Monday, November 29, 2010

What we can't change

I saw a patient a few week who was struggling with some personal relationships. I'm not talking about her family or closest friends, but a woman she runs into at social events every few weeks. To hear my patient describe her, this woman is nasty, opinionated and possibly cheats at cards. Regardless of what she's really like, she makes my patient absolutely crazy. When she walks into a room with her, she starts to become agitated, and she literally hunts for things to be mad about while the other woman presumably enjoys her socialization. Only one person appears to be harmed by this situation...
Other people behave in ways we may not like, and they may say things we don't agree with. They have their own background and their own motivation guiding them, and we can't ever really know where they're coming from. We also can't change them. I am not talking about a debate or meeting of the minds, but about truly changing their core nature. I heard my patient saying if only this woman would behave in this way, if only she wouldn't say that. Finally I stopped her and asked if she was familiar with the Serenity Prayer. We all know it's power for people struggling with addictions, but I find it to be a perfect guideline for many of life's uncomfortable situations. The Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." That breaks things down neatly into categories: things we can change, and things we can't. The things we cannot change, we have to accept, or let go of.
So, then it came time for strategy. I asked my patient some other ways she could handle the situation with this woman. We came up with several options that allow her to be in control. The first and most obvious is to avoid social interactions when this woman is present. She can control what invitations she accepts. Another is to change the way she responds to this woman. Instead of looking for the negative, try compassion or even humor. She can control her own thoughts and behavior. Another is to look for a time out if she finds herself getting upset. Ask to help in the kitchen, step outside for some fresh air, ask another friend to go to the ladies' room with her. All behavior that she can control. I was a bit amazed that she had never considered her alternatives to anger and disappointment in this situation. It had not even occurred to her to decline attending functions with this person. She told me she felt she had options now, and that felt good.
Every day we encounter people who, for some reason or another, rub us the wrong way. We can't change them, their thoughts, or their behavior. We can accept people the way they are, or change the things we can: our own thoughts and behavior. I find this to be so helpful every day. I realize I can choose how to react or respond in any situation. This takes control away from others and puts me in charge of my day. How empowering to have choices!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Emotions are part of being human. We react to situations around us in our thoughts and our feelings, for good or bad. Sometimes feelings are wonderful: joy, happiness, peace. Other times they are very hard to face: anger, sadness, hurt. But this range of emotion serves as guideposts to help us navigate our lives more skillfully. Sadness let's us process a loss and move forward, anger cues us into something not right with a relationship or our jobs. Yet I am asked frequently if I can help a patient avoid emotion altogether, especially in the case of grief. Sometimes the pain is too great, a loss too recent, and I understand the need to cope. But eventually the feelings must be faced. They're still there waiting.
Grief is one of the most difficult processes humans can go through, I'm sure. The loss of a loved one brings up a wave of emotions, ranging from sadness to anger and denial. Many people want to avoid this pain, to move on without moving through the stages of grief. We can be surprisingly successful at avoiding and stuffing emotions for a while, ignoring pain and pretending everything is ok. Eventually the pressure starts to leak through the cracks, though. Little upsets cause big reactions, physical pain and illness becomes more frequent, or current relationships suffer. The emotions are simmering under the surface, demanding attention. Avoidance will not make feelings disappear.
Grief and depression have a lot in common. They are both marked by sadness, loss of appetite and sleep, and lack of focus. But grief does not always lead to depression. There is a culture of awareness of depression, but, unfortunately it causes a lot of people to believe there is a pill to take away every sad feeling. We then forget that grief is a normal process in recovering from a loss. Sometimes the loss is a death of a loved one, sometimes it's a divorce or loss of a job, but the process is similar. Anti-depressants can't catapult us over the emotion and into the next phase of life. Don't get me wrong, there are times when medications are necessary. But that is the exception, not the rule, in cases of grief.
So how do we navigate a loss and move forward? There are many ways to work through grief: counseling, support groups, individual religious or spiritual traditions, to name a few. The important thing is to experience, not avoid, the feelings. So-called negative emotions like sadness and anger are very tough to deal with, but they are part of being human. We can sit with our feelings, recognize them and name them, and notice the bodily sensations that accompany the emotions. We can laugh and cry, sit or run with it, but be fully aware of it all. This doesn't take away pain, but acknowledges it for what it is, and how it's affecting us. Feelings don't weaken or destroy us, but we must face them when they arise, for good or for bad. The experience of grief reminds us that as humans we can form strong bonds and emotional attachments. I am grateful for that, even in loss.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fall Back

In yoga class yesterday, my teacher talked about fall and the time change. She asked us to think about how words matter, and this time of year we "fall back," but in spring we are "springing ahead." Her point was that fall and winter are dormant times when we can fall back into ourselves, and reflect. I loved that, because this time of year is very challenging for me. I was looking at falling back as a euphemism for the low mood, lethargy and avoidance of self-healing that tend to suck me in every fall.
So I can choose to self-reflect and learn something about myself instead of assuming I have to battle my way back from the brink. I am studying my reactions, and my tendency to let the easy way guide me. I haven't been sitting, journalling or blogging. I have been on my mat, but not as often as I'd like. I'm letting the wind stir up my anxiety and worrying about phantoms instead of using my self-soothing to quiet my mind. Eventually it becomes a sticky mire that is harder and harder to escape. The self-reflection mirrors my choices back to me, and I can see now how far I've slid.
Now my choices are becoming depressed and angry that I've allowed this to happen, or I can start back on the path. I got up earlier this morning to sit. I did a mindful yoga practice with some gentle backbends to open my heart and stimulate my energy. It is a lot harder than it was in the summer, though, and we've had great weather so far. I know I have to stay focused and set my intention every day to care for myself the best ways I can. I know the ways, now cones the action. If I open my intention to the universe, I believe I will get the support I need. I just have to do my part and keep looking for it!

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