Thursday, March 9, 2017

How Do We Maintain Happiness?

Image Credit: Huffington Post

Just recently, I finished The Book of Joy by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These two men provide such wonderful wisdom, sharing the same belief that joy or happiness come from within. This is something that few of us cultivate and something that which our materialist society insists can be found externally. The message we receive from our larger culture is that we will be happy when, and if, we have a bigger house, a better job, the right clothes or more money. Yet, these two men maintain that this is not where true happiness resides. It is not about acquiring more things or more money; These are not the sources of happiness. Nor is happiness solely reliant on self-interest. Rather, it is about taking care of yourself, and expanding that care towards others as well. It is about mindful living, emotional resilience and being generous towards others.

The narrator of the book sites a research study that I found very interesting, and in many ways, parallels the thoughts of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Sonja Lyubomirksy discovered there were ultimately three factors that significantly affect happiness:

1. The ability to reframe our situation more positively

2. The ability to experience gratitude

3. To choose to be kind and generous


Reframing Our Situations Positively

How does one reframe a situation in a more positive manner? The Dalai Lama had to flee his home in Tibet because of Chinese aggression. How has he reframed this experience? It seems that, without minimizing the loss, he realized that in some ways it gave him greater freedom. He had more access to the people, could be less formal, could engage more with other cultures, and could broaden his knowledge and ultimately, expand Buddhism itself.  The Archbishop struggled through apartheid and came out believing that the struggle was worth the freedoms and equality Africans now experience. It gave him the opportunity to speak out, become a leader, and cultivate patience and optimism.They both serve as examples in how to reframe our own difficult experiences. We can each challenge ourselves to find meaning in our experiences, positive and negative. We can ask: What was there to learn and in what ways have we grown? How can our experience frame new ways of being in the future?This happens all the time when I work with clients. We process difficult experiences. Those that can accept their reality and find meaning, can move on. Others who struggle with denial or anger, get mired in negativity. If, without denying the harm done to you, you can also forgive others, you can free up enormous energy, experience more ease and create new opportunities for yourself.  


Gratitude

It is much easier to focus on the negatives in our lives than the positives. We are, in fact, primed to attend to negatives. Our biological imperative is to survive, and we are wired to notice when something is amiss. That’s the job of our fear center, the amygdala, on alert 24/7, constantly checking to see if danger is near + if we’re safe of not.   Of course, we need it, but it does skew things. In response, we have to consciously account for the positive things, so we can balance out the negative appraisals that happen automatically.   This can helps us have a more realistic appraisal of our experiences. I find it helpful to acknowledge the things I’m grateful for first thing in the morning. Or, you might like the morning gratitude prayer of Thich Nhat Hahn which one of my friends often recites. I think making this a routine practice gives us more lightness and genuine appreciation for all the ways our lives harvest ease and privilege.  


Choosing to be Kind and Generous

I think the biggest obstacle to being kind and generous is the tendency to see yourself as a victim. To then feel your anger/unkind gestures are justified because of someone else’s behavior. While people do act in ways that are unthoughtful or unkind, let that be a statement of their character. We can realize it’s not about us, not our faults. We can feel what we feel, because something hurtful has happened, but learn to be thoughtful about our responses. I think it is that, a moment of pause, that allows us to consciously choose to be kind. A long time ago, I read a statement by Dr. Wayne Dyer that has stuck with me: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This is something we can all aspire to practice.


Monday, December 12, 2016

Friend ALL Your Feelings

I recently wrote an article for the November/December issue of New Moon Girls Magazine - a great resource for young girls and their parents.


This particular issue is called "The All About Feelings" issue, so I was excited to contribute to this topic. My post is titled "Friend ALL Your Feelings" where I discuss emotions and the importance of recognizing and accepting different feelings. Read the post in its entirety below:

"Every person has emotions—it’s part of being human. We can’t make them go away. We’re born with emotions, just as we emerge with our five senses ready to go. We cherish our ability to see beauty, hear music, smell a rose, taste ice cream, or cuddle a pet. If we lose one of our five senses, we’ll miss out on the information it gives us.

In just the same way, our feelings give us information about the world. Think of emotions like your sixth sense! Here’s an example. Say you’re crossing a street and a car doesn’t seem to be stopping for you. Sight helps you see the car approaching, but it’s fear that makes you jump out of the way. You won’t save yourself by only seeing the car—you need the energy of fear to motivate fast action. 

All our emotions guide us toward action. They send us a message felt in our bodies that will help us best respond to life challenges. All our emotions—including the ones we often want to banish, such as sadness and anger—are actually crucial to our wellbeing.

Knowing your emotions gives you clarity about what’s happening to you. Have you ever listened to a friend who sounds upset and can’t really figure out what’s going on? As you listen, it may seem clear that she’s actually sad. Once you point it out, it’ll make sense, and she’ll likely begin to relax more. Identifying your feelings—and making that process a part of everyday life—will help you make sense of your experiences.
So why aren’t we better at this? I think it’s because we’ve often been taught that emotions are not valuable. They’re seen as disruptive or even bad. Or we’ve had the experience of being dismissed as being “too emotional.” No one wants to be seen as irrational or not taken seriously. Many girls shy away from expressing their emotions because they get criticized for being “over-emotional” or “a drama queen.” Of course, boys get this message, often even more harshly. When they’re expressing normal emotions, they’re told to not “act like a girl.”
   
These shaming statements make it harder for everyone to accept their natural emotions. That’s bad, because feelings are an honest barometer of how things are affecting us. We need our feelings to feel whole and take action that’s appropriate to us.

Remember in the AWESOME movie “Inside Out” (see it if you haven’t yet) how Joy keeps confining Sadness to smaller and smaller spaces? She wants to deny Sadness expression. So these feelings keep building until Sadness is so heavy she collapses and Joy has to drag her around. This is what happens when we deny our emotions. They don’t really go away, so they make us heavy, stuck, or come out in unexpected ways. When Joy realizes how important it was to let sadness be in charge for a while, things moved forward.

Here are some ways to get ALL your feelings working for you.

  • Make an inventory of which emotions you might suppress or have learned are “bad.” Do you know someone who handles these emotions well? Let them be a model for you. Observe their behavior and reactions, and think of the small steps you could take to be more like them. You could even talk with them about it.
  • Make a list of ways your feelings affect your physical and emotional health. Keeping emotions bottled up almost always gives us bad symptoms. Have you ever been angry at someone (but you deny it to yourself), only to be sarcastic and mean toward them at another time? Hidden feelings often seep out when we least expect it. Remember how Riley in “Inside Out” hid her unhappiness and ends up stealing money from her parents and running away? Avoiding our feelings often ends up making things worse. We can feel anxious, preoccupied, and less in control. Or our hidden feelings can get stuck in our muscles, giving us tight, aching shoulders, jaw, or back. They might reveal itself in stomach problems or headaches. When we hide our emotions, they get lost to us. Instead of identifying them and then being able to problem-solve a solution, we become ill. 
  • Keep a daily chart with a list of your primary emotions on it. Put a check mark on the emotions you felt that day. Notice and jot down where you sensed the emotion in your body. Ask yourself what the emotion was trying to tell you. Let’s say you tend to avoid conflict and hide your anger. As you gain awareness of when you’re angry, you can then imagine different ways you might handle it. Or you might want to ask someone you trust what she or he might do. Get support and talk it out. You’ll also notice that you feel more courageous and confident. You’ll feel more in control and more powerful.  
  • Remember that ALL your emotions are there to help you—even the ones you think are negative. In the movie, Disgust in her glittery green doesn’t hesitate to say when something’s yucky. It’s important to be alerted when something’s distasteful, but also potentially poisonous or dangerous. Shame is another hard feeling, but being embarrassed about our behavior helps us to know not to do it again.

Remember, too, that the emotions you feel at any given moment aren’t meant to last. They’re temporary, and they’ll change and often disappear when we express them and work with them. Then that will leave us with emotional space to relax, be playful, and happier."


Friday, November 4, 2016

9 Ways To Have a Healthy, Loving Marriage

Image Credit: Business Insider

Recently my son got married. In preparation for the ceremony, he asked if any family members wanted to say something. My answer was yes, but I wasn’t sure what I’d want to say. I thought perhaps I’d read a poem, but nothing I looked at felt right. Then I realized that I’d like to share my reflections about what I thought was important about living your life with each other. How do you nurture the “we- ness’ of a relationship as well as maintain a sense of independence? Both are important and needed. We are not one or the other—we are interdependent. We can’t give over everything to another or we lose ourselves, nor can we focus solely on ourselves or we lose the intimacy of connection. Below are my thoughts on how to lovingly relate and care for one another throughout marriage.
1. Love with abandonArticulate the things that are special about one another. It is a gift to see ourselves reflected positively through another’s eyes.
2. Notice each other’s thoughtful gestures. Comment on them because they build a sense of being valued and appreciated.
3. Perfect your ability to communicate well so you can feel heard. Communication comes from the Latin communicare-to make one. Understanding another’s point of view joins us together.  
4. Accept that misunderstandings happen. You are two different people with different life experiences who won’t always see things the same way. Learn to ignore small annoyances. It’s an act of grace. But if something is truly bothersome, address it quickly so things don’t fester or grow bigger.
5. Be quick to apologize. Take full responsibility for your actions and make amends.
6. Encourage each other to dream big and help one another keep those dreams alive.
7. Nurture your relationship. Give it time and attention. Make space to catch up and connect on a regular basis.   
8. Deepen your intimacy by sharing vulnerabilities so you can experience your relationship as a safe place to be supported and loved.
9. And above all, make your relationship a place of joy. Have fun, create adventures, surprise one another, be silly. Find humor in everyday things. Life is not as serious as we think, so look for the charm in life, be grateful for what you have and cultivate pleasure and ease together.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Facing Your Feelings: How To Overcome The Painful Ones

Image Credit: lifehack.org

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about emotions, and speaking to clients about them. I like to explain that understanding emotions and facing your feelings is important and why it is that we so often neglect them. We’re each different regarding the emotions we’re uncomfortable with, and which ones we’re most likely to deny.

One of my clients is often overwhelmed when she experiences sadness. She’s had this reaction for a long time and works hard to keep feelings of sadness out of her awareness. She’s a master at denial and distraction. But, she’s also self-aware and wants to change. So, our plan is simple. Can she approach this emotion with kindness and acceptance? Can she remember that it is just a feeling? And
can she allow herself to notice how her body feels when sad feelings emerge? If so, can she extend
compassion to herself in that moment. As she’s learned to better tolerate sadness, she can stay more
present.

Here is the story she shared with me the other day in my office. She had just gotten off the phone with her business partner and felt very sad. She wasn’t sure why, but unlike her usual response, which would be to deny this unexpected feeling, she acknowledged it and named it as sadness. She found a quiet place where she could just sit and let happen whatever needed to happen. In a few minutes she began to cry. Then she had an image of being criticized by her mother, and along with this image came the sense of her mother’s disdain. It was a hard insight, but it felt true to her and reflected something she had always sensed. She was not a favored child, and as much as she tried to please her mother, she never could.

No one wants to look at rejection like this, but now as a 40 year old, she had the emotional fortitude to glimpse this reality. As my client allowed herself to stay with her sadness, she realized her business
partner, in their phone conversation, had a dismissive tone with her. And it was this particular tone that had given rise to her sense of sadness. Her business partner was not her mother, and although he could be tough, he was also fair, and they had a good relationship. So while she understood this logically, she also made room for the heavy feelings that weren’t so logical. These feelings were her
unique vulnerability to expressions of dismissive behavior.

We all have vulnerabilities like this. Things hat are particularly hard for us because of childhood hurts, neglect or trauma. What my client did that was different for her was make space for the sad feelings. She was able to feel upset, without being overwhelmed. Equally importantly, she extended compassion to that younger part of herself that had felt hurt and rejected.

Something surprising happened to her after this. Rather than continue to feel sad, she felt the sadness
dissipate. In fact, she reported feeling more energy during the rest of her day. Often we forget that denying emotions takes energy. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re using energy to deny, repress
or divert ourselves. Taking time to be aware of our feelings actually takes less time and preserves our
energy to experience more joy in our lives. When strong feelings happen, it’s always good to pay attention. Feelings are there for a reason.

Here are the steps that will help you stay in touch with your feelings:

  1. Notice your body's reaction
  2. Name the emotion you’re feeling
  3. Accept this emotion as valid
  4. Investigate why the emotion emerged
  5. Extend compassion to yourself

Monday, January 18, 2016

New Study Reveals Children's Spiral Towards Delinquency Can Be Prevented

Another exciting new study showed that teaching "soft" skills to aggressive young children can reduce their chances of becoming involved in criminal trouble in the future. This sounds amazing. It is yet another indication that social and emotional learning can impact lives.  

Photo Credit: Barefoot Social Work

What are "soft" skills? They're those that make us successful in life. Social and emotional skills help us identify and manage our emotions, learn to delay gratification and hold another's point of view in mind. These skills also promote our emotional well being. Without these skills, kids' untamed aggressive behavior will cause disruptive, off-putting responses leaving them ostracized and isolated.  And the lack of these skills could drive them to seek out the company of others with equally aggressive behavior patterns. Neither response pattern is optimal and could leave them unable to generate more adaptive behaviors or find healthier peer networks.

Research studies are showing over and over that social and emotional learning programs deliver positive results. This particular study, directed by Duke researchers, identified 6-year-olds who were labeled aggressive. From ages 6-11 these kids took part in a program that taught social and emotional skills along with academic skills. There were also added support for parents and teachers. Lead researcher, Kenneth Dodge says, "The conclusion that we would make is that these "soft" skills should be emphasized even more in our education system and in our system of socializing children."

There seems to be a growing realization that helping kids become successful adults requires more than academic learning. Teaching them social skills and self control along with academic learning is what leads to lasting success.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

New Study Reveals Life's Disruptions Rattle Boys More Than Girls

Photo Credit: CBS News

A new Northwestern research study found that boys are are more sensitive than girls to disadvantage. It seems that disruptions in their lives have a far greater impact, whether it's a move, a divorce or reduced financial circumstances. This study cites a number of ways in which boys are falling behind more so than girls: fewer boys are graduating from high school, fewer boys attend college, and more of them are likely to have disciplinary problems and learning disabilities.

It's hard to understand why boys react in a more negative manner to disadvantage. There are, of course, multiple variables that could account for this. This study is consistent with earlier studies documenting boys' greater sensitivity to their environment. One of these studies in particular revealed that from birth, boys are more emotionally expressive. They use their bodies to make more gestures and communicate through sounds aimed at engaging others.

So why wouldn't these sensitivities be a plus for boys? These are skills we encourage in children. We want our kids to be attentive, engaged and interactive. Unfortunately, this level of emotional sensitivity runs counter to cultural stereotypes for masculinity. While it is fine for girls to be sensitively in touch with what's happening around them, it's not for boys. A recent interview with Psychologist Ronald Levant revealed that both moms and dads start limiting boys' expression of emotions early on. In fact, for boys, it's more emotional suppression than expression. Social stereotyping for boys means learning to be stoic, self reliant and aggressive. Softer emotions and vulnerability are discouraged. Boys are left to manage their emotions without support and comfort, and when they express vulnerability, they are subject to shame and ridicule. Boys don't cry, boys don't act like sissies, and they definitely don't act like girls. Their range of emotional expression is seriously curtailed. Boys can be competitive and seek leadership roles. They can be angry and even aggressive. We tolerate this and say "Well, boys will be boys." Boys can be boastful and cocky, but not vulnerable, ashamed or sad. Boys can to be protective, but not tender. In other words, according to the cultural stereotype of masculinity, boys only get half of what's available.

While parents can't do much about the prevailing stereotypes, they can counter much of this in their own home. One consistent result of the Northwestern research study is that families who invest more in children are protective for boys. This suggests that perhaps parental guidance can help boys expand what they believe about being male. Here are some ideas for encouraging boys to get comfortable with a full range of emotions:

  1. Help both boys and girls understand that all their feelings are okay. Help them identify their primary emotions. Make a chart of the primary emotions they can refer to and ask each day which feelings they felt.
  2. Counter the attitude that boys need to be strong and unemotional. It takes energy to suppress emotions, and that compressed energy can turn to aggression. Being able to express emotions helps release that energy and produce more positive behavior.
  3. Help boys feel at ease with being vulnerable. Life is full of disappointments, lost opportunities, and misunderstandings. It's important to acknowledge when something upsetting has happened, rather than deny that reality. Being in touch with our hurt, sadness or shame is human. Dealing with these feelings makes us sturdier and able to handle life's ups and downs with greater ease. 
  4. Encourage emotional connection rather than isolation. Boys especially need to know it's okay to seek comfort, support and conversation when things are hard. It is through this kind of sharing that we begin to understand intimacy and trust. And we want boys to establish and build solid relationships with others.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How Childhood Stress Affects Future Health

NPR just reported a new study that points to the importance of helping children name and manage their emotions. The study reported in the Journal of American College of Cardiology found that emotional distress during childhood, even in the absence of high stress during adult years, can increase the risk of developing heart disease and metabolic disorders such as diabetes in adulthood. The data was from a large study tracking 6,714 participants from ages 7-45.   


The surprise in the study was exactly how much these early experiences of childhood stress were linked to future health. I think it's a surprise only in the sense that we discount childhood stress. We tend to minimize childhood stress not believing it has real significance. We say things like, "They'll get over it" or "It wasn't that bad". And we're relieved when kids don't talk about it because we truly hope that all is well. Sometimes this is the case because kids can be resilient. This is especially true of kids who possess easy going temperaments. These kids are able to meet new experience with ease while other kids who are temperamentally reticent or cautious will fare less well with challenging situations.

I've seen many instances with children where early disturbing experiences have lingered, increased or become somatic. Disturbing experiences generate strong emotions, and they affect our body and our behavior. I remember one little girl who was devastated by a harsh remark from a teacher. She developed a school phobia which no one understood because up to that point she had loved going to school. She didn't tell anyone about being upset, but the remark undermined her confidence. Her solution was to avoid school, so that no one would see her incompetence.

Similarly, I saw a young boy whose teachers and parents complained was oppositional. He had a loving home and sympathetic teachers, but his behavior was a puzzle. I soon learned that he had undergone a frightening medical procedure in which he had to be restrained. After his initial hysterial crying, he calmed down and everyone thought he was okay. However, this experience lived in his body and was revealed by his pushing people away and being uncooperative. His trust had been compromised and adults were seen as untrustworthy.  

Another young girl had sustained multiple separations from her mother which were sudden and mysterious. Little had been explained to her, and although she seemed fine, when her mother returned she became clingy, had trouble sleeping and wouldn't let her mother out of her sight.  Her fear of abandonment had surfaced during these separations, and she couldn't tolerate any additional ones.

This study is another reminder of how important it is to take our children's emotions seriously. When you know that something disturbing has happened to your child, make sure to check in and mention the expereince a few different times.  This lets them know that you're aware of them and concerned about their well being. You can state that disappointments and scary experiences are hard for everyone. Normalizing a child's feelings is calming. Haim Ginott, in his classic book Between Parent and Child says, "Strong feelings do not vanish by being banished."