Most of us tend to associate grief with the death of someone we love. Experiencing grief when someone dies is normal and expected. But death is not the only event that may spur grief. Life is really an ongoing series of grief and loss events. Grief can be more subtle and show up in the form of missed opportunities or things unrealized. Weddings and graduations missed, places never visited, grandchildren that may not be in the cards, holidays and get-togethers that won’t look like what we had in mind. The loss of health, a changing body, the inevitable side effects of aging. An unraveling of expectations.
What makes grief and loss feel so uncomfortable?
Maybe what makes it difficult is the letting go of those very expectations we’ve created.
Most people create expectations about how life should look long before these events ever take place in real life. Imagine a young woman in her early twenties planning her wedding before she’s engaged. The children she will have, what they will look like and what they’ll be when they grow up. But life happens. Divorce. Changed minds. Chances not taken. Unexpected game changers. Those life circumstances that are out of our control cut a hole in our storybook.
We’re often left with a gap between the expectations we had and the new reality. This is grief…that trough that lies between how we always thought it would be and how it is now.
The grieving process may be the time our minds need to climb out of the trough to the other side….to the new reality…to acceptance. It’s not usually something that happens overnight. Not after years of planning on our lives looking a certain way.
How has grief or loss showed up subtly in your life?
Sometimes life is like a difficult yoga move and you just have to breathe your way through the pose.
Twisting. Wrapping. Forcing.
Freaking out while trying to get somewhere stupid, like touching your nose to your shin, never made anything better. The idea of yoga, as I’ve experienced it, is to simply breathe deeply and be aware of what’s going on. Having anxiety that I will tumble over while balancing on one leg, with arms flailed out to the sides like wings, isn’t going to help me with my balance. Thinking about the next pose while being off-balance in the current pose isn’t going to make me more balanced in the next pose, either. Anxiety and getting lost in the thought of the next move causes more anxiety and imbalance in the present pose. By the way, making a face and having an attitude…also not helpful.
Same holds true when we approach stressful situations in our lives. Sometimes, all that’s required is backing off a little. Getting focused and having some grit to move further into tough situations with grace is a better option.
Why is it so hard sometimes to calmly deal with what’s in front of us?
Habit, what we’ve been taught or experienced, fear, shame, self-doubt, or ego. Defense mechanisms.
I’ve never seen a situation improved by overdoing anything, forcefully trying to get ahead, showing off or getting aggressive. But we all do it and see others doing this every day. Everything is pretty awesome but we’re bent out of shape because of our own twistedness.
One of my favorite things about yoga is drishti, or “focused gaze.” Throughout the poses it isn’t necessary to glance around and see what other people are doing for comparison because the focused gaze is generally off the tip of the nose. All you need is awareness of the poses and then try to land somewhere between giving up and over-doing. When someone brings ego into yoga class, she may think others are watching and that her classmates care how skilled she is. (We don’t).These are the people doing a random backbend while the rest of us are in downward dog with brittle shaking arms. It’s nice to be in your own space and breathe. It’s a space of minding our own business with awareness and a side effect of strength building.
Something to try: The next time a difficult emotion shows up, try letting the emotion show up and simply be curious about it. Most of us immediately react when an unpleasant emotion shows up. We label the emotion “unpleasant.” Notice what fear (or anger or sadness) feel like in your physical body. What color and shape is the emotion? What’s it like to just sit with the emotion without taking it, or letting it take you, on a ride?
“I feel sad.” “I feel angry.” “I feel scared…” “This is what it’s like to feel _____________.” Sit with this for at least 5 minutes without blaming others or outside events for your feelings and without having self-judgment. Notice what happens.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain
Rotten chinaberries were plentiful where I grew up. My aunt had a chinaberry tree in her yard. Fragrant purple flowers would drape from the tree each spring. So would clusters of chinaberries. Ornaments, as they’re called, from a tree that had made its way to the United States in the late 1800s from India and China. The soaptree. The berries can be mashed and mixed with water to create a laundry soap for clothing.
Eventually, the berries would release from the tree and scatter about the yard. After days of heat, rain and humid temperatures, the berries rot. As kids, we’d pick the berries from the yard and throw them in a pail for later use. Girls against the boys. Ammunition. Organic pellets.
Walnuts made good ammunition, too, but chinaberries were surprisingly effective. They’d give a walnut a run for its money any day. Walnuts were harder to come by. They didn’t have as far of a reach, were less dependable and wobbly when thrown at your target. Chinaberries would sting. They’d leave a welt. The rotted ones also had the added bonus of stink. The stink factor alone made for extraordinary psychological warfare preceding any physical contact with the skin.
We’d tricked our young minds into thinking that a fun way to pass a summertime morning was to climb on top of my uncle’s storage shed and throw chinaberries at the boys.
I wanted to get along with everyone. Seemed like a waste of time and energy to fight when we could just play and have fun. We could have been sipping sugar-laden Kool-Aid or swimming somewhere. Listening to music, riding bikes or exploring some forbidden territory near the creek. But instead, it was often full-on violent chinaberry wars.
When someone is throwing chinaberries at you, you have three choices: retreat from enemy forces, attack and throw back or surrender and be pummeled with berries. There’s really no good option. The best option is for no one to be throwing chinaberries in the first place.
Stop the crazy cycle
Couples come into therapy throwing chinaberries at one another and then wonder why their spouses are retreating, attacking or have given up! Most couples have good intentions. They’re looking for energy, joy, spontaneity, passion and companionship. Some desire a higher level of intimacy on an emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual level. At the very least, some couples are just trying to survive and get what they think they need. When we don’t get what we want from someone else, we may get confused or angry and attack.
You will never criticize your way to closeness.
Throwing chinaberries at your spouse leaves everyone with emotional welt marks. The psychological stink of shame, blame and behaving like a victim create unproductive arguments and acting out.
Instead of throwing berries, you might ask yourself what it is you’re really trying to accomplish. If what you’re after is validation, love, closeness, passion and connectedness, you’re not going to get it by attacking your spouse or by shutting down and hiding from emotions, either.
Take the focus (blaming/being a victim) off of your spouse and spend some time with yourself. What’s your part in it? Could it be that what you “want” from your partner is something you’ve been afraid to give yourself? When is the first time you felt this “want” missing from your life? Chances are, if you dig deep, you’ve felt this way long before meeting your partner.
Inspire your spouse to connect instead of attacking your spouse for not connecting. Learning constructive and healthy ways of experiencing and expressing your emotions will help with this. It’s difficult to understand another’s point of view if you don’t understand how you developed your own.
As an adult, another person can’t create your emotions and behaviors.
Set the bucket of chinaberries aside
Stop blaming. Stop chasing. Stop avoiding. Stop retreating. If this sounds foreign, understanding your own internal emotional world can lead you to becoming an insightful and emotionally safe person instead of an emotionally reactive person.
My mother and I were sitting at a table in an Italian restaurant waiting for our order. I noticed the plant sitting up just inches to the left of my head. Perched in a nook in the wall. Dividing our table from the one on the opposite side from us.
“Is that plant real?” I asked my mother. “Not sure,” she replied.
I touched the leaf to see if there was any indication of life. The leaf felt waxy. The plant looked vibrant. Bright green leaves. Symmetrical. Cheerful. Friendly.
There was my answer. No tiny little brown edges on the green leaves. No drooping or discolorations. No signs of new life or tiny buds. No shriveled blooms on their way out. No dirt. No fallen pieces surrounding the pot. No stains on the wooden wall from the occasional over-watering. It was a fake.
Natural things aren’t supposed to be perfect. People aren’t supposed to be perfect.
Have you ever noticed that the most interesting people have some quality of depth about them? A depth that stems from some type of imperfection? Stories they share are interesting because there is always something to learn. Something to take from the conversations about past mistakes, unexpected mishaps, an adventure gone awry, a left turn when it should have been a right, a figuring out of things when all was stacked against them.
The world can be superficial. Full of people trying to capture a feeling by buying things. Full of confused middle-aged people relentlessly trying to smooth and correct. Neighbors who spend thousands to convert their patio into a mini-Tuscany. Conversations feel more like a networking event leaving me wondering who this or that person really is? Shallow. Boring.
I recently found some childhood photos of my grandparents’ property. I was taken with how beautiful it was. Unspoiled. Cows roaming in the background. Barbed-wire fence behind the house. Green grass and dirt patches mowed without any fancy borders or edging. Watered by rain. An enormous sweet gum tree where we’d painfully find the “fruit” with our bare feet in the front yard. Sticker-burs. Painful and imperfect.
There is such beauty in natural surroundings. Strength, wisdom, empathy and understanding are the rewards of accepting thorny imperfections. More beauty in the perceived defects than in the contrived.
Having depth requires leaving the surface of the water. Maybe leaving those points near the surface is too frightening for some. But all of the good stuff happens deep beneath. The most profound experiences happen after diving in.
It’s tough being an adult. We all spend our lifetimes trying to become one, no matter what age. In couples’ therapy, people show up for a variety of reasons. In the early stages of therapy, couples tend to focus their energy on the other person’s faults. One or both people have to be woken from this dream of, “If only my spouse would__________, then we wouldn’t be here.”
Criticism, resentment and victim stories ruin relationships. The more energy one focuses on someone else’s faults, the more distance gets created, resulting in more criticism, resentment…and more unwanted distance.
Whatever we put our time and attention into will flourish. Whatever we neglect, avoid, ignore or criticize, will, at best, remain the same, but most often, withers and dies. Most couples in therapy for affair recovery discover that when they focus their attention and energy on their spouse, their relationship not only turns around, but often, flourishes. Two relationships cannot be maintained if one of those relationships is meant to be a committed one. Splitting energy between a triangle of three people leaves everyone hurting and deprived.
All of us have to tackle tough issues if we want to experience mature, deeply satisfying relationships. Focusing energy, whether consciously or not, among superficial habits won’t get you there. Having guts will. It takes guts to face problems. Sure, anyone can numb out or have an affair, avoid, and pretend; but it takes guts to face a situation that isn’t working and have a mature conversation about it.
Couples who can’t find the courage to resolve their issues, (which began long before they even met), may decide to divorce and remarry, while continuing to feel like they were victimized in the previous marriage. The sad reality is that most find themselves in a very similar situation only with a new partner. (An exception here is if one person has been working hard in therapy but has an unworkable partner).
Some important questions to ask yourself:
What would you like to experience in your relationship?
What have you been doing to create those experiences?
Dating with new eyes for those who want a long term monogamous relationship.
Give it time
Probably the number one, most helpful thing you can do,when dating and you’re trying to decide if the person you are dating is someone you want to spend the rest of your life with is to give it time. Time is essential. In the beginning of relationships, most people go through what we call an enmeshment phase where you feel really bonded with the other person. This feels really good but it can also interfere with good decision making. You may not really be seeing who the other person is when you’re caught up in the newness of the relationship. What’s interesting is that sometimes, it may not even be all that great because the other person is honest enough to tell you– “this is who I am, and I don’t have a very good track record and these are my tendencies, these are the things that I like to do and these are my habits, and I’m not interested in working on these things or changing anything about myself”—but during enmeshment–you won’t hear it. Then 5 years down the road, you’ll think the person has changed, but really haven’t. You just weren’t willing to see or hear what was there from the very beginning .
Take time to know yourself and understand yourself. There is no such thing as ” the one.” Believing that there is “the one” somewhere out there and that you’ll be “complete” person when you meet your “soul mate” just slows down your own self-work.
Do you know how your family of origin shaped you? Are you really familiar with your own tendencies? If you are, that’s great. Do you know how to manage your tendencies in a healthy way within a relationship? If you have some fear of rejection or abandonment issues, and you know this, that’s great. Do you know how this impacts relationships that you tend to get into? Are you familiar with shame and how this affects your ability to connect with others?
Your first and primary relationship is the one you have with yourself. If you have a list of qualifiers that you want your potential partner to have, maybe check in with yourself and see if you have those qualities first. Develop the qualities in yourself before seeking those qualities in others. Are you insightful enough to offer the person you are dating reasons that your past relationships didn’t work out? If you don’t understand why past relationships didn’t work out or you tend to put the blame on your ex partners, then you’ll repeat your old patterns without this insight.
Self-differentiation is the ability to separate your own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family (Bowen, Family Systems Theory). If you didn’t learn this in your family (hardly anyone does), then you won’t relate this way in a romantic relationship either.
Are you codependent? Do you look for someone else to rescue you and resolve your issues? It can feel good to have someone come swooping in and rescue you but other people aren’t here to fix us or rescue us from what are essentially unresolved childhood issues. You can learn to take responsibility for your behavior and make healthy changes. Focusing on developing healthy self-esteem, taking responsibility for your own feelings, and working through past disappointments will go a long way tot help you self-differentiate.
On the flip side, are you counterdependent? Do you try to resolve others’ issues for them but then get accused of not doing enough? Counterdependents tend to be love avoidants. You probably attract needy partners. If you want a somewhat balanced, healthy relationship, then watch out for needy, dependent, hurt rabbits. Instead, investigate why you have the tendency to be attracted to those who need rescuing. Counterdependents rescue and run. You can learn to not be love avoidant by engaging in more emotionally intimate, vulnerable dialogue and behavior when your tendency is cut-off or shut down.
Get to know the person you are dating (and get to know yourself)
A very important question you can ask someone who you’ve been dating for a while and you’re considering a more serious, long term relationship with, is:
In what areas do you see yourself wanting to make some improvements? Looking back, how do you think you could’ve handled a past relationship differently for a better outcome?
If the person looks at you with a blank stare or gets defensive or puts all the blame on another person, you better run like Sea Biscuit, because this isn’t indicative of someone who is emotionally developed. This isn’t a person who knows him or herself or really understands their own core issues. If the person seems open and motivated for personal growth, that’s different. You want a long term partner to be motivated, open and humbled enough to create a heartfelt, deep connection. Healthy self-esteem isn’t grandiose.
Don’t be paranoid, but do be aware of personality disorders. One of the best and simplest books on recognizing personality disorders is by Gordon Livingston and it’s called, How to Love. This is an excellent guide on choosing wisely.
Side note: Ask yourself the same questions above and be willing to share how you’ve changed and grown. Are you motivated to do your own personal work?
When someone tells you who they are, believe them
If someone is telling you and showing you who they are, believe them. You don’t have to get mad about it. Be thankful that someone shows you who they are early on while you’re dating, or that you recognized it and be grateful that you found out before getting into a more long term relationship. Ask yourself, what is it about you that attracted you to this person? There’s always an opportunity to learn something more about yourself.
No matter how badly you think getting married or having children will cause someone’s character to change, it won’t. Byron Katie has been quoted as saying: If you want reality to be different than what it is, you might as well try to teach a cat to bark. If you try to teach a cat to bark, and it inevitably doesn’t, because it’s a cat and cat’s don’t bark, and then you get mad at the cat, just know that this isn’t the cat’s fault. The cat is being a cat.
If you’re dating someone and they tell you that they don’t want to stay in one place very long and they like to travel for work, or they don’t want to get married or whatever…and you want to be with someone who works locally because you want to get married and raise a family, listen to what the other person is telling you. It’s not about your worth if someone else has a different view of what will be fulfilling for them. There is also an opportunity for you to investigate why it is, for example, you tend to be attracted to someone who needs space or distance when you don’t. This goes back to really understanding your family of origin and how your experiences a long time ago affect your choices in dating.
Why do I choose who I choose?
You’d think it would go without saying, but ask yourself questions about what attracts you to another. If you’re unfamilar with the theory that we marry our childhood issues, then invest some time in therapy understanding how your family influences your choices in romantic relationhips. Being good-looking isn’t enough. Attraction is definitely important and necessary, but if you can’t get past the superficial and can’t come up with any other qualities that attract you to someone else besides good looks, then this is a big red flag, if you are ultimately wanting a long term relationship with this person. Because, if we’re lucky we’re going to get old, and good looks will fade, and you’ll want qualities that are more than skin deep.
Dating smart is really about becoming a whole healthy person. You could ask yourself this question: Would I want to date me? If not, then why not? There’s your starting point.
This is the time of year where gratitude gets a lot of attention. It’s nice to have a holiday that’s based in acknowledging all that we’ve received. As Thanksgiving comes and goes and life happens, it may be difficult to maintain that mindset of gratitude. I’ve been reading a book titled, The Upward Spiral, by Alex Korb. Korb does a great job of explaining neuroscience and depression including some very practical things we can all do to increase our happiness and well-being,
I hope some of this information will help inspire you to have a mindset of gratitude throughout the year.
Before I talk about some of the benefits of being grateful, you might have wondered what to do if you have a hard time getting into a space where you can begin a gratitude practice. Research has shown that identifying your emotions that are causing you to feel down will help. In other words, give your emotions a name. Feeling frustrated or sad or anxious? Say it. When you’re overwhelmed with ill feelings, simply stating what it is you’re feeling will keep the emotion from lingering around…sort of like family members during a holiday visit at the Griswolds. : )
In other words, the negative feelings get processed faster when you name them. The amygdala in your brain, where emotional reactivity occurs, will be less likely to get hijacked if you name your emotions. An amygdala hijack during the holidays will not be pretty. If this sounds too simple or stupid, research shows that while suppressing emotions may give the appearance that all is good on the outside, your limbic system is as aroused and sometimes more aroused than if you hadn’t suppressed the emotion. Your limbic system controls your basic emotions like fear, anger, pleasure. Suppressing emotions will potentially make you more reactive. This doesn’t mean that you need to be reactive, yell or scream to express your emotions. It simply means that you just name the emotion you’re feeling without getting reactive and this will help process what you’re feeling so that your brain doesn’t get hijacked. and you can get back to the thinking part of your brain.
Getting back to developing a gratitude practice…
What happens inside your brain when you’re grateful? A really interesting fact—when you’re scanning your brain for things that you’re thankful for, then you’re automatically targeting or putting a spotlight on the positive things in your life. When you do this, your serotonin increases. How cool is that? A natural way to increase your serotonin levels without a pill or spending any money. Serotonin is a chemical in your brain that is linked to feeling good and living longer.
If you’re truly stuck, because you’ve experienced some extra tough times or setbacks and you can’t come up with anything to be grateful for..it doesn’t matter. Just the act of scanning your brain for things to be grateful for still increases serotonin even if you can’t think of one single thing to be grateful for. It’s the act of searching that increases serotonin.
Another interesting thing about being grateful on a regular basis is that over time, your brain will change in such a way that being grateful will take less effort.
If you want to develop a gratitude practice, you might start by writing down three things you’re grateful for every morning when you wake up or every evening before you go to sleep. Or you can make it a habit when arrive at work each day to think of three things you appreciate about your life.
If you want to get the ball rolling and you want to increase your feel good chemicals, you’re welcome to list some things you’re grateful for in the comments here. I’ll leave the name of the reference I used for the majority of the information discussed here below this post.
If it’s happiness that you’re after, then the answer is yes, according to the latest brain research! As it turns out, money does buy happiness, but only if it’s spent on others. Spending money on others will make you feel happier. Spending money on yourself won’t make you feel happier. Spending money on yourself won’t decrease your happiness, either…it just doesn’t do anything to make you feel better. Yet, it’s a material society we live in with so many people buying things for themselves in an effort to increase self-esteem, compete, and out-do everyone else. Nothing wrong with buying things for yourself. Just know that you will be disappointed if you think it will make you feel happier and science now supports this.
But doesn’t having more material items increase happiness?
Nope. Past having your basic resources covered, having an increase in material items doesn’t increase your happiness level. Although, not having your basic resources covered and living in poverty will decrease happiness. Some people, who are able to pay their bills and have basic resources, may waste time trying to figure out how to become rich quick because they believe this will make them happier. The desire for overnight success, joining all sorts of multi-level marketing scams and seeking ways to get rich quick is popular because of this belief.
But what about my trust-funder friends? Aren’t they happier than me?
Quick note about those who have unearned “success.” This actually leads to unhappiness. If your trust funder friends are happier than you, then it’s not necessarily because of the trust fund.
Where do I begin to find happiness?
According to one happiness researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, happiness is found where you have a medium skill set and you are challenged to use those skills. Csikszentmihalyi calls this “flow.” People become stressed because they confuse success with biting off more than they can chew yet do not possess the skills or experience to get the job done, resulting in anxiety. Many of us have to go through this phase when we are brand new on the job. It can feel like being thrown to the wolves when you are inexperienced and the job calls for more skill than you’ve had time to acquire. After gaining experience, our skill set increases and our anxiety level generally decreases. If you find yourself with high anxiety on the job, is it because you really need more experience and skills? If so, seek out ways to increase your skill set and find a mentor with more experience and knowledge.
With a medium (instead of low skill set), you can start enjoying your work and get into flow. Enjoying your work will give you more happiness.
On the other side, those with experience and skills that surpass the job at hand may underachieve, feel anxious or bored, or chronically dissatisfied, leading to other destructive behaviors. Some of the more common destructive behaviors I see in clients are the use of drugs, alcohol, sex, affairs, and porn addiction without motivation to gain any real insight. Immaturity and a sense of entitlement combined with the numbing behaviors above often leads to blaming others for their own unhappiness.
But if people would just act right, wouldn’t I be better off?
I love this one. Let’s be clear: People don’t act right. I’ve started using the acronym: P-DAR. People don’t and won’t ever act “right” or according to you standard of what “right” may be. Funny enough, you are the person who isn’t in line with someone else’s standards, even if you aren’t aware of this.
Control of the outside world is temporary and illusory. The more arrogant we are, the more negativity enters our minds and the more miserable we feel. It can actually be a relief to know that people don’t act right and accept that we don’t have the capability to control others.
“We try to fix the outside so much, but our control of the outer world is limited, temporary, and often, illusory.” -Matthieu Ricard
If you truly feel upset with certain behaviors in this world, then volunteering or putting effort towards the injustices you see will go a lot farther toward change than complaining to your family, ranting on Facebook or trolling on social media.
Bottom line: it is a delusion that other people need to behave a certain way for you to feel happy. If you hold the belief that others need to act a certain way for you to feel happy, then you won’t feel happy.
Exercise & Nutrition
Exercise affects the chemicals in your brain in such a way that it wards off depression, improves mood, decreases anxiety and prevents a plethora of medical conditions. Good nutrition will provide you with “phyto”-chemicals that “fight” off disease. Sure, you can decrease calories to a certain number per day and lose weight, but the foods you choose to eat can be like preventative medicine.
Feel Good Brain Chemicals
Being grateful increases serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is a feel-good chemical in your brain. Even if you scan your brain for things to be grateful for and can’t think of anything, serotonin still increases. It is the act of searching your brain for things to be grateful for that increases serotonin.