It’s the thought that counts

“It’s the thought that counts” is a popular phrase, used to extend the benefit of the doubt to others. Behavior CAN be less than stellar, but if intentions are good, we overlook minor transgressions. This is good. Relationships improve when we focus on the underlying well-meant effort, accepting that someone is simply human, busy, gave us an inappropriate gift, etc. Turn the phrase inward, however, and personal judgment rolls in. Women do this all the time, chastising themselves for perfectly normal, incredibly human thoughts. Thoughts like:

  • “I can’t stand this kid/partner/relative.” Guilt seems especially strong with thoughts about our children and mothers.
  • “I just want to run away.”
  • “I have everything I’ve ever wanted and my life still sucks.”
  • “I understand how parents throw a child against the wall.”
  • “I don’t care if I ever have sex again.”

Sometimes, it’s NOT the thought that counts. It’s the behavior. What counts is how we follow through, how we continue to love and care for others who frustrate us to the point of impersonating Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Go ahead–have a powerful internal scream. Embrace your truly human emotions. Cut yourself some slack about thoughts. Focus instead on actual behavior–big picture, over the long haul. You’ve thought of walking out of a store with your purchases rather than stand in a mile-long line, too. There’s nothing the matter with you, if you override thoughts and behave in the ways you aspire to, the majority of the time.

Wand Targets, #3

“I’d never eat out alone.” Countless women–and men–have voiced this one, implying that if they had a magic wand they’d never have to shovel pasta alone again. Eating lunch with my daughter, we overheard the man at the next table lamenting, “It’s just awful. I can handle lunch alone, but dinner . . . ”

The underlying assumption is “I must be some poor, lonely loser if I can’t find someone with whom to have lunch/dinner.” Maybe you flash back to the lunch table, ousted by the mean girls. There was a time in our culture when single diners, especially women, were treated poorly by restaurant staff. Stereotypically shuttled to the worst table, where they would be banged in the head by the swinging kitchen door.

One of my greatest ways to refuel is to take my current book and eat on a patio in pleasant weather. I rather like my own company, people watching or enjoying a good story. Eating alone says nothing more about me than that I am eating alone. It’s all a state of mind. No need for self-talk that eating alone is pitiful; reframe it as the quiet time you desperately desire.

While we’re addressing expectations, you might want to add Eat Chocolate Naked Week to your list to celebrate. Are you sick of the conventional definition of beauty, and shamed into hiding because of some perceived lack in your appearance or size? This looks like a wonderful opportunity to redefine beauty in a way that works for you.

The passing of an icon

Barbara Billingsley, age 94, died Saturday in Santa Monica, CA. The actress was best known for her portrayal of June Cleaver, the cookie-baking, pearls-while-vacuuming mom of Beaver and Wally Cleaver on the classic television show, Leave It To Beaver. Every Mother’s Day, June Cleaver is voted ‘best TV mom.’ The character set the bar impossibly high for moms everywhere, causing many anxious, perfectionistic women to feel like failures, falling short of June’s level of calm, organized, wise domesticity. And June inspired me to write Even June Cleaver Would Forget The Juice Box to give women a tool to battle unrealistic expectations.

But June was not perfect. She only had to parent 20 minutes a week–and had a script writer to back her up. We could all do as well! In an early episode, June mutters to Ward, as she makes sandwiches for the boys, “I don’t like that Eddie Haskell. He said mayonnaise upsets his stomach, so I’m putting some on his sandwich.” Aghast! June was imperfect–with normal human emotions. This aspect of the character seemed to disappear as the show progressed, sculpting her into the icon she became.

Unlike June, Barbara Billingsley was human. In an interview, she once commented on the pedestal she’d been placed by her role, when she was just another working mother, fighting for her own work life balance. Thanks, Barbara, for sharing your best comedic and human self with us all through the character of June. May you rest in peace.

Health news to heed–and not

The buzz lately is a recently released study by Marco Narici and colleagues of Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom. Narici, like many with Y chromosomes, was sitting around contemplating women in their high heels. As an experimental biologist, Marco began to ponder the effect on women’s calf and foot muscles of long periods of time in the unnatural position required of this fashion statement. When the researchers used MRI to examine the legs of high heel wearers compared to flats wearers, there was a significant difference. The muscle fibers in the calf muscles of the high-heeled women were 13% shorter than those of the flats-favorers, and the Achilles’ tendons were stiffer and thicker. These were actual physiological changes that persisted in women who regularly wear high heels. Narici asserts that women don’t need to give up their heels. Regularly stretching the affected body parts allegedly will ease the distortions.

Who says that permanently distorting your body and causing yourself pain for fashion purposes is sexy? Ever since I grew taller than all the boys in seventh grade, I’ve eschewed high heels and prided myself on my cute flats. Let’s call for a national “Flats are Sexy” day. Maybe not crocs or bunny slippers . . .

As for the health news to challenge, the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC) announced in 2008 that breast self-exam (BSE) was not a reliable tool for women to employ in early detection of breast cancer. The data suggest that “BSE greatly increases the number of benign lumps detected, resulting in increased anxiety, physician visits, and unnecessary biopsies.” After the experience of a loved one this week, I say it’s time to revisit this issue. She had a clean mammogram in January, then detected a palpable lump last week. After multiple biopsies, CT and MRI scans, said lump was diagnosed as invasive ductal carcinoma. Talk to your doctor. Learn correct technique. Research, by nature, rolls the experiences of thousands of women together in order to draw conclusions such as that made by the NBCC. I’d rather undergo anxiety and unnecessary biopsies than miss the real thing. Just my opinion.

Inspiration from Jessica

Perhaps you’ve seen this hilarious youtube video, Jessica’s Daily Affirmation? If not, treat yourself and be inspired–or if so, watch it again.

Like Jessica, we simply ooze with self-confidence and self-love when we’re small. Last weekend, attending a family wedding, the biggest source of entertainment (after the bride, of course) was the new baby in attendance. Finley’s a charmer, seven months old, gladly beaming and flirting as long as he’s on his sweet momma’s lap. He was truly the center of attention, having as many as ten adults at a time oohing and gooing at him, working to evoke his seductive smile. Making him happy just made us happy.

Adorable great-nephew Finley

Smiling babies, after exercise, might just be the quickest route to increasing endorphins–at least when we’re not their primary caretakers and can hand them back. It’s easy to see how kids transfer that love and focus of adult attention into Jessica’s ability to affirm herself.

Then something mysterious happens; the balance shifts. Our parents don’t want us to be spoiled brats, to monopolize the room endlessly, to turn into narcissists who brag. We internalize the idea that nice girls are humble, deny compliments, mutter “oh, this old thing?” about our dresses. Too often we exclaim “this hair?” when we might do better to laud our tresses, as does Jessica of the flowing golden ringlets.

This idea of narcissism as negative is largely an idea of Western culture. I’ve just completed a week long training/retreat on mindfulness meditation, and came away with several key reminders about narcissism. It’s a character flaw only when taken to excess. In typical all or nothing thinking, however, women in particular view self-love as negative, rather than realizing that a healthy dose makes us feel good. In cognitive behavior therapy, the school of thought that most guides my clinical work, the related concept is self-efficacy. Jessica’s statement of self-efficacy is “I can do anything good!” Finally, in Buddhist psychology and related Eastern philosophies, narcissism or self-love is central to feeling good. Simplistically, for the sake of brevity, we suffer when we don’t love and embrace ourselves fully rather than recognizing our infinite perfection as part of, one with, the perfect universe.

You don’t need to plow over others with your evidence of self-love–but at least shower it upon yourself. Stand in front of the mirror, chant your gifts, strengths and beauty. Daily. And don’t forget to underscore your sentiments with a resounding clap. Yeah, yeah, yeah!!!!!!

Nobody’s business

Listening to an audio presentation by Wayne Dyer, Ph.D., and Christiane Northrup, M.D., I was struck by this quote: “what others think of you is none of your business.” How much energy do we spend wondering–or fretting–about others’ opinions of us? As if we need that information–especially if it’s positive–to affirm us? If we perceive that someone’s opinion is negative, we feel rejected, even worthless. And even may revise ourselves to be someone that we’re not.
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Aim for less

Aim for less sounds so unAmerican, so unprogressive. After all, we are a nation founded on always striving to achieve more. No one pines for a smaller house, fewer cars, or a reduction in income. As a culture, we’re heavily invested in the concept of “more is better,” applying that to material acquisitions, experiences, choices. Psychological research is clear that, as Barry Schwartz summarizes in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, more can simply paralyze us and cause us to second-guess our decisions. More clutter, excess, busyness–whether in our homes, on our “to do” lists, or in our psyches–simply overwhelms us.

One case of “more” that really illustrates this concept is what I call “the tyranny of one more.” Familiar scenario for most of us: this is the endless effort we make to sneak in one more task, one more item crossed off the list before we head out the door, pick up the kids, or climb into bed at night. The “tyranny of one more” makes me late more often than not and keeps me working past when I need to relax and unwind. It’s a direct route to being overtired and overstressed.

My younger daughter, perhaps showing her old soul, has been in touch with “less is more” since she was a tiny child. When she was approaching her third birthday, we were talking about the guest list for her party. I began naming friends, listing them on a tablet, while she played nearby. I was really writing this list for me, until I heard what she was muttering. “Too many friends, too many friends. No, no, too many friends.” I listened. We reverted to the time-honored rule of one guest per birthday year celebrated, and invited just three little girls as guests. It was an ideal party, with no melt downs! Another life lesson learned from a child–because I listened.

“Voluntary simplicity means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more.” These words are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School and prolific writer on mindfulness meditation as a stress reduction tool. Cut yourself some slack this week and practice the wisdom of “less is more.” Decline one invitation. Make dinner out of canned soup and fresh fruit. Sit down and breathe in your backyard. Embrace ways in which less truly is more: guilt yourself less, affirm yourself more; spend less, save more; worry less, relax more; compete less, connect more.

Naked in the woods

I’ve just had the delight of Mother’s Day weekend with my two grown daughters at Gray Bear Lodge in the hills of Tennessee. The event was a Red Tent retreat, named after the ancient tradition of women separating themselves from the rest of the tribe during menstruation, resting, recuperating, and nurturing each other in a separate tent. If you’ve not read Anita Diamant’s great book by the same name, check it out. Who says this is an out-dated tradition? Imagine the reduction in stress levels if once a month we retreated from the world to spend time in connection, sharing stories, laughter, and pampering, with our sisters, mothers, and daughters. Let alone in a setting like this.

Healing abounded in the woods: scenic beauty, sauna followed by cold plunge in spring-fed creek, sand shower, rock pool and hot tub, natural facials–all anticipated and welcome experiences. Unexpected aspects of the weekend abounded–like group drumming. My less than musical self could keep time slowly, and even enjoyed it once I got out of my rational head.

Most wonderful– and most surprising of all– was the afternoon spent by this pristine waterfall, sunbathing in the buff. Two dozen women, all ages and shapes, easily shed clothing and communed comfortably together. No judgment in the air, either woman to woman or in any woman’s head. No air-brushed models here. With a few young exceptions, these were Rubenesque bodies that had birthed and breastfed babies, weathered life, cradled dying spouses. Cellulite be damned, we all reveled in soaking up the warmth radiating from sunshine on the table-size rocks. We waded into the freezing water, stumbled across the stones, and rubbed green-tinged mud all over. After the mud dried, we scrubbed it off until our skin glowed pink and alive.

The lack of self-consciousness and total acceptance flowed as freely as the cadence of our leader’s drum on the hike to the waterfall. And caused me to reflect on how rare–and powerful– it is, to free ourselves from our body image obsession (does this look good on me? is my butt too big?) and immerse ourselves in complete acceptance. Who says we can only feel beautiful if our bodies fit some arbitrary, waifish standard?

The phrase repeated throughout the weekend about our generous bodies was “goddess flesh.” As in (as we sank cross-legged onto the floor for meditation) “reach under your buttocks, adjust your goddess flesh so you can sink in and get comfortable.” This is a phrase we all can adopt each time those self-critical, culture-driven appearance obsessions pop into our heads. We’re all goddesses–embrace this body that works for you, which is all it needs to do.

And if you want to protect this lovely spot, check out the Gray Bear Land Trust.

A perfect Mother’s Day–blah, meow, woof.

Unless you’ve been orbiting in the space shuttle or hiding in an Afghan cave this week, you’re aware that it’s a big week for moms. Media hype and advertising = skyrocketing expectations about the perfect way to honor mom this Mother’s Day. Blah, blah, blah. Just as with any holiday–or for that matter, any regular old run of the mill day–unrealistic expectations are the most powerful, direct route to disappointment. The more we expect, the more hopes can be dashed.

I remember the painful first year that I didn’t have a daughter at home on Mother’s Day. My husband tuned in to my angst and made plans (earning many husband points!) I’d always loved the fancy hotel Mother’s Day brunches, and he surprised me with brunch reservations. Given the holiday crowd, the hotel moved the event to the massive, dim, chandeliered ball room, away from the usual intimate, sunny garden cafe setting. There we sat at a tiny “two top” in the midst of lively parties of dozens of family members, from great grandmothers to infants– most clad in gay spring hats! Just our little 2 person table, awkwardly adrift in this sea of flowering families. Given my expectations for a great time, I was surprised at how bereft I felt.

What’s a mother to do?

1. Ask for what you want. We’d like to think that on this day, out of the whole year, our loved ones will just know what we want. But family members are simply human, and likely not psychic. And don’t be afraid to ask for them all to disappear for the day, if time alone is what you truly crave. Or here’s a fun list of truly invaluable gifts.

2. Stay in the moment, and recognize the love in the intent. Embrace whatever is offered in celebration.

Too often we’re like cats in our expectations: we demand it all. At least silently, in the solitude of our minds, we expect to be pampered, stroked, fed all earthly delights between lengthy, luxurious naps, as the world revolves around us. At least for one measly day a year.

Not that mothers don’t deserve it. Parenting is the hardest job we’ll ever do, and a cat’s life is what moms deserve. However, “deserve” and executed reality don’t always align, and then disappointment can rush in. Unless we meow, or maybe howl, really loudly, for what we want. Refer to #1 above!

However, a better way might be to live in the moment like dogs. To dogs, every day is the best day ever: “I chased a squirrel!!!!” “I smelled a rotten smell!!!!” “I got scratched behind the ears!!!” “I got to go for a walk!!” Most wondrous day ever!!! In the current issue, Psychology Today explains that those who are happier, and luckier, definitely adopt this canine attitude, embracing wonder in every twist and turn of life. Woof, woof!!

On <em>The Sanity Hour this week, guest Cheri Ruskus shared this poem written by her mother Jeannine Landreau. Cheri discovered the poem after her mother’s death last year.

Do not take this moment lightly for it is the most important moment of your life
It is all there is of the present. Live it to the fullest for it will never come again.
All that has gone before it is a memory and all that will come after it is only a hope or dream of future things.
It is more than the beginning of tomorrow and the end of yesterday.
Make it a great moment, it is your life right now and you will never live it again!

Rein in your expectations this Mother’s Day, ask for what you want, and hope for perfect moments, not a 110% perfect day. With canine expectations for every moment, every day, the joy of Mother’s Day might extend throughout the year.

Happy Mother’s Day.

What size?

“I’m not trying those on!” “I’m not wearing size Y.” “Wow, I fit into a size X!” Who says a six (or a four or a ten) is a badge of honor? Then there’s that ridiculous size 0 or 00!! Does that make me a size nothing, or double nothing? Sounds like I’m invisible–or the incredible shrinking woman.

Lots of chatter about size as spring blossoms, with the allure–or horror–of summer clothing just around the corner. Too many women fixate on an arbitrary number to feel good about themselves, whether in terms of size or weight. With all this talk, I remembered that sizing changed, at least in home sewing patterns, in 1967. Intrigued by this vague memory, I did a little digging about the history of clothing sizing.

Standardized sizing first arose in the 1930s, with the growing middle class and availability of assembly line clothing. Prior to that time, most clothing was individually sewn, tailored to fit the wearer. Around 1940, about 15,000 American women were measured, 59 body points in all, as part of a USDA survey. The goal was to standardize sizing for mass produced clothing, for the first large-scale scientific study of women’s body measurements. Marilyn Monroe-esque curvy was the shape of most women at that initial assessment, with pronounced bust and hips and thinner waist. Not unlike an older standard of beauty–think Renaissance painting. Sizing numbers were arbitrarily assigned. Until 1956 a size 12 was for a 30 inch bust. In 1956 sizing changed again, as the average American woman no longer resembled this glamour girl body type. With the rise of Barbie, women looked less and less like her. Size 12 was assigned a 32 inch bust. Beautiful bombshell Marilyn would’ve worn size 16! In mid-1967 the standard changed once again and size 12 became a 34 inch bust. I was not yet twelve years old, but my size dropped from a 14 to a 12. I was thrilled. And I hadn’t had to give up one beloved Twinkie.

Fast forward to today: sizes are firmly anchored in the realm of ˜vanity sizing.” At Anne Klein, J.Jill, Target, and Land’s End, a 34 inch bust is size 4. Size 12 is now a 39 inch bust, and surgical enhancement trends notwithstanding, that’s some change. Store to store, designer to designer; you know where you like to shop: where a smaller size fits. Manufacturers know this and lure you in by labeling ever larger sizes with smaller numbers. In fact, my research this week revealed that the fashion industry resists any effort to standardize sizes, as was done in 1940, fearing loss of a customer if the size she wear gets upsized.  Upsized like a value meal? Who would stand for that?

It’s a numbers game. Do you like how you look? Do you feel good? Does this outfit feel like you? Define your style and stick with it and ignore the size, especially if it makes you feel bad about yourself. Quit the second-guessing–feel good at a healthy weight, reasonable to maintain, rather than a weight fueled only by carrots, grapefruit, and seltzer. Every model–on TV, the internet, or those hefty fashion magazines–is air-brushed. Watch The Evolution of Beauty here, if you’ve never seen it or need reminded. And the cultural standard of attractiveness is just that: defined by where you live. Check out The Hidden World of Girls on NPR. In some cultures skinny women are not desirable; they are considered poor and sickly. Curvier, more substantial women represent wealth and health.

Embrace your well-fed, rich look this summer at whatever size and weight. While we’re at it, let’s join forces and bravely bare arms. inspired by the First Lady, who has gone sleeveless where no first lady before has dared venture. No more fear of lunch lady arms!