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.
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.
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.
I was in the dressing room at Macy’s where I had the very entertaining opportunity to listen to my “neighbors” trying on clothing in the dressing room next to me: Mom and her pre-teen daughter.
It was a busy day so the mom-daughter duo were sharing a dressing room. The mother was quickly approving and veto-ing clothing that her daughter was trying on. At one point, the mother tells her daughter, “Uhm. No. It looks like your selling something you don’t have.” The daughter didn’t respond.
I’m not sure she comprehended what her mother was saying, exactly. But mom definitely had a point. It must be a challenge to find clothing for pre-teen girls, little girls or adolescent girls these days. Especially, if mothers are developmentally confused, themselves. The boundaries are blurred between clothing for women and girls. I see mothers dressing like their five year old daughters and 5 year old daughters being dressed like much older women.
Sexualization of women occurs on a spectrum from sexual violence to sexualized evaluation. Sexualized evaluation is often subtle and gets played out through, “gaze.” One of my friends calls it, “the scan.” What’s fascinating about “gaze” is that women have no control over being gazed at, yet, as many feminist theorists have argued, the majority of women take on the view point of the “gazer” about themselves! Over time, girls and women internalize the observer’s perspective and begin to view themselves as objects. This is self-objectification.
What are the consequences of self-objectification?
Shame: having a negative opinion of yourself while also fearing being judged in a social context. Shame is a moral or social emotion. It’s the feeling that one doesn’t measure up to some social ideal. It’s the belief that you are responsible for someone else’s opinions or feelings.
It’s quite confusing for women because success in relationships and work have been shown to be evaluated by physical appearance. Research tells us that “beautiful” women have more power in our society. Women are caught in this push-pull of needing to be attractive in order to achieve, yet feel shame when not meeting the over-idealized images we’re exposed to in the media, day after day.
Anxiety: Appearance anxiety. Studies show that women experience more appearance anxiety than men. Women have anxiety about their appearances because they don’t know when their bodies will be judged and evaluated. Then, in a very subtle way, we internalize those judgments of others.
Eating disorders: anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Women make up about 90% of this population.
Not to mention, every time a sexualized woman is viewed by others, the perception of all women are unfavorable by the viewers. This is called the spillover effect. Even when the non-sexualized woman is modestly dressed. Great! : (
There is no arguing that there is a pre-occupation with the appearance of women in American culture. This is a form of outside validation or relying on someone else’s opinion of your appearance in order to gain self-worth. Our society is so far into this mode of validation that it’s doubtful that we’ll turn it around; but, we can still be aware of what we teach young girls (and boys)!
Some mothers confuse letting their daughters wear skimpy clothes with power, freedom and women’s lib. It’s none of those things if you look at any piece of research. Many have to learn the hard way, though. Girls are becoming depressed, have no sense of self-worth beyond the next cute outfit and fall behind in academics. Does this sound like a good start to having a healthy, successful satisfying life?
Sometimes, I get frustrated because our critical thinking skills are quickly being replaced with cleavage. Then parents want to bring their young daughters in for therapy sessions because they are depressed, anxious, have eating disorders and are generally lost.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I’d prefer parents come in for therapy (instead of their children). We have an enormous opportunity to help boys and girls develop healthy self-concepts and respectful, healthy views of one another. When men and women don’t have healthy self-concepts or healthy, respectful views of others, we can’t expect that our children will either. At the very least, we need to teach our children how to have conversations about healthy sexuality. This won’t make sense to them without parents placing a focus on helping children develop a solid sense of self.