Daily gratitude practice, updated.

The recommendation to make a daily gratitude list has become so common that your brain might be shutting down right now.  Yeah, yeah, you grumble.  The research is clear that sitting down each evening to list blessings in your life can increase happiness and well-being. And everyone older than three or younger than ninety knows it. “Lay off us, we’ve heard it before,” you may be thinking.

I struggle with it too. I know reciting my gratefulness can enrich my life, tempering the days I spend listening to woes galore. But do I do it? I’m just a lowly human being, and maybe this struggle is another way psychologists are just like you! When I’ve tried, I quickly get into a “CD on repeat”-type litany, writing about the same loved ones, health, strength, and security day after day. Starts to sound like blah, blah, blah in my head, and I doubt how that low level rumble can even make a dent in my psyche.

Doing my duty as a psychologist, making an effort to improve my skills, I was listening to an online seminar in my car. Selfishly, often: I want to improve my bag of tricks for clients and blog audience, but I also like to make my life easier. The name-escapes-me-today (see, I forget, just like you) speaker said that, in an effort to fulfill his own gratitude practice, he tries to find a new experience or moment to savor each day. This motivates him to move through his day mindfully, given that mindfulness also enhances our perception of living a good life. Throughout the day, he checks in routinely, keeping part of his brain attuned to new experiences or moments to appreciate.

I liked this. In even the worst days, there is at least one thing that lights me up, makes me smile. A kindness, a compliment, a hug. Often, there is one small item that makes me smile–or laugh out loud. I often text these ‘finds’ to my daughters, as a fun way to keep in touch.  I think I could do this. I set out to add this to my practice of bits of life to notice.

Meanwhile, the other challenge in my head lately is exactly how to jump into Twitter. The promise is that Twitter could increase my exposure, help me share my expertise, build my business. Since I announced my intention to do so, it’s been like learning to drive a car with a clutch.  Shift, stall, grind the gears. NOT quite as bad as sitting in the ’67 VW at the top of a hill with my dad alternately cajoling and yelling at me. But a struggle, to figure out what might shine even a tiny bit in the vast Twitter universe, making my comments worth a follow.

Grind, grind, go the gears in my head, chewing up gratitude ideas with tweets. The result that spewed out is my new daily gratitude practice. Each day*, my goal is to notice and tweet one event that made me smile. Since it appears that a clothing company already has a campaign linked to the hashtag #dailysmile, I’ll be using #dailysmiles.

Join me, won’t you? Follow and retweet–or let me inspire you to notice and tweet your own daily smile.

 

*(hey, I’m warning you, I’m only human.)

What’s with all the nature photos?

Perhaps you’ve noticed the new web design. An update was needed, as my old template was a bit outdated and dysfunctional. But what’s with all the nature photos? Think I’m bragging about all my summer escapes? Well, since I am a human being, I did enjoy a number of relaxing and/or productive journeys to beautiful locales this summer, and I had a lot of fun taking pictures. Following in the big steps of my dad, I suppose. When we were sorting through the thousands of photos he took in his amateur photography career recently, it seemed like two-thirds were sunsets, mountain views, or beaches.

Nature does have healing properties–whether that is five minutes in actual nature or time in your day to pause and look at nature photos. Research has also shown that exercising in an outdoor setting inspires us to do more, more willingly.  Connection to nature has been associated with increased mindfulness (being in the moment in a nonjudgmental way), positive emotions, awe, and purpose in life. I encourage everyone to enjoy a little fix of nature everyday–either in vivo (i.e. get yourself outside into a natural setting, in real life) or enjoy visual images of nature.  That’s my motivation in providing nature photos here on my blog. Pictures like these always make me breath a sigh of relaxation–just what I’m hoping to do for my readers by sharing them here. Enjoy!

Are you a sponge or a brick?

The need for approval leads many women to sculpt and mold their bodies, personalities, even lives to fit either/both a societal ideal and an individual’s expectations.  Maybe the recent Olympics launched tears of boredom rather than emotion in you, but you smiled and nodded at others’ enthusiasm. In most women’s lives, it’s an ongoing struggle to find that balance of being fully me while still pleasing others.  Back in February, I explored this need for honest truth in our relationship lives, concluding that loss of self for the sake of a relationship does not lead to a happy life. It’s not a good idea to “give up me to be loved by you,” as the classic book says.

Healthy or not, backed by psychological science or not, it is often true that we are attracted to those who have characteristics that we seem to be missing. An introvert feels that that wild party person will fill life with greater fun or connection. A serious planner loves the spontaneity of that ”live-in-the-moment” person.  In the words of Jerry Maguire, “you complete me.” In the best incarnation of this trend, we seek out relationships with those who help us grow, challenging us to be the best ME we can be. It’s healthy to be a little putty-like, flexible, inspired to try on new interests, characteristics, even personas. And, ideally this is mutual. You both want to meet in the middle, stretching yourselves to be more. In long-term relationships, a sign of health is the ability to adapt to the growth of one’s partner.

(In the worst case scenario, we come to hate the very traits that drew us together in the first place. That spontaneous person fails to follow through on any planning.  The introvert needs more quiet time. We lose track of what we liked about each other at the beginning. But I digress . . .)

The grown-up challenge to the adolescent “but everybody is doing it” refrain may apply, even though you might cringe at the comparison: “Are you really going to jump off a bridge because your best friend is?” Don’t be a lemming, and follow even one other lemming off the cliff if that doesn’t feel consistent with who you are.  Do you have to homeschool your kids because your friends are and the schools do seem so scary and inadequate? Must you embrace S&M just because Fifty Shades of Grey is hiding on everyone’s ebook shelf and it might enliven your own gray sex life, even if the thought seems laughable or offensive to you? Do you have to start running because your partner does and it’s “good for you” when it makes your knees ache?

Check out this checklist about sacrificing too much for a relationship. When considering what and how much to change when the inevitable push comes from those we love, it is important to be mindful, thoughtful, careful in evaluating what parts of ourselves we do want to alter. Is this inherently good for me? Can this person inspire in me a healthy degree of change, versus complete transformation or loss of me? Will this benefit me outside of this relationship? Is this consistent with my values? What do I want to do?

The biggest challenge of our lives is to be our own version of our best selves, in the face of pressure to be someone else’s ideal, whether that someone is a loved one or the culture. Be neither a sponge–squashed and shaped to others’ ideals– nor a brick–rigid and unaffected–in your own continual evolution to be YOU.

 

The flip side of approval-seeking

I never seem to quit thinking on a topic, even after I’ve written a blog. Last week, I explored the need for approval. That post was triggered by new research that confirmed my thoughts: that affirmation from others makes us happy. While we may not need others to rubber-stamp our lives, getting that little boost of “you’re okay” certainly can boost our mood. We don’t require it, hopefully; we just like it.

As my brain pendulum seems to do, my thoughts have now swung to thinking about the opposite: not needing approval at all. COMPLETELY independent, perfectly secure individuals may seem to be able to live by the motto “what others think of me is none of my business.” But what about when that idea is taken to extremes? Worst case scenario, what kind of person eschews the opinion of others 110%?  If I let my creativity run rampant on that idea, I imagine a person who does whatever s/he wishes, without regard to the needs of others. How would we describe someone who is so inclined? Selfish, narcissistic, insensitive, completely wrapped up in him/herself. This sounds like a two year old throwing a tantrum, or maybe a self-absorbed adolescent. Or even a danger to society? The crazed gunmen who terrorize schools, theatres, etc. are out to please only themselves, not caring one whit about approval or affirmation of others.

It’s just one more balancing act; neither extreme is healthy. The goal is not to be utterly pleasing others all the time, nor to be pleasing only one’s self, even when disaster is not the result. Social creatures, we want to feel good about the core of our being. We need to like the basic person we are, and self-affirm the majority of our choices and qualities, even in the face of frowns from others. That degree of independence is a laudable goal. At the same time,  mental health calls for balance, attending to the needs, preferences, and safety of others.

Eschew approval? Think again.

While I know this dates me, one of my favorite shows when I was a kid (granted, there were only about three morning kids’ shows from from which to choose), was Captain Kangaroo. Kindly, portly, huggable Captain Kangaroo was like a grandpa in the living room, jollying us along to learn those kid-focused life lessons, supported by his sidekick, Mr. Greenjeans. Not unlike a 1950s Dr. Phil, mustache and all. And at least as I recall, each episode ended with the mantra-like repetition of this message:

“You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

(and it’s funny that I can’t find any internet verification of this, so I guess I’ll just trust my memory!)

This lesson about the need for approval became well-ingrained in childhood, probably my first exposure to how unrealsitic expectations can set us up to feel unhappy.  From an early age, I tried to accustom myself to the idea that I didn’t need everyone to think well of me. Whenever I got caught up in that, I remembered the Captain, reminding me that a universal fuzzy blanket of approval simply wasn’t possible.  Fast forward to my college years of studying psychology, where I learned that, according to Karen Horney and other psychoanalytic thinkers, the need for approval and admiration were deemed “neurotic.” In other words, psychologically healthy people don’t need others’ approval. Instead, psychologically healthy people can offer themselves that approval.  I have preached to clients–and in my own head–that we don’t need any approval beyond our own. It’s just a nice bonus.

Yet, in my personal life and in the lives of my clients, that need for approval seemed pretty prevalent and powerful–maybe even universal. This means either that the psychoanalysts were wrong, and need for approval is simply human. Or that we are all a bit neurotic, all “bozos on the bus,” as Elizabeth Lesser proclaims in Broken Open. The truth is probably contained in each of these assertions. There is no such existence as perfect psychological health: we lowly humans all like approval. And as I wrote about in another blog, Captain Kangaroo was right, too. We can’t expect everyone to approve of us, all of the time.

Recently, some new research has shown that affirmation from others is indeed a major component of happiness. In a series of studies, participants rated themselves on measures of how respected and admired they felt, how happy they perceived themselves to be, and earned income. Repeatedly, the sense of feeling admired and a respected, contributing member of a group, was more strongly related to happiness than was financial well-being. The researchers dubbed this “sociometric status,” compared to “socioeconomic status.” Similar research has shown that an overall sense of belonging is related to happiness. These new studies expanded the finding to focus on how affirmed and respected you feel, above and beyond belonging.

Who says we don’t want to have approval from our peers? Sounds like a basic human need to me. Giving approval to ourselves may still be the cake of wellness, but a resounding sense that others agree with us about our value appears to be the icing on that cake. And the frosting has always been my favorite part.

Another teeter-totter

Hot topic on the net this week, at least until the Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act today, is this great article about “having it all” at The Atlantic.  I can’t even begin to cover all the great discussion this article has launched, but I am thoroughly thrilled that people are talking. I’d like to look at the main reasons I loved this article and the tidal wave of discussion it’s started.

1) The fiction that the first wave of feminism accomplished what we wanted it to accomplish is exposed. “Having it all” with no costs is a breezy lie. Finally, honest, heartfelt discussion on this topic. It’s validating for men and women who are trying to balance work and family and finding it impossible at best. Just to know that we are not the only ones struggling can make us feel better. This honesty ends the guilt and worry about “something the matter with me” if I can’t do it.

2) The author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, makes the point that we need cultural, societal, policy changes to improve the situation. This isn’t about just the challenge to couples on their own, that it will be all right if only they work smarter, get more education, build better support systems. Yes, those tools can help. But unless there is a shift in workplace expectations, whether industry, business, government, or academia, we will continue to lose talent when parents choose to opt out of their fields in order to pursue the elusive balance. Let alone what the current trend to crazy work schedules is doing to our collective and individual health as a nation that has sky-high rates of stress-related diseases.

3) Slaughter speaks up about wanting to be home, a truth that is often frowned upon and greeted with glazed-over eyes by those who don’t get it or scorn by those who perceive a parent as “wasting” one’s skills. Yes, we can want to be home more to make that critical contribution to our children, that in turn is a contribution to society. I am NOT implying that making a choice to NOT be home with children is NOT a good choice. What I’ve always espoused, because it’s what works for parents and children: to be the best parent you can be in the way that works for you. There is not a single Right Answer for every parent or every child.The point is the freedom and support to do what works for you.  To be your own perfectly good mom.

We need to remember that balance is not a set point, rather it’s a constantly shifting target. It’s looking at the big picture of balance over the long haul in a life, not the teeter-totter of every day. Let’s continue to evolve–through just this kind of discussion, inching us toward a livable solution.

Just in time for Father’s Day, a new “Survivor” series . . .

Six married men will be dropped on an island with one car and 2 kids each for six weeks.

Each kid will play two sports and take either music or dance classes.

There is no fast food.

Each man must take care of his 2 kids; keep his assigned house clean, correct all homework, complete science projects, cook, do laundry, and pay a list of ‘pretend’ bills with not enough money. In addition, each man will have to budget enough money for groceries each week.

Each man must remember the birthdays of all their friends and relatives, and send cards out on time–no emailing.

Each man must also take each child to a doctor’s appointment, a dentist appointment and a haircut appointment. He must make one unscheduled and inconvenient visit per child to the Emergency Room.

He must also make cookies or cupcakes for a school function. Each man will be responsible for decorating his own assigned house, planting flowers outside, and keeping it presentable at all times.

The men will only have access to television when the kids are asleep and all chores are done. The men must shave their legs, wear makeup daily, adorn themselves with jewelry, wear uncomfortable yet stylish shoes, keep fingernails polished, and eyebrows groomed.

During one of the six weeks, the men will have to endure severe abdominal cramps, backaches, headaches, have extreme, unexplained mood swings but never once complain or slow down from other duties.

They must attend weekly school meetings, and find time at least once to spend the afternoon at the park or a similar setting.

They will need to read a book to the kids each night and in the morning, feed them, dress them, brush their teeth and comb their hair by 7:30 am.

A test will be given at the end of the six weeks, and each father will be required to know all of the following information: each child’s birthday, height, weight, shoe size, clothes size, doctor’s name, the child’s weight at birth, length, time of birth, and length of labor, each child’s favorite color, middle name, favorite snack, favorite song, favorite drink, favorite toy, biggest fear, and what they want to be when they grow up.

The kids vote them off the island based on performance.

The last man wins only if…he still has enough energy to be intimate with his spouse at a moment’s notice.

If the last man does win, he can play the game over and over and over again for the next 18-25 years, eventually earning the right to be called Mother!

And of course, there are fathers out there who can kick these tasks out of the park. Kudos to them, and cheers to all on Father’s Day!

(And if anyone knows the original author of this piece, please give them my thanks and credit!)

Follow me on Twitter.

I’ve recently succumbed to the social media tide and finally am activating the Twitter account I’ve had for some time. I DO promise more regular “who says!?” posts here, but I seem to be stuck in a writer’s block lately. While I chip my way out with a healthy dose of self-compassion, if you wish tiny (140 character, to be exact) daily doses of my usual thinking challenges, please follow me on Twitter. A button has been added to my sidebar here to make that easy. Look forward to quotes, quick tips, and links to other items I find valuable. And I’d love to hear from you–feedback and suggestions!

Wandering in the web wilderness, we all need a friend. Come be mine.

Psychologists: they’re just like us!

During the phase of parenting teens, I was introduced to one of my daughters’ favorite features in Us Weekly Magazine called Celebrities: Just Like Us. In this feature, photos of megastars were shown in everyday, human activities: shopping for groceries, playing fetch with the dog, wiping noses of small children. This was a healthy dose of reality for our celebrity-worshipping culture, where airbrushing has given most of us an unrealistic view of the bodies and lives of those in the media spotlight.

Once recent research study pointed out the time-honored reverence we have for the title, and  in particular the clothing, of  “doctor.” In this study, those who wore white doctor coats commanded significantly more attention and focus than those dressed in white painters garb. Anyone claiming the title of expert does not need to don a white coat, however. By writing this blog and hanging out my shingle as an expert on human behavior change, I may be subject to this pedestal-placing. One psychologist friend and I were talking about how we, as health professionals, may lose track of our impact on others. We’re here in our offices, doing what we do day after day, and forget how difficult it is for new clients to call, make that appointment, and present themselves, sharing their stories openly on our cushy couches. We are often surprised when a client quotes back to us, “you said X, and that really changed my life,” when we may either a) not remember that specific statement and/or b) wonder silently “is that really what I said?”

Which leads me to today’s story, with several goals. Partly to question: who says psychologists (or doctors) are anything special, to be raised up to the status of all-knowing guides? Partly to explain my sporadic blogging. And partly to demonstrate that which I’m always urging others to practice: self-compassion. Health professionals like me may look like we have it all together, when in truth, we (at least I) have terrible days–and even strings of days–just like everyone else. And pitiable, overreacting responses to life as well.

I awaken Monday morning, feeling good, enjoying my newly-remodeled, not-quite-moved-into bedroom. I love the deep green wall color, the smooth, glistening amber wood floors, the stark white crown molding. I take a meditative shower in my new glass-walled shower with the rainfall showerhead. All is well and I am cruising along, ahead of schedule. I release the three cats from their night time containment in the laundry room, and real life begins. There is cat pee all over the room. Some prolific peeing feline has overshot the monster cat box, spilling gallons onto, and beyond, the protective tray designed to prevent such problems. I slip in pee. I clean up, using several rags and lots of spray cleaner, while harnessing my flowing skirt, picked to impress today’s clients with my graceful sense of fashion. I wonder how good client noses are. I turn with a sigh, and another cat is behind me, straining to release drops of blood-tinged pee, due to her flaring interstitial cystitis (who knew a cat could even get such a thing?!) Uh, oh, better take her to the kindly vet on my way to work. I search the cluttered, post-remodeling project garage, then dash to the attic, in search of cat transport device. No cat carrier is to be found!  I recall it was lent to kind neighbors, and perhaps not yet returned. Check my schedule, to alert first client that I will be late. Said client has new phone number, which of course I entered into my work computer but did not transfer to home records.

Regroup: will take cat on my lunch hour instead, dashing home to corral sick cat in a cloth grocery bag, her favorite mode of transport anyway. Now I’m covered with cat hair and urine. Hastily wipe my shoes on the grass as I dash to the car.  Maybe I can still get to work before the client decides I’ve goofed on the schedule and departs. Traffic is snarled at malfunctioning red light at major intersection. I’ll use my secret, scenic neighborhood short cut. Feeling triumphant, I dash up the side street, round the bend, and am stopped by a construction flag man, guarding the white barriers ahead. I roll down the window, asking if I can get through. He responds in Spanish. My second language (a description that’s stretching it) is French. I consider move to Quebec. Or maybe some Caribbean island where French is spoken. I cut down an unknown side street, and find myself dumped back out into the same traffic mess. I exhale deeply and turn on the “Spa” channel on Sirius. Time to practice what I preach, or risk dissolving into sobbing mess.

Psychologists: they’re just like us!

On letting go

Letting go is such a challenge to most of us. Releasing our attachment to the ways we’ve always done things, to the dreams we thought we wanted, to the children who must grow up, to those old outgrown clothes, to that too large portion on the restaurant plate; it is all hard to do. I don’t find letting go to be easy at all. I tend to hang on and beat my head against the wall until, callused and bruised, I must admit defeat. Insanity is, as Einstein said, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

So I was inspired by this poem that arrived in my newsletter from Rejuvenation Lounge, one of my favorite sites, that makes the process seem so easy. I’m going to aim for thinking about letting go with this much ease, particularly by silencing the “committee of indecision” within me.

SHE LET GO. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear.

She let go of the judgements.

She let go of the opinions swarming around her head.

She let go of the committee of indecision within her.

She let go of all the right reasons. Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go. She just let go.

She let go of all the memories that held her back.

She let go of all the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.

She let go of all the planning and all the calculation, about how to do it just right.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and moon shone forever more.

Written by Ernest Holmes (1887-1960)