first place.

I mean, what the hell man? Why do we keep having to deal with things that are outside of our control and that impact us on this very personal level? Why is the world exploding? Why are things the way they are? Why doesn’t my partner understand why I’m upset? Why is my country failing so miserably to find a way forward? Why are the people around me being such inconsiderate assholes? There is so much pain pent up inside this tightly wound ball of our perspective, screaming at the injustice of it all. It yells out “ARGH! WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME FEEL THIS WAY!?”

And I mean, I get it. The so-called negative emotions don’t feel great. There’s that pit-in-the-stomach sensation that goes with sadness. The antsy, jittery feeling of anxiety. The tingling, heated, throbbing angry sensation. And, my personal least favorite, that gut-punch, spike of adrenaline that goes with fear. I don’t begrudge anyone who isn’t specifically looking to experience more of that in their life. But sometimes we give our emotions just a wee bit too much power. They are, after all, just feelings. They may be strange and complex, but they, in and of themselves, aren’t dangerous. So why do we act like they are?

As a young therapist-in-training, the model on which I was educated focused on identifying and exploring a client’s “emotional avoidance” while encouraging that person to engage in “emotional tolerance”. There are few of us who get any form of adequate emotion coaching or mentoring, so if client’s can emerge from therapy being able to confront their emotions and “feel the feels” rather then avoiding them through drugs, alcohol, exercise, eating, self-harming, ruminating, or depending on others to manage their feelings for them, I would count that as a success. But at the same time, Emotional tolerance can only get you so far. I feel like it’s missing a key part of the picture, and the key part is responsibility. Tolerating or accepting emotion has this implication that the emotion is going to happen to you, just like all this cruddy stuff in the world is going to happen to you, and your job is to just sit there and take it. Accept that the anger is there. Accept that the sadness is there and ride it out.

I think we’re capable of more. Accepting an emotion sounds peaceful, but it also takes us out of the driver seat of our own experience. As if to say that we’re resigned to just watching our lives play out in front of us rather than taking center stage.

What would that mean, then, to take full ownership of your emotions?

For one, it would mean giving up your emotions as excuses.

  • “Sorry I was such an a-hole, I was just really angry about something my boss said.”
  • “I can’t hang out with you today” (because I’m way to anxious to leave my house).
  • “I know you wanted to have sex, but I was feeling too annoyed with you to having any kind of connection.”
  • “You hurt my feelings, so I’m going to ignore you and give you the silent treatment”.

For another, it would mean taking a step back, identifying what your tendency is, and then, in most cases at least, doing the opposite thing.

  • “My kid is pushing my buttons like whoa and all I want to do is scream my head off and yell at her to go to her room. Instead, I’m going to go sit down with her calmly and connect with her on an emotional level so she understands where the boundary is, and what the consequences are if/when she crosses it”
  • “My husband is being a complete grouch. It makes me want to avoid him so his negativity doesn’t rub off on me. Instead, I’m going to approach him, compassionately and empathetically and offer him support – even if he doesn’t ask for it”.
  • “My mom is criticizing me yet again and spouting off her wacked-out opinions. I want to snap at her for her backwards ways and uninformed beliefs. Instead, I’m going to accept her as she is, even if she has trouble accepting me as I am, while also affirming who I am, what I like, and what I believe.”

What do you think? Have you ever been able to take a step back from the roar of your emotions long enough to see a different way through them? What’s happened?

Not sure about therapy?

I’m a therapist so obviously I’m a pro-therapy individual. I drink the therapy kool-aid so to speak.

But I get it. You may not be into the same kool-aid that I am. Maybe you’ve considered doing therapy, but you’re just not quite ready to commit.

Maybe it’s not the right time. You’re trying to keep to some sort of teleworking schedule. You’re trying to be a homeschool teacher. You’re trying to KEEP. IT. TOGETHER. I get that. Therapy is a time a commitment. You’d need the hour+ (ask me about intensive therapy options!) in addition to some headspace to practice the therapy skills in your real life.

Or maybe you don’t have the finances for it. You or your spouse has lost their job. Or you’re job is still intact but the clients have gone down, meaning your income has gone down. I get that too. I do offer some discounts, (see COVID discounts) but therapy is still an investment and you would need to decide whether you’re ready for it.

Or maybe you don’t know if you really need it. Maybe you question whether things are that bad? You compare yourself to other people and see that their life circumstances seem way worse, so who are you to complain? I get that, too. There will always be a reason to not start therapy, and very many people wait until their absolute breaking point before scheduling an appointment. Then again, there’s also the chance that what you’re going through will get better on it’s own, and you can handle it without going to therapy.

So, for those of you who are considering therapy – but aren’t ready to jump in just yet, I give you a list of exercises you can try on your own to start the process. And – bonus – should you decide to start therapy, some of your work is already start.

1. Start monitoring. 

There’s a quote by business strategist Peter Drucker that says “what gets measured, gets managed.” If you’re currently dealing with a low mood,a dn you’re hoping to change that, one of the first things you can do is to start measuring it. What do I mean? I mean just jotting down on a 1-10 scale where you mood is on a daily basis. You can be more specific by rating your depression, anxiety, stress, anger, etc separately, or do your mood as one big lumped feeling. If you struggle with relationship challenges, rate that. Question whether you have disordered eating? Rate your urges to use those behaviors and whether you use them. Is there a pattern to your mood? Are certain environments, situations, or people tied to your lower/higher mood days?

2. Describe your day

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one technique is to describe how you spend your time on a given day. Starting with when you wake up, write out your daily schedule and then rate each activity based on how much enjoyment it gives you, how important it is and how accomplished it makes you feel.  

TimeActivityEnjoyImportantAccomplished
7-8amBreakfast w/kids263
8-12pmHomeschooling174
12-3pmWork Meetings475
3-6pmHelp kids w/school work255
6-7pmDinner453
7-8pmBedtime for kids273
8-10pmWork287
10-12amNetflix500
Example Activity Chart

When creating your daily activities list, it can be helpful to give perspective to your rating scale. What is your maximum, minimum and middle for each rating scale? Ie, for me, dancing to 80s music is a 10, grabbing a coffee with a friend is about a 5, and managing my toddler’s tantrum is a 0. Sometimes we may describe an activity as awful, but when compared to something we really don’t like, it’s not that bad. I don’t like filing taxes, but I would happily work on my taxes over dealing with a toddler tantrum.

3. Identify mini-goals

Much of therapy involves goal setting. “What do you want to get out of counseling?”, “How do you want life to be different?”, or “If you could wake up tomorrow and the problem you’ve mentioned has resolved, what would your life look like?”, etc. Because of these big-picture questions, client identify big-picture goals: “I want to feel good again”. “I don’t want to hate myself anymore”. “I wouldn’t be stressing over every little thing”.

And these are great starting points to give the therapy some direction. A therapist would then help you break those down into small, more concrete goals, so if nothing else, you’d know when you reached them.

Fortunately, you don’t need a therapist to set goals. But, as a suggestion, the smaller and more objective you make your goals, the easier it is to identify correlating action steps, so that you can, you know – actually achieve them. So for example, maybe you’re very much aware that you’re not getting enough sleep and you would like to get more. How much more sleep would you like to get? What time would that mean you need to get in bed by? What historically has prevented you from adhering to some sort of bed-time routine? What would be all the little steps you would need to take in order to increase your sleep quantity/quality? Now, pick one of those steps to start with, and try it out this week. Life is not a sprint. It’s not even a race. It’s a journey and every step you take, regardless of how small, is still forward movement. What movement can YOU take tomorrow, or even right now, towards your goals. 

4. Read your goal list daily

How many times have you decided you were going to either start a new habit or stop an old one? You start off gung-ho and super motivated: This is going to change your life! You’ll be so awesome after this! And within a few days, you’re cutting corners, forgetting what you set out to do, or, gasp – blatantly refusing to follow you’re own guidance. We’ve all been there. Establishing habits to reach our goals is hard work. What makes it slightly easier is having ever-present reminders that we want this change, AND then making ourselves acknowledge those ever-present reminders by rereading our goals. If you have a post-it note with your “drink more water” goal stuck to your coffee pot, to your computer monitor, to your steering wheel, etc. You’re more likely to 1) remember you made the goal in the first place and 2) take action to work towards that goal. Of course, if you’re at all like me, this won’t do anything for those rebellious streaks that see such reminders and shouts “Screw you! I don’t want to drink water right now! Now give me my coffee!”

5. Increase your exposure to positive messages

Look, our brains are already really good at identifying all the crap in our worlds. The news and social media echo apocalyptic visions of our socially-isolated futures, resulting in a situation in which there’s basically no way to avoid the negative spew unless you’re trying really hard. If you’re already feeling emotionally on-edge, you may be one comment away from camel back-snapping territory (as in, the back of a camel snapping under burdensome weight of life – not a broken camelbak (R)). You may not be able to control all messages you’re brain receives, but you do have some ability to combat the negative that you’re receiving. This could mean:

  • Limiting your exposure to people who are excessively pessimistic
  • Following people on social media who offer uplifting messages
  • Balancing your news consumption with some positive stories
  • Spending more time talking with friends and family who encourage and support you
  • Leaving yourself affirmations around your house/workplace (“This sucks, but you can do it”, “you’re freaking awesome at your job”, “this too, will pass”, etc.)
  • Offering those around you words of support and encouragement. We could all use a boost.

Doing the exercises above won’t replace the feedback and guidance you would get from a licensed mental health professional, but they will give you an idea of where you could use additional help. If you find these exercises challenging, or maybe life is too overwhelming right now to even attempt them, I would encourage you to reach out for help. If you’re at all curious, remember that I (and most other therapists) offer free consultations. That means you can test the waters with no commitment required.

If you’re considering therapy, what is holding you back from saying yes?

Honoring Your Goodbyes

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

It’s often said after a death is announced, but rarely is it talked about in other contexts. Like this context.

Across the world, our lives have been changed. Permanently? Who knows, but certainly in a very visceral and in-the-moment, way. Weddings have been canceled or put on hold (hopefully just put on hold). We can’t attend funerals of our loved ones, or tend to them on their sick beds. We can’t meet up with one another. We can’t see one another. We can’t say goodbye to one another.

My family and I will be heading back to the US after about a year of living here in Uganda. There are a lot of mixed emotions with this move as I’m sure anyone who has experienced a relocation will attest. But the feeling that is most prominent right now is just sadness. Sadness over the loss of this life. Sadness that our “once in a lifetime trip” to stare into the eyes of a mountain gorilla have been canceled (gorillas can get covid too). Mourning what we created here.

I’m no stranger to moves. I was in the military in my 20s, in the 7 years I was on active duty, I packed up my stuff and moved 12 times. Back then, I had a tendency focus only on 25 meter targets (ie, things that are right in front of you). What did I need to pack. What paperwork did I need. What housing could I find. I hugged my friends from the losing post as If I’d see them all again in a week or a month, but in the back of my mind, I knew that that wasn’t super likely. But when you move around a lot, this is part of the survival strategy. In part because there are practical steps you need to focus on in order to settle in, but also because acknowledging loss doesn’t feel good.

As I’ve gotten older, good byes have taken on more importance. I’m more aware of the permanence of them. Even if we kid ourselves by saying that we’ll keep in touch or that we’ll see friends again, the dynamic you once had in a specific place will never be the same. Whatever you had with your coworkers, friends, family – that’s gone. There be a new dynamic in place later, maybe even a better one, but the old one isn’t coming back. And at least for me, that’s sad.

There may be new opportunities and new friends and that’s all great. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of ignoring the sadness of losing what was important.

As expats, we may look at ourselves as champion good-byers. We’ve done this before. We know how to move and start over again. But sometimes the focus on survival causes us to forget the emotions that come with the starts and stops. And I’m here to say, that those emotions are important and shouldn’t be forgotten. Focusing on the ‘what’s next’ shouldn’t come at the expense of acknowledging what we’ve lost. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to think that this change thing sucks and maybe we don’t want it to happen. And it’s also okay to be happy or relieve that this change is going to happen. Maybe we also want it to happen. Emotions aren’t mutually exclusive, nor do they happen on a polarized spectrum.

So for anyone out there dealing with emotions associated with change, I feel you. I feel my loss acutely. I’m sad and that’s okay. Nothing I can do and nothing no one else says or does can make the sadness go away. Sadness is not a bad thing. Sadness is a message for us, just like all the other emotions. My message is that there are aspects about this current place and this current life that I really value. I want to remember the comfort and ease I’ve experience while living here. The warmth and openness of the people. The feeling of being accepted quickly by a community. The general vibe of “It will be okay. We will be okay”.

So my advice to others experiencing some kind of loss – be sad. Allow yourself to grieve. You lost something important and that deserves acknowledgement. Feel the feels. Don’t ignore them or deny them or dismiss them or minimize them. Just let them be. Use some mindfulness skills to observe them. Those feelings will rise, they’ll peak, they’ll move on. Maybe another wave will come up again when you’re reminded of what’s been lost. That’s okay, it’s part of the process. Sit with them and notice. Eventually the sharpness of the edge starts to dull, and you feel like you can move and focus again.

Always let your (emotions) be your guide

Emotions get a bad rap. I’ll be the first to say I was not always on-board with listening to, feeling or otherwise acknowledging my emotions. It was drilled in to me at a relatively young age that emotions are superfluous, unnecessary, messy, inconvenient, and certainly not fit for public consumption. Not to mention – they certainly said a lot about you as a person and what you cared about.

The kid who cries because he didn’t get what he wants? What a brat! And also his parents suck because how dare they allow their kids emotions be on display. Or the kid who gets angry and throws, hits or kicks to demonstrate just how clearly upset she is.

Perhaps those are poor examples, after all, they’re kids. Kids are notorious for having unstable moods and flipping from ecstasy to despair faster than you can blink. I’m actually witnessing this right now in my own kids. “You can have a piece of cake (YES!!!! Full ecstasy!!), but not for breakfast (NO!!! Utter despair!)”. Part of growing up is learning about all these different states called emotions and learn how to engage with them. Anger is okay – biting is not. Sadness is okay – but maybe we don’t need to sob on the floor of the grocery store. We learned when emotions are acceptable and what behaviors are acceptable outlets of those emotions.

Unfortunately, sometimes the messages we receive about emotions get a little scrambled, and by the time we’re grownups, we don’t necessarily have the best handle on them. Instead, we learn various strategies to “cope” with the emotions, some of which may be harmful, some of which may be completely ineffective, and some of which may be preventing us from living our lives as fully as we would like.

Examples:

  • Growing up in a family who viewed sadness as a weakness. The sadness is still there, but now can’t be expressed and instead is made visible through different means: engaging in self-harm, using substances, developing an eating disorder, etc.
  • As a shy person, feeling highly anxious about social situations and so avoid places or environments where social interactions are likely: weddings, reunions, meetups, dates, etc.
  • Not liking how uncomfortable certain emotions make you feel so learning to control your environment so that you aren’t forced to experience anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment, etc. When you are put into a situation outside of your control (cough cough, covid19), the overwhelm feels almost unbearable.
  • Coming from a family that never shows emotions and meeting the person of your dreams, who happens to come from a highly expressive and confrontational family. You realize that you don’t know how to communicate in such a way that the other person can even hear you.

Emotional Guidance System

What we rarely learn in childhood or elsewhere, is just how useful and important emotions are. And I don’t just mean in woo-woo, self-awareness sense, but also in a practical day to day to sense. What no one tells you (unless you go into therapy), is that emotions are our guides. We have developed these internal systems to alert us about the outside environment and how what’s happening IN THIS VERY MOMENT aligns or conflicts with our core values.

Sadness – Indicates there has been a loss, that something you want in your life is missing

Anger – Indicates a threat or that boundary has been violated

Guilt – Indicates that you have done something wrong which needs to amended

Fear – Indicates a threat or some kind of danger

Anxiety – Indicates a potential threat in the future

Joy – Indicates that things are good

How awesome is it that we were equipped with these? Also awesome – that we’re a social species, so while our emotions communicate something to us about what’s going on, they also communicate to those around us about what’s going on, so that we better know when to stay away and when to approach and offer help.

The one caveat to this whole emotional thing is that in order to receive the message from your guidance system, you have to be listening. That’s often where many of my clients struggle. We have been taught to tune out, ignore, “control”, or otherwise minimize the signals we receive from our emotions. Learning to tune back in can be a challenge. You might not hear anything. So instead, I offer this suggestion:

Observe your behaviors

Just like our emotions are our guides to how things are going in our lives with respect to our values, our behaviors are our guides to our emotions. Thankfully, behaviors are WAY more obvious that emotional signals. Anytime you find yourself having an urge to do something, that’s the time to check-in.

Last night, I got my kids to bed, it should have been time to relax. Instead, I had a very strong urge to eat chocolate. Like, a lot of chocolate. Okay, check-in time. Was I hungry? Nope. Was I tired, yeah, somewhat. Was I angry? sad? Nope and nope. But I was tense. And a little jittery. Ah – that one is anxiety. The president of Uganda was making yet another speech about the current state of the country-wide lockdown. My social media feeds were blowing up. Some young men were loitering on our street, taking pictures of our house. All of this led to a general sense of unease.

This leads to another important part of emotions: they guide us to action. Anxiety alerts us to a potential threat, so what is the potential threat, and can I do anything about it? The threat is that no one knows where this whole covid thing is going. No one knows how the people of this country in particular will handle sweeping movement restrictions. And I don’t know if those guys are plotting to attack my house or are posing for their instagram feed. What can I do? I can’t change the president’s edicts, but I can limit how much social media about it is streaming into my head. I can’t chase those guys off the street, it’s public property, but I can alert our guards (all houses/compounds here have guards) to their presence and them to keep an more vigilant eye out. I can ensure all my doors/windows are secured and that our outside lights are working. This is all helping to address the potential future threat. For the future threat I have zero control over? That’s where relaxation and breathing techniques come in. Remaining in a over-hyped state is not useful. It breaks down the body and actually limits the cognitive functions you probably want online should shit hit the fan and really spatter (splatter?).

If I had not checked-in with myself, I would have quickly grabbed some chocolate (and then more chocolate) in hopes that the small burst of dopamine would calm me down and make me feel a little better. And while it may have in the very short-term, it doesn’t address the threat that the anxiety was trying to alert me to, which means I would have needed more and more something to keep that anxiety feeling at bay. Better to just notice it, feel it, and take appropriate action.

What emotion do you find yourself avoiding? What do you suppose it’s trying to tell you? Drop me a note and let me know.

One Expat's experience amid COVID-18

I keep trying to finish this post. I get to a good place, leave it to post the following day, only to wake up the following morning to a completely different world. The global anxiety is straight up palpable. Generally I don’t consider myself particularly anxious, but as one small member of the large human race collective, I can feel it. It’s like standing next to a large magnet. I don’t see anything, but I can sense the charge in the air around me. I feel my own heart rate thumping a little faster and notice my muscles holding on to more tension than normal.

This is a surreal situation to be in. A situation that many of us have neither experienced nor contemplated experiencing. Some sort of natural disaster or emergency localized to one area, okay, that’s within the realm of understanding. But a pandemic. A threat to the entire world. What is happening??

As a resident in a country that, as I’m writing this, has not yet been affected, has just had their first case, is only just now having multiple confirmed cases, I feel as if I’m watching a massive tidal wave approach. It’s already washed over communities in the distance, and I see it headed straight for us, but in what time frame? With what consequence? Relatively benign? Catastrophic? I watch friends and family across the world reel from the effects this virus has caused. Some are taking it more in stride than others, casually shrugging shoulders as if this was all one big fire drill. Others are posting from their hospital beds, pleading for the rest of the world to take the dire predictions seriously.

Multiple times this past week, I have been in a position of making decisions I don’t feel equipped nor emotionally ready to answer. Mostly, they revolve around the central question of do we stay/do we go. And, at multiple times this week, I have found myself completely paralyzed – mentally and physically. As a therapist, I have training in helping to guide someone towards a decision, and yet when I was in the hot seat, even knowing all the tricks, I couldn’t guide myself anywhere. I felt frozen. Any shift would be a vote for one course of action over another. I can make a pro/con list all I want, but emotions don’t always fit into neat, tidy boxes.

What complicates matters is the self-awareness of my own biases when it comes to risk. I am a chronic minimizer when it comes to danger. Sometimes this comes in handy: I can remain calm in otherwise stressful situations or not feel overwhelmed with fear when I am faced with some sort of threat. But it also means that I might miss or downplay important indicators something is wrong.

So when faced with the decision of deciding whether my family should abruptly back a bag and evacuate our home, my brain short-circuits itself. It tries to weigh the risks on both sides: fewer cases in current country but a more vulnerable health infrastructure to manage the virus when it does hit versus thousands of cases in my home country, long airline travel to get there, but at least the system holistically is in better shape and would be more likely to withstand the strain of the ongoing pandemic.

My gut? It says stay put. This is our home. We have our stuff here. We are comfortable here. We are healthy (right now). I can weather a quarantine much better from this walled compound, with a full pantry stash, complete with space to run around and play for the kids.

But then the doubt creeps in. Are you only leaning that way because of your bias? Are you making a false conclusion about the risk in staying put? Are you downplaying the potential for needing medical care and then not being able to receive it? Is this about you just not wanting to be inconvenienced by a 30hr flight followed by quarantine with two small high-energy kids? Are you choosing convenience over safety?

And then I freeze. Because I can’t answer those questions. But what I can do, is just listen. To use the mindfulness skills I’ve been cultivating to check-in with my whole self for answers my brain can’t quite access. When I do that, I can sense my path. It’s not very loud, just a slight feeling that whispers: stay.

So we’re staying.

I have no idea if it’s the “right” decision or if I will regret the decision in a week from now. But at this point it doesn’t even matter. The decision has been made. Now the focus is figuring out how to make the most of what’s here now.

What decision(s), are you facing and finding yourself getting stuck on?

Meditating on Mosquitoes

Let’s play an imagination game. Pretend you’re sitting in the most comfortable of positions in the coziest spot you can imagine. You’re wearing soft, stretchy cotton, a fleece wrapped around your arms. You’re sitting or laying in a position where you can’t detect a single ounce of pain or tension. You are TOTALLY zen. You’re breathing is soft and even and you feel as if you are one with the world. Everything is wonderful.

But then – you hear it. The sound. THAT sounds. It starts off small, barely an audible whisper. Slowly it grows, raising in its pitch, inching closer and closer to you.

She’s coming for you

You try to ignore it. You’re in zen mode after all. Just notice and move on. Focus on breath. Observe the sensations.

But then you feel the soft shift of air right by your cheek which triggers an uncontrollable shiver through your body and you swat at the air near your head. You’re zen. Focus on your breath. Just notice your experience. Notice the sound. Notice the potential sensations. Notice your reality.

Hello reality, you suck.

Who the hell are you kidding. You can’t get that noise out of your head. You’re getting more paranoid, now starting to feel pinpricks randomly all over your body. You start swatting to the left, to the right. You try to cocoon yourself in your comfy clothes, cinching your hoodie drawstrings around your face. But still – you hear their siren calls and every ounce of you wants to run for the comfort of the indoors, or at the very least, douse yourself in a liberal coating of your favorite bug spray.

This was the exact situation I found myself in this past Saturday evening. I excitedly booked myself a solo getaway – a yoga retreat in a secluded forest lodge – and found myself attempting to remain serene and accepting of the swarm of aggressive ‘squitoes buzzing furiously around my body.

The other yogis and I all chuckled about the experience after the fact. We all agreed that their presence made it infinitely more challenging to focus on anything other then the high-pitched bzzz of their little wings.

Looking for the right answer

On the way home from the retreat, protectively encapsulated from further biting in my 4×4 , I considered the grander meaning of these little jerks and my interrupted meditations. I mean, what IS the right answer? Are you supposed to sit and NOT react? Meditation teaches us to do just this. Notice. Observe. Watch. Listen. Bare witness to the present moment.

In that moment, I bore witness to the sound of a crackling fire in front of me, the rhythmic chirping of grasshoppers, my own breath evenly entering and exiting my body. I bore witness to the smell of the citronella and lemongrass bug spray I had spritzed on my exposed skin, the logs on the fire breaking down to embers. And I bore witness to the feeling of warmth from the fire on my shins, the seam of my coat underneath my fingers, and the sharp prickle of a thousand stingers piercing my flesh. I was being shredded by mosquitoes. That was my reality.

Am I supposed to just sit there and take it? Even given that I happen to live in a malaria-prone region and just happened to forget my anti-malaria meds for the weekend? Is there benefit to allowing yourself to be hurt, taken advantage of, even abused for the sake of “noticing” and “observing”?

In my digging around through various resources, unsurprisingly, the internet is conflicted. I found a timely and appropriate article on Medium in which the author seemed to be pro-mosquito. A few similar forum discussions suggest that you should just be still, regardless of how nature may intrude on your practice. Buddhist monks chime in by saying that if you try to run away from an experience, it will follow you until you’re able to accept it. I wonder where the line gets drawn: mosquitoes okay, but fire ants? Snakes? Scorpions? Lions? I’d like to think that life-threatening situations can be exempt from continued meditation.

Other sources, like the book Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, as well as material from ACT and DBT practices (two therapeutic modalities) suggest that awareness of what’s happening is step one, but action afterwards can be warranted. In most examples, the discussions center around situations in which you have no control. Makes sense to learn to accept what you wouldn’t be able to do anything about anyway. But what if you do still have control? Then, shouldn’t you use it? Provided of course you first notice what’s happening. In that sense, I’d like to think I sufficiently noticed the mosquitoes around me before I then made the decision to end my meditation early.

ACT in particular has you explore whether the action you would like to engage in is supported by your values. This probably makes the most sense when it comes to mosquito meditations. What type of person are you trying to become? What are your overall goals? If you are in training to become a Buddhist monk, practicing non-violence, then maybe slapping at a mosquito isn’t the right call. But if you’re just a lay person like me, whose values won’t be dramatically assaulted should you choose to hide inside, then go ahead and escape. I certainly won’t judge.

Radically Accepting mosquitoes

So – how did I ultimately handle my mosquito fan club? Did I Radically Accept the mosquitoes? Yes and no.

I accepted that I wanted the moment to be different.

I accepted that I wanted to remain peaceful, and still and be focused on my meditative task.

I also accepted that there were a lot of mosquitoes who seem undeterred by bug spray and in a malaria-prone environment, and for me, the potential gain from meditating in that environment was not worth the potential consequences.

So I quit early. I went back to our lodge, grabbed myself a tea, and read for bit. Firmly establish boundaries are okay. Even in meditation.

Even now I still question that decision. Some part of me, the one who values stick-tuitive-ness over all else or perhaps the part of me who prides herself on being the perfect student, was triggered by my quitting. I find myself criticizing my action. Really? Why couldn’t I have just held out. Can I really not handle the sound of mosquitoes for 10 more minutes? The resulting bug bites I did receive weren’t even that itchy (although in my defense, there were over 40 of them).

This I see is my bigger lesson. Acceptance of experience shouldn’t stop and start like a teenager learning to drive for the first time. Experience itself is an on-going, ever-flowing process. Which means our practice involves continued acceptance, including accepting whatever choices you’ve made, whether they were 5 years ago or 5 minutes ago and accepting how you feel now.

I can be disappointed with my meditative performance. I can feel sad that my self-critic is still loud enough for me to notice. I can be frustrated that such a commonplace situation created a ripple of negativity that hung around me longer than I would have liked.

And I can accept that these emotions are temporary, and like my mosquito bites, will fade.

Why following through is hard

This week my daughter is out of school on yet another break. I swear she has a full week off of school every other month. Thankfully we’re abroad with this type of schedule because attempting to find childcare or vacation days to cover all of those days would be a nightmare in a place like the US.

Kampala unfortunately does not offer extensive activities for kids to do, so I decided that we would be explorers and set out on a mommy-daughter adventure. We packed our bathing suits and some snacks, downloaded the Frozen 2 soundtrack, booked ourselves in to the ViaVia guesthouse in Entebbe and set off into the great unknown.

This was my vision: We’d arrive at some enchanted forrest, skip through fields of exotic flora and fauna, oo and ah over different bird chirps, chase butterflies, splash through puddles trying to catch lizards, dip ourselves into the pool when the sun got to warm, and obviously end the day with a campfire and some hot cocoa while listening to grasshoppers chirping. Maybe I’d even let her stay up late to look for shooting stars. It was going to be magical.

The reality of this trip, alas, did not quite match the description above. While I do give myself gold stars for doing the trip in the first place AND saying yes to my kiddo more than I said no, I still found myself at my breaking point on more than one occasion.

Like many parents before me, I found myself snapping with an “DO YOU WANT TO GO HOME RIGHT NOW?! WE’LL LEAVE RIGHT NOW IF YOU CAN’T DO WHAT I ASK!!”

Cue face palm and a disappointed sigh. Even when you KNOW what to do, doing the thing doesn’t always come easy.

In my defense, after every snap (in therapy terms – a rupture), we did repair within a few minutes, so on the whole we both had a positive experience. But it happened enough that even my daughter (who is a wizened 5 year old) told me “Mommy, you don’t have to yell. You just need to calm down first and then talk to me”. #kidsoftherapists

A few days ago I wrote about the importance of breath work in battling stress, anxiety, anger and general emotional distress. I am completely and 100% fully on board with using breath as a tool to calm my nervous system. I know the science behind it. I’ve personally experienced improvement in my mood when I do it. It doesn’t even take a long time to incorporate.

And yet, when in the midst of a stress tornado, I let the emotions consume me and I turn into a snarling, grouch monster.

Come on. Do Better.

That’s what I hear in my head after the anger wave has receded. Not only do I allow my emotions to take over, but then my inner critic gets in on the action and throws a few quick jabs. It’s incredibly frustrating, on both fronts.

So what can be done?

In the short term:

  1. Wait til the dust has settled. Sometimes we get hijacked by our emotions and we don’t always feel fully in control. At the first inkling that your hands might be back on the wheel, start taking corrective action.
  2. Breathe breathe breathe. The emotion has likely peaked by this point, so now work on getting yourself back to homeo stasis. Release whatever tensions has been stored up in your muscles.
  3. Scan your thoughts. See if you can reroute any lingering negativity. Now is a great time to practice some CBT thought exercises. Is my daughter REALLY a little demon sent to annoy me? Do I have any evidence that she is doing this on purpose? Or is she just being a 5 year old who has different ideas of what appropriate behavior is? And even if she is intentionally acting like a turd, is it really worth exploding at her? Are there other options for how to react?
  4. Survey the damage/Fix what can be fixed. Take responsibility for your actions. You may be entirely justified in the emotions you’re experiencing, but sometimes actions aren’t always necessary nor are they most conducive to getting what we want. Apologize as needed. I find myself apologizing often to my kiddo and then use the opportunity to explain what was frustrating me about her behavior. She’s usually more receptive to these conversations than if I were to just yell at her and give her the “because I said so” line.

In the long term:

  1. Remind yourself that this is the work. I was listening to a Tim Ferris podcast a couple of years ago of an interview with meditation expert/Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield. Kornfield commented on how the day-to-day living can be just as transformative as doing a 10-day meditation/yoga retreat in some isolate enclave. Kids, family, customer service reps, whomever, can all serve the role of a Zen master teacher, offering you opportunity after opportunity to reflect on how you’re living life.

But what makes it work is that you have that intention, not just to soldier through it, but to say let this be a place where I awaken graciousness, an inner sense of freedom and peace as things come and go, where I awaken the possibility of presence, and pleasure, and pain, and joy, and sorrow, and gain, and loss, and all the changes that I find inviolable, or a timeless place of becoming the loving witness of it all, becoming the loving awareness that says, yeah, now I’m having a family experience. And this is the place to find freedom. Because freedom is not in the Himalayas or in the Amazon. The only place it’s found is in your own heart, exactly where you are.

Jack Kornfield

2. Explore your internal. Behavioral reactions never come out of thin air, regardless of how it may seem. They’re more like the end domino in a long chain of reactions. What was happening internally before your tantrum that may have contributed to your outburst. Were you tired? Hungry? Already feeling stressed out from a morning commute? Did you have negative thoughts about yourself, someone else or the environment bouncing around in your head just prior?

3. Keep practicing. It’s like when you’re learning meditation. Your thoughts wander off and the goal is not to prevent them from wandering off, but just to notice that they’ve gone astray and gently refocus them. When you’re emotions get the best of you, notice what happened that pushed your buttons and gently refocus yourself and nudge yourself back into alignment.

We all have those moments where we act like assholes, but luckily, we aren’t graded on those single moments or single interactions. Instead, we can use these moments to reflect and grow towards a better version of ourselves.

What was a situation in which, despite your best intentions, you let your emotions get away from you? How did you respond?

Why Everyone Tells You to ‘Just Breathe’: And why you should listen

Picture this: you’re getting ready for an international flight. Maybe you’re finally flying home to see family or maybe there’s an important work conference you’ve been tagged to attend. You’re not the best flyer, so you’re already feeling a little anxious about the whole thing. You’ve attempted to prepare as best you can, packing the night before and ensuring that all your essential documents are readily accessible. You call a cab to bring you to the airport, allocating plenty of time to get there, check-in, get through security and even hit the bathroom and grab a snack before needing to board.

The cab miraculously arrives on time and off you go, mentally running through all your check-lists again and again. You feel somewhat relieved in knowing that at this point, you’ve done as much preparation as you can, so now it’s just go-time. That’s when you notice your cab slowing down. You peer out the window to see a field of red brake lights and exhaust pipes. 

What the…?

You pull out your phone. Google maps showed no traffic before you left, but now, to your horror, you watch as it becomes orange, then red. Well shit.

You feel your pulse quicken and your breathing becomes more shallow. Your whole body becomes tense. You suggest to the taxi driver that maybe he could take an alternative route but the car is smackdab in the middle of traffic, and there’s no way he’s moving without all the other cars around him moving first.

Your mind is racing in 1000 different directions. What if we can’t get out of this? What if I miss my flight? What if there aren’t any other flights leaving today? Even if I make the flight, what if my baggage doesn’t? If I can’t get out the next day is my trip ruined? Should I call the airline now and see if I can shift my seat? Should I get out now and try to walk to a different street? Surely it would be faster to walk at this point. Do I cancel the trip? Agh! What do I do?! Why does this always happen to me?!

Want to know what you should do?

It’s fairly straight forward. One of the most common anxiety/stress-relieving suggestions there is.

Ready for it?

Just Breathe.

What? That’s it? That’s Bogus!! That doesn’t fix anything!

You’re right. Breathing doesn’t necessarily fix anything. It won’t magically get rid of traffic and it won’t hold your flight for you. But it will do something I consider fairly magical.

Breathing gives YOU control over which part of your nervous system you want activated. Are you about to face down a lion and need to summon all your body’s resources? Great, then start huffing and puffing. The sympathetic nervous system (aka, fight/flight) is up and running and will direct all energy towards survival.

No lion? Then it’s time to manually take over and get your nervous system to cool its jets. 

Start by focusing on taking long, slow exhales.

Exhaling in general is associated with a slight drop in heart rate, and it brings your parasympathetic nervous system online. Not only will this make you feel calmer and more relaxed, but in this state your brain is taken out of problem-focused tunnel-vision mode and is able to operate more holistically. You can see opportunities instead of just limitations. You’re better able to accept whatever life throws at you, even if that means a missed flight.

Perhaps you see breath work as a bunch of woowoo fluff, and if so, I don’t begrudge you one bit. But the science is there. And for me, there is something validating in knowing that I have some control over how my body is reacting.

Try this at home (or anywhere): Start by breathing normally, whatever that may be for you. Count out your inhale, then attempt to make your exhale a little bit longer. With each breath cycle, try to slow yourself down a little bit more, even pausing at the top and bottom of each breath. 

After doing this for a couple of minutes, what changes do you notice in your body?