New Year, Same Fear (Part 2)

In honor of the New Year, I’ve been reflecting on the passage of time and the ways that time becomes distorted by our perceptions. In my last post, I talked about some of the ways we (humans) unintentionally (yet oftentimes, very determinedly) keep ourselves feeling stuck. The key to freeing ourselves from our “control agendas” is acceptance.  So Part One was about how we are all, to some degree, plagued by avoidance, and Part Two is about swallowing its antidote, acceptance.

“Acceptance” means making space for all of the feelings and experiences that are natural parts of life, without trying to change them or make them go away. It means opening up to the feelings of fear that naturally arise. It means acknowledging that we can’t predict the future or change the past. It means owning that we are imperfect and messy. It means that we will sometimes feel rejected, inadequate, or unlovable, and it means that we are REAL and ALIVE. It takes courage to practice acceptance, because you have to be willing to sometimes feel like crap.   Perhaps you already try to do this, or perhaps you think it’s a load of BS. After all, why would you choose to “just feel crappy?” Keep in mind that you don’t have to want, enjoy, or welcome an emotion in order to be willing to have it.

The idea is that our efforts to change or fix the “problem” of unpleasant emotions only serve to amplify and intensify those emotions. If I hate broccoli, I can choose not to buy it at the grocery store and refrain from ordering it on a menu. That’s a great way to deal with the problem of “I hate broccoli,” because broccoli is an external stimulus. If I hate feeling guilt, I might try applying the same strategies that solved my “I hate broccoli” problem to the “I hate guilt” problem, by trying to make the guilt go away. Clearly, this does not work, because guilt is a transient and subjective internal experience, rather than a concrete, external object. We naturally try to solve our internal problems in the same ways we solve our external problems, but the strategies that are successful in the external world are pretty ineffective when applied to the internal world. Our efforts can get discouraging and just plain exhausting. Acceptance is about letting go of the struggle to “fix” everything, and learning to see what’s inside of ourselves not as “things that need fixing,” but just as “things that are there.”

What gets in the way, usually, is fear. Fear that if I let myself feel the joy of a new relationship, I’ll be vulnerable to more sadness and disappointment if it doesn’t work out. Fear that if I let myself feel worried or scared or cry, I won’t be able to handle it. I will sink into crappy feelings that will last forever, and it will be awful. The man who felt anxious at work had a bunch of different choices in how he related to his anxiety. One choice, besides drinking, would have been to feel his anxiety, say to himself “I’m feeling anxious,” and still go to work and survive his day. He just didn’t realize that letting himself be uncomfortable without trying to make the discomfort go away was even an option, because he was caught in what Tara Brach calls “the trance of fear.” The trance of fear is what sends us into problem-solving mode, and it can happen so quickly that we don’t even know we’re doing it. As a therapist, I’ve seen this time and time again, and in my own life, I’ve experienced it time and time again. It’s in our nature as humans to want to change, fix, or solve things we don’t like. We like to control, but it is our very efforts to control that draw us into struggle and suffering.

What’s so fulfilling about accepting all of the yucky stuff going on within ourselves instead of trying to make it go away (and yes, “yucky stuff” is the clinical term) is that it makes more space for the full spectrum of emotions to exist. Life includes pain, insecurity, and self-doubt, but inevitably, it also includes the pleasant and pleasurable, the warm and joyful, the loving and compassionate.

It is NOT easy to practice leaning in to the full spectrum of emotional experiences. When we get stuck, we can take comfort in the fact that we are working through what is a natural human process, because it means that we never have to walk the journey alone.

If you find yourself needing support in your efforts to open up to in fear in 2016, I may be able to help. Call or email me and we can work together toward a greater sense of support and balance.

New Year, Same Fear (Part 1)

It’s 2016! When did this even happen? Time seems to pass at weird rates.

How often have you asked someone about their day at work, and they replied, “Ugh, it was so LONG” or have you been asked about a trip and you responded, “it went by so FAST”?   The passing of time can feel excruciatingly slow or dizzyingly fast, depending on a million other internal and external factors.

Not to go all Literal Lucy here, but time actually moves at the same rate, no matter what. A minute is always sixty seconds. The reality is that this is 100% our perception and experience of time.

If we can recognize that the passing of time is only quickened or slowed down by our perceptions of it, we become better equipped for living fully in each moment. Time doesn’t have to be this slippery, elusive element that never seems to do what we want it to; time simply passes, and we can watch it, ignore it, lament what could have been, anticipate what is to come, or, trickiest of all, simply live in it.

What makes us wish time slowed down (or stopped) during the joyful moments is the same thing that makes us wish it sped up when our day feels sucky. It’s the phenomenon referred to in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as experiential avoidance or control, which is the attempt to control or alter the form, frequency, or situational sensitivity of internal experiences, such as thoughts, feelings, sensations, or memories, even when doing so causes us behavioral harm (Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette, & Strosahl, 1996).

Okay, I’ll chill on the psych jargon and give it to you straight. Basically, we use all kinds of conscious and unconscious strategies to try to avoid, suppress, or ignore the things that we don’t enjoy (the long line at the supermarket, the obnoxious sound your partner makes when he chews his cereal, the throbbing pain of a sinus headache, the painful memories of a traumatic experience, the feeling of grief when we lose a loved one, the feeling of rejection when we get dumped). When we perceive something as crappy, we want to make it STOP or GO AWAY. On the other hand, we do the opposite and try to cling to, prolong, or drag out the things that give us pleasure (vacations, eating cake, having an orgasm, getting a good night’s sleep, feeling important or special when we get a promotion at work, feeling loved when our children climb into our laps with a book).

For example, try to recall a time you have felt a positive feeling (such as pleasure or delight) and an experience that went along with it. For me, an easy example is when I’m eating a delicious ice cream sundae on a hot summer afternoon. With my first decadent bite, I can count on a slew of enjoyable feelings and internal experiences to pop up. I’ll think the thought, “this is delicious!” accompanied by my mouth watering when I taste the refreshing sensation of cold, creamy sweetness. Then… the moment I have these enjoyable experiences, my body and brain automatically go into experiential control efforts. No more than a few bites in, I may start to think, “I wish this bowl was bigger.” I start trying to eat very slowly and make it last longer, or I think about what else I can get to satisfy my insatiable sweet tooth after I finish. Sometimes I feel guilty over my indulgence, or I feel annoyed that it’s melting faster than I want to eat it. All at once, my experience of pleasure becomes tainted by my own reactions, my “control agenda” and the effort to hold onto ice-cream-induced pleasure forever and ever.

The same goes for avoidance efforts. Addiction often develops because of experiential avoidance. For example, a 35-year-old man feels self-conscious when socializing in groups, but he works in an office culture where the expectation is to attend work-related social functions. He finds that after a few drinks, his nerves are calmed and his anxiety is dulled. He starts to rely on this strategy more and more, to take the edge off. Over time, this behavior gets reinforced. He learns that when he drinks, the unpleasant feelings go away. His body builds tolerance to alcohol, and he must drink more and more to get the same effects. When he sobers up, he feels guilty and ashamed, on top of the anxiety he already was feeling. He starts drinking before work in the mornings, trying to prevent the unpleasant feelings before they overwhelm him. It’s easy to see how the man’s efforts to control his feelings lead to his feelings controlling him, as his daily life becomes focused on “not feeling anxious.”

As Brene Brown mentions in her popular Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, we cannot selectively numb. We can’t choose to not feel anxiety ever, because anxiety is part of life. On a related note, we cannot selectively cling. We can’t choose to only feel joy all the time. Knowing this, it’s futile to tell someone (or to tell yourself) to “just stop thinking about it” or “perk up!” If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these well-intentioned pieces of advice, you know how unhelpful they can feel. We don’t get to choose WHAT our thoughts, feelings, and internal experiences are. What we can choose is HOW WE RELATE to those experiences. We have a choice in how much attention we give to the thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations that we experience, and how much we allow them to dictate our behaviors and control our daily lives.

Next time you feel like time is slipping through your fingers, or find yourself impatiently watching the clock, see if you can turn inward and tune into what else you’re feeling, not just what’s driving a sense of urgency.  And then, see if you can let go of the urgency and connect to the experience itself.  If you’re not sure how to do this, you’re not alone. It’s much easier said than done.

Stay tuned for a sequel to this post in the next few days, and as always, feel free to contact me for help or support.

 

Wishing everyone a warm and healthy new year!

Get REAL This Thanksgiving

Warning: this post may seem harsh. “Thanksgiving” is a sly and misleading name for the part of American history it commemorates. It has a dark side, but it’s so hidden by turkey and stuffing and family drama and football that most of us can easily forget it’s even there. With Thanksgiving, Americans have created a holiday that connotes all things wonderful, gratitude and family and patriotism and perseverance, but Thanksgiving is also a holiday commemorating our exploitation of the land, resources, and people who were here before us. As explorers, intruders, colonizers, Americans came to a land that was already populated, and made up and imposed rules on this country. The people and culture who were exploited continue to experience oppression and marginalization to this day. Like anything with a dark side, we came up with reasons for why this was necessary, even helpful, rather than recognizing such oppression. Celebrating Thanksgiving as purely positive, without mentioning the genocide that ensued, is a whole lot of ignorance and denial.

Go ahead, call me cynical or a downer. React however you’re going to react. At the end of the day, I’m giving voice to something real.

Confession time: I did not know anyone who identified as Native American while I was growing up. I generally consider myself to be a pretty flexible, open-minded, accepting person, and I appreciate diversity in all aspects of the word. But as I’ve mentioned before, I started this blog as a challenge to myself to practice what I preach. To uncover blind spots and biases, to bring them into awareness, and to move through them in the most honest ways that I could. So while I am embarrassed to say this, I’ll put it out there and deal with my consequences: I used to love Pocahantas. Okay, I said it. I even dressed as her for Halloween once. I have lived in multiple cities with sports team mascots derived from Native American symbols and that portray Native peoples (think Redskins, Blackhawks, Braves, Chiefs) in completely racist and dehumanizing ways, and I often did not notice.

When I was 26, I moved to Minneapolis for a year to complete my pre-doctoral training at a chemical dependency treatment center. Minnesota has a much larger Native community than anywhere else I’d ever lived, and I began working with colleagues and clients who were Native. If I’m being honest (which, let’s face it, I’ve kind of signed myself up for Honesty Boot Camp here, being both a writer and a psychologist) it was almost as if Native Americans weren’t real to me until I met people who were Native American. The ignorance I had muddled through for much of my life began to dissipate as the Native American story slowly became more real and alive to me. I struggled with feelings of sadness, shame, and the residual “white guilt.”

Oftentimes, when we (humans) realize we were racist, ignorant, or naive in some way, we feel such overwhelming shame that we get defensive. We react to those uncomfortable feelings by denying that we were ever so off-base, or making up excuses for why we had a right to do what we did and think what we thought. I’d be full of shit if I didn’t admit that I was tempted to do that, too. The thing is, once you learn something, it really does more harm to un-learn it than to incorporate it into awareness. I have developed more empathy related to what Native American people have experienced. Recognizing that I had this unconscious bias, working through my initial guilt and defensiveness, and then allowing myself to become a more respectful and compassionate person has been uncomfortable, but guess what? It’s been fine. I didn’t spontaneously combust. I know I’m not going to rewrite history, so denying it is pretty useless. The systematically-induced shaming and ignoring of Native Americans in this country has been happening for centuries and it blows my mind that before I went to Minnesota, I was never exposed to it. It was glossed over in my textbooks.  All that I can do today is give the history some validation here.

While I understand how offensive and insensitive it is to dress in costumes of another culture for amusement, or to turn other human beings into mascots, I also know that it’s unproductive for me to get stuck feeling shameful, guilty, and pissed off at myself for being so ignorant. I truly did not know any better, and now I do, and so I’m choosing to change my attitudes. Simple… but not easy.

We all can relate to and connect with others, however different we may appear on the surface, and I think we need to get better at recognizing that. I was ignorant, and in many ways, I still am ignorant and don’t even know it (which is kind of the definition of “ignorance,” right? It’s not conscious). When I realized that I had been unwittingly, blindly, albeit innocently following traditions and practices that dehumanized Native American people, I felt horrible. I also realized that I have a choice, and I choose to own up to it, apologize for it, and become a more accepting and compassionate person.

Confession, Part 2: despite my awareness, I still celebrate Thanksgiving. I think there are many wonderful things about Thanksgiving, as it can be a lovely opportunity to connect with loved ones and enjoy a meal together. As a big fan of mindfulness, I also really like the idea of taking some time to be thankful, to intentionally recognize what we appreciate in life. However, it’s necessary to paint the whole picture for ourselves. We can make space for both the dark and light sides of history.

I encourage you to take a look inward, and recognize whether you, too, have been unwittingly, innocently following along with views that are unbalanced or ignorant of other human beings. Try to resist the urge to disown your experiences and instead, let yourself feel uncomfortable for a minute. Nobody is built completely bias-less, but everybody seems to want everybody else to think we are. Let’s get real.

I believe that through continuing to be vulnerable at different levels, we can learn to strike a balance between accepting ourselves, accepting others, and feeling accepted by others. This Thanksgiving, and every day, I think we owe it to ourselves as human beings to let ourselves get called out on our biases, and instead of reacting with defensiveness and denial, instead of trivializing or sinking into shame, respond with clarity and acceptance.

I wish everyone a safe, healthy, and meaningful holiday.