Check out her post This is Why I’ll never be a grown up and be gentle on yourself today!
Holidays can be the most wonderful time of the year but they can also be the most difficult. There is something about the message that this particular time should be full of joy that can create a lot more pressure for people who aren’t feeling particularly joyful for various reasons. One of the keys to getting through it is to remember that, in fact, you are not alone in feeling this way. Many people are suffering from sickness or depression, are dealing with being separated from loved ones, or coping with personal challenges or financial issues that are overwhelming.
Even if you are lucky enough to be surrounded by loved ones, ironically, this season of cheer and goodwill to all men is the time of year that families and couples fight the most. There is nothing quite like an extended period of time in an enclosed space with your nearest and dearest to push your biggest buttons and, when you add alcohol to the mix, things predictably go downhill.
Being single during the holidays is arguably worse than being part of a fighting couple: For some reason, being unwillingly single for the holidays sucks even more than on Valentine’s day, presumably because you at least have a fighting chance at ignoring the existence of the latter.
All this pales in comparison to how hard it is to get through the holidays when you are mourning a loved one. It is particularly painful, not just because it is a time full of memories, but because everywhere you turn, the message is that this is the time to be together with loved ones. The joy that the rest of the world seems to be experiencing can make those burdened by grief feel particularly isolated.
The most important survival skill at this time of year is to give yourself permission to have the feelings you are having. Stop telling yourself that you ought to be feeling differently just because the calendar is on this particular page. It is hard enough to deal with difficult feelings without heaping guilt and shame on top of them. Quit Should-ing yourself. Expectations are 99% of the cause of all suffering. Give up the expectation that you should be feeling or reacting any differently to the way that you are. At a minimum, accept that the reality is this is how you are feeling. Even better, show yourself a little compassion and respect the fact that if you had a choice, you wouldn’t choose to be feeling like this.
Step 2 is to imagine yourself as someone else that you care about and think about how you would treat them if they were feeling this way. Perhaps you would be a little more patient? Give them a break? Give them permission to curl up under the covers until they felt stronger? Everyone is unique and we all have different things that make us feel better – and crucially for some people, the most important thing is simply having permission not to feel better until we do. Sometimes it takes a heck of a lot more time and energy to try to stop yourself having a feeling than to let it run it’s course. Sometimes, little things can help a lot. Be brave and ask for help. If that’s too much or there doesn’t seem to be anyone available, come up with a short list of things you can do for yourself that might help. Maybe it’s going to the movies and escaping reality for a while, finding someone to talk to, getting some exercise, making yourself some nourishing food.
Step 3 is to remember that practicing gratitude can be a very helpful aid. Sometimes, even coming up with a list of things to be grateful for is a major challenge (click for a link to a post on some suggestions to get started). If that’s the case, try an appreciation list instead. When all seems lost, sometimes it helps to focus on appreciation for the things we have experienced, the ability to feel, the breath that still carries hope that there will be a better moment ahead. If these holidays are hard for you, I truly hope something here will be helpful. Please remember that you are not alone and that everything changes. This too shall pass, I promise. I wish you peace in your heart.
Do you remember being a kid thinking you couldn’t wait to be a grown up? Longing for the day when school would be over and no-one would be telling you when to go to bed or that you had to eat your greens. Didn’t it all look like so much more fun from that height?
I distinctly remember the feeling of shock when I finally realized that growing up didn’t involve some magical moment of transformation. The sheer disbelief that adults were actually just children who had become really, really old. Admittedly, with some people it was harder to believe than others.
Yet the truth is that inside every grown up personality you’ll find an inner child, perfectly preserved. The facets of our identity that were forged in our early years dictate much of how we operate in the world.
Whether we are conscious of them or not, our inner child has a lot to do with both our strengths and weaknesses. For example, the amount of praise versus criticism you experienced as a child has a lot to do with your self-esteem as an adult.
Many people survive an emotionally abusive childhood only to grow up and continue to bully themselves with internalized negative messages. Are you guilty of this? Here’s a quick test, would you ever speak to a child the way you speak to yourself?
Regardless of how your childhood was, you can do a better job of parenting your inner child. Here are some tips to start you off.
1) Find safe people to comfort you when you are feeling little
2) If you don’t have healthy relationships with your relatives, create family for yourself from friends
3) Sleep is important, naps can change everything
4) Don’t over-schedule yourself, start the day slowly and gently
5) Schedule more play-dates for yourself
6) Make time for art or music or other creative expression
7) Structure is comforting, create routines that nurture you
8) Too much sugar (or fill in the blank) is a bad idea
9) Play outside – your inner child likes fresh air, rediscover your sense of adventure
10) Be silly and laugh often
Get the idea? How many more can you come up with? Above all, be gentle with yourself. Don’t make me come down there.
Announcing the Practical Enlightenment series: for which I invite you to get your big girl (or boy) panties on and grab a flashlight as we dive under the bed of your subconscious to confront and conquer the monsters lurking there.
Over the years, I have discovered that trying not to feel certain feelings consumes an enormous amount of energy. My personal theory is that it also contributes to depression, stress and even ill health (a.k.a. dis-ease): In the pursuit of avoidance, it is easy to fall victim to unhealthy coping techniques such as over-eating to “stuff down” feelings, overindulging in the consumption of alcohol or – fill in the blank with the compulsive escapist activity of your choice.
What I’d like to suggest is that you join me in exploring a whole new approach to the feelings you’d most like to avoid. Instead of denying our undesirable thoughts and feelings, we will summon up some courage and turn towards them armed with an invincible mixture of Compassion and Curiosity.
Self-compassion is very helpful in this kind of personal healing work – beating yourself up is such a futile exercise. Self-criticism is a form of stagnation, continually bemoaning the problem and stating that it shouldn’t exist does nothing to alleviate the situation. Your time and energy is far better spent in getting past your opinions about whether things ought to be different, accepting the reality you are facing and moving on into solution-seeking. When you replace critical self-condemnation with an attitude of slight detachment and curiosity, you may be very surprised at how much progress you can make in a very short amount of time to heal patterns that have dogged you for years.
To continue on the theme of how what goes on in your head affects your health, today I want to discuss the subject of how you talk to yourself. Before, you start to hotly deny the completely unfounded rumors about your tenuous hold on sanity, allow me to clarify; I am not talking about the ‘out-loud discussions with people that everyone else can’t see’ kind of talking to yourself. I am referring to what is commonly referred to as “self-talk”, ie the running conversation you have with your self (or selves) in the privacy of your own mind.
I’d like to ask you to stop for a moment and attempt an objective analysis of your inner monologue. First of all, leaving aside the content, what is the tone of voice you most often use with yourself? Is it exasperated or encouraging? Is it anxious or appreciative? Critical or grateful? Does this remind you of anyone in your life? Secondly, take a piece of paper and a pen – or pull up a blank doc on your keyboard, and thinking of the past few weeks, jot down the phrases or thoughts that you have most often had about yourself.
What have you got? Is this the voice of a mentor or a meanie? Without passing any emotional judgement, let’s take a pragmatic look at this. Being the world expert on yourself, what would you consider the most effective or productive method of motivation for yourself. Do you respond best to praise, nurturing and encouragement or a drill-sergeant style of humiliation and strict discipline? You are undeniably the boss of you. So how would you rate your current management style? Would you let someone you loved be treated like this?
Thinking about your personal and professional goals for a second, doesn’t it make sense to speak to yourself in the most effective way to motivate yourself to reach them? How do you talk to yourself?
In spite of the fact that many people tend to live as if their head and body are two distinct entities, there is, in fact, a great deal of kosher clinical research to back up the notion that what goes on in your head has a tangible effect on your body. Evidence continues to accumulate in favor of the idea that psychology affects biology. In other words, what you think will affect your physical state of health.
Your mental and emotional reaction to stress – and by that I mean any experience, real or imagined, that you would rather avoid, triggers an internal alarm system that activates a host of physiological events that tax the body and reduce the capacity of the immune system. Mood swings, headaches and migraines, digestive problems, trouble sleeping, more frequent episodes of illness, such as colds or flu, and lack of energy and fatigue are commonly reported among people under stress. Other adverse health effects attributed to exposure to stress include increased blood pressure, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases and accelerated aging. Chronic stress may lead to damage of the receptors of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that helps interpret whether an experience is good or bad, which has been linked to depression which has been proven to increase the risk of heart disease and other serious physical ailments.
Seems obvious that the easy answer is to immediately eliminate all stress from your life. Back on planet reality however, the good news is that in recent years, scientists have also come to the same conclusion that the yogis have known for a couple of millennia; that you have, in the space between your ears, a powerful mechanism with which you can improve not just your emotional well-being but your your physical health too. The literature on happiness, optimism, and behavioral therapy techniques designed to re-frame negative thoughts continues to grow exponentially as new discoveries are made regarding the connection between positive mental outlook and physical and emotional health.
What this means to you, is that by learning ways to control your emotions, you can protect your physical body from the damaging effects of stress which occur when our habitual fear or anger reactions trigger the “fight or flight” response – and begins that chain reaction of chemical events.
According to studies by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, subjects studying meditation for periods of at least 8 weeks and longer in order to measure the effects of mindfulness based meditation practices on chronic pain and anxiety disorders yielded significant findings. Chronic pain subjects demonstrated a decrease in the need to use pain medications; those with anxiety disorders showed a drop in the number and severity of panic attacks, as well as a reduction in scores on depression and anxiety inventory tests up to three years after the initiation of the study. Other research, indicates that meditation reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Meditation has been reported, both in scholarly journals and by word-of-mouth, as an antidote for everything from mood disorders to cardiovascular disease to a heightened sense of compassion and empathy for our fellow man. It seems that there may just be something to all that woo-woo meditation stuff after all.
So the good news is, that regardless of external stress, cultivating a way to a calmer, happier way of being lends itself to a healthier body, and meditation and positive thinking are proven ways to get there. Simple enough, right? Until you actually start to pay attention to what goes on in your un-supervised mind. Scary, isn’t it? My friend Lynnie was fond of saying to me “Stay out of your head, you’ll get mugged in there.” Left to it’s own devices, your mind will tend to fall into a few familiar ruts of repetitive, and often negative, thinking.
Once you start noticing your thoughts, try to avoid spiraling into a vicious cycle of self-criticism and despair as you realize how negative they are and how doomed you are! The good news is, that simply noticing your thoughts is 99% of the battle. This is what they call the development of a ‘witnessing consciousness’. In other words, rather than just being angry – you are able to notice that you are feeling angry.
Once you make this very simple but critical distinction, congratulate yourself! You have just given yourself an unbelievably powerful advantage: by creating the possibility of choice. In the words of Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning which he wrote about his experiences as a concentration camp inmate, it’s “The last of human freedoms – the ability to chose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”
What this means, is that with a little practice, you can develop the ability to change and control your emotions. Yes, you! You can do this, I promise; even if you hate the idea of meditation, can’t sit still and have the attention span of a gnat. I’m here to help.
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