Saturday, November 26, 2011

Is the myth of closure keeping you from moving on?

My friend Dr. Internet tells me that closure is "necessary," and "important," and "essential to moving on after a relationship ends." You know closure - it's that amazing thing that happens after you have that conversation like they have in the movies, and you both realize that you're better off, and that you've made the right decision. The movies say that this happens just prior to a big plot shift, like finding happiness in your life or maybe fighting a bunch of ninjas.

Unlike Dr. Internet, Dr. Jeff thinks that, for the most part, closure is a LIE.

I've written about grief before, and about the things people do to try and cheer you up. For the most part, "this is for the best" is friend-code for "I don't really want to face your grief." Closure is what we do to ourselves to try and avoid the grieving.

So many people go through life thinking that if they can pick their way through the minefield in exactly the right way, nothing will ever explode. We enter relationships with people who we don't really match, and then we spend all of our time trying to say and do the things that will somehow change that person. We manage our outward appearance and massage our social impressions just so, in the hope that everyone we ever encounter will like us. And, we try and find just the right thing to say to "finish up" a relationship.

The truth is that we are the sum of all of our experiences. Just because someone has died, or moved on, doesn't mean that they are no longer a part of who we are. We try and reach closure so we don't have to just sit with the knowledge that something sad has happened. We try and mask the loss by telling ourselves that the loose ends are all wrapped up now and we never will think of that person again, that we will never have to grieve the fact that they're gone.

Here's a thought: What if we just keep them all with us, forever? They don't have to be in the front of the line. We don't have to store them on that shelf at eye-level. But, what if we accept that in our complex minds, there's room for everyone? Sit with the loss. Accept some of the blame. Forgive the other person, over time. Feel love and gratitude for what they've brought to your life. Then, carefully place them somewhere within yourself where they're no longer as important, but still just as big a part of you as every other experience. Let a favorite song take you back, and make you cry, and then move to the next moment in your life.

Take the energy you've spent fighting off the existence of your grief, and put that energy into creating more love to put into the world. You'd be surprised at how easy that gets when you practice.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Doc's Holiday Gift Guide

What to get everyone this holiday season: Genuine gratitude, heartfelt love, and patient acceptance. Not available in stores.


Stay tuned for a "Holiday stress" post. It will probably be the only one on the internet. :)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Is self-judgment getting in your way?

One of the things I do with clients (that both drives them crazy and helps them change!) is to point out their self-judging statements. So often, someone is simply talking about their week, and they'll say things like "I know this was silly, but it made me feel bad that..." or "it's stupid, I know, but I..."

We all do this. Everyone I've ever talked to EVER does, anyway. The problem is that these self judgments just reinforce our beliefs about not being good enough. Judgment is our way of comparing ourselves to an idea self. "Someone more in control wouldn't have silly emotions." "If I was smarter, I wouldn't have..." We're building a less-than-helpful kind of learning when we constantly utter self-judging remarks.

I think that many of us entertain the belief that as soon as we change something, everything is going to be fine. The thing is, though, that what we've got right now, at this moment, is what we are. This is what we have to work with. And accepting that, truly loving that, builds a base for real change.

Here's something to try, just for today. Catch yourself in self-judgment. Listen for statements like "I know this is dumb," or "It's silly, but..." and just forgive yourself for them. Just listen, observe, and then let them go. Judging our judgments just digs the hole deeper. Enlist a friend if you'd like. But, see about starting down that path of less judgment. Other good things will follow.

The beauty is in the work. You're doing the best you can!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Five ways Google calendar can improve your mental health

Google calendar, specifically Google calendar reminders, can be an incredibly helpful tool. I often recommend text reminders to clients. If you don't have a Gmail account, go get one - it takes about two minutes to sign up - and start experiencing the benefits of regular reminders, delivered right to your phone or your email.

Setting up reminders is as easy as clicking on a date and time, then entering the words you'd like to see in the "what" field. After that, click the "repeat" box and "daily." Then click "add a reminder," and choose an email or text reminder. Then, just save your reminder. Text reminders work great if you're like me and you carry your phone everywhere with you. Repeat as needed during the day if you want to be reminded more than once.

Here are five ways that reminders can work to bolster your happiness and balance every day.

1. As a reminder to BREATHE. This one is the simplest, and the most often-needed, not to mention the most often-ignored. Deep, cleansing breaths can help tame the worst of days and the scariest of crises. Set up a text reminder that will have you inhaling deeply a few times a day. Really easy, really helpful.

2. As a source of centering tips. Set up a few reminders that will have you doing easy grounding exercises - "Take your shoes off and feel your feet on the floor." "Do a five-minute walking meditation." Schedule these reminders for when you know you'll have a few minutes, and follow them daily.

3. For affirmations. Affirmations are much-maligned, often-ridiculed ("gosh darnit, people like me!") and consistently helpful. Who doesn't want to see "You are beautiful" or "Stay strong" every day? Affirmations are a way of re-wiring your brain, and repetition is an important part of this learning process.

4. As one-time booster shots. Sometimes you've got something in your day that is going to take everything you've got to get through. Set up a reminder that will arrive partway through, encouraging you to keep going, relax and get it done.

5. As a reminder that things get better. Sometimes when I have a client who struggles with recurring depression I'll have them write a letter from their "happier" self to their depressed self. As silly as it sounds, simply remembering that you've felt better can help you stay on the path until things get better again. A recurring note from that part of yourself might help if you're susceptible to down days.

That should be enough to get you started. I'd love to hear other ideas - let me know what you plan on doing with your reminders!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

One minute to tricking yourself into a better mood

This little "mood hack" has been the subject of ongoing research, and it has supporters and detractors just like many other theories. The idea is this: if you're feeling a little down, putting a smile on your face will trick your mind into thinking that you're happier. As a result, you'll feel happier, and eventually that smile will be more genuine.

Research on this idea has been conducted in several ways. One of the most notable studies had people clasp a pencil in their teeth, forcing their mouth into a smile. Try it! Just as shallow breathing sends a panic message (something must be wrong! I'm breathing rapidly!), a smile sends a message of improved mood. The most damning research in opposition is pretty weak stuff, mostly saying "we don't think it works all that great."

So, let's try this: either put a half-smile on your face and keep it there for a minute, or better yet, hold a pencil in your mouth, using your molars to clamp down on it. Your mouth will be pulled back into a smile, your brow will change, and you'll FEEL the smile on your face. Hold it for a minute or two, and see what happens. At worst, you'll just have the taste of pencil in your mouth for a while.

At best, though, you'll have a learned a ridiculously easy way to get a little mood boost.

An interesting offshoot of this facial feedback research is the mounting evidence that botox treatments can actually impact mood and cognition due to LACK of feedback. But that's another story for another day.

For now... smile!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Today's Assignment 11/9/11

Here's something to try: admit that you were wrong. Just own it. No defenses, no excuses... Just own up, apologize, and move on.

Have a great day!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Today's Assignment 11/8/11

This one is easy: consider the other side. No need to change your mind - just open it a little. As you make decisions today, put aside your certainty and just take a second to think about what the alternative might be.

Happy Tuesday!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Today's Assignment 11/7/11

I commute to work each day via mass transit - first a walk to the transit center, then a light rail ride, then a transfer to the bus. All told, it takes just under two hours. For the most part, I love my commute, and use it to ease into my day, and back out of it. But, that's a long time to be sitting in one spot, in recirculated air, with no possibility of opening a window or making a stop.

When I got to the transit center this morning, I was feeling a little disconnected. There was time to take a breath before the bus arrived, so I walked half a block to a small patch of grass. I stood on the grass, took a few deep breaths, and looked up to see a huge flock of geese flapping their way across the gray morning sky. I was recharged, and I felt reconnected to my world. And, of course, I thought "hey, there's today's assignment!"

For today: take five minutes at some point in your day, and find a little piece of nature somewhere. Even if it's a flower box on a downtown building, touch the planet for a few minutes. Take a few deep breaths, breathing out the artificial, taking in the organic. Reconnect. Repeat as necessary.

We are a part of this earth, and the earth is a part of us. Stay in touch.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Today's Assignment 11/6/11

Think of something that's been bugging you - something that somebody did to wrong you, maybe, or just something that didn't strike you just right.

Think of this thing - and then try to forgive. Notice the word "try." Forgiveness is a difficult path, one that takes practice. For today, just accept the effort.

If you need a little reminder about how to forgive, here's one.

The beauty of forgiveness is in the trying. See what happens when you make the attempt.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Today's Assignment 11/5/11

Today's Assignment sounds like the easiest thing to do, but may very well be the toughest.

Don't try to change a thing today. You are perfectly imperfect as is. No extra help for others, no improvements in yourself... just take a breath and be who you are today.

No destination today, just path. No finish line, just track. Today, the beauty is in the attempt.

Love yourself, first.

Friday, November 4, 2011

For college students: Five ways to survive that trip home.

I write a column for the school newspaper where I work. Thought I'd share this one here!

Even though it seems like the semester has just started, take a look outside. See that dark gray? Feel that cold drizzle that hits you as you walk across campus? That can only mean one thing - time is whizzing by and it's almost time for Thanksgiving break. And Thanksgiving break inevitably leads to finals, and Winter break. And all of those things, for many students, leads to time at home with the parents.

For some, family time is as joyous as one of those old holiday movies, with much festive fellowship and big steaming piles of delicious food. For others, though, things aren't as joyous at home - and those steaming piles are something different entirely. There are as many family styles as there are families - there's no way to give advice that fits everyone. There are a few things to keep in mind, though, that might make the trip home a little easier this year.

Expect changes. Many a wayfaring college student has been dismayed to find that their bedroom has been switched to a sewing room or a giant storage closet. Relax. What can feel like a loud-and-clear "glad they're gone" message can often be your parents' way of saying "we miss you, and it's too hard to look at your room the way it was."

Let them parent you a little. Even after a few years away, visits home can quickly devolve into a power struggle. It can feel pretty weird having mom check on your whereabouts at 2 AM after you've been keeping your own schedule for the last 2-3 years. If you'd really like to ensure domestic tranquility, let mom and dad give you some advice about car maintenance. Acquiesce when they tell you to pick up those damp towels. Your late-night freedom may depend on it.

Really listen. This is is interesting time for you and for your parents (and siblings!). Being treated like an adult happens more naturally if you treat others how you'd like to be treated. It's true - that golden rule that they hammered into you kindergarten still holds up after all these years. Show some respect, and listed with an open heart. You'll be surprised what you might learn.

Decide on some boundaries, and stick to them. There are times when compromise is a good, relationship-enhancing skill. There are other times, though, when you need to let your parents and the other folks at home know that there are such things as deal-breakers. Give in on the little stuff, but stay true to yourself when it comes to your values. Maybe it's time that uncle Roy's sexist humor faces some heartfelt resistance at the dinner table.

Remember that change takes time. Your relationship with your parents, and your siblings, goes through significant changes during your college years. While it would be great if everyone "got it" from day one, that's just not how it works. Even in the closest of families, there are old hurts, difficult memories, and some pretty well-established roles to deal with. Take a deep breath, pass the green beans to your right, and open your heart to whatever is coming next.

Today's Assignment 11/4/11

Today's assignment is about peace and quiet. Find a spot in the middle of your busy day, wherever you are, and carve out five minutes of beautiful silence.

For some of you this might mean leaving the house, or the office, or maybe ducking into an unused room. The object isn't to do anything WITH your moments of quiet... it's all about just having some quiet moments in the middle of your day.

Find a little island of peace and quiet today, even just for a few minutes. Happy Friday!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Today's Assignment 11/3/11

This one is easy - give out five genuine, unexpected smiles. Some people will return them, some will wonder what you're up to, and if you're lucky at least one person will pass your smile along to someone else.

A genuine smile comes from deep within you - find that center of gratitude and joy, and just project it into the world. Even on a bad day, a smile can help turn things around.

Look people in the eye, flash a genuine smile, and move on with your day.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How do you know what your values are?

One of the fun things I get to do from time to time is speak to groups. Today, I'm giving a talk to a group of Social Workers. The talk is about the Social Work Ethics Code, and about the values that we bring to our work.

What struck me as I put my notes together was the realization that our values color everything we do, every day. And, for many of us, we're not really even that aware that the process is taking place. We make our decisions, have our conversations, and interact with the world without really taking stock of why we are doing what we're doing. Our values are deep-rooted, and in many cases they make an appearance in our lives without us even knowing.

We get our values from a number of different sources. As always, parental influence and developmental learning play a huge role. Think for a moment about the "truths" you hold dear. For some, the idea that people should be rewarded for what they do is a closely-held value. For these folks, life can feel really unfair when they give and give, and feel that they never get anything back. For other people, the idea of autonomy rules supreme. Anything that impairs their right of self-rule can be seen as the enemy. For many people, these strongly-held beliefs have been around for as long as they can remember. And they impact every decision that those people make.

Doing a values exercise can be an eye-opening experience. They're easy to find, and to complete. It can be as easy as making a list of your "truths," and prioritizing them. For example, my list would include the value that all people should be treated with equal respect, and that the act of giving love and support should be done without expectation of return. Yours might include the value of hard work done for its own sake, or the idea that public service should be a priority. Whatever your values, try taking a minute to write them down, and then take a few more minutes and sort them into priority order. It's really likely that what you've got at the top is a short list of things you use to make all the decisions you face on a day-to-day basis.

Conflicting values can cause a great deal of stress. If you value autonomy at the same time you value following the letter of the law, you're set up for ongoing value conflict and a lot of stress. If you believe that all good deeds should be rewarded, but also think that people should never blow their own horn, you've got another conflict. Simply identifying these value conflicts can help you understand what's bothering you.

Rigidly-held values can act as a guide for living. At the same time, they can set up ongoing internal conflicts that operate below your level of conscious thought and so are very difficult to resolve. Making your values known to yourself is the first step in learning how to accept those conflicts and make decisions in a more conscious and balanced way.

And, hey, if you ever want to book me to give a talk to your community group or workplace, you know where to reach me! :)

Today's assignment 11/2/11

We all have those little things we want to change about ourselves... We want to exercise more, change our diet, find a better job, get our teeth fixed... The list can feel endless.

The problem with those lists lies in what they do to how we feel about ourselves right now. Fix-it lists present us with an impossibly perfect future standard of ourselves against which our current selves can be measured. They stand in the way of accepting ourselves in the moment.

Today's assignment is to look at that fix-it list, see what's at the top, and just DROP IT. For today, assume that thing will never change. You are good just how you are. Take the pressure off that comparison, don't worry about it, and love yourself today. As-is.

You are beautiful just as you stand. Have a great day!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Today's Assignment 11/1/11

Today's Assignment takes its inspiration from today's date. It's another one of those deceptively easy ones - just sit for one minute, and write down eleven things you like about yourself.

That should be easy, right?

If you get stuck, and some of you will, think about what a miracle it is to just be able to read, or to walk, or even to breathe. Stop to consider how amazing it is that we can love each other, or drive a car, or knit or sew or draw.

This exercise is meant to remind you that, even though we all have things we'd like to change, our everyday existence is made possible by US. Take a minute, write down some appreciation for yourself, and then live the rest of your day in gratitude for YOU.

Eleven things. That shouldn't take long at all!