The Reptile Within

As a part time resident of beautiful, swampy, low country on an island in South Carolina, I have frequent encounters with alligators.  During my daily dog walk I pass by two ponds inhabited by these creatures, and they are frequently found sunning themselves on the bank of the pond about 20 feet from me and my dog as I pass by on the leisure path.  Some days they are even closer, and for safety, I am forced to trod through the brush in order to maintain a safe distance.  Because of their nearby habitation, I have educated myself in alligator behavior. The most interesting aspect of alligators, however, is how we humans are like them.  Through evolution, the oldest portion of our human brain, the amygdala, has been passed down to us from our reptilian ancestors.  So the bottom line is, what is the effect of the amygdala?  How many people actually understand the influence of our reptilian brain?  I was just wondering………

Alligators enjoy a fairly uncomplicated existence.  They slip into a pond and swim around when they want to cool off, they bask in the sun on a bank when they want to warm up, they breed at a certain time of year, and they eat, with a plentiful food supply.  They do not think because they do not have consciousness.  They react.  They follow ritualistic patterns of behavior.  They are instinctive and they are neurologically wired to fight or to flee.  Because they are territorial, if another alligator comes into their space, they make a signal that shows the intruder that he is noticed.  If this does not effectively remove the intruder, then a hissing sound may emerge or the alligator may plump himself up in a menacing manner.  This is the brain that we have inherited.  And this part of our brain remains very active within us to this day.  The amygdala is the part of our brain that causes us to react without thinking.  It is the part that causes us to fight or to flee.  It is our amygdala that causes us to feel threatened and to feel the need to protect ourselves and what we perceive as our territory.  In short, while the amygdala does still serve a protective fight or flight purpose, it is the ancient part of the human brain that causes most of our problems today.

When we are faced with a true threat, such as a robbery, a fire, a tornado, or physical harm, our reptilian brains remain a useful asset.  But unfortunately, we have learned to become reactive about perceived emotional insults, and this sets in motion the same kind of reptilian responses, such as hissing, puffing up, and other threatening behaviors.  We have also taken the territorial protectiveness aspect to a new level, so that we react with hate crimes based on our differences. We have expanded the concept of threat to include things that are only emotional, not physical threats to our being.  When we react to emotional threats in the same way we would deal with a physical threat to our lives, we actually create problems.  We have learned to perceive a dirty look or a snub or a smart remark as an act of violence.  And then we respond with the same reptilian response as an alligator, with a fight!  Perhaps in a way they are smarter than we are. Their battles are limited to survival, while ours are often over insults!

So, what can we do about our amygdala brain?  How do we stop its control over our behavior?  The good news is, that unlike the alligator, we have consciousness!  Consciousness is the beautiful aspect of humanness that separates us from all other animals.  Consciousness allows us choices.  In fact, we do not have to react as the alligator.  When not under immediate threat, we can learn to pause to better assess our situation.  We can evaluate the various responses that may be available to us before we chose to react. We can actually decide whether or not a nasty remark is really worth doing battle over.  We can choose to ignore a snub.  We can honor and appreciate our cultural differences instead of fearing that someone different from us is encroaching on our territory to cause us harm.  We can rejoice in all of our glorious manifestations of humanity and learn from one another rather than to fear that which is different.

Our reptilian ancestors can teach is a great deal.  The scary alligator is a good lesson on how not to be scary humans.  Our consciousness allows us to appreciate the beauty of our world, while the alligator just goes through the motions, day after day after day.  Is that how you want to spend your life, going through the motions day after day after day, without thinking?  Without choosing how you really want to behave? Do you actually want to be human or are you content to be ruled by your reptilian brain, the amygdala?  I was just wondering………..

 

 

 

Harnessing The Brain’s Neuroplasticity

Until recently, we believed that the brain formed in early life and that its capacity to grow and learn began to decline thereafter.  Newer research has demonstrated that the brain has an amazing neuroplasticity capacity.  This means that we can learn new, even complicated things late into life.  Because of what we have learned about the brain’s plasticity, we also know that we can unlearn things that were earlier programmed, such as a fear, or even more debilitating, phobias.  It means that if we are right handed, that even as adults we can learn to write with our left hand.  It means that you can change beliefs if you practice reciting opposing ideas.  Think about the possibilities!  Because of what your brain learns from it, your daily environment is a tremendous influence on how you feel about your life.  What would you like to learn, change, or overcome?  I was just wondering……

Let’s start with the concept of fear.  When I was very young, before I went to graduate school, I worked for several years for an airline.  Because I had a fear of flying, { fear of being confined in that space from which I could not escape}, I worked in reservations, not as an attendant.  However, we did receive free trips and I would prep myself with alcohol before flying, one time at 7:00 am to catch an early flight to Miami.  After I left this job and got into the mental health field, I spent many years studying for my advanced degrees during which time I made sure all of my traveling was either by car or by train.  Twenty nine years passed and my husband said he wanted to travel somewhere outside of North America, so we drove to Florida to take our first cruise.  The next year my husband announced that he would meet me in Florida for the next cruise because he was not willing to drive there again.  My flying phobia had grown really severe in all of these years of avoidance, but I knew it was time to face my fear.  So with great trepidation, I made the airline reservations four months before the planned trip and then I began the work to create new cerebral neurons that loved flying.  Twice a week I had long drives for nursing home consulting, and I began each drive by talking out loud to myself about how I loved flying.  I would remind myself of my accomplishments, note that many people fly and enjoy it and if they can do it so can I.  I basically engaged in a pep talk to myself for about 20 minutes.  I am convinced the verbal component is crucial because it prevents the mind from thinking an opposite thought.  Fears become greater because we give them a lot of attention. Every time we remind ourselves we are afraid of something and list the reasons why, we are reinforcing that fear and that thought races over the neural connection already established for it so that it becomes a deep trench in the brain’s neural connections. My verbal practice created a new fear free neural connection in my brain resulting in a fear free flight four months later.  Since then I have flown all over the world without fear.

Another way to empower the brain’s plasticity is to learn something new.  We all do this, of course, but often we allow our learning to decline after our school years and even more often after retirement.  But just like in childhood when we learn to walk, to talk, to ride a bike, etc., we can learn strange new things with practice.  While I was reading Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, I began writing the alphabet and one short sentence once a day for a month with my left hand.  As recommended in the book, I then stopped the practice and 4 months later when I attempted the same exercise, the writing was much improved!  The book explained that it takes some months for the new learning to coalesce and then the result is improvement.  When I broke my right wrist around this time, they handed me papers in the hospital and asked me to sign an X with my left hand.  I astonished the staff when I produced my signature with my left hand!  I highly recommend the Doidge book to anyone who is interested in learning and the brain.

At the same time we must realize that due to this plasticity, our brains are constantly learning from our environments.  Our belief system becomes structured by our surroundings.  Our brains learn not only from what we study and read, but also from what we watch on television and by the company we keep.  Even something as seemingly innocuous as a sitcom may teach us what we come to believe are acceptable norms.  Once our beliefs are formed, it is much harder to challenge them.  It is important to take a moment and try to think outside of the box and wonder about the learning environment of your brain.  Is it getting enough exposure to life enhancing information, or is its learning environment lacking in growth producing ideas and instead, its exposure is too narrow and one sided?  Does your living environment make you think or are you in a non-stimulating routine that does not promote enrichment? Are the people in your inner circle promoting growth and new ideas for you to explore or do they portray life as a struggle, every man for himself? Are they happy or complaining? Without your awareness, your brain is learning every single minute of your day.  You have control over that which you expose to your brain.  Think of your brain as a camera.  You can change its exposure.   Are you content with your daily education?  I was just wondering…………………

 

Look Again

As we welcome the New Year, many of us begin to agonize over the promise of our annual resolutions.  Because we so often fail at them or lose our commitment after a few months, I thought this year it might be fun to try something else.  Look again is a practice of quickly recreating reality.  It is fun, it is challenging, it is creative!  Are you willing to try something new?  I was just wondering…………………

Years ago, as physicists were attempting to perform a double screen experiment with light, trying to determine whether it was a wave or a particle, they became confused and frustrated.  The problem that occurred was that with each attempt to view the true nature of light, they became more confounded, as one time it appeared as a particle and the very next experiment demonstrated it to be a wave.  After a number of experiments, they finally concluded that it depended upon how you looked at it. Even more amazing, when a recorder was set up to observe the experiment, the electrons behaved in a particular way, different than when the recorder was not present.   This has awesome implications for the field of psychology and human behavior.  According to quantum mechanics, this means that consciousness defines how things behave.  So, the way we see the world is just that, the way we see the world, but not necessarily how the world is, because another consciousness (individual) sees it differently.  Also, the perspective and attitude of the viewer shapes the outcome!  We tend to think of reality as an ultimate truth, when in fact what you see is dependent upon how you look at it.  This is one of the reasons I love psychology so much.  There is no absolute reality.  When you have a disagreement with someone, from their perspective, they are right and from your perspective, you are right.  You are both right and you are both not right!  Quantum physics helps us to understand this dilemma, that is, it depends on how you look at it.

Since I first read about this concept I have remained fascinated by it.  I have tried to trace this in my own life.  I have thought myself fickle at times, because I like something, and then I don’t, but then I can see the other side and like it again for another reason.  Ultimately, I think this is a good thing because you become aware that you can always see it in a better way.  And we live by how we experience our lives.  We can be happy, we can be sad.  It depends on how we look at it.

For instance, how do you see your significant other?   I challenge you to look again.  Change your attitude and look once more.  You will learn to see the chameleon you create!  Think about it!  How much of who they are is real and how much is created by your attitude and baggage?

How about the other people in your life?  How do you treat them?  Are you really sure you are responding accurately?  Are you positive the people you don’t like are really as bad as you have concluded?  Can you look again and see them morph into something else?

Think about the things in your life you obsess over.  Do you really know why you are spending your time and energy doing this?  Knowing now more about this law of physics, can you see perhaps that things are not really the way you have been seeing them?  In order to confirm this possibility, all you have to do is to ask a few people what they think and you will get as many different answers as there are respondents!  Some will agree, sort of, wholeheartedly, a little, not at all, but they will be unlike your viewpoint.  Do you really need to hold on to these ideas that cause you distress and worry? Maybe things just aren’t exactly as you have perceived them!  Look for the hopeful and calming perspectives. As quantum physics would say, all the possibilities exist!  Chose a positive view!

Especially important is how you are seeing yourself.  Look again.  Make a list of positives if needed.  Read it every day to remind yourself that these traits exist and then look at yourself again.  Watch yourself improve as you sculpt yourself through your evolving perspective.  As the observer of yourself, you are the creator of the outcome!  That is an incredibly powerful concept!

As you begin to digest your newfound powers to create a more satisfying world by the way you are looking at it, never forget the profound authority you have over your life.  If you are not happy with what you are seeing, remind yourself of the kaleidoscope in your brain, and just shift the contents to create a new vision.  If you don’t like what you see, then shift again.  There is always another view.  Can you see it? I was just wondering……………………

 

 

Thankfulness

As I walked my dogs past Spring Lake recently, I encountered a wheel chair bound fellow basking in the sun, fishing.  I greeted him with a question, “Catch anything?”  He responded with a big smile and said “No,” without any regret, and then he laughed while he added, “It’s a good thing my wife went to the store.”  We began to chat and he informed me that he used to be a coal miner and that is where his accident occurred.  He told me he was 53, but the fact that he was paraplegic didn’t seem to disturb him at all, at least it certainly did not interfere with his ability to enjoy life.  I silently felt sorry for him, that he was unable to walk around the lake like me, that he missed out on so much that I can do that he cannot.  But I slowly began to realize that he may have a secret that I and others could learn from.  He clearly knew how to be thankful!  He was focused on what he could do, and he was definitely enjoying it! So how does a person make this transition from despair to contentment?  I was just wondering……..

During this season of Thanksgiving, this man offers us a wonderful lesson.  As I write this blog, I think of several people I know right now who are suffering deeply.  One lost a son to a tragic accident over a year ago and another lost a sister to suicide a few months ago.  These are both horrendous tragedies that even with the best efforts take time for healing.  But the most effective way to heal is always to focus away from oneself, by helping others and by being thankful for WHAT IS.

It is so easy for us to obsess about everything that is wrong with our lives. I have been guilty of that at times myself!  No one’s life is perfect!  Just remember that!  But we all have some perfection in our lives, and while we are bemoaning our sorry lot in life, all the good stuff is just waltzing on by, and  we are not even seeing it.  Just think of the happy movie going on right around us while we are lost in negative thoughts.  Perhaps we look at but don’t see the beauty of the sunset.  Maybe we miss the flower that bloomed.  Perhaps we don’t see the love offered to us because we are so enveloped in our sorrow.  Imagine that we miss the possibilities and opportunities that might make us feel better because we just can’t see beyond the sad movies we continue to view in our heads!

My favorite teaching from the Rhonda Byrne book The Secret is, “What you think about, you bring about.”  Just consider this for a moment.  Really take some time to think about how this has actually transpired in your life!  If you keep yourself into negative and unhappy thoughts, that is just where you stay.  If you begin to monitor your thoughts and change them to positive ones, then you suddenly begin to notice those beautiful and wonderful people, things, events that have always surrounded you but you simply overlooked!  Life is not about one event, one circumstance, one person.

Thanksgiving is our yearly lesson in thankfulness.  But this time I encourage you to make it a daily practice, so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving every day of your life and thereby reap the benefits of being daily nourished by the Thanksgiving message.  Every time you catch yourself being sorry, sad, depressed, discouraged, dissatisfied, angry, irritated, think immediately of something wonderful in your life. It is there!  I promise!  And you probably won’t have to look too far.

An exercise I often use to help people be thankful is to write down 20 things you like to do.  The list is a starting point to help you get focused on what makes you happy and thankful.  My list included even small things like drinking a hot cup of tea on a rainy day, watching my dogs play and roll around on the floor, feeling the breeze blow my hair while riding my bike or while walking the beach, or just spending time with good friends.  Sometimes the simplest things are the most meaningful.  Next, start doing them!

Helping someone else is another powerful way to overcome your own despair.  This will quickly focus you away from yourself and help to create concern and thankfulness.  But the best trick of all is to go to the nearest mirror, and instead of asking like the wicked witch, “Who is most beautiful?” just smile at the image before you and your troubles will magically begin to melt away as your own reflection connects to you empathically and knowingly and with forgiveness as you realize how you hurt you own soul. Celebrate your life this Thanksgiving by being grateful for it by making the very best use of it every day. Remember those who are gone by making them present in how you choose to lead your life and show your thanks to the living by being a gracious and inspiring light.

Can you make a promise to be thankful for yourself?  Can you promise to make the most of your life like the fisherman in the wheelchair, and make it a joyful encounter?  Will you treat yourself with love, caring, compassion by focusing on what it good and what you have to be thankful for rather than using your thought energy on things that can’t be changed or that you can’t have?  I was just wondering…..

Whirling Dervishes

The term whirling dervish evokes a sense of mystery and my interest in this phenomena goes back many years.  I am not even sure anymore where I first heard the following parable about the dervishes which goes something like this:

A tourist and his guide were traveling across the desert.  It was hot and arid and the trek was difficult. After crossing some distance, they began to see something on the horizon.  A mirage, of course, they both exclaimed.  What else could be in the middle of the desert?  As they approached, however, they began to discern there were people, and as they neared the group they were able to see that these people were whirling.  With so many people whirling the energy was totally chaotically.  In the center of all of this tumultuous activity sat a woman who was calmly reading a book.  The tourist was astounded!  He turned to his guide and asked with perplexity, “How can she possibly concentrate on reading a book amidst all that frenzy?”  The guide paused and then replied with an amused knowing smile, “She just lets the dervishes whirl, and eventually they all just fall over.”

I actually had the privilege to observe one during a trip to Egypt.  Simply put, a whirling dervish is an individual’s attempt, by using a specific approach, to achieve spiritual transcendence.  My group watched with fascination as the practitioner, decked out in layers of colorful flowing material, began to spin.  Starting off slowly, the individual increased the speed of the whirl as well as alternating his position, frequently changing the center of balance.  The effect was both amazing and beautiful.  While we were mesmerized as onlookers, the effect on the practitioner was even more profound, as he lost himself to the practice in which he was engaged.

So while we were mesmerized as observers of the whirling dervishes during our trip, try to imagine sitting in the midst of many of these dervishes dancing about madly!  Just like the tourist In the story surmised, it would be extremely difficult to read a book or do anything requiring concentration in the midst of such intense energy.  I have used this story for many years as a reminder to clients to stay out of the fray.  And the lesson is, all that appears so agitating eventually just goes away, just as the dervishes in the story drop from exhaustion.

This is not an easy task however.  I am reminded of the droppings of the cottonwood tree, beautiful fluffs of billowy white cottony balls that float slowly in the breeze. If you are walking around them it is difficult to avoid having them attach themselves to you. Also, they are lovely and fascinating and in one way you want to touch them, to try to discern their mystery. The whirling dervishes in our lives attach in the same way.  At first they may seem interesting, and we may barely notice that we are immersed in them.

Another less appealing but equally enticing analogy is the difficulty we have walking past a “trainwreck.”  Often times horrible things hold a certain fascination for us and we can become victims to its pull to engage us.  We crane our necks to view an accident that we pass, we move toward an altercation to hear what is going on, we watch engrossed at news reports of tragedies and calamities.  We can’t take our eyes off of someone’s bad behavior, because while revolting, it is also somehow captivating!

It is similar when we are not minding our own business, allowing ourselves to be pulled into something that does not concern us and then causes us great distress.  Or when we obsess over a problem, lose sleep, can’t eat, and just can’t let the bothersome thoughts go.  These are whirling dervishes in our brains, numbing our ability to concentrate and clogging our thought processes and disturbing our daily routines.

Think about what was bothering you last year.  Does the problem still exist?  What about six months ago?  What about last week? Do you still have the same concerns?  As time goes on, everything changes, and the truth is, many problems just dissipate without any sort of intervention.  But joining in with the fray will rarely help you to resolve a problem.  Allowing the dervishes to cloud your thinking will only prevent you from finding a solution.

The true whirling dervish practitioner is in a state of transcendence instead of a state of anxiety, worry or chaos.  He is not frightened by appearances, but instead is in a calm state of mind.  He is not distracted by appearances, but instead is focused on inner peace.  Can you learn to detach while you address the issues in your life?  If you have problems for which there is no apparent solution, can you disengage, remembering that everything changes and it most likely will not look the same in 6 months, next week, or maybe even tomorrow?  Can you stay out of problems that don’t need to concern you?  Can you just let the dervishes whirl like the puffs from the cottonwood tree and avoid having them stick on you? Can you resist their pull and stay centered and immune to the chaos around you?  I was just wondering…………………..

We Are All One

In the wake of recent tragedies here in the US and around the world, we are challenged with how to deal with our emotional responses. It is so easy to go directly to anger and even worse, hatred, for those who have perpetrated these horrendous acts of violence, but this only exacerbates the problem and engenders more of the same. We are left stunned, fearful, and ready to attack back, losing our important and powerful capacity for judgement and reasoning. Reacting with a full charge of emotion fueled by fear producing adrenaline, we most often make the wrong judgement and only pour more fuel into the already embroiled mass of emotion. But let’s stop for a moment and take our temperatures. How are you feeling? Are you sad, fearful, enraged, hopeless, confused? I was just wondering………………….

As I have explained in my book, Anger the Toxic Temptress: Understand It to Overcome It, anger acts as a defense mechanism. That is, anger blocks us from experiencing our true underlying feeling, a feeling of vulnerability. This is why it is so easy to go directly to anger in response to recent events. But it also means we are not actually dealing with our true feelings of vulnerability. It does not help to mask vulnerability with anger. It only ensures that the battle will continue.

But even more importantly, we are failing to understand that we are all interconnected, and that what hurts one of us hurts all. You may not be aware of this, or you may not view how this is directly happening to you or your loved ones, but let me help to make this clearer. Many years ago Ken Keyes, Jr. wrote about the hundredth monkey phenomena. While observing a Japanese monkey, scientists discovered that one monkey one day learned that washing a sweet potato removed the unpleasant tasting dirt. This new trick was taught from monkey to monkey across the island. But strangely enough, the same behavior began to be observed across the sea. Scientists came up with the “Hundreth Monkey” theory, that is, when a behavior reaches a certain critical number, that we collectively “get it,” almost as though the behavior is transmitted by ESP. This discovery lends credence to the concept that we are interconnected through some kind of force, or even more fascinating, that we are not only interconnected, but we are all a component of one large whole. Metaphorically speaking, once the big toe gets it, the new learning slowly travels throughout the entire body system. Think of each living creature as a part of the one, large, all-encompassing whole being, that we call by many names such as God, Buddha, Krishna, Allah, Great Spirit, Jehovah, Yahweh, or my own favorite, Order of the Universe. We are one collective consciousness. So, once one part of the body whole gets it, the rest eventually adapts to the new learning. This is critical to understand because we can then see that everything we do spills out into the universal being, that is everywhere throughout us. So it is so vital that right now we do not take the wrong path toward hate, anger, and revenge.

Another great example of this phenomena is the “butterfly effect,” coined by Edward Lorenz. This concepts states that a small change in one state can result in a large difference in a later state. Again, to simplify, Lorenz discovered that the flapping of wings of butterflies many weeks before a large hurricane system can influence the direction and force of that system. This phenomenon has also been known as the “ripple effect” or the “domino effect,” which also demonstrate how very small events spread out far beyond the area of initial impact. The implications of this are astounding. We come to realize that even the most seemingly insignificant action can have a staggering effect on future events.

We understand this phenomenon also in family systems therapies. Achieving change in only one person’s behavior will have a change effect on the entire system. Teaching someone to stop reacting, for instance, will often have the effect of eliminating the annoying behavior. It is a circular system. One change creates other changes. However, just as in the previous examples, the exact outcome cannot be predicted. However, we know that positive behavior generally elicits more positive behavior. Negative, angry, threatening behavior creates fear which results either in submission and withdrawal or in war.

I encourage everyone reading this to take a moment to take your emotional temperature. If you feel angry and hateful, I strongly urge you to connect to your underlying vulnerable behavior. Once you are there, then connect emotionally to the tragedy in all of this and make a promise that you will not add to the growing fury. Stay connected to the pain and try to find a way of understanding how we got here. Remember that great psychologist Carl Rogers said, “What is most personal is most general.” Think carefully with reason and good judgment, do you really want to hurt another part of the collective being of which we belong? Begin to understand that we are all one and that we must address this growing problem with an even temperament that does not cloud or judgment.

What is your emotional temperature? Can you connect with your vulnerability instead of hiding it with anger so that you can avoid reacting impulsively and dangerously? Can you remember that when you cause harm to another that it boomerangs back? Can you be a strong force so that we can collectively stop “shooting ourselves in our own hips?” I was just wondering……………………..

Erica Jong, Woody Allen, and the Human Condition

My book club recently read and discussed Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying, which elicited a lively conversation about the human condition. Having read her earlier book, Fear of Flying, as a psychology class assignment in the 70s, I was somewhat prepared for the author’s style, but I wondered if her latest book was going to be about sex in her sixties. It was marginally about sex, but it was more about acting out. While dealing with aging and dying parents and an ailing husband, the author tempers her existential angst by fantasizing about perfect, uncommitted sex and goes about seeking this distraction to her troubles by searching dating web sites. While some of the women in my group were horrified at the stupidity and danger of her attempts at hookups, I was merely amused at her pitiful efforts to immerse herself in something exciting as a replacement to her difficult life challenges. After all, it was just fiction! But this is what Woody Allen has mastered in all of his films, the ability to portray us with mocking absurdity and absolute frailty in our efforts to overcome our angst. To obscure our angst, we often find ourselves acting out, just like Vanessa Wonderman in Fear of Dying or like any of Woody Allen’s protagonists. The question to consider then, is what do you do when faced with an existential dilemma? Do you act out? In what way? Are you aware of it? Are there other options? Do you use other defense mechanisms? How do you escape the human condition?

I was just wondering……………

The existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard wrote a lot about the human condition and our difficulties in facing it. The Theatre of the Absurd also spawned from this movement and Eugene Lonesco portrayed us as helpless and farcical in our efforts to deal with our existence. Artist Edvard Munch portrayed his concept of this problem in his rendering of his famous painting, “The Scream.” Sigmund Freud added to the concept when he defined angst as inner turmoil often felt as intense apprehension and anxiety. Kierkegaard introduced the concept of anxiety as a feeling of dread, a deep seated condition arising from our freedom of choice. Arising from our decisions comes the concept of guilt, creating further anxiety related to whether or not we have made the correct choices. The human condition includes the concepts of birth, growth, emotions, conflict, death and all the ramifications of these issues. Existential angst haunts us in particular with such unanswerable questions as why are we here, what is death, is there a God, why are relationships exasperating, how do we get along? The human condition is that which occurs as a result of these dilemmas, which like the painting ”The Scream,” leaves us suspended in a frightening void.

As a therapist, I have come to view the human condition much like these existentialists, especially those who see the humor in our efforts to deal with our existential angst and the human condition. While there is always a time for sadness and human connectedness and empathy, I cannot help but feel amusement at times, even with myself at some of my pitiful efforts to deal with life. To me, it is bittersweet to observe the play between the difficulties that arise and our sometimes pathetic attempts to cope. But in a way, bittersweet describes the whole picture. It is not all bad and it is not all good. Some of our best stories about our lives are the ones we tell together with friends and family about when we did something absurd, crazy, but we can now look back and laugh at ourselves. I think this is a healthy way of coping, to forgive ourselves, see the humor, and never take ourselves too seriously. The people who cope the best with this whole angst issue are the ones who can make fun of themselves, understanding that no one is perfect and that after all, we are just human.

There are many other ways to deal with angst that are more functional than acting out. Concentration camp survivors endured by remembering their families, things that were meaningful to them. Others use their religious and/or spiritual beliefs to bolster them during trying times and religions also provide answers to many of our unknowns. Some find meaning in their life work, and that provides peace. While the larger question is how to find a sense of meaning, we still remained plagued by the day to day challenges that beset us like, why the one we love doesn’t love us back, why can’t we get ahead, why can’t we love ourselves, why do we feel so guilty, and so on.

My challenge to you today is to think about how you deal with some of these issues. Become more self-aware. Do you choose functional ways of coping, or do you act out like Vanessa Wonderman? Do you withdraw or rationalize your behaviors? Do you intellectualize? My best advice is to not be so hard on yourself! Do your best and if it’s a bit crazy for a while, that’s okay. We all have this frailty. See the humor in it! After all, we are only human. Can you forgive your errors of judgement ? Can you accept yourself as perfectly imperfect?

I was just wondering—————————.

 

 

A Call for Love

My husband, a friend and I attended a political rally yesterday. We were stoked and it was a beautiful day, if you had to wait outside in a line. As we enjoyed the warm sunlight bathing us gently, there was a beautiful camaraderie amongst us. We shared a common vision and we talked animatedly. We shared our stories and we met new friends as we waited patiently for our speaker. We did notice however, directly behind, a woman who stood alone, talking to no one, with a steely expression on her face. While the rest of us engaged easily with one another, this woman stood alone, talking to no one, clearly not wanting to mix. Just before we entered the auditorium, a young man arrived wearing a very dapper pin stripped suit with a shining sky blue tie. His arrival caused the sullen young woman to change her expression to relief as she exclaimed, “Oh, I thought you weren’t going to make it!” They remained encapsulate in their own little twosome and I suspected they were lovers, lost in their own little world together. They were definitely noticeable, however, and my friend commented about the man’s suit, which stood out in the crowd of very casually dressed people. She wondered out loud if maybe he was an undertaker to be wearing such a polished suit as that. We mused about it momentarily but returned to our own thoughts about our candidate and when the speaker would arrive.

We were so fortunate to get 3rd row seats and my body shivered with excitement and appreciation when the speaker finally emerged. After about a half hour, the man in the shiny suit suddenly emerged from nowhere, but right up front, and began making angry demands and accusations of the speaker. The intensity of hate that spewed from this man brought tears to my eyes as we all watched in disbelief as his rage only increased. We wondered if he might pull out a gun. The speaker remained polite and kept asking the fellow to sit down and he would respond to his questions, but the satiny fellow just ranted on and on. The emotions in the crowd rose to protect our speaker and everyone began to shout for him to leave, as our rally had become totally disrupted by the threat of violence. Undeterred, he just kept screaming and he was finally removed by the authorities. No sooner had we achieved a brief moment of order when the girl who had accompanied him stood up and took up where he left off. She too, had to be removed. As I sat there in sadness, still reacting emotionally to the intensity of the hate, I mused internally about what causes a person to behave so badly, to make such an ugly spectacle of himself. I was just wondering…………………….

When I talked with a friend about this episode, she offered that she believed we live in a society where everyone wants his own way. There is no more compromise or civility, only an aggressive drive to get what one wants. She noted that previously we had discussions and we used problem solving, but the new desire to please oneself shows up in every aspect of our lives, and especially in politics. I agreed with her to a certain degree.

However, as a psychologist who has written a book about anger, I am convinced that the root of the problem begins with how we deal with anger, which can easily expand to hate. We have become a drug addicted society, addicted with anger. All addicts only think of themselves and all addicts want their own way. When we attempt to solve problems by bullying, by screaming, by threatening, we have lost our problem solving skills and only win our way through threat and intimidation.

But what lies beneath this rage that has taken over our way of operating? As I advocate in my book, ANGER THE TOXIC TEMPTRESS; UNDERSTAND IT TO OVERCOME IT, anger is a handy defense mechanism that keeps us from being in touch with our vulnerable feelings. So what does this mean when we witness all the anger being espoused around us? It means that many people are feeling hurt and vulnerable and that they have lost their ability to deal with their true feelings. By covering painful feelings over with anger, it makes them feel empowered, though only temporarily and at the risk of causing even greater harm. What makes this especially threatening is that as a society we have succumbed to this addiction without knowing that we are anger addicts. So whether it is a heckler at a political rally, your co-worker or boss who is in a bad mood, your spouse who snaps at you angrily for no apparent reason, or the countries who are war torn, filled with anger and hate toward their rivals, it all emerges as a result of our desire to numb ourselves with anger from any feeling of pain. If we actually sat down with one another and shared our vulnerabilities, then perhaps we could begin to learn to compromise again. The great psychologist Carl Rogers said, “What is most personal is most general.” When it comes down to the basics, we all want the same things.

So how do we start to change the dynamics of our addiction? We begin to see the call for love in every individual who is brimming with hate and anger. We understand that they are hurting deeply for them to behave in such a way. And by doing this, we ensure that we will not react in kind by battling with them, by entering the fray, by resenting and hating back.

The next time you experience this type of rage by someone, it is better to respond as I did at the rally, with great sadness, recognizing that that individual is in great pain. It is only then that we can begin a conversation of respect and mutual nurturance. Also, the next time you find yourself becoming angry, can you recognize internally your need for understanding and acceptance? As you practice learning not to react, can you begin to recognize the call for love in both yourself and others? Are you courageous enough to open the underlying wound, and with love and nurturance begin to cleanse the painful feelings that created it? I was just wondering………………………..

Painting Your Life

One of my very favorite activities is my weekly acrylic painting class. Besides the fact that it is a perfect zone-out event that keeps me totally focused in the now, it is populated with other lovely like-minded artists. And because it is a class, it is also educational. We learn techniques to better express ourselves through our paint. The most fascinating aspect, however, is the tremendous differences in the way each painting turns out. Despite the fact the we each paint the very same picture, our finished products are remarkably different. Each unique painting is the product of the painter’s view of the world, and in particular, that one little snippet of it within the assigned picture. No one sets out to create a different painting, but our creations are influenced by our own unique visions of what we each perceive. These very differences are most fascinating to me and are clearly an expression of our individuality and how we interpret what we see. I realized that this exercise in painting is a metaphor of how we paint our lives. I began to think about how we color our lives, how we see and interpret what is around us, how we judge it to create an idea or belief and so on. So I began to ponder, how do we paint our lives?   I was just wondering…………..

Acrylic is very forgiving, which is probably why I like it so much. If you make a mistake, you can just paint over it. We can paint with the same acrylic in our lives, I mused. We can learn forgiveness, we can learn to move on, we can learn new techniques from our errors and use them the next time. We don’t have to stay stuck in a bad picture. We can just paint over it!

As I mentioned, painting is the best thing I know to keep me in the now. There are many other things in life to keep us focused on the now, so that we can enjoy each moment as it occurs, rather than missing things because our focus is elsewhere.   Do you paint your life with focus, or is your life filled with distraction, chaos, hurriedness? There are paintings that depict these unpleasant experiences as well. Which kind of painting do you create for yourself?

What is the mood of your life painting? Is it filled with color, beauty, pleasantry, serenity?   Or does your life depict a painting filled with angst, despair, resentment, full of darkness, with cold murky corners, secrets, hidden meanings? Is your life painting orderly or is it filled with confusion, untidiness, chaos? Do you enjoy viewing your painting of your life, or do you shudder at the sight of it?

Does your painting have integrity, honesty, virtue? Or is it blackened by shame, disgrace, disrespect? Can you look at it with pride and feel satisfaction about how you behave and handle problems as they arise? If you don’t like it, how can you correct it? Perhaps you could add more color, remove the darkness, make it more honest, truer to the real picture.

What is the texture of your life painting? Is it bumpy, full of ups and downs? Or is it flat, too flat and boring, needing some added points of interest? Are there too many snags? Is it smooth sailing or is it a rocky sea for your “life” boat? Does it have too many rough edges?

What depth does your painting have? Is it demonstrated through your relationships? Are they loving, kind, supportive, nurturing? Or are they disengaged, unavailable, unloving? Sometimes if you look again they may seem different. Is there enough intimacy and fulfillment? Many paintings need to be studied, viewed with a keen eye. Sometimes we misinterpret and then have to paint over, or in the case of life, look again. Sometimes we miss love and support because we are not in a good place as we view it. If the fault is not in our vision, then it is time to connect to a better painting, drawing nurturing people into our lives.

What is the meaning of your life painting? Is this something you have thought about? If you have considered the meaning, then is it going in the direction you had intended? How can you change it so that the meaning becomes clearer and is experienced in your life as you would desire? What needs to be corrected and repainted?When I circle the room of my painting class, I get ideas from the other paintings I see. Sometimes these ideas help me to add or subtract something that makes my painting more interesting, more expressive, more unique. We are all stuck in our own vision of the world. It is very powerful to try to look again, see what you are viewing in another way. For your life painting, use some ideas from your admired friends to alter the parts of your life painting that you don’t like. Changing the picture is always possible. There are endless ways to depict the same thing, because it is different for every eye that views it. Readjust your sight! Paint over what you don’t like and try again. And don’t give up! You can achieve the same feeling of homeostasis that I have in my painting class when you make positive adjustments to your life painting!

After evaluating your life painting, are you happy with it? Are there changes that need to be made? Are you willing to start over and paint again in the areas that need touching up?

I was just wondering…………

A Holiday Invitation

With the Holidays right around the bend, I thought it might be a useful time to think about our behavior rather than our usual preoccupation with gifts, holiday parties, decorations, and such. The next month is known to be one of the most stressful times for the whole year! In fact, my husband quoted to me yesterday from a magazine that Christmas day, noted for all things religious and cheerful, is also the day of the year when most heart attacks occur! So as I pondered the blizzard of events into which I head for this next month, I thought about a pledge I would make to myself to get through it. I know that if I follow this Holiday prescription, I will sail through with less stress and greater satisfaction and contentment. I thought this holiday challenge would create a great blog idea for this time of year. So here goes my invitation and holiday gift to all my readers. Will you join me? I was just wondering…….

H               Is for Happiness for this sparkling time of year. Even when stressed to the max, I pledge to stay             positive and try to find the joy around me.

O               Is for Optimism, the ability to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. When things appear bleak as the gray winter sky, I promise to watch for a ray of light.

L                Is for Loving, which I will try to demonstrate through my personal interactions. I will also try to love each moment as I experience it.

I                 Is for Introspection, a necessary practice in order to encourage personal growth.

D               Is for Dependability, a trait to be demonstrated through responsible action for myself and others.

A               Is for Accessibility, the ability to be emotionally present. While it is easy to do for my work, it is more challenging to demonstrate consistently with one’s family and friends.

Y                Is for remaining Young at Heart, to continue to see the world filled with awe through the eyes of a child.

G               Is for generosity, the ability to be kind and giving to others and also to oneself. This is a perfect season to practice this attribute.

R               Is for Responsibility, the ability to be reliable to others, but most importantly, to be able to trust myself to make the right judgments and decisions, those which will enhance my growth, not hinder it.

E                Is for Empathy, the practice of being able to relate in a sincere manner to another’s feelings. This makes us more able to see all sides of a situation.

E                Is to practice being Easy Going, a difficult challenge for an intense perfectionist like me. I promise to try not to worry about unfinished business.

T                Is for Togetherness, which I vow to promote within my family. There are always many opportunities within families to derail this, but I promise it won’t be from me.

I                 Is for Inspiration, which I will try to provide to those in need.

N               Is for the practice of being Non-judgmental. I have learned through my years as a therapist that everyone’s story explains why they are the way they are, and if you walked in their shoes, you most likely would see things in a similar way.

G               Is for Gratefulness, during this season and every day. Practiced gratitude enhances happiness.

S                Is for the pledge to Silence negativity. I pledge to enjoy this season as a beautiful gift to myself!

 

I invite you to join me in my pledge for this often difficult season. Nurture yourself by following the prescription in my Holiday Greeting to you. Don’t make yourself one of those Holiday heart attack statistics! Join with me in gifting yourself with happiness, optimism, love, introspection, dependability, accessibility, youngness of heart, generosity, responsibility, easy-goingness, empathy, togetherness, inspiration, non-judgmentalness, and gratefulness. As you enjoy these gifts to yourself, you are also gifting those around you as they enjoy the results of your efforts. Toss your negativity to the Grinch so that you can greet this season with a Grin. Can you, can you, can you do it? Will you join me? I was just wondering……….