The spinning

We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

Walt Disney

There was a ride that I loved at Valley Fair, an amusement park near where I grew up, when I was a kid. It was called the scrambler, it would be jerk from side to side. I had friends who hated the scrambler. It made them feel sick and uncomfortable. Kind of like how I feel on a rollercoaster with a steep drop. Unable to predict what’s going to happen, the climb is the worst part – when my thoughts start to spin out of control. I worry about how I’ll feel when the car starts to drop. Will I throw up like that first time I rode it? Will I scream? Will I fly out of my seat? Will the brakes not work?

It’s the unknown that is terrifying. The fear of how I will react to the unknown. How I will deal with what comes when the drop begins.

When I teach mindfulness, I encourage people to be curious about themselves. To look deeper when they feel something. To wonder about what is underneath the emotions they’re able to name. To be a detective about themselves and their emotions.

But curiosity is also terrifying.

Clients are often scared about what the might find out about themselves. Some fear that they might be more deeply unhappy than they think. They worry that they might discover things about how they feel about their lives or the people in them. It can be scary to look to closely at your life because of the fear that you might not be a good or worthy person or that your life might need to change.

Emotions can feel like a rollercoaster – a scary one. Rather than a joyful, fun ride, it’s scary and overwhelming. It seems safer to stay on the teacups. A ride where you’re in complete control over how fast it spins and how intense the ride.

Often clients are reassured when I offer them permission to not change things if they decide they are happy with the way things are. To give them control over their teacups. Knowing their emotions doesn’t mean they have to act on them. They feel reassured and are able to look and to consider their lives in new ways.

Mindfulness teaches us that our decision-making should come from the place of wise mind where reason and emotion overlap. Even if your emotions are telling you one thing – urging one action, reason can counteract those urges and contradict those sentiments.

Here’s the thing about the teacups, though. My family loves them. We love them when we’re laughing hysterically seeing how fast we can make them spin. When the world blurs and the car feels like it might spin right off the track. It’s the not knowing when the siren will go off and the ride will stop. That’s what makes it fun. Just riding them without spinning is fine, but it lacks some of the magic.

Safe is good. It’s SAFE. But it’s also often times disconnected and without joy. We don’t get to choose which emotions we experience. If we want to intense joy and happiness, we need to experience the lows of sadness and pain. Emotions operate on a spectrum. If we limit ourselves to the safe middling amounts of emotion, we miss out on the intense experiences of the ends of the spectrum.

We need to open ourselves up to the emotions we’re feeling. To look at them and really experience them into order to feel like we’re actually living our lives. We think we can control our emotions, but we can’t. What we are doing is controlling our experiences and limiting ourselves.

Without the spinning it’s not as fun.

Respect and value

I attended convocation at the Dancer’s school today. The headmaster was talking about having respect for yourself and your friends and used Toy Story 4 to discuss the idea of having value and valuing others. He encouraged the kids to be like Woody and not allow their friends to believe they are trash and to not believe they, themselves, are trash.

So far so good. Definitely a message that middle schoolers, in particular, need to hear.

The headmaster defined values as those ideas and beliefs that are important enough for us to hold onto them forever. Then he encouraged the children to see respect as valuing someone else more than oneself. As valuing our friends’ needs above our own.

That’s where he lost me.

I understand that he’s simplifying and trying to instill a culture of service in a bunch of fairly privileged middle schoolers, but I don’t think we should be encouraging our teenage girls to value anything more than they value themselves. Too many girls are taught to believe they only have value in reflection of how they make others feel. That their value is in making others happy. As a girl, I remember feeling pressure to blend in and to fit in.

Don’t be too showy. Don’t be too loud. Don’t step on anyone’s toes. Don’t stand up for yourself and certainly don’t advocate for yourself.

This seems wrong to me. Respect means loving yourself enough to assume others are deserving of love. Totally. Respect also means loving yourself enough to draw boundaries, where needed, to defend yourself against those who don’t value you or love you as you deserve.

This was hard for me to learn. I wanted to please and to support and to love. I saw that as more important than my own needs. Working as a therapist, though, I’ve realized that I can’t love anyone else unless I first love and care for myself. The days when I am the worst parent are the days when I haven’t engaged in any of the things that make me feel whole and valued as an individual.

I talk to my clients a lot about the safety briefing on the airplane. You know the one, where they say: for those passengers traveling with small children or people who need assistance, secure your own oxygen mask first before attempting to assist others. Why do they do that? If I can’t breathe and my kids can’t breathe, do they really expect me to worry about my own oxygen first??

Of course that’s exactly what we must do, because we can’t help anyone if we’re unconscious.

So many of my clients come in suffocating. They starving themselves of care and oxygen out of the belief that we owe others all of ourselves with nothing in reserve. Because we’re taught that others, but not ourselves, are important enough to hold on to forever.

This was part of what I struggled with when I started running longer distances. To run long races can feel like a selfish pursuit. Long runs require hours of the morning, usually on the weekend, which my family has other things they might want to be doing together. It required me to say no to breakfast out (yes to brunch after though, always yes to brunch) if it couldn’t wait two hours for me to get my run in.

Last year I signed up for a race in New Orleans. A few weeks before the race one of the Dancer’s competitions was moved to the same weekend. I thought about cancelling. But. I trained. I was excited. A few years ago, I would have cancelled. No question.

I went.

And they were fine.

And I went to Disney World without the kids to run a race. It was great. It was so fun to be in the parks doing something I wanted to do for myself. I felt so happy to see them and so ready to parent and be present for them after that.

And the kids were fine again.

Running every day doesn’t necessarily fill my parenting tank, but it does help with my emotional stability. It burns off some of my anxious energy and gives me a feeling of accomplishment and strength. Running races, though, that keeps me going and motivated. It’s a thing that is just for me, just for fun. It’s the reward for getting out and taking my running medicine regularly.

It’s the combination of the two that has made me a better parent. It is because I care for my kids that I care for myself. That’s what respect means to me. That’s what I try to pass on to them. I want my girls to see me achieve things just because they’re meaningful to me. I want them to see me work for goals and to prioritize them over other people’s things.

It’s important to have values and to have VALUE to yourself. That’s what respect means and that’s what I want my kids to learn. Speak up if you have to, bother people if necessary, but value yourself enough to respect your own needs first. I wish that had been the message in convocation, but when I asked my daughter about what she thought of the headmaster’s speech she said:

“I thought he was kind of wrong that we should put other people’s needs before our own, needs are needs. He probably should have just said sometimes we have to put other people ahead of our wants but that it’s ok to get what you need.”

Mission accomplished, apparently.

Rainbow cakes

I started a tradition around about the dancer’s 3rd birthday of making a rainbow cake for each of my girls’ birthdays. Some years it has been six layers high, a marathon of baking. Other years two layers, three colors each layer, which is more of a 10K to keep the metaphor going.

When Harvey struck two years ago, I finished the cakes the night before the dancer’s birthday worried the entire time that the rising flood waters would either breach the front door or the power would go out mid-bake. I wasn’t totally sure which would be worse, but I think we settled on the flood waters and spent the rest of that long night moving as much of our furniture and family memories upstairs as we could carry.

The flood waters slowed enough for the neighbors to wade across to sing and have a piece of six layer birthday cake. The dancer still remembers that birthday as the Harvey birthday that we spent holed up watching the weather channel all day praying for the bayous to drain.

The thing about those cakes, though, that I didn’t really internalize when I started making them…my daughters’ birthdays are six days apart (really, six days less than 2 years apart, but you probably knew what I meant). This means that I make TWO six layer cakes each year. Usually, we haven’t even finished the first one before I’m baking the second.

I both love and hate those cakes.

I love that they’re a meaningful and treasured part of my girls’ birthdays.

I hate that they take hours to make and then usually end up in the trash when the next one comes along.

So I’m kind of fresh out of skills, as I bake the first one of two for number 71’s birthday. I’m trying to stay in the moment for each birthday, but sometimes its hard since they coincide perfectly with the start of the school year, everyone’s absolute most crazy time (apart from May, the end of the school year, recital, program, tournament month is the gauntlet to be run before the joy of early summer).

Serenity Now!!!

When I was younger, I loved the first day of school. I loved picking out school supplies; choosing the perfect first day of school outfit at the mall; and the smell of new backpacks and those highlighter markers that smell like blueberries. I couldn’t wait to see my friends after a long summer (even the ones that I saw every day), could barely sleep for the excitement.

As an adult, back to school means something a little different. The lazy pace of summer gives way to dragging resisting tweens out of bed before the sun comes up and the rush of homework and activities after school and before bed at a reasonable time.

As a therapist, back to school means clients filled anxiety and stress. Parents start thinking about private school and college applications. Magnet school lotteries and tours gear up and the dance of competing with other parents without appearing to compete begins. Those old family feelings of not good enough and shame peak out from the back row of third period algebra and parents start to lose perspective on what it actually means to get into a selective middle or high school or even college.

The local private schools all inform applicants on the same day in the spring as to their admission status. The Friday before spring break at 4PM the emails go out. I imagine the admissions officers gathering their things and turning off all of the lights, before the last one out hits send and dashes frantically for the door. The thought of what awaits on their answering machine after the week makes my hands tingle and my chest feel tight.

I was thinking about that moment where you find out that your kid wasn’t accepted at some school. In so many ways it’s harder to accept than when you weren’t accepted at some school. It’s the perfect moment for radical acceptance. And the perfect illustration of what radical acceptance really means.

To be clear, radical acceptance does not mean approval. Radical acceptance means accepting what is with clear eyes and a willingness to handle what comes. It’s an offshoot of reality acceptance. Fundamentally, it’s the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Radical acceptance does not mean that we don’t change things, but it means that we accept that things may not be what we want. With the school acceptance/rejection example, it’s accepting that your child was not accepted and that it was for some reason (maybe not a good one or one you agree with, but there was probably a reason). That reason might be something you can correct next year or not. But the thing to be accepted is that they are likely not going to that school you had your heart set on if they weren’t accepted.

With radical acceptance can come peace. With radical acceptance can also come grief that willful rejection of reality will often obscure and suppress. Radical acceptance allows us to move into effective coping. When we’re avoiding reality we can feel like we’re going from one crisis to the next because we are – each time the grief and sadness rear up they need to be avoided because to experience them is to accept what’s happening and people avoiding reality are DEEP in the weeds of rejection of that reality.

We’ve all been there, hiding from reality grasping desperately at any chance that what we imagined would happen or could happen can still happen. All evidence to the contrary.

So the parents call and cajole, or call and beg, or call and yell, or call and cry. The common denominator is that they DO call. I’ve been there, that feeling is horrible. The sinking hollow feeling in the stomach, the sweaty reading and re-reading hoping you just read it wrong or that they’re talking about a different child. Certainly not your baby! What will happen to them? Where will your baby go if not to this ONE perfect school?

And yet. And yet. Most of them, by the end of August (just four months later) have children attending some school and happily settling into new classes.

Parenting these days feels like a series of life or death decisions, starting from pre-school and continuing through which soccer club should my child (number 71, weee) play for, even though it’s not likely that she’s actually going to play college soccer; to whether it’s ok to let the dancer quit piano when she’s just so talented and wants a career in theater. It feels like any wrong decision could be the straw that breaks the camels back and leads them to a life of dissatisfaction and poverty.

No wonder parents are stressed and unhappy.

We’re so responsible for ensuring our children’s eventual happiness that we forget our own and also forget the other mantra that therapists repeat to every one of their clients we can’t MAKE someone feel any way. That’s not how emotions work. The only person whose happiness is fully within our power is ourself.

So we have to get comfortable with the reality that they’re walking away from us every day from the moment they learn how to walk. They’re walking out of our control and protection and into the world. We can help guide them and give them direction, but they have to choose to go that way and then do the work to get there. And we have to accept that their version of there might not look like ours or their hopes.

I think about when my kids were little and riding in a stroller at Disney World. Those were the days, I got to pick where went and what rides we did. We could start with Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh and meander back to the Haunted Mansion, avoiding the crowds and the stress around Space Mountain and definitely NEVER going near the Speedway and its nostril-burning aroma! Alas, they can walk now and much as I try to convince them to go to the left and behind the castle, they’re fully committed to the Tomorrowland of it all. It may not be my first choice, but they consent to ride the TTA with me and I’ve discovered that when they get to lead the way they have more fun and I can sit back and relax on the trip.

At least they still let me pick the restaurants.

I have to remind myself that my kids will eventually get where they’re going. That they will be alright. And the TTA is pretty great in the morning breeze.

Meeting people where they are

We have two children. Both girls, turning 10 and 12. To protect their privacy, I’ll call them number 71 (for my younger one, the soccer player) and the dancer (my big girl, starting seventh grade, with all of the drama and glory that goes along with it).

They have been a lesson in reality acceptance and meeting people where they are.

Probably from the very first. My husband and I were married in August. At the time we were living in London and both working as lawyers. It was the first time either of us had made any real money and we were excited to travel and buy stuff with our newly acquired (relative) wealth.

I was working a lot in Ukraine, doing securities work, and traveling regularly. My husband was working in Eastern Europe as well, so we would sometimes find ourselves meeting up for the Friday evening British Airways flight home from Moscow – at the time it was the banker special because it seemed every investment banker in London was doing some sort of deal in Russia, or Ukraine, or Turkey, or, or, or…we talked about kids, but we were only 27 and, like I said, the money was great. We came up with a three year plan for travel, etc. and, at the very end of that plan, we thought we might try for our first child.

About a week later, I fell asleep in a meeting with some senior government officials in Ukraine.

I got back the next day and was still tired. Really tired. Turns out, I was really pregnant.

The best laid plans.

6 months later the dancer was born (no, she wasn’t really early. I was just REALLY pregnant). Two years later, her sister, number 71 came into our lives.

I thought I knew what to expect from both of them, turns out I was really wrong about that too. It wasn’t that parenting was hard, though it was and is, it was that I had to let go of all my ideas about who they were or what they needed.

When the dancer was in preschool, I worried that she didn’t have enough friends and needed to have more play dates (despite her not asking for them). I invited so many kids over and pushed and pushed her to play with them because I didn’t want her to be lonely and unhappy. Turns out. She’s an introvert and didn’t really need more than a couple friends (this has changed as she has become a tween). She was happy all along (well, less so since I was forcing her to play with kids she barely knew/liked).

Meeting people where they are and accepting them is hard when we’re just getting to know people as adults. It’s REALLY hard when they’re your kids. You want them to be happy, but the reality is that their happy might just look different than your own. This is a strange and wonderful thing to accept. It’s freeing, in a way, because you realize that you absolutely can’t MAKE someone feel any which way, you can just support their efforts to build their own lives worth living.

I love my girls more than anything and still struggle to see things from their perspective, which is often intensely different from my perspective. Their values are different than my values and their needs are certainly different from mine. It’s been a good lesson to me in being mindful of the perspective through which I view their lives.

I would be lonely if I didn’t have a bunch of friends and acquaintances and an active social life. My daughter, not so much. I hated softball. Number 71, not so much.

They’re not me. It might be so much easier if they were. Then I would know what they need. I would know all the ways to make them feel loved and cared for and supported. Instead, I’ve had to learn their ways.

It’s made me a better therapist and more accepting person. It’s also given me a way to let go of the friendships and relationships that don’t work for me. You have to meet people where they are and, sometimes, where they are is not where you want to be.

There’s an old adage about when a person shows you who they really are…believe them. It’s totally true and something I remind clients of all the time. It made vulnerability much easier for me when I realized that if I ask someone to meet my needs and they can’t, it’s probably not about me or my needs – it’s a reflection of where they are. If someone repeatedly can’t meet your needs, you don’t get to change them, but you do get to choose to whether or not to continue in the relationship with them.

They’ve shown you who they are. Now you get to accept them. Or not.

Of course I choose to accept my kids, no matter how they are and if that means giving up (postponing) some of my best laid plans, that’s cool. I accept that reality. Totally worth it.

One-mindfulness

It’s 100 degrees and here I sit, next to the city landfill, watching the turkey buzzards circle in the blinding blue sky. The things we do for our children. Seven hours outside (with a short break for lunch at a TGI Fridays) spent watching my daughter’s team lose multiple soccer games – some in spectacular fashion. The sun eventually will set on cherry-red faces and gatorade stained lips and we’ll begin the long drive home.

I will miss these days when they’re gone.

Right now, though, it’s very difficult to stay present as I sweat and struggle to hold in my helpful hints that I’m often tempted to bellow from the sideline. Number 71 doesn’t like feedback from the sidelines during a game (she doesn’t much care for it after the game either). I often can’t wait to get back to my air conditioned car and then, after that, to my house where all of the things that need to get done to get us through the week await.

Sometimes it’s just the chocolate covered pretzels from Buc-ees and the Diet Cokes that get me through the day (I’ve lived in Texas for eight years and one of the very best things about the state is Buc-ees. I grew up in Minnesota and once thought Super America could not be beat. How foolish I was).

I really will miss these days when they’re gone.

During the week it’s no easier, as I race between piano, soccer, dance and school pick ups. Not to mention working part-time as a therapist. I know, I know. They could do less, but the only thing they’d give up would be piano and I love that they’re learning to play like I did so, despite the drive to the piano lesson being THE WORST, I persist.

It’s not just the outdoor sports in August in Texas. It’s the dance team – which my eldest tried out for and made. That’s eight hours in a darkened auditorium interspersed with 2 minutes on stage every other hour and about 15 minutes trying to apply false eyelashes to an 11 year old. There’s also the hair doing – curlers and buns. The things I’ve learned to do as a mother. I’ve never once worn false eyelashes, but I can put them on in seconds at this point.

I will miss this when it’s over.

Why do I keep repeating that? Because I need to remember it. It’s so hard to remember it when we’re in it. I’m working more and more to give things my whole attention while I’m doing them. The rest of the details will come, or they won’t. But the moments with my kids while they’re kids are limited. They will grow up.

I know that I’m lucky that I can be at as many of their things as I can, that I can be at home and not at work in the afternoon and on the weekends. I have the privilege of being able to not worry about what we’ll eat for dinner tonight because worse comes to worst, we can eat out. Even with these privileges, it is hard for me to stay focused on the things that I’m doing with them when I’m doing them.

So often we multi-task. Whether or not we have kids. We eat lunch at the desk while we answer emails and listen to the news. We talk to the garage fixing the car on the phone, while we grocery shop online, in the waiting room for the kid’s dentist appointment (just me?). We try to do everything at once and end up being aware of none of it and resentful of all of it.

I teach my DBT skills group to do things one-mindfully as a part of mindfulness. To give things your whole attention while you’re doing it. Usually we teach it in reference to pleasurable activities, small moments of joy in our daily lives. Small moments of self care. To practice one-mindfulness is to learn to take hold of your attention and to direct your attention to the things you can control or affect in the present moment. Practice allows us to be aware of what’s happening in our lives.

It also decreases anxiety. It distracts us from thoughts of the future the what ifs and the unknowns that fill us with fear. It also helps us to let go of the things we can’t control and slows the thought processes that can race and jump when anxious.

One-mindfulness boils down very simply to the idea that when you’re eating, eat; when you’re walking, walk; and when you’re watching soccer, watch soccer.

A little sugar

Yesterday’s post was a little bit heavy on the teaching and light on the sugar to help it all go down so today I want to write about Disney.

When I first signed up to do the runDisney event with my friend two years ago, I told myself that I was just doing it because she was obsessed with Disney. I’m not sure what it is but to want to go to Disney is often looked at as something to be embarrassed about.

The kids are insisting on a Disney vacation, moms say with a sigh. I wish they wanted to do something more…worthwhile. Always said with a tone that implies one wishes they were more interested in seeing a museum or a volunteering to save the world. I’ve been just as bad in the past.

My gateway drug was a podcast about running at Disney. But that wasn’t enough as the runs started stretching out since it was only two hours long posted once a month. Then it was a podcast about Disney touring and history. I told myself it was just to get ready for the trip for the run. The truth was that I was hooked long before that. It really started with planning websites (my favorite was EasyWDW). I tried to limit it to when I had a specific trip that I was working on, but it gradually became an every day thing to check in with one. Then two. Then three. But always in secret. If anyone found out, I would pretend it was an imposition. Such a burden I was taking on. But only for the good of the kids, sigh, would much rather be reading the something more informative or interesting.

I’ve been slowly shedding my Disney shame over the last couple years. It started out by admitting that I like the planning of it. It’s a puzzle to figure out dining and Fastpasses. The food’s not THAT bad. I would admit, begrudgingly. We all have fun together, was the next stage. The hotel was nice and the pool was great.

Then, when I went on the run with my husband after my friend had to drop out, I was forced to admit that I had a great time there with just us adults – that I would probably do that trip again, if the opportunity presented itself. The run was REALLY well organized. I would start, as if saying I loved it needed to be made socially acceptable.

Why do we feel the need to make things acceptable? I guess it’s because we’re pack animals by nature. We want to feel a part of the herd and to feel like we fit in with our peers. We know it’s important. It’s hard to be different, to admit things that aren’t accepted generally by our community – the pack might leave us behind. But to find a community that fits with one’s interests rather than the community that one finds oneself in by virtue of education, school, geography is difficult. It’s vulnerable and scary to admit who we really are when we secretly worry it won’t be acceptable to others.

The internet is great that way.

It allows for low-risk community building and exploration. It allows us to find those non-local communities that share our interests. Scared to admit you love Disney? Just lurk on one of the message board communities and feel less alone. Want to try out sharing that love with other people? Adopt a name and a persona and start to comment and interact. You’re safe from your every day community and among like-minded people.

The internet is also horrible that way.

It can allow hive-mind to reinforce our worst selves. To create communities of hate or of the worst of ourselves – the worst things we think we can say anonymously and find others who will support them and build on them and reinforce them.

It allows messages to get amplified and repeated in ways that are unnecessary. For example, I was thinking about the woman who showed the absolute worst of herself on Facebook ranting about childless couples at Disney World. I hear the jealousy and the frustration and the exhaustion in parts of that post. I too am susceptible to muttered rants about people who have something that I desperately want (a pretzel, I guess, in this case, but more accurately freedom from her obligations) when I’m overwhelmed. I’m sure she wasn’t thrilled when that message got amplified and repeated and debated (maybe she was, who knows, but I like to believe that she was mortified and deeply embarrassed by what she said). I know I would be mortified if my worst thoughts were suddenly spread wide to the world. That said, I generally keep those rants between me and the steering wheel (Houston drivers are often difficult to love).

I do strive to be the best version of myself that I can be at any one time. But sometimes it gets away from us. Sometimes all the coping skills and good-intentions in the world are not enough. Sometimes we all say things we don’t mean or wouldn’t say if we were calm or not embarrassed or flustered. Can’t you hear the shame in that woman’s rant? Her child was throwing a tantrum. I remember those moments. The humiliation of seeing your child meltdown and feeling the eyes of the world on you thinking I would never let my kid…you know they’re thinking it (even if they’re probably not). It feels like an indictment of you as a parent. If I was a better parent, this wouldn’t be happening. I’ve failed my child and the world. People are going to think I’m terrible at this. Maybe I am. The shame can be intense. So we lash out at someone else – anyone else – to relieve it and to convince ourselves that it’s not about us or our kid. It’s SOMEONE’s fault! I once heard Brene Brown give a lecture and she said something that has stayed with me ever since: “We are never more dangerous than when we are in shame.”

Shame makes us dangerous. To ourselves. To others. It’s why we need to overcome it. To accept ourselves and others as themselves so we don’t always have to be so afraid that we’ll be unacceptable. To be a little curious about other people’s perspectives.

When did you do you turn into you do you unless I don’t think you should do what you’re doing? It seems to me that we’d all be a lot happier if we just stuck to figuring out how to make ourselves happy and stopped worrying about what makes other people happy. The ourselves bit is quite hard enough, thank you very much. If my doing me doesn’t infringe on you doing you (and most things short of actual crime don’t) then let it go. Also, and I’m trying to do this for myself. If we can all tell ourselves that we’re doing our best. We’re doing our best with the resources that we have available to us and the situations we find ourselves in. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be better – can’t learn and add skills and resources or work to change the situation.

And we all have an obligation to each other to do both of the above. Learn and change. And accept that we all are doing our best to do the above too.

So what is it about Disney? Disney feels like the image in this post – it’s a warm hug from childhood. A bit of nostalgia and memory of a time when a giant chipmunk in a hat was really all we needed to feel safe and happy. It’s ok if we all sometimes need that. Or, you know, if you don’t. You do you. I’ll be over here with this mickey bar, hugging a chipmunk.

Hearing Yourself

It can be hard to hear yourself – your thoughts and emotions – and to really accept what it is that you hear them say. There is a cacophonous chorus in everyone’s head, making it so hard to single out that one tiny voice belonging to yourself. Voices merge until we believe they are all our own. And, in a way, they are because they are shaped by our previous experiences and voices we have heard in the past. The chorus is singing from the book of our experiences, unfortunately, each member is not always singing the same line or verse.

It starts early (and with the best of intentions) when we hear our parents tell us you can do it or try a bit more or watch out! The voice gets more worried as we age, CAREFUL!, it shouts. Danger! it frets. I love you it soothes. The duet and the trio sings the same songs because when we’re children research has shown that we don’t really see ourselves as different or separate from our parents.

Then, gradually, we hear our friends’ voices start to overshadow our parents voices just one, they coax. That’s so lame, they warn. You fit in, they promise. We start to realize that we’re separate from our parents and to define ourselves not in relation to them, but in opposition. I’ll never be like you, says the emotion minded teenager, irrationally believing that their parents couldn’t possibly have anything worth emulating about them. We reject their voices and try to drown them out with the chorus of our peers.

The hope of all parents is that the love and the warning that they still repeat in the background (and that they implanted earlier) are strong enough and deep enough to carry through the willful rejection of the teenage years.

That the biology that we’re born with and develop over time allows us to survive all those competing voices to find our own path. The human brain is an amazing organ but I’ve often thought it develops in some unfortunate ways. Just as teenagers are rejecting the moderating voices of their parents, their brain is undergoing a radical renovation – eliminating as many as 50% of the synaptic connections in some parts. Which ones get pruned is influenced by experiences and hormones. At the same time, the speed of information processing is sped up by a process called myelination, which is too complicated to get into here. This biology helps explain why our emotion mind is SO loud and SO unpredictable during adolescence. The emotional synapses are being pruned, but haven’t reached adult levels, while the speed of information is increasing. More stimulus is being taken in rocketing around faster than ever before, but we haven’t pruned enough to reduce our subjectivity to emotions. On top of this, the brain is an immensely complicated organ, governed by the kinds and amounts of hormones that get released at any time, which is again a product of both nature (genetics) and nurture (experiences causing more of one hormone than another over time, developing a habit of release, or lack thereof, of that hormone).

That previous paragraph is a WILDLY simplified description of adolescence from a neurological standpoint. It’s explained in detail in Dr. Linda Patia Spear’s paper, Adolescent Neurodevelopment. J Adolesc Health. 2013 Feb; 52(2 0 2): S7–13.

By the time we’re adults, the pruning and the development have shaped the very structure of our brains in response to the events and relationships we have and the voices we’ve heard throughout our growth. Our very personalities then, are a product of the relationship between our brain’s physical development and our environment while it’s developing. We are literally shaped by the voices we have heard. Our brain has habits of hormone release shaped by experiences and genetics, which further alter its pathways as we age.

The point of this, then is to recognize that your authentic voice, your emotions and your stories are formed in relationship to others and by the very specific individual biological setting in which they are received. We can’t control much of that process and have to make the best of who and where we are at any given time in our life. This is a core tenant of DBT and my work as a therapist. I believe that everyone is doing the best that they can with their given circumstances (biology, experiences, and skills) at any given time.

SO, why the focus on hearing yourself over the other voices if they’re all a part of you? What’s the point of learning, if you’re already doing the best that you can? I think we can always do better. We can always learn new skills to help manage our instinctive responses. We can work to balance our impulses with reason. We can work to distinguish the voices that love us and help us from the voices that urge harmful behaviors or choices. We can find the voices that lead us to feel good and steer away from the ones that urge us to harm.

Wise Mind

I have been observing my own motivation and inspiration. I noticed that the first few days, the ideas and topics came easily and I had things that I thought about saying first thing in the morning that stayed with me throughout the day. The last couple days have been harder. I’ve been racing downstairs at 10PM hurrying to write something just to get done before midnight to meet my self-imposed deadline.

I think that’s part of the point of this exercise. Sometimes writing just for writing’s sake is the point. But, I started this because I’ve noticed that I have things that I want to say. Ideas about my own life that I want to share.

And so I’ve been thinking about the concept of wise mind, which I teach at the start of my DBT skills group. It’s a mindfulness idea that holds that we should strive to make decisions and choices from a place of balance between our rational mind and our emotional mind. Emotion mind is mood-dependent and emotion focused, when you’re in emotion mind you’re ruled by impulse, urges, and feelings. We don’t always know how the decision is made or why, we just know it is. Rational mind, on the other hand, is cool and reason-oriented. It’s task and goal oriented. It’s pragmatic and logical. If rational and emotional were the two circles of a Venn Diagram, wise mind would be the overlap.

Much like being right- or left- handed, most people tend toward one or the other. I hear from my clients who feel deeply unhappy or worried that they wish they could just be rational all the time and get rid of their emotions. I hear the same thing (only reversed) from people who struggle to let their emotions go.

I live most often in emotional mind. I struggle to balance the wants and impulses with the shoulds and practical realities.

Since Disney is in the name of the blog, I’ll illustrate with a Disney vacation. The decision to go to Disney for Christmas 2018 (see: the bad trip) was made from emotional mind. Our rational minds said it was a bad idea, that it was going to be too expensive, too crowded, that it was likely to remind us of absence rather than joy. Emotion mind didn’t care. Maybe it wanted to be sad. So we listened only to emotion mind and didn’t have the wisdom to balance the practical desire for a good trip and the emotional need to grieve and take in our loss.

And we were pretty unhappy.

The trip in June 2019 was a wise mind trip. It balanced rational (sort of, is two trips to Disney in a year truly rational?) with the emotional. Going when we could more easily afford to do the things we wanted at a time we’d never been before in a way that was different from before was balanced between a need to remember the fun of Disney (and the impulsive decision to book the trip) and the rational realities that often make it harder to enjoy a trip to Disney.

So wise mind tells me that I need to start planning better. To come up with an outline so I can balance the rational need to write with the emotional need to actually say something.

In the coming weeks I want to talk more about mindfulness and emotional crisis. The ways that we can use self care to overcome those moments of crisis and how to recognize them. After that I want to turn to the idea of uncertainty and coping because I think those are two areas where I see clients struggle the most. Beyond that, I’ll follow my curiosity.

We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

Walt Disney

Assumptions and the power of story

The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth. We could swear they are real.     

Miguel Ruiz

It can be hard to feel loved on a daily basis. Tonight I just wanted to go to bed after wrapping a birthday present and doing laundry upstairs. Except. Oops. I remembered that I hadn’t written anything today. I came downstairs to find that my family left many of the things that I do at night undone when they came upstairs to bed.

I felt angry.

I always ask my clients, what’s underneath the anger. The truth is that anger is a secondary emotion – one we go to when the underneath emotion is so uncomfortable, painful, and small that we want to avoid feeling it by accessing our aggression and our strength. Angry is WAY better than hurt. Hurt sucks. Anger is powerful. Hurt is small and weak. At least that’s what people often think.

SO. Underneath the anger. I felt unappreciated, devalued and hurt.

I felt like perhaps my family is not grateful to me. Like the things I do don’t actually matter to them. Maybe they don’t? It’s entirely possible that I’m the only one in the family who cares whether that one last piece of meatloaf gets bagged up and into the refrigerator to be reused in a sandwich tomorrow. Perhaps I’m the only one aggravated to come downstairs in the morning to dirty dishes on the counter and the table.

My anger says: they’re treating me like I’m their maid. They think I’m just here to clean up after them.

My hurt says: they don’t love me enough to see the things I do for them and to want to help. They aren’t grateful for me.

When I stop and write it down, I can see the power of the story I’m telling myself. The story is that I’m alone in caring for everyone and everyone is taking advantage of me. That I’m a martyr to my family’s lovely life.

Stories are how we make sense of our emotions. We want to believe that our emotional responses flow logically from the facts of any given situation. But in order to do that, we have to embellish the facts. We have to add assumptions to them. We have to fill in the gaps between what we can observe with what we guess or assume to be true.

But you know what they say about assume….(hint: it makes an ass out of u and me).

Reading back the thoughts I had upon coming downstairs I can see the gaps that were filled in with assumptions. The worst assumptions (because, honestly, I don’t usually assume the best). I assume they saw the dishes. I assume they chose not to do them. I assume they thought about how the dishes weren’t done and chose to leave them for me. I assume that they put the same importance on the dishes that I do. I assume they wouldn’t have done them in the morning. I assume that my family not doing the dishes means they don’t care or notice that I do the dishes.

Those assumptions may be true or they may not be true. But it’s certainly less painful when I realize that I’m making them and realize that the evidence is that the conclusion I reached by making them is false. My family loves me and is grateful for me.

They thank me all the time. They write it in the cards they give me for my birthday, holidays, and days in between. They show it by bringing me flowers on the weekend when they go out to get breakfast because they know I like them. They tell me.

This is the second important feature of mindfulness in DBT. Being aware of the stories you tell yourself that are inspiring the emotions you’re feeling. When you know the story, you can start to be curious about it’s veracity.

To be a detective about your own life.

What is the evidence that what I’m assuming is true? you might ask yourself. Is there evidence that the story I’m telling myself is NOT true?

Of course there is. There always is. IF you’re willing to look for it.

Story also helps us to know what we need. If I believe my family is not grateful for what I do, I can ask them to tell me that they are. If I were to hear “we love you and are grateful for everything that you do.” I would feel better. Just typing the dialogue make me feel better.

Not all the way better. But now I’m more annoyed than angry.

Annoyed sucks way less than angry.