The Stories We Tell Ourselves

December 13, 2020

Once upon a time, there was a young girl named, ummm. . . . let’s call her Farah. Farah grew up in a happy home surrounded by love, but she just knew something wasn’t right- with her. She tried to keep this “not right” feeling locked up in a little box, and the key to that box was perfection. The more perfect Farah could be, the tighter the lock would get. Farah became an expert at meeting other people’s expectations of her (or rather, she became an expert at meeting what she thought others expected of her). She didn’t get lost in the Big Woods; she knew how to read signs, and she never veered off the path.

Slowly over time, and then seemingly all at once, questions started popping up. People- professors, new friends, even Farah herself- started asking things like, “What do you want to do?” and “How do you feel about that?” and that’s when Farah realized that she didn’t have all the answers. She spent so much time and energy listening outside of herself that she lost her ability to hear her voice within. She didn’t really know who she was or what she wanted. And she couldn’t really remember how to ask for help. On top of that, bad things kept happening regardless of how perfectly locked up her “not right” feelings were. To make up for the silence inside, Farah told herself a new story; this one was called the “Not Good Enough” story. It was extremely portable and suited any number of situations- from “Not Smart Enough” to “Not Attractive Enough” and even into “I Don’t Deserve it” territory.

Farah’s new story, and the memories of her old stories, kept her from truly enjoying her “Happily Ever After” when it came along (the handsome prince, a “castle” on a cul de sac, and beautiful children of her own). It wasn’t a Big, Bad Wolf or an Evil Queen- it was the tale itself that got in her way. And it wasn’t the needle on a spinning wheel, or even a deeply restorative sleep that brought Farah to her senses- it was Life. Big, Messy, Life. Where Bad Things Happen. . . and then what?? What happens after the “Happily (or Not So Happily) Ever”?

However, whenever Life brings you here- a loss (or a gain), a time of transition, a feeling of uncertainty about what comes next- you can start by asking yourself, “What is my story?” What is it that you keep telling yourself about yourself? Coax it to come out by acknowledging that whatever the story is, it existed to keep you safe (it’s gotten you this far, hasn’t it?), and it most likely was created when you were younger and simply learning to make sense of the world around you. Aim for awareness and understanding– gratitude and compassion can come later.

Next, ask yourself, “What am I getting out of the story that I am holding on to so closely? Take three deep breaths and see if you can listen to your “voice within” and not just to all the thoughts racing in your mind. This isn’t an easy question to figure out- our defenses, our ego, will be kicking into overdrive to protect us and “keep us safe.” Even when that “safety” is really just a comfortable, familiar way of suffering. . . Why be vulnerable and truly see how little control we have over, well, pretty much EVERYTHING, when we can just stay here all nice and cozy with the self-doubt and self-sabotage we’re so very good at inflicting on ourselves?

Whatever shows up as your answer- sit with it. It’s going to reveal something about your thoughts and beliefs that will probably have some strong emotions attached to it. Aye, there’s the rub- our emotions that we try so hard to avoid, repress, lessen, will resist all our attempts to assert control. In the end, letting go of control and allowing those strong feelings to exist is the only way to move forward. Don’t add suffering to your pain; allow yourself to feel the pain. The only way through it is through it. Know that you are not alone. Our common humanity binds us together on this journey.

Now, instead of just sitting with whatever shows up, ask yourself, “What do I need?” Can you move with your feelings? Rock back and forth, hug yourself, take a walk, kick or punch pillows, shake it off- embody your emotions and use the wisdom of your physical body to release all that energy you spent trying to cover up the fact that you are human and have feelings (and that not being in control is scary). Feel like shouting or crying, screaming or laughing? Go for it.

This is an awful lot to process and experience. If you need to take a break, or a nap, give yourself permission to do so. Call a friend, one who will listen without judgment and without giving advice. There’s freedom waiting in this new place, with this new clarity- freedom to choose a different story. You can feel exposed and vulnerable and powerful and hopeful, all at the same time. Over and over again. Why not choose a story for yourself of love and hope and forgiveness? Of strength and courage and even happiness?

A New Year is coming. Time for a new story. Choose freedom from your old story and find the joy of living fully as your flawed and beautiful, beautiful self.

Peace, love, and hope to you all-

Retreat and (Panic) Attack: A Cautionary Tale

September 14, 2020

Early last month, I was fortunate enough to escape my home for a local three-night mini-retreat at an inn overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. I had researched all their pandemic protocols, and felt like I could safely sequester there- they even had a highly-rated restaurant onsite so I didn’t have to drive to pickup my takeout.

I checked in and was so excited to see my spacious suite, barren of all the lived-in clutter that clogs up our home and cries out for my attention. Cameron had sweetly arranged to have a bottle of champagne and a plate of chocolate truffles waiting for me, and I toasted and tasted my good fortune. Later, I indulged in one of my favorite meals- a cheeseburger and fries- and enjoyed an escapist, superhero/Good vs. Evil movie. Look at me- look how successfully I was savoring every moment- with Gratitude! Self-care! Fun!

And then night fell. The sheets were cool and crisp, the pillows were ample and squishy, and I settled in for a good night’s sleep. Except it wasn’t sleep, and it wasn’t good. Something was off, but hey, I was away from it all, so I tried to take it in stride. . . I tossed and turned, reassuring myself it was “no big deal,” just the usual insomnia, until I gave up and sat up and started reading. It was still vacation, and it was still a treat to lie in bed and read. When the sun rose, I rose too, threw on clothes and went for a walk down to the water. How freeing it was to feel and smell the sea air blowing. On the outside, it still looked like a retreat, but on the inside things were starting to come a little unglued. I kept pretending, through an al fresco breakfast and even through a morning spent poolside engrossed in my book. Maybe I was just over-caffeinated and jittery, I thought, or just a little off due to my lack of sleep combined with the strangeness of being “out in public” and away from home during a pandemic.

With sandwich in hand and mask on face, I made my way back to my room, where I ran smack into a panic attack (so thoughtful of it to let me have the morning mostly to myself). I’ve experienced panic attacks before- usually well after some stressful event or, more frequently for me, seemingly out of the blue. The severity isn’t generally that bad, and I’m able to ride out their brief duration with a little attention (and a little Ativan if needed). This one hit like the tropical storm that was on its way to the Bay later that evening- pounding heart, gasping breath, squeezing chest. My thoughts were racing so wildly that I couldn’t get a moment to catch a break and try to right my ship. The most unsettling little gem out of all of it was an ear worm- some random song (I am so relieved I can no longer recall it) ceaselessly boring a hole right through my brain. This panic attack lasted for hours. It was relentless. I was undone.

I did the best I could to surf the waves of emotions and body sensations, to allow it all in and not panic about the panic. I let go of trying to control it, and focused instead on one breath at a time, noticing the way the air felt in my nostrils- cool on the inhale, warmer on the exhale. I closed my eyes, then opened them again when the dizziness started, focusing on naming the colors I saw (not the best time to have a room filled with sandy taupes and driftwood grays). Now the atmosphere outside started matching my insides as the sky darkened, the wind whipped up, and the first bands of rain from the tropical storm reached the inn. It felt like I was in the midst of my own private summertime “Shining” horror-movie moment.

My inner storm finally (finally!) subsided, not with a bang but definitely with a whimper of gratitude. I slept soundly as the wind howled and the windows rattled, lightning and thunder crashing and booming.

But, really- a panic attack in the middle of a vacation retreat?! What the absolute fuck?! Here’s where the “cautionary tale” part of this blog’s title comes in. . . .

*Although I knew enough about myself to know I needed a break, I clearly hadn’t been giving myself enough little breaks- from work, from the news, from my social media feeds, from all the things I thought I HAD TO DO. What sort of breaks have you been giving yourself lately?

*As a life coach, I know the importance of feeling your feelings, instead of trying to push them away and/or judge yourself for having them in the first place. Even so, this world, our country, this moment in time- it’s so far too much that it was easier for me to shut down instead of really tuning in to my emotions. How are you feeling today? Are you afraid, or anxious, or angry, or scared? Or just so sad? Can you sit with those feelings and notice where they show up in your body? You can do it. You are strong enough.

*I’m an introvert, and I recharge by taking time to myself. However, that means it’s also pretty easy for me to downplay my feelings or gloss over them when I’m talking with others. I’d much rather listen than share most of the time. Fortunately, I have an amazing therapist, and I regularly get coached by fellow life coaches (I highly recommend it!), and they all (gently but firmly) force me to take an honest look at my insides and talk about what’s going on. Is there someone who can hold space for you to be authentically you, messy feelings and all? Have you found a community through any online support groups?

*I’m not at all blaming myself for having a panic attack, but with the gift of hindsight I can see there were places where I could have practiced “letting go” before I got to the point of needing to escape. Where are the places in your life that you could practice a little “letting go”- of a sense of control? Of perfection? Of having it all together on the outside? You are strong enough to surf the waves of panic that rise up to try and fill up those spots where you “let go”- trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

I keep thinking of the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley- perhaps a tad overdramatic to link it to my panic attack (even with a tropical storm brewing in the background)- but the themes of inner strength and perseverance are relevant. Just please add a healthy dose of grace and self-compassion when applying these themes to your own life.

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51642/invictus

Joy and Pain

August 2, 2020

I could have easily titled this post “Pain and More Pain.” There’s so much of it these days. Physical, emotional, mental. It’s both individual and collective. It’s in the news and in my nightmares. One of my first yoga teachers told our class that “desire = suffering.” I heard that and thought about my desire for stuff, for approval, for thicker hair. I understood that desire meant longing for something you didn’t have. But what about wanting to get rid of things you already had and most definitely did not want? Like physical or emotional pain? As far as I was concerned, pain = suffering. You couldn’t have one without the other.

That was then. And it was a “not-so-distant” then, if I’m being honest. Trying to push my pain away only made that pain more potent when it either exploded on the scene a short time later or corroded my daily existence as I tried to pretend it didn’t exist. Oh how I suffered. It makes me a little nauseous thinking back to how hard I worked to swim upstream, against the current and approaching the rapids- not with goggles on, but with blinders.

My Wayfinder life coach mentor Martha Beck makes a distinction between “clean pain” and “dirty pain.” Clean pain is pain caused by circumstances or events. It is exquisite, and it can take your breath away. Dirty pain is pain brought on by our thinking, by our thoughts that surround, distort, or disguise our clean pain. That’s where true suffering lies- where the desire to escape or prevent our feelings of pain rises up. Have you ever tried to numb your feelings? Or deny their very existence? What is the point of putting on a brave face when that’s just a lie you are selling yourself and those around you? The real bravery comes from feeling your pain, your sadness– owning it, and admitting it. Grace happens when you accept your humanity and allow your body and mind to experience these feelings. Your blinders are replaced by goggles, and though the rapids do a number on you physically and mentally, you WILL come out on the other side. It will pass. A shady spot on the shoreline is waiting for you- along with a deep sense of knowing that you are not alone. You are human. And it’s okay.

Why is it that pain is easier to imagine and talk about than joy? It feels somewhat like a betrayal to even write about joy when so much of our world is sick and on fire. Joy can be hard to come by (and hard to last) if we try to look for it outside ourselves, even though there are countless little moments provided by the kindness of others and by the wonders of our natural environment. Stuck in our pandemic bubbles, I’d like to encourage you to look for joy within– through the use of your imagination. I don’t know if it was the fact that I was an only child, or if it was my love of science fiction and fantasy books- or a combination of the two– but I practically lived in my imagination as a child. Even when I played with friends we created imaginary scenarios and delighted in just how “real” they felt for us. As an adult, my imagination shrank way down, and it wasn’t very, well, imaginative. I wasted a lot of it on pretending and wishing things were different– the energy behind those fantasies was negative and came from a place of fear. Talk about suffering. . . .

There’s quite a bit of science behind the benefits of using your imagination (see “Richard Boyatzis,” “positive emotional attractors,” “intentional change theory,” “positive psychology,” and “Martin Seligman” for starters). I don’t want us to get bogged down in the details, or overly concerned with following any format. Instead, I want you to do what Martha Beck encourages her coaching students to do and “imagine your success– not to the point of delusion, but to the point of joy.” Can you find the joy in imagining all your dreams came true? What does that feel like in your body? How do you treat yourself, and others, when you come from this place of utter satisfaction? What do you notice? This is nothing like a formal meditation– this is more like lying on your bed and daydreaming. Try it for five minutes, or ten if you’re feeling up for it. This is joy that you can access at any time, regardless of your surroundings. Joy that is imagined in the future but has a noticeable effect on our bodies and our minds in the present moment. It creates a spaciousness, a place of possibility, a respite from tight muscles and shallow breathing. The more we touch that joy that is unique to ourselves, the easier it becomes to recall. You might even start seeking that feeling out as you go about your daily living, edging your reality just a little bit closer to your heart’s desire.

Joy and Pain. Hope and Humanity. The child in me honors the child in you- let’s imagine ourselves (and our world) into a boundless place of possibilities, five minutes at a time.

Nothing is Wrong With Me

May 3, 2020

Nothing is wrong with me. Wow. That sentence may have been the most difficult one yet for me to write, and we’ve covered some tough stuff this past year. Okay, technically it’s not harder to write, but it’s so much harder to actually believe it. Nothing is wrong with me. Yikes- that’s making me sweat a little. I know I talked about the importance of self-compassion in my last post, but to put this out there– heck, to make it bold and use it as the title– now that’s just a bit too much. My considerable sense of humor is predicated on the fact that there’s some-thing, lots of things, wrong with me. Hello, my name is self-deprecation. If I can’t put other people at ease by making fun of myself, then what good am I?

I’m a collector of labels. And I’m a fierce comparison shopper– didn’t get the highest grade? Not as smart as I should be. Didn’t win the student council election? Not as popular as I could be. Struggled to understand something in a meeting? I don’t belong here (and God forbid whatever you do don’t ask a question or they’ll find out). Crying and flustered? Too sensitive. Or how about this one– received some positive feedback? Nope. Not real. I’m an imposter (got lucky that time- but what about next time?).

I’m an abuser. I abused myself. I focused so much on perfectionism that I lost sight of my absolute, unshakeable perfection. I believed the lie I told myself that something was wrong with me (in spite of the love that was all around me, always). Even when everything was falling apart I still didn’t get it. I surrendered to the experts, to the support and guidance of those who knew the path ahead, but I still thought the work would lie in fixing myself somehow. Fixing my thinking, fixing my actions, fixing my words. So much letting go, but I still hadn’t released the heaviest rock in my pocket– the belief that I had to change who I was in order to survive.

But I didn’t have to change who I was. Instead, I had to learn who I was. It was a metamorphosis, but what I became was seeded by that which was always there inside of me, waiting. Nothing needed to be fixed. It all just had to be undone. Unlearned. Who I thought I was. Reset to factory settings. You can’t “fix” your thinking by using the same neural pathways that formed those thoughts in the first place. You can’t “fix” your actions until you know the difference between what you can control and what you can’t. You can’t “fix” your words without grounding yourself in the present moment– and stopping the “past-future-past-future” dance. You have to be still.

This is a pretty new place I find myself in– ironic, considering it’s been with me my whole life. So I’m writing this all down not just to share with you, but also to remember. The butterfly that was inside the caterpillar the whole time. My wings are still wet, but they are beautiful.

And by the way- there’s nothing wrong with you, either.

If you are interested in exploring more, here are some of the heroes/guides that have helped show me the way back to my perfect self: Martha Beck, “Steering By Starlight” and “Finding Your Own North Star” (https://marthabeck.com); Byron Katie, “Loving What is” (https://thework.com); and Glennon Doyle, “Untamed” (https://momastery.com).

And– if you’d like to explore more, but don’t want to do it alone, you can connect with me through my own coaching website, http://www.sarahpbaird.com. Small steps, together.

World of Worry

March 27, 2020

A year ago, I started this blog, opening up about the challenges our family was facing and sharing some of the insights I gained while coping with the unknown and “swimming upstream.” Now, here we all are, facing a collective Unknown and a seemingly infinite amount of uncertainty.

It hardly seemed worth it to me to write anything at this time– so many others have done so much to help all of us manage our feelings, stay safe, keep active, and be informed– who am I to think I could add anything of value to these conversations?

And then I remembered something: I’ve been a worrier my whole life. My worry is impressive in both size and scale, in its longevity and its endurance. It has been my constant companion for the better part of five decades (regardless of whether or not I’m awake or asleep). Next to my tattered baby blanket, it is my oldest friend. A global pandemic arises, and POOF! Without batting an eyelash, my worry absorbs this news while sipping its tea and casting an even bigger shadow over the rest of my life.

So, for those of you who aren’t as intimately acquainted as I am with this World of Worry, let me first begin by welcoming you to the club. It’s helpful to remember that we’re not alone– worry does tend to like its hosts to feel singularly singled out.

Next, I’d like to call your attention to your breathing. Fortunately, with everything else going on, we don’t actually have to pay attention to our breathing to make sure we’re doing it. However, with a little focus we can make a big difference in how we are feeling. Just three deep breaths is all I’m asking- and try to make the exhale a little longer than the inhale– and then see if you’re feeling a little more centered and calm.

Next, let me introduce “the three M’s”– mantras, movement, and (time) management– not listed in any particular order. Mantras are found in many meditations and can be as simple as “in” and “out” paired with the inhales and exhales of the three breaths mentioned above. They can be rooted in more formal prayers or positive affirmations (“may I be safe, may I be well, may I be happy”). Movement literally “moves” you out of the worry state and guides you back into the present moment (besides all the other positive effects it has on our physical bodies). Following the terrific example of our beloved dogs and “shaking it off” can be an immediate mood booster. Time management can also provide a respite from worry – allow yourself 5 or 10 minutes a day to write, say aloud, or think about all your worries, and then when the time’s up the worrying is done for that day.

For many of us, there is a “fourth M”- medication. Combined with working with a therapist, medication can provide the bridge we need to get from here to there, from a paralyzing place of worry to a functional place where the effects of all the tools listed above can be felt.

Most of you reading this blog know at least a little bit about the techniques and coping strategies I mentioned above. And most of us know worrying doesn’t actually solve anything, or make anything better or easier. What it prevents are things like the opportunity to be fully present to what is actually going on right now (distraction- but not in a good or healthy or entertaining way) and the ability to be open to new possibilities- or hope.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the description of grief as love with no place to go?* I think of worry as love going in the wrong direction. It’s taken me years and years of internal work, and experiencing what I’ve described in my earlier posts, to find some success at managing my worry. And what I’ve only recently discovered is that self-compassion is the flip-side of worry. I couldn’t see that connection for a long while, since I confused self-compassion with selfishness. Worry, to me, was thinking of others at my own expense. Even when I began to understand that hurting myself this way– fanning the flames of my anxiety– wasn’t actually helping anyone else, I still didn’t grasp that the best way to help others was to help myself first. Yes, yes, I’m sure we’ve all heard the airline analogy about “putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.” I believed that, and I promised I would do that in the event of an actual emergency. But in day-to-day living, I just couldn’t let go of the idea that doing so was a selfish act. It’s amazing how long you can last being oxygen-deprived at the altitude of everyday life. Eventually, however, the air runs out.

When that moment finally came for me, I didn’t lose physical consciousness, but rather my self-consciousness- my shame at being human and having needs. The act of helping others is utterly dependent upon helping ourselves first. It starts with simpler acts of self-care, like fuzzy socks, warm baths, and mugs of tea. Stopping there, though, puts a limit on how much you value yourself, and it also truly limits your ability to show compassion to others. We have to sit still long enough to really hear what our bodies and our hearts need, and we have to be brave enough to seek out those things and minister care to ourselves. If we don’t, we are lessening what we can bring to the world around us.

So, when you feel the worry rising up inside, please take a moment to ask yourself what you need and find some way to give it to yourself. Redirect that love that’s pointing in the wrong direction- aim it at yourself. Take in every last little bit. And only then will you be able to turn it around and give it away. Now more than ever, our world needs it.

*“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” – Jamie Anderson

If you’re interested in digging a little deeper into self-compassion, check out https://self-compassion.org, a website highlighting the work of Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion.

Hope-y New Year 2020

January 10, 2020

Ten months ago I wrote my first “Hope-y” blog post, in which I explained that “Hope-y” sounds much more realistic and attainable to me than just pure “Hope.” Or how about “Hope-adjacent?” At this point in January, many of those New Year’s resolutions we all were so determined to make (and keep) have possibly taken a downward turn toward entropy as our future vision meets our daily reality. As a recovering perfectionist with a long history of fearing failure, I want to start off this clean slate of a year with a more realistic goal: Hope-y-ness. Hopeful and happy, but with the worn-in, “vintage” look that’s so popular nowadays. And it won’t show the stains and strains of the occasional mess. Easier to maintain, and much more comfortable.

It’s also important for me to acknowledge Hope (or Hope-y-ness) as a partner in balance to Fear, my constant and familiar companion. I spent a lot of lines last year writing about Fear and how it shows up in all sorts of ways, how I’m getting better at spotting it when it comes at me wearing a different disguise (humor instead of tears, impatience instead of paralysis). Choosing to act in spite of the fear is a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute intentional choice, and that can be so exhausting- even as it’s getting easier to do.

American author Audre Lorde, writing on her 50th birthday (and two weeks after a diagnosis of liver cancer), penned this about fear: “I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else. Afraid is a country where they issue us passports at birth and hope we never seek citizenship in any other country. The face of afraid keeps changing constantly, and I can count on that change. I need to travel light and fast, and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.”

Instead of adding more goals and actions to the start of this new decade, what if we focused on subtracting excess baggage? Jettisoning some cargo? Letting go of old stories and past regrets so that we can be fully present in the Present? That’s the only way we can create space for a Hope-y future. There is such freedom in choosing Hope (Hope-y-ness) over Fear, and it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, over and over and over again.

Now, I am faced with the prospect of genuine good news– our son is coming home– and I am desperately wanting to hang on to Hope. I don’t want the marks I carry from past fears realized to dampen these potential-filled days ahead. My parenting PTSD wants to drag me back down to the days where I was faking it but definitely not making it. Back to before I learned to stay balanced by rooting myself only in the present moment (with the deep understanding that nothing is permanent). No lingering in the past or dipping into the unwritten future. It’s watered my Hope down to Hope-y-ness, but that’s okay. Like Audre Lorde, I need to travel light and fast. And if Hope is “the thing with feathers,” according to that well-known Emily Dickinson poem, then Hope-y-ness is a feather itself, nothing at all that will weigh you down (especially with unmet expectations).

The not-so-divine in me acknowledges the not-so-divine in you, and loves you because of this shared humanity. So “Hope-y New Year” my friends. Here’s a feather for your travels–

Instead of a stroll down memory lane, how about a fast walk in the opposite direction?

December 23, 2019

Ahh, the holidays. . . so full of sugarplums and partridges in pear trees. . . and stress. And not just 12 days of stress, but a whole calendar’s worth of it, as the year winds down and we gear up for a new one. Like Santa’s big red bag stuffed with presents, we carry around our own big bag– ours is stuffed with memories of past holidays and past New Year’s resolutions, of the year (and now the decade) that’s past, layered with holiday-amplified grief for loved ones lost. I’m already hunched over wrapping all those presents; under the added weight of my “bag” I’m almost crushed flat.

Yes, of course there are many happy memories in there too. And if your bag is stuffed with only those, then have another glass of eggnog and thank your lucky stars. But many of us are dealing with experiences that fall somewhere in between on the spectrum of Happy and “big-T” Trauma. “Little-t” traumas and other types of heartbreak also leave their mark on us physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. I, for example, feel guilty at times that I feel so gobsmacked by my own traumas when others have much bigger challenges. But why do I feel that I don’t deserve to be as sad as others can or should be? What kind of messed up thinking is that? Let me tell you, from my vast experience on the subject, that not allowing yourself to feel all your feels will only cause more sorrow and less joy. Dashing through the holiday “snow” of parties, days off (or not), family gatherings (or family exclusions), we can focus so much on what we should be feeling that we leave no room for what we actually are feeling. We can get so hung up on the past that we waste the present trying to either recreate it or get as far away from it as possible. What if we gave ourselves permission to be just as we are, to feel what we feel, even if it’s sadness during a time of joy? That joy will itself be hard to come by if we don’t acknowledge the grief, or the fatigue, or the anxiety, or the anger. Once we own it, it will pass, and in its place will come possibility. That potential that feels like kissing a baby’s sweet little head, or like a raucous laugh that bursts out of nowhere and comes with tears and side stitches. The possibility of creating new memories in old, familiar places. Hope.

My wish for you, and for myself, is to simply feel what you are feeling during this intense time. Notice your feelings, and please don’t hide them– you are entitled to your feelings, even if they can’t be wrapped up with shiny paper and tied neatly with a festive bow. Light the candles, but acknowledge the existence of the darkness too. If hope seems like too lofty a goal, then just breathe. And breathe again. Ask for help if you need it. And be gentle with yourself.

‘Tis the season for miracles.

Your Least Happy Child and You

October 24, 2019

I’m going to stir the pot, break some eggs, bring some heat– and I’m not even in the kitchen. Right now, in fact, I’m lying with my feet up, typing on my new rose gold-colored MacBook Air, feeling pretty comfortable. Earlier today, I enjoyed a Starbucks caramel macchiato (with 2% milk, not even nonfat!), and I spent a couple of hours at the hair salon getting my hair dyed its newish deep red color. This evening, I had a glass of rosé before eating Chinese food with Cameron and watching and reminiscing over the original “Clash of the Titans” movie. Not a bad day at all. In fact, a happy one.

What was my “least happy child” doing? Well, one of them is stressed out over some really tough college exams, and the other is in a residential treatment center far away from home. Let’s go with the latter one. . . . chances are there are no lattes or laptops available there.

I imagine you are on to me by now. . . . I’d like to talk about the well-worn adage “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” My guess is most of you have an immediate reaction to hearing this phrase, and you instinctively agree with it. So, taking a look at how I spent my day today, either I’m a terrible, insensitive mother, or there’s something wrong with this tired-out trope.

I’m sure most of you who know me would quickly offer me an exception, knowing the challenges our whole family has endured. But would you offer an exception for yourselves? If your family story hews a little more closely to the norm than ours does, would you grant yourself a pause to really examine the sentiment behind this commonly offered consolation?

Why is this phrase offered to those of us who have children struggling? Do people actually think this is comforting? I understand the impulse to validate our own sadness and stress– isn’t that what good friends do?– but what, really, are you saying to us? It’s okay to be sad when our kids are sad– but then is it not okay to be happy when our kid isn’t? If whatever is making our kid sad is something that isn’t easily fixed– or can’t be fixed or solved at all– what, then, should we as parents do? Trust me, we spend an awful lot of time as it is walking around in a daze, especially at the beginning of the journey, acting as close to fine on the outside as we can, all the while falling apart on the inside. But how is this Herculean effort sustainable? Do we really expect a parent to be permanently unhappy because their child struggles? And what exactly would this look like? Who gets to decide?

And what does this say to the child who is unhappy? Granted, many teenagers would think it’s pretty cool to have so much power over the adults in their lives– but not for long. This kind of control over the ones who are supposed to be in charge inevitably causes anxiety and fear– if I’m responsible for my parents’ happiness, what about my own? What if my parents are mad or disappointed or down? Is that my fault? What should I do?

Please don’t surrender the burden of responsibility for your emotional health to your children. That will leave an imprint on them that will stay with them for life, until and unless they finally realize that this is something beyond their control and seek help undoing the damage.

If I want my children to find their inner strength and be resilient in the face of challenges, I have to show them how to do that. How to develop healthy attachments to the ones we bring into our lives, where our happiness and our power come from within– we don’t give them away for others to control. It’s not just happiness we are talking about– that is a fleeting and unreliable source of strength. What we are really talking about is peace. Balance. Centeredness. A deep understanding of what we can control, and what we can’t.

Least happy or not, I am determined to teach both my children that my happiness doesn’t depend on their happiness– and vice-versa. My choices about my emotions are my responsibility. I still feel their pain more deeply than my own– watching your children suffer is the worst torment on Earth for parents– and yet my tears, my sadness, my laughter, are all my own.

If you’ve offered this phrase to parents whose children are struggling, please forgive yourselves. Life is hard, we make mistakes, and we learn. Self-compassion and the ability to forgive are also huge skills to model for our kids.

I am not the exception that proves the rule. This rule needs to be broken.

Okay then, “Resigned Acceptance” it is (heavy sigh)

September 8, 2019

In my last post I settled on the idea of “resigned acceptance” instead of the “radical acceptance” urged by yogis, authors, therapists, and other enlightened souls. I am resigned to the facts that bad things happen and I can’t control everything. This reluctant balance has given me some surprising benefits: my recovery time when “bad things happen” has shortened dramatically, both physically and emotionally. I don’t need to put on my happy face as much anymore- I can function in public spaces (and some private ones) even while sad or in pain, and not frighten any passers-by. I’m not faking it, or avoiding it– believe me, I’ve tried both for decades now, but my cosmic fatigue finally forced me into this new place, and it actually feels strangely good. One of the hard tasks now is to accept feeling good, feeling capable, feeling worthy of this small piece of peace.

And then our sweet, sweet pup Finny died.

He was only 8 years old. We knew for a year or so that he had some kidney issues, but we had been managing to keep him healthy through special food and medications. Then, suddenly, over the course of three weeks, he deteriorated. At the start of his last day with us, we weren’t even sure that would be his last day. Just a couple of hours later, however, we were calling the vet and asking to come in as soon as possible. Our last best gift for the sweetest dog ever was to help end his suffering, and that knowledge gave me the strength to plow through those last few hours of that utterly surreal and sorrowful day.

There is so much written about grief that it feels wrong to even try to add my thoughts to what’s already out there. But it is exactly thoughts that I want to talk about: how grief can distort your thinking so that suddenly you are stopped cold in your tracks at what your mind just conjured. . . . I keep hearing and seeing Finny everywhere in the house, and I keep thinking that I’ve got to get home from whatever I’m doing to let him out. And when I do finally get home, I’m greeted not by the shiny black nose poking out the door (the nose we always thought looked like the plastic ones glued onto teddy bears) but by the gut-punch of emptiness. These are my everyday, garden-variety grieving thoughts. The one that almost caused a car accident occurred as I was driving home from the vet’s with Finny’s ashes. . . . We had selected a small, plain, wooden box for his remains, one that had a place to display a photo on the front. I had gotten a new iPhone in the days since Finny died, one with a much-improved camera, and I thought that I would head home and take a “portrait mode” photo of our pup– TO PUT ON THE FRONT OF HIS URN. WTF?? I was driving home with his ashes in the passenger seat, planning to walk in and take a quality portrait of him to slide into the frame on the display box holding his remains?!? Whoa.

Yes, I was under the extreme stress of grief. And yes, I realized my thought was “Not Normal” the second after I thought it. But if this is what our brains can produce under duress, how many other distortions do we think into reality and then act on? Our brains, our thoughts, are NOT reliable sources, not even in the best of times. Thinking things doesn’t make those things “real.” Question everything. Be present. Be curious. Remember– “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” That liberty, that freedom– even just a reluctant taste of it compels me to urge you to stay vigilant. You don’t have to be radical— just resigned. If I can do it, so can you.

Radical Acceptance- F$%@ that S*&#!

July 30, 2019

So, I’m a little mad. Make that angry. Frustrated. Almost, dare I say, another f-word? Furious. Okay-that feels better.

And I’m not even going to touch on my fury about our current political and ecological climates (too overwhelming for just one blog post).

I do internal anger very well (or rather, I have a lot of it). I’ve just never been able to let it out in an effective or freeing sort of way. My external self shows anger with a quavery voice and tears, and some spectacular red splotches across my pale cheeks. I have a feeling that putting my anger out in public through this post isn’t going to end well either, or be perfect, so this is quite a boundary-pushing, out-of-my-comfort-zone kind of exercise. I’d much prefer to be smiling and self-deprecating, and make everyone happy. Care to join me and “lean in” to some messy emotions and unpleasant truths instead?

I’m effing furious at how unfair life is. How hard things are. How no matter what I do or say or think or eat I can’t control what happens to my children, my family, the people I love. It’s completely unacceptable that Ollie has to navigate life with a triple-threat-burden of mental health issues, a genetic condition with no cure, and a body that didn’t match his gender identity.

I thought I gave up worshipping the false idol of control when we finally acknowledged that Ollie needed more help than we could give him at home. Sending your kid away is a radical, unnatural act. But that was only the beginning. It’s been two years of learning and unlearning, grieving and gaining– only to have to wake up the next day and start all over again. The bits of hard-earned wisdom I’ve gained still feel hard, even after the price I paid to acquire them. Shouldn’t it be easier to wake up every day and stay in balance and be hopeful? I mean, yes, it’s easier now than it was at the beginning but it’s nowhere near easy. And I’m tired. It is hard work, making a deliberate choice to re-set and re-center. It is relentless– this choice presents itself every second of every day. And it’s still not as automatic as I thought it would be by now. All this while my middle-aged body gives gravity a free reign and my hormones rage like the plaid-wearing grunge rockers I loved back in the ’90s. No, this is absolutely NOT Nirvana. . . .

There’s a quote that keeps floating up in my mind: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” According to thisdayinquotes.com, this quote is often mistakenly attributed to both Irish lawyer John Philpott Curran and US President Thomas Jefferson. The most famous use of this sentence was from a speech made by Wendell Phillips, an American Abolitionist and liberal activist, in January 1852. However, it was novelist Aldous Huxley who said in 1956, “The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.”

Why is it so hard to remember our common humanity? Why can’t it be the “factory preset” so that we don’t have to work so ridiculously, insanely hard? Oh, okay, whoops, I’ve diverged into (political) climate talk, so I’ll redirect. . . .

“Radical acceptance” is a concept in Dialectical Behavior Theory and in some Buddhist teachings (and it’s the title of a book by American psychologist Tara Brach). I’ve bumped up against it both in my own therapeutic work and in our work as a family. To me, it means that if I can accept things as they are, truly and with every fiber of my being, then I will be free– then I can step on to the path to enlightenment. To contentment. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Oh, to be content. After two years of rolling my own boulder uphill every single day, I say, “F$%@ that S*&#!” I don’t think I’m anywhere close to radical acceptance– my current status is more like “resigned acceptance.” Life is hard, and it sucks. And I don’t think that’s okay, or at least I haven’t yet found a way to be okay with that. . . but I have learned that I have the strength to choose freedom, freedom from my old, distorted ways of thinking. (Some days, anyway. Other days, I stay in bed.) It’s so deliciously tempting to fall into the comforts of ruminating about the past or freaking out about the future. It’s still so miserably hard to stay eternally vigilant and planted firmly in the present, open and terrifyingly exposed to the unknown. It’s fucking exhausting to be a battle-ready, peace-loving, lotus blossom warrior fighting to face the sunlight and stay upright in the mud and muck of human experience. It sucks. It’s too high a price to pay. And? What other choice do we have?

I want to use this space to acknowledge all the messy, unpleasant emotions that we all share– if we don’t own them then they will own us. I’m tired of being polite and contained and performing to what I think are other people’s expectations of me– none of this has actually helped my kids, or my family, or the people I love, avoid the pain of their own humanity. Nor, in fact, has it ultimately helped me.

Resigned acceptance sounds like a reasonable place to start. Today at least. If you’d like some company I’ll be right here, rolling my own rock up my own hill. There’s plenty of room. As long as you don’t mind a few curse words in between meditations and water breaks.