Embracing Struggle

One of my all time favorite movies is The Princess Bride. It’s full of excellent quotes, incredible satire, and wonderful acting. In the past I’ve had a few Princess Bride quoting duels with friends that eventually dissolve into giggling to the point of tears. Recently I followed Cary Elwes (who plays Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie) on Twitter, and he has been posting some of his best lines from Princess Bride. Yesterdays was, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

After a chuckle where I remembered the scene from the movie where Westley performs this witticism, I started thinking about struggle. Often, it seems that people are living life to minimize struggle and maximize pleasure. Advertising campaigns center around presenting a problem that people might identify with, and then showing how their product can solve it. Overweight? Well, try this pill. Dirty floor? Well, try this cleaning product. Frizzy hair? Buy this hair product and your problem is solved.

When hard times hit, as they definitely have in 2020, people tend to look forward to a time when the struggle ends and life goes back to being easier. When there is illness, people look for cures. When relationships get rocky, people look for ways to smooth them out.

Clearly, avoiding struggle is part of human nature. Often, I hear parents saying that they don’t want to their children to struggle the way that they did, and then they do their utmost to make life as easy as possible for their children.

While I understand the instinct to protect, and to seek ease, I wonder about the wisdom of this philosophy. Having had my share of hard times, I can tell you that struggle has led to the most growth in my life, the most self-reflection, the most fruitful changes.

An abusive marriage and ugly divorce led to my going back to school and becoming a psychotherapist. A terrible illness led to my journey into authorship, blogging and podcasting. A painful breakup led to intense spiritual growth and a desire to invest in learning about music and another language. When the fires of struggle show up, if we can embrace them instead of fight, they can forge us from a raw metal into a weapon of great strength and beauty.

On the other hand, we’ve all encountered people who are the product of too much ease and too little struggle. We joke that they were “born with a silver spoon in their mouths.” These people tend to be arrogant in their own ignorance of what it is to do hard work–what it is to truly struggle. Often they seem to look down on people who don’t have it as easy as they do, and seem to think it’s some kind of moral failing on their part that the world is harder on them. We call these people who haven’t struggled things like “entitled,” “immature,” and “green.”

Deep down we know that people need struggle to become fully-formed human beings, but we still do our best to dodge it at every turn, and to shield our children from it. We look at celebrities and wealthy people, who we imagine live a life of ease (although this is not actually true), and we think how wonderful it would be to live those lives, leading to even more discontent with the struggles of every-day living.

I would like to advocate for a change in attitude. Instead of looking down on people who are struggling and envying those who have a vapid and overly easy existence, I suggest that we embrace struggle as the transformational process that it is. I suggest that instead of thinking, “Aww . . . poor thing. She/He is really struggling right now,” we think “Wow. That person is really in the forge of the fires of struggle. I wonder what the finished product will be.”

It’s OK to be struggling. It’s a part of life. If your kid is having a hard time with distance learning, that’s OK. Working through that struggle, helps your child to learn how to deal with adversity. Most of us are struggling in some way with the pandemic. Perhaps the struggle is isolation, or joblessness, or fear of infection. Maybe it’s all of these together. And, yes, it is hard, but instead of denying or fighting the reality of your circumstances, I suggest that you ask yourself, “What are the lessons that I could learn from this time in my life?”

Now, I’m definitely not advocating for a “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. That’s one of my top ten most hated phrases. What are bootstraps, anyway? And how am I supposed to pull myself up with them? No. Instead, treat yourself and others with compassion. Support the people in your life as they support you in return. We need each other, and there is no shame in that.

I’m saying that struggle is not something to hide from or be ashamed of. It is not something to apologize for. Each person’s individual struggle can be like a personal hero’s journey. Every hero starts out naive and untested, and then is strengthened by adversity. Nobody is born heroic.

I think it would be appropriate to end with a quote that was brought to my attention by Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly. I think it captures this idea of embracing the formative quality of struggle perfectly: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” Theodore Roosevelt.

Shame: How it Affects us, and How to Overcome it

Over the weekend I went out of town to attend my 2-year-old niece’s birthday party. She was adorable, and I enjoyed spending time with my family, but the drive through LA can be brutal. On my way home, a man on a motorcycle whizzed by me and then flipped me off. I have no idea what I could have done to make him angry. I had been driving in the same lane at the same speed for miles.

Despite the knowledge that I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt hot shame flush through my body, and I recognized the sensation as one that I’ve experienced frequently lately. It seems like every time I turn around these days, someone is suggesting that there is something wrong with me.

Whenever I make a comment online, dozens of perfect strangers attempt to shame me by calling me stupid in myriad ways. Partly, I think that people shame others in order to dispel some of their own frustration, but I also think that they do it believing that the shame will teach the other person a lesson.

I’ve seen parents shame their children for the same reason. Children who get bad grades or fail to do their chores properly are often shamed by their parents, who believe that the shame will get their children to behave better in the future.

Unfortunately, these parents’ efforts are misguided. Shame can’t teach anyone anything. Scans of human brains show that the learning centers shut down on shame. No information is getting in until the shamed person’s brain calms down. If the goal is teaching, it is much better and more effective to speak kindly to people, and help them to understand and practice. A relaxed brain is a learning brain.

Brene Brown, the renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, defines shame as the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” This sense of unworthiness is profoundly damaging to the human psyche. The more that people receive the message that they are unworthy of love, the more that they believe it. Much of my work as a therapist is helping people to undo the programming of shame.

While shame usually begins as damaging messages of unworthiness from the people around us, over time we tend to internalize the shame and begin shaming ourselves. We believe that we need the shame to motivate ourselves–to keep ourselves from becoming lazy couch potatoes.

However, the research shows that shame doesn’t actually motivate people. The more that we shame ourselves, the more depressed we become, which leads to lower levels of motivation, not higher. Giving ourselves kindness and compassion is a much better way to gain motivation.

If you’re thinking that you don’t have shame, think again. Shame is universal. The only people that don’t feel it are psychopaths. The more that we act like shame doesn’t exist, the more it grows. Speaking honestly with each other about the experience of shame is the only way to overcome it.

Brene Brown talks about shame being like a Gremlin. In the 1980s movie, Gremlins, the little green monsters that wreak havoc are only killed in the end by the sun. Shame is the same. It is only by exposing it to the light that it can be defeated.

I’m not suggesting that you start telling everyone you meet about your shame experiences. Doing that would likely just create more experiences to be ashamed of. Instead, share your shame with people who have earned the right to hear your stories, and have the emotional strength to bear the weight of your pain.

These are people who have stuck with you through good times and bad times, and have shown that they can be trusted with your secrets and your pain. If you can’t think of anyone like that in your life, I would suggest that you find a therapist who is trained to hear your shame stories and can help you shed necessary light on your pain.

There’s an important difference between shame and guilt that I’d like to discuss. While shame is the terrible feeling of being unworthy of love and belonging, which is harmful and leads to painful experiences of disconnection, guilt is the knowing that you have done something wrong that you need to make right somehow.

Shame is the sense of “I am bad,” and guilt is the sense of “I did something bad.” Unlike shame, guilt can help people to rebuild connections. When people realize that they have hurt others, they can apologize and seek forgiveness.

If you regularly speak to yourself in the language of shame, I would encourage you to begin practicing self-compassion. If you’re constantly shaming yourself, your nervous system is constantly in fight or flight mode, which is extremely damaging to your body and your nervous system. In this self-protective state, you will have difficulty learning new things, and your body will likely become depressed in order to deal with all of the stress.

Self-compassion is a wonderful way to begin the process of coming out of a self-shaming mind state. There are three components to self compassion: 1) mindfulness, 2) self-kindness, and 3) common humanity.

The mindfulness part is about paying attention to your experience and noticing your self-critical and shaming thoughts. The self-kindness part is really about telling yourself that both you and your feelings are OK. And the common humanity part is reminding yourself that the experience of pain and shame are what make us the same as others, not different.

A self-compassion statement might look something like this: “Wow, I’m feeling a lot of shame right now. It’s OK to feel that way. Many people would feel shame in this situation.” You can create a self-compassion statement that works for you as long as it has all three components. It doesn’t take a lot of time to use the statement, and it can dramatically shift the experience of shame, and reduce your stress.

Despite the messages that you may have received over the course of your lifetime, you are worthy of love and belonging. You don’t have to do anything to become worthy. You are already worthy simply because you are a human being. Babies know that they are worthy of love, and so do the people around them. It seems strange to me that people think that at some unknown point in human development this inherent worthiness goes away. It doesn’t. All people are worthy of love and belonging, including you.

For more information on shame, please look into the work of Brene Brown. She’s one of my sheroes, and I highly recommend her book Daring Greatly. She also has two great TED Talks: “The Power of Vulnerability,” and “Listening to Shame.”

For more information on self-compassion, I recommend the work of Kristin Neff, who has a wonderful TED Talk called “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion.”

Let Us Put Light Around it: A Way to Cope with Pain

It’s only dusk and I can already hear fireworks going off in the distance for Independence Day–the day in which citizens of the United States celebrate winning the war against England for the right to govern themselves.  It is seen by many as a day to celebrate the independent spirit, the rights of the individual, and freedom of religion and thought.  And yet, many do not have the freedom that the United States claims to value.

This lack shows up in many ways; some large and some small.  This past week I was reminded that I don’t have the freedom to make my own decisions about how I handle my work because I am an employee of a large corporation.  The reminder left me shaken,  and with an anxiety in my chest that took my breath away.  Whenever an emotion creates an overwhelming sensation in my body, I remember a line from a book in Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series.

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you probably have heard of one of her most famous books, The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become a hit series on Hulu as well as a symbol of the importance of combating misogyny.  The Madd Addam series tackles a different social problem–the human destruction of the earth.  Some of the characters end up becoming members of a fictional group known as God’s Farmers, who form an earth friendly and sustainable commune.  Whenever things go wrong in the story, the leader of the God’s Farmers says “Let us put light around it.”

Let us put light around it.

Those words stuck with me long after reading Madd Addam, and I started using them in my own life.  As I struggled with anxious chest pains last week, I closed my eyes and imagined the pain surrounded by a healing, white light.  Slowly, the pain began to shrink, and eventually nothing was left of it except for a ball of white light in my chest.

While this technique is highly effective inside my own body, putting light around it doesn’t necessarily change things out in the world.  However, it does change how I feel about them.  So, I thought I might devote this blog post to putting light around the intensely difficult experience of the world in 2020, in the hopes that it might change how we all feel about it.

First, let us put light around a deadly global pandemic that has killed over 500,000 humans throughout the world.  Let us put light around those grieving for their dead family members and friends.  Let us put light around the sick.  Let us put light around health care providers who risk their lives every day to help those suffering from this deadly disease.  Let us also put light around the people who have lost their jobs due to the quarantine, and those who are afraid about how they are going to pay their rent or mortgage, and how they are going to feed their families.  Let us put light around the lonely people who haven’t had any true human contact for months.

As I write these words there are tears in my eyes for so much suffering, and yet imagining light around these problems does seem to ease the pain a little.

Let us also put light around a social system that doesn’t offer the same opportunities to everyone, and that often works to block people from succeeding based upon the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation.  Let us put light around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so many others who were killed due to the racism inherent in the system.  Let us put light around the families and friends of those who have been murdered.  Let us put light around a police force that is having to face itself and ask hard questions about how to change.  Let us put light around the people who have risked their own safety to go out and protest the injustice in the system.  They have been heard, and we are grateful for their voices.

Let us put light around those who are dealing with sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking.  Let us put light around a social system that is biased towards the abusers–a system where rape kits–representing the most horrible day in thousands of women’s lives go unprocessed.  Let us put light around a system where rape victims find it almost impossible to get justice–a system where, instead, these victims often find themselves accused of lying, or of trying to get attention.  Let us put light around a society where women who are beaten by their partners are asked what they did to deserve it, and told to stop provoking the beatings.  Let us put light around 16-year-old Chrystul Kizer, who killed the man who was sex trafficking her, and now faces life in prison.  Let us put light around the abusers, the misogynists, the traffickers, and the rapists in hopes that they can see the error of their ways.

Let us put light around a medical system that often seems to be more about profit than about treatment.  Let us put light around the patients seeking help who are turned away because their ailments aren’t easily diagnosed.  Let us put light around medical providers who lack compassion for the sick.  Let us put light around the people of color who are unable to ask for pain medications without being accused of drug seeking.  Let us put light around the women who are unable to ask for care without being accused of having mental health problems.  And let us put light around the medical providers who are doing their very best to help people in spite of being overworked and under-supplied.

Let us put light around a political system that divides a nation, divides families, and divides friends.  Let us put light around those who want to vote, but cannot.  Let us put light around the bullies that assume they know better.  Let us put light around those that hold their thoughts to themselves in order to keep the peace.

Let us put light around the LGBTQ+ community.  Let us put light around a society that condemns people for their sexual preference or gender identity.  Let us put light around the victims of hate crimes.  Let us put light around Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered because he was gay.  Let us put light around those who hate gay and transgender people, for surely they suffer too.

And finally, let us put light around ourselves.  Remember that you are always your first priority because you are a member of the human race and inherently deserving of your own love.  Embrace yourself, for your relationship with you is the most important relationship in your life.

 

How to Combat the Stress of Isolation through the GRAPES Approach to Self Care

This has been a hard morning.  I woke up with a headache after a night of fitful sleep and bad dreams.  Everything seems to be going wrong.  A good friend of mine is moving away.  My job is changing in ways that make me question whether it continues to be a viable way for me to make a living, and my apartment seems to get smaller and lonelier every day.

COVID-19 quarantine is exhausting, and yet I have grave concerns about the possible health ramifications of re-opening.  There’s an odd push-pull in my heart as to which direction we should go.

Yesterday was a big social day for me by 2020 standards.  I saw two friends and got my first haircut since the pandemic began, which felt AMAZING!

After the haircut, I met my friend, Jessica, at the mall and we had dinner together.  The restaurant was seating people every other table so that there was a lot of space between us.  The waiter wore a mask, so we couldn’t see her face.  She gave us a disposable paper menu and a pencil to mark our orders, and asked us to deposit the menu on a tray at the table next to us instead of taking our orders directly.  It was a strangely isolating dining experience.  After eating, Jessica and I were planning to do some shopping, but we found that the stores were all closed by 7:30pm–a situation we hadn’t been expecting.

When I got home, I felt depleted, and went to bed early even though I had things that I’d planned to accomplish before sleeping–like writing this blog post!  It was exciting to go out into the world again after months of quarantine, and yet the world’s jarring strangeness made me sad.

As I lay in bed wanting to sleep, but too overwhelmed to do so, I started thinking about the nature of isolation.

We’ve been sheltering in place for months for the health of the community for months, but isolation is so difficult and painful for human beings that it is often used as punishment.  

  • Children are sent to their rooms or to time out when they have misbehaved.
  • People get banished when their behavior is so poor that the community can’t tolerate them anymore.
  • Inmates are placed in solitary confinement when they act out.

I think that this isolation has felt a lot like punishment for many, which explains some of the weird ways in which people have reacted.

Isolation can lead to depression and anxiety, which can lead to more depression and anxiety in a self-sustaining feedback loop.  In this climate of fear, many people have developed varying degrees of agoraphobia–the fear of leaving the house–and with good reason.

However, depression and anxiety aren’t the only possible negative effects of isolation.  There are serious physical health problems caused by isolation as well.  

According to the article, “Social Isolation Negatively Affects Mental and Physical Health–Here’s What You Can Do to Stay Healthy,” by Kelly Burch, social isolation can lead to cognitive decline, heart problems and a weakened immune system.  It can also cause a 30% increase in the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke.  

Social isolation negatively affects mental and physical health — here’s what you can do to stay healthy by Kelly Burch

The culprit here is stress.  When people are stressed, their bodies secrete adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that tell their nervous systems that they are in danger.  The nervous system then tries to save the body by telling it to run, fight or freeze.  This is a completely involuntary reaction, like breathing.  If we were being chased by lions, this response would probably save our lives, and then when we were safe again, our bodies would go back to normal.

However, in the case of isolation, there isn’t any physical threat to run from, so the stress never dissipates, and our bodies constantly think that we’re in danger, keeping us flooded with fight or flight hormones.

It’s not too difficult to understand why a constant state of fight or flight could lead to anxiety.  It’s a little more complicated, though, with physical damage to body.  In essence, what happens is that our bodies conserve the energy that they would be spending on repairs to our heart walls or stomach linings in a relaxed state, and spend that energy instead on the fight, flight, freeze response.  So if we’re in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze, our bodies never do necessary minor repairs, leading to extensive damage over time.

For this reason, it’s extremely important to do things every day to lower your stress level.

I highly recommend using a structured approach to self care in order to intentionally make deposits into your own emotional bank account.  Otherwise, it’s much too easy to become depleted, which leads to increased stress.  The structure that I like to use is known as GRAPES, which is an acronym for:

G – Gentle to self

R – Relaxation

A – Accomplishments

P – Pleasure

E – Exercise

S – Social

By getting a little bit from each category of self care into your day, you’re well on your way to inoculating yourself against stressors such as isolation.

Gentle to self means doing things to treat yourself kindly.  A great resource for self kindness is Kristin Neff’s work on self compassion. Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion Website.  Other great ways to be gentle to self include meditation, rest, taking a bubble bath, and avoiding sources of negativity–such as the news.

Relaxation is a self care component that many Americans feel guilty allowing themselves.  In American culture the emphasis is on doing instead of being, but the act of being is an extremely important part of self care.  If you examine your daily activities and find that you’re short on relaxation, I give you permission to take more time for leisure.  It’s not laziness.  Rest time is time when our bodies are calm enough to do those little repairs that we need for optimal physical health.  So, please, take naps.  Listen to beautiful music.  Lay in a hammock.  It’s good for you.

Accomplishments are important too, of course.  We all need to feel that we have purpose in our lives.  Without purpose, humans tend to fall into a terrible state of meaninglessness.  However, it’s important to know that accomplishing things doesn’t necessarily mean going to work.  It can mean completing a creative project, or cooking a wonderful meal, or practicing a new skill.  Do your best to make your accomplishments meaningful and life-affirming for you.

Pleasure is an extremely underrated component of self care.  It seems to me that America’s Puritan heritage has led to a mistrust of pleasure as somehow inappropriate.  However, pleasure is good for you.  It makes people happy, and releases oxytocin and opiates, the feel good hormones.  We need happiness.  Without it life is bleak.  So do things that feel good to you.  They are important and meaningful.  Dance.  Laugh.  Hug.  Eat delicious food.  Get a massage.  Sit in the sun.  Surround yourself with beautiful smells.

Exercise is the single most effective thing you can do to increase your happiness.  This is no exaggeration.  Scientific studies have shown that 30 minutes of cardio daily is equal to, or even more effective, than an antidepressant in improving mood.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to go out and get a gym membership and start lifting weights and running on treadmills, although that’s a great option if you enjoy that.  I recommend finding your fun as the best way to create an exercise regimen that’s sustainable.  If it’s fun, you’ll keep doing it.  If it’s not, it just feels like a chore.  So, if you enjoy dancing, then dance.  If you enjoy being outside, maybe you should take up hiking or walking in the park.  If you enjoy mindful movement, then maybe meditation or Tai Chi or for you.

Social is a tough one right now.  Things are starting to open up a little bit as we move to the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, but life is still a sea of face masks and closed businesses.  I really miss hugs.  However, you still can get your social self care in doing small things like taking a walk and waving at people that pass.  (Yes. I’m that weirdo, and you can be too).  Meeting friends in open-air settings is good too.  There are many ways to see people virtually, and I think that they can be helpful in moderation, but I also think that they can be confusing to our nervous systems if over-used.  They create a cognitive dissonance.  Our minds think that we saw someone, but our bodies didn’t get any energy or pheromones and feel just as isolated as they did before the Zoom meeting or FaceTime call.  Still, seeing people’s faces via computer screens is better than not seeing them at all.

A great way to take care of yourself, and to combat the stress of isolation, is to make a plan each day for how you’re going to get a little taste of each self care component above.    Both your mental and physical health will thank you.

One last thought.  Taking care of yourself is not selfishness.  Many people have been brought up to believe that it is.  However, I submit to you that the best gift that you can give to others is a happy and well-cared-for self.  When you feel good, you’re more pleasant to be around, and you have more energy to give to others.  By being open-hearted to yourself, you’ll be better equipped to be open-hearted to others.  And besides, you’re totally worth it, just because you’re you.