Let’s go surfin now

Let’s go surfin now
Everybody’s learning how
Come on and safari with me
(come on and safari with…)

Those are the lyrics to “Surfin’ Safari” by Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love, which are my latest earworm. Maybe they can bring a little feeling of summer to this crazy-temperatured winter, swinging here in Dallas from 32 degress this morning to 76 degrees earlier in the week. Thinking about actual surfing is not my intent, however, or the impetus that embedded that song on repeat in my head.

The concept of “riding the waves”, rather, has been on my mind because of the concept of mindfulness and it’s usefulness in coping with the stresses of daily life. As we attempt to manage what life throws us, riding the waves is an apt analogy. In the midst of bad stuff, of whatever type–anxiety, grief, depression, cravings–it’s pretty human to feel that the conflict or stress will pull us under, swamp us, knock us down, literally drown us. Most of us tend to lose sight of the big picture, focusing instead on the looming tsunami of our lives. Especially if we’re prone to negative thinking, brains run on repeat: “I’ll never get over it,” “It will always be this way,” “I can’t stand it any longer.” Of course we feel overwhelmed.

Bring in the concept of surfing the waves, however, and challenges become manageable. Troubles, of whatever type, do have a natural ebb and flow. After every wave comes a trough. The power that threatens to sweep us away is replaced by the calm. In the midst of negative feelings, it’s extremely helpful to step back and notice. Watch your anxiety, even timing it with a stopwatch. You zero in on the worry, and it dissipates a bit. Examine your cravings: you must have that Krispy Kreme one moment, and the next minute your mind has moved onto something else. Charting your hunger over the course of two hours shows definite dips and peaks. Allow yourself to vent your anger, or sob through your grief for twenty minutes, and just like the waves, calm rushes in. You’re cried out–for now. Illness wrecks your week, and the next week, everyone is well.

It’s a powerful exercise to step back, notice what you notice (in the words of Stephanie Eldringhoff, a new teacher I’ve enjoyed discovering), and see that just the act of noticing can begin the shift.  Be reassured that after every pounding wave, there is that drift to calm.  Sure, sometimes the waves come faster and more furiously than we feel we can stand. That’s the point to give up on holding the stance, and ride the waves instead. We can manage so much more when we are mindful of that fact that there’s bound to be a break soon. Trust that relief will come, the intensity will lessen, and you’ll hang on and ride that surf.

Call it a mindfulness safari, and venture into it with open arms.


Face Your Fears Day

Fears. We all have ’em. Fear of public speaking is the most common. Fear of missing out is the newest I’ve heard, with a handy acronym: FOMO. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of spiders. Fear of being alone. Fear of flying. Fear of messing up as a mother. You name it. Facing our fears is the basic human condition, as pointed out in one of my favorite films, Defending Your Life.

When the clock radio turned on this morning, the DJ announced that now, to address this most basic human state of anxiety, we have a day dedicated to facing those fears. Face Your Fears Day. Today’s the day, the second annual to be exact. In that spirit, I’d like to toss out my favorite mantras for doing just that.

Fear lies!

And the corollary: Don’t believe every thought you think.

Feel the fear and do it anyway.

It’s just anxiety, not reality.

Self-compassion is a good place to start, loving yourself, fears and all. Giving yourself that validation, rather than chastising yourself for being fearful, aka for being human, means you can drop the ‘second dart’ of self-criticism. The first dart is the visceral fear; the second dart, unnecessary, is that judgment you impose upon yourself. I don’t know that many people who don’t have a few, steering their lives, even if the fear is lurking deep below the surface. And the fact that we’ve dedicated a day to the concept is further proof that fear is a pretty universal condition.

And my second favorite way to cope: exhale. Everyone touts deep breathing as a way to calm yourself. Even these supposedly simple directions can add stress: fear of breathing wrong! Or not finding time! The bottom line, in terms of the nervous system, is that taking a great big deep breath IN actually activates the alarm system of the body, telling your body to prepare to fight or flee. Let out a big deep EXHALE instead, and you send a message to your nervous system that there is no danger, and it’s safe to relax. That’s it. One move. Repeat as needed. Simple. Practice it just like blowing out birthday candles; we all conquered that skill when we were three.

What are your fears? What’s your favorite way to conquer them?




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.)

Take it to heart?

“Take it to heart.” Usually, we hear this phrase applied to feedback, aka criticism, offered by others. We feel like a bigger person if we can listen openly to negative words from someone. Seems to me to be another of those casual phrases that do us more harm than good and deserve a hearty “who says?” challenge.

Way back in grad school, 30 plus years ago, I learned that feedback is effective only when solicited. It’s pretty hard to take in and process effectively something that we didn’t ask for and probably don’t want to hear. We all do better when we seek information to help us improve, rather than have it foisted upon us, in any of the typical forms: fights with loved ones, criticism disguised as ‘help,’ yearly job evaluations. It seems to me that this phrase, “take it to heart”, runs counter to human nature. The phrase implies that a grown-up wants to listen to feedback. Truthfully, I don’t think many of us really yearn to hear that we need to do something differently–even when we know on some level that we do. And challenging ourselves to “take it to heart” implies that we just need to suck it into our inner most being. We impose an expectation that criticism is always true and valid and valuable.

(That always sounds like an absolute. And if you’re a regular reader, you know my ideas on absolutes.)

My challenge is aimed at that last phrase about criticism. Criticism/feedback may be necessary to growth. But is it always true, valid, valuable? Many of us believe that it is. Rather than “take it to heart,” I suggest “take it to mind.” Don’t just expect that, because you are an adult striving to do your best in life, that you have to accept negative words right into your core. Think on feedback. Evaluate it. Test it out, dwell on the accusations or challenges for awhile. See if the words fit your perception. Write about it. Check it out with a friend or therapist. Where is the truth–the helpful portion of the words? And where is the anger or defensiveness or misperception on the part of the giver? What might have more to do with them, who offer the criticism, and less to do with YOU? Incorporate what is valuable, and let go of the rest.

It’s okay–even extremely healthy–to take some time to sort out what comes your way. You don’t have to “take it to heart” to be a functional person.

Feelings: trusted signals?

“Trust your feelings”–truth or fiction?

We’ve all heard this old adage. We use this phrase to urge others to act on gut feelings, usually suggesting that the recipient will “just know” the answer they need. These cultural underpinnings imply that actualized, emotionally healthy persons wisely let feelings be a guide.

Since my mind constantly locks onto these discrepancies in our use of language, I issue a hearty “who says?”

Sometimes, yes, we do want to trust our feelings. However, like so much of our thinking, this phrase is dangerous if we lock into feelings in a black and white way. Feelings aren’t always an indication of “Truth.” Feelings aren’t always effective guides. Take two of the most common feelings: guilt and anxiety.

In most cases, guilt is not factually-based in wrong-doing. Most of our guilt is driven by inaccurate beliefs, largely fueled by a powerful “should.” “I should be happy, I wanted this baby” when you’re overwhelmed by depression, grieving the freedom of pre-baby life. “I should spend more time on X,” when in actuality you find X boring–or you’re doing the best you can to allocate time to X. “I should feel thankful for Y,” when you’re overwhelmed by stress and having difficulty focusing on the positive. We plague ourselves with guilt for not feeling some prescribed way, rather than trusting a favorite adage of mental health professionals, i.e. that “feelings just are.” Maybe it’s ok to be where we are. Maybe we don’t need to second guess our experience.

Anxiety is an even more powerful signal that we seem to cast as reality. If I’m worried about something, we reason, there must be real danger. We give anxiety such power, translating the biochemical process of stress revving through our bodies as a signal to be heeded. Just like guilt, irrational beliefs (e.g. “it will be a catastrophe! Everything will be ruined!”) abound. Much of the time, worry and anxiety are based in conditioned responses. Our bodies habitually respond with this runaway action. As Rick Hanson says, maybe the tiger in the bushes isn’t really a tiger. We’re paying on that debt we may not owe. We’re anticipating future angst, to use a Bible verse (Matthew 6:34) shared with me this week: “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”

I preach (and try to practice myself) to first stop and evaluate, and then hopefully, to dismiss anxiety and guilt. Is this a real worry? Do I truly have anything to feel guilty about? Call it what it is: energy spent in a direction that is not necessary or helpful. “It’s just anxiety–not reality.” “I have no need to feel guilty–I’m doing the best that I can do.” Talk back to those feelings, saying what you would tell a friend. Offer yourself self-compassion, which I’ve taught for years as self-care, and now has credibility, with mention in The New York Times.

The majority of the time, there’s no magic message in anxiety and guilt. Let those feelings go.

Worry dies hard–for worry die-hards

One of my all-time favorite movies, Defending Your Life, features Albert Brooks in “Judgment City” after his untimely death, defending his behavior during his just-ended life. A central tenet of the film is that anxiety is a given in human beings which we must all struggle to overcome. In the film, Brooks’ character will either ‘move on’ to the next level or get sent back to tackle his anxiety one more time.

Examining my own life and watching the lives of others unfold has convinced me that this is an innate truth.  Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, who I heard speak in January, talked about how our brains are conditioned in this way for survival. A prehistoric human, obliviously waltzing through the meadow picking flowers, was likely to be the victim of a sabre-toothed tiger. Snap, crack, crunch–end of that lineage. Only those worriers who were constantly wary, watching for danger around every bush, survived to reproduce. This means most of us have the worry habit pretty well locked in, after eons of reinforcement.

Face it: this habit is no longer necessary for survival. Worriers often argue that point, feeling that the energy invested in worrying does somehow protect us. We think that if we relax our brains, and don’t tune into all the negative, we may miss a chance to protect ourselves, to react in time. Proponents of positive thinking insist the opposite is true. The more we invest in looking for negative, the more it’s what we see. This is what Hanson said, too: each time we fuel that habitual worry with attention, the related brain connections are strengthened.

Time to banish this energy-draining habit–or at least reduce it’s hold. Anxiety need not be the basic human condition. My favorite tools to reduce anxiety are:

1) labeling the anxiety as just that. “It’s anxiety–it’s not real.” This is powerful for me, leading to a deep breath and letting go. Just because the habit has kicked in and the brain circuits are activated, doesn’t mean that’s TRUTH.

2) Mantras: mind vehicles. These are phrases I repeat to make NEW brain connections that eventually will override the old habits. You may have your own; here’s the latest that’s really speaking to me:

Fear is a down payment on a debt you may not owe.

I detest paying good money for something I’ve not yet received and that may never even be delivered. These words have been a great reminder, as a way to activate the idea behind that little charm on my key ring to “free your mind from worries.”