Category Archives: Mental Health

One Perspective: I’ve learned to live with my mental illness

There is an old saying…”We can’t climb into another person’s skin.”  The meaning I take from this is that, while we can show empathy to others, we don’t know their intimate experience–mental health included.  That’s why it’s useful to hear directly from others.  The following First Person article, was published in the July 23, 2018 issue of the Globe and Mail.  First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers.

My disquieted mind is like a party I was invited to, but I don’t know who sent the invitation. Trading cloaked glances across the open bar, ice clinking audibly in swirling glasses, olives skewered onto toothpicks with a tidy, yet menacing accuracy. The conversation becomes hushed around me as I move about the room. I look to the door, but can’t navigate my way to exit. None of my bipolar highs or lows or my various anxieties have ever been gracious hosts. Yet, the invitation remains, unavoidable and persistent.

Is it natural for your most complex relationship to be with yourself? Some nights, I fall asleep in the bed of one likeness and awake in another. Some mornings my visage looks like an offence, as if the mirror is trying to disparage me. Other days I see the face of an old friend, my heart swelling and breaking concurrently as I ask, “Why am I so hard on myself?”

Everyone wants to be free of themselves at some point, counting down the minutes to the weekend to intoxicate ourselves and create moments we won’t remember. It’s easier to say, “I love you” when drunk, faded, high or rolling anyway. Many of us will gladly sacrifice a slice of control for a helping of chemically induced simplicity. The small become large, the indifferent become invested. But what is perspective without a window; what is scale without reference?

Perhaps internal peace is meeting one’s self in no man’s land, between the trenches, caked in grime. Looking up and recognizing the resemblance, breaching the gap that separates us from our real selves – a silent pause, commanding in its stillness. To catch and maintain our own gaze is powerful. We hide our darkest corners most aptly from ourselves.

I want to fall in love with myself, but it’s never been that simple. At 27, I find myself on a fulcrum, feeling the past behind me, a soundless breeze on the back of my neck reminding me of everything I’ve lost, every object dropped, every person who removed themselves from my life.

I don’t fear these accusations of inferiority and inadequacy as I used to, but I admit to my trepidation surrounding them. My most difficult endeavour was admitting my deficiencies, confused by what strength actually was.

My faith in myself never falters, except when it does. I live with self-doubt, all-encompassing and seemingly endless, waiting for a day that may never come. Grand victories may be rare, but with patience and perseverance they arrive. I gave a speech at my grandfather’s memorial service and it was enthusiastically received. I probably wouldn’t be writing this essay had that not occurred. It was a victory in an unexpected place from unexpected people with unexpected consequences. I was able to exhale and breathe for another day. My grandfather would have been proud.

I’ve discovered that it’s not the elimination of so-called shortcomings that leads to self-improvement. It’s more about sensibly maintaining composure when that composure is called into question, especially when it’s me who’s doing the questioning.

I know there is no cure for my mental illness, no dusting hands off and settling down after a job well done. There is balance and consistency. The world doesn’t change; you need to change within it. I suppose that’s why I take my medication every morning and every night without fail. I’m recovering from whispers and shadows. My pills come in handfuls – my anxieties I consume single file.

It’s been years in the making, but when I have a good day, it’s mine. In these moments, I control as much of my destiny as possible. My social anxiety has kept me on a short leash my whole life and my mental health has at times taken my legs out from under me. But when I wake up early, start writing, survive another yoga class and lay down for an early bedtime, it adds another solitary brushstroke to the canvas that is the true, unflinching and unremitting me.

So, here I stand. I’m not a boy, but I’m not far divorced from boyhood. I’m intelligent, but applying that intelligence has proven a difficult and layered struggle.

I was never successful in school; my attitude was loud and my interest quiet. My indifference about formal education did not evaporate over the summer between Grade 12 and my first year at Concordia, which in retrospect is about as shocking as the sunrise. Since turning 20, I’ve been in and out work, missing multiple years cumulatively, because of my mental health. I have a lot of love in me, but I’ve never been able to make any of my relationships last at least a year. Life is complicated: My friends’ lives are complicated, my life is complicated and my family’s is as well.

I am the cat who climbed too high; those closest to me bring the ladder and carry me down.

As far as we travel, we never leave ourselves. We might lose ourselves around a dark corner, but we will always be there. My faith is to no deity or prophet; my faith is a manifestation that exists between the gaps of my ribs, looking out, viewing the world with colourful inquiry and nervous anticipation. I suppose I’ve found no god and no ego to be a worthwhile forfeit. Between the heart and the heavens, warmed by a lack of expectations, I find peace and feel courageous in my lack of understanding.

The truth is what happens between the lies. Back at the party, in my mind, the hostility suddenly abates. I can recognize old friends I simply could not see before. We will greet each other happily. When a round of socializing leaves me dizzy, I retreat to the bathroom for a brief reprieve. I wash my hands and look to the mirror. I love you, Jack.

Jack Altman lives in Vancouver.

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6 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve Your Mental Health

Thinking about improving our mental health can feel overwhelming–especially when we’re under the influence of negative emotions such as anger, sadness or anxiety.  However, there are a few simple things that you can do in the moment that can help…and, if you practice these things on a regular basis, you may see an improvement in your overall well-being.  So, what are they?

1.  Stop and Breathe

As humans, we are under a lot of stress.  Our stress levels encourage us to be ‘shallow’ breathers–instead of taking deep breaths; we take short,  shallow breaths.  If we pay attention, we may notice that most of our inhales barely make it past our collar bone!    This way of breathing encourages panicky feelings as we’re not getting enough oxygen to our brains–it’s as if we’re hyperventilating.   If that’s our normal, how should we breathe?

Have you ever watched a baby breathe?  They  naturally ‘tummy’ breathe…slow, deep, relaxed breaths.  Tummy breathing helps to calm the nervous system, which puts the breaks on the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.  You can practice this type of breathing by gently placing your hands on your stomach and inhaling until you feel your tummy rise and fall.

If you are interested in practicing your breathing as a way to cope with difficult emotions, a meditation/breathing download is available on the Welcome Page of Blaikie Psychotherapy.  The exercise takes 20 minutes and includes instructions.

2.  Eat Something Healthy

Are you familiar with the ‘hang over’ from a greasy, high-fat, calorie-dense meal?  I know that I am!  If I have made a stop at my local fast-food palace as a way to cope with negative feelings, I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t feel better afterwards.

Our brains and bodies are connected.  There is now a branch of science called Nutritional Psychiatry that looks at the effects of food on our mental health.  Scientists are recognizing the interplay between mental health and a healthy gut (the microbiome).  When we provide our bodies with healthy nutrients, we are encouraging brain health.  This article from the Harvard Medical School explains how eating a diet high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants helps to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain.

So, if you’re feeling down, grab an apple instead of a doughnut!

3.  Move

We have known for a long time that exercise is a good way to improve our mood.  There’s nothing like a good stomp around the block after an argument!

The great thing is that it doesn’t have to be a big deal…just 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week will provide benefits.  While 150 minutes may sound like a lot, it’s only a 20 minute walk per day.  And the 20 minutes can be spread out over the day…park the car a bit farther from where you’re going…take the stairs when possible…hit replay on your favourite tune and keep dancing.  When we’re mindful of ways to increase our amount of movement, it’s easy to find 20 minutes.

4.  Enjoy Nature

Not only can we add 20 minutes of movement into our day, we can do it outside.  While spending time in a forest or at a lake is ideal, the benefit is in getting outside.  Is there a park or other green space in your area?  What about your backyard?

A recent trend called “Forest Bathing” encourages us to benefit from the healing properties of trees.    According to a CTV News article,  the forest bathing movement is all about immersing oneself in the healing properties of trees and plants.  It involves simply walking — quietly, slowly and deliberately — in a forest, and taking in the sounds, scents, colours, forms and general vibe of nature.

The concept is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere.”  The certified forest therapy guide quoted in the article stated that “studies in Japan and Korea found forest bathers after their walks had an increased number of “natural killer cells,” immune system cells that combat disease and may even help prevent some kinds of cancer. The researchers believe natural killer cells are boosted when people breathe in organic compounds called phytoncides released by trees.”  Apparently, forest bathing helps to lower cortisol levels, thereby lowering your stress levels.

If you’re curious about nature therapy or forest bathing, you can read more about it here.

4.  Count

We’ve all heard the advice about counting to 10 before losing our temper, and for a good reason as it often works.  However, sometimes we need more than that.

When we get overwhelmed by big emotions like anxiety or anger, our limbic system (or lizard/emotional brain) is over-stimulated.  This means that the logic part of our brain (pre-frontal cortex) is not in charge.  By counting, which is a ‘thinking’ activity, we put that part of our brain back in the driver’s seat, and we stop the flooding of emotions.  While counting our breaths may help, it can be more helpful to count something that is external to us.

One suggestion that I often give to clients is, when needed, look at what is around and find something to count.  In a meeting room?…count the number of pens or paperclips on the table.  In a store?…How many items are on the rack or shelf in front of you.  At home?…Count the number of books on a shelf, spots on the carpet, dust bunnies on the floor.  Outside?  Count trees or cars.  We can always find something to count.

6.  Talk to Someone

One of the signs of depression is self-imposed social isolation.  We don’t feel like interacting with other people, so we don’t.  The more we keep to ourselves, the deeper we fall into our negative thoughts and the less we want to spend time with others….and the pattern repeats.  I’m not talking about the bigger problem of a chronic lack of friends, but the turning away for others.

Social interaction is important for our mental health.  We are social creatures and need contact with others.  So make a point of talking to at least one person during your day…maybe it’s the person who makes your coffee or tea…smiling at someone who crosses your path…asking a co-worker about their plans for the weekend.  It doesn’t have to be deep, just a sharing of humanity.

This post provides 6 simple ways to improve your mental health.  However, if you are dealing with a significant mental health challenge, these may not be enough.  If you would like to get in touch to talk more about what you are experiencing, you can reach me through my contact page.

And now, since humour is also good for mental health.  Here is some classic Monty Python.  Enjoy!

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“Find Your Passion”…Apparently Not a Good Idea!

Whether you are in the process of finding your first or twenty-first career, we are often told to “Find your passion” and all will be well.  According to the following article published in the July 12, 2018 on-line edition of The Atlantic, following this advice may not be a good idea.

This is such a good article (and timely as the new University and College terms are fast approaching), that I’ve included it in it’s entirety.  Enjoy!

‘Find Your Passion’ Is Awful Advice

A major new study questions the common wisdom about how we should choose our careers.

A person wearing white gloves holds up a violin
Toby Melville / ReutersWhat Dweck asked her students is a common refrain in American society. The term “Follow your passion” has increased ninefold in English books since 1990. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” is another college-counseling standby of unknown provenance.

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, remembers asking an undergraduate seminar recently, “How many of you are waiting to find your passion?”“Almost all of them raised their hand and got dreamy looks in their eyes,” she told me. They talked about it “like a tidal wave would sweep over them,” he said. Sploosh. Huzzah! It’s accounting! Would they have unlimited motivation for their passion? They nodded solemnly. “I hate to burst your balloon,” she said, “but it doesn’t usually happen that way.”

That’s why he and two co-authors—Dweck and Greg Walton of Stanford—recently performed a study that suggests it might be time to change the way we think about our interests. Passions aren’t “found,” they argue. They’re developed.

In a paper that is forthcoming in Psychological Science, the authors delineate the difference between the two mind-sets. One is a “fixed theory of interests”—the idea that core interests are there from birth, just waiting to be discovered—and the other is a “growth theory,” the idea that interests are something anyone can cultivate over time.To examine how these different mind-sets affect our pursuit of different topics, the authors performed a series of studies on college students—a group that’s frequently advised to find their passion in the form of a major or career path.

First, students answered a survey that would categorize them as either “techy”—slang for interested in math and science—or “fuzzy,” meaning interested in the arts or humanities. They also filled out a survey determining how much they agreed with the idea that people’s core interests don’t change over time. They then read an article that mismatched their interests—a piece on the future of algorithms for the fuzzies, and a piece on Derrida for the techies. The more the participants endorsed a “fixed” theory of interests, the less interested they were in the article that mismatched their aforementioned identity as a techy or fuzzy.

The authors then repeated a similar procedure, but they had students read first about either the fixed theory of interests or the growth theory. Again, those who learned that interests are fixed throughout a person’s life were less captivated by an article that mismatched their interests. The authors believe this could mean that students who have fixed theories of interest might forgo interesting lectures or opportunities because they don’t align with their previously stated passions. Or that they might overlook ways that other disciplines can intersect with their own.“If passions are things found fully formed, and your job is to look around the world for your passion—it’s a crazy thought,” Walton told me. “It doesn’t reflect the way I or my students experience school, where you go to a class and have a lecture or a conversation, and you think, That’s interesting. It’s through a process of investment and development that you develop an abiding passion in a field.”

Another reason not to buy into the fixed theory is that it can cause people to give up too easily. If something becomes difficult, it’s easy to assume that it simply must not have been your passion, after all. In one portion of this study, the students who thought interests were fixed were also less likely to think that pursuing a passion would be difficult at times. Instead, they thought it would provide “endless motivation.”

Dweck, one of the paper’s authors, has previously studied different types of mind-sets as they relate to intelligence. People who have a growth mind-set about their own intelligence tend to be less afraid of failure, according to her research, because they believe smarts are cultivated, not inherent. Interests are related to, but distinct from, abilities, the study authors told me: You can be interested in something but not very good at it. “I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years, but I can’t say that my abilities have gotten that much better in the past 10 years,” O’Keefe said.

Dweck told me that “find your passion” has a laudable history. “Before that, people were saying, ‘Find your genius,’ and that was so intimidating. It implied that only people who were really brilliant at something could succeed,” she said. “‘Find your passion’ felt more democratic. Everybody can have an interest.” But this study suggests that even the idea of finding your “true” interest can intimidate people and keep them from digging further into a field.

The authors also had students learn about either fixed or growth theory and then exposed them to a new interest: Astronomy. First, they had them watch a video made by The Guardian for a general audience about Stephen Hawking’s ideas. It was easy to understand and entertaining. Then the authors had the students read a highly technical, challenging article in the academic journal Science about black holes. Despite saying just moments ago, after viewing the video, that they were fascinated by black holes, the students who were exposed to the fixed theory of interests said they were no longer interested in black holes after reading the difficult Science article. In other words, when you’re told that your interests are somehow ingrained, you give up on new interests as soon as the going gets tough.

This study was a preregistered replication, meaning the authors stated at the outset what their hypothesis and methods would be. This process is meant to prevent p-hacking, a shady data practice that has cast a shadow over many psychology studies in recent years.

Ann Renninger, a professor at Swarthmore College who was not involved with the study, has researched the development of interests and said that “neuroscience has confirmed that interests can be supported to develop.” In other words, with the right help, most people can get interested in almost anything. Before the age of 8, she said, kids will try anything. Between the ages of 8 and 12, they start to compare themselves with others and become insecure if they’re not as good as their peers at something. That’s when educators have to start to find new ways to keep them interested in certain subjects.

Though the authors didn’t examine adults, they told me their findings could apply to an older population as well. For example, people’s interest in parenthood tends to escalate rapidly once they have a real, crying baby in their house. “You could not know the first thing about cancer, but if your mother gets cancer, you’re going to be an expert in it pretty darn quick,” O’Keefe said.

A different study done on adults’ views toward passions suggests that people who think passions are found tend to pick jobs that fit them well from the outset. They prioritize enjoyment over good pay. People who think passions are developed, meanwhile, prioritize other goals over immediate enjoyment at work, and they “grow to fit their vocations better over time,” the authors of that study write. “In conclusion,” they add, “people who have not found their perfect fit in a career can take heart—there is more than one way to attain passion for work.”

How to cultivate a “growth” mind-set in the young, future-psychology-experiment subjects of America? If you’re a parent, you can avoid dropping new hobbies as soon as they become difficult. (Your kids might take note if you do, O’Keefe said.) Beyond that, there’s not a clear way to develop a growth mind-set about interests, other than knowing that it’s a valid way to think, and that your passion might still be around the corner.

“We’re just trying to pull the veil back on the hidden implications of things like, ‘find your passion,’” Walton said. “Is that really how things work? A little bit of knowledge is power.”

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Are You In a State of Lykke?

Libraries are magical places.  Unlike looking for books on Amazon or Chapters.com where you are presented with book selections based on previous choices; wandering around a library allows you to stumble upon all sorts of interesting things that you had no idea existed.  And, if you have a library card, it’s all free!  Such was the case the other day when I stumbled upon the little gem entitled The Little Book of Lykke by Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

What is Lykke?

Lykke is the Danish word for happiness.  According to Wiking’s research (based on the combined average of World Happiness Reports 2013-2017) Dane’s are the happiest people on the planet…followed by Swedes and Norwegians to round out the top three.

Wiking suggests that the reason for Denmark’s high happiness rating is due to community norms around togetherness, freedom, trust, and kindness; as well as those around money and health.  If you are interested in learning the details of Wiking’s theory, I recommend his book as an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

A Definition of Happiness

As discussed in last week’s post on balance, the definition of happiness is also individual.  What makes me happy, may be misery to my neighbour.  That being said, Wiking provides a helpful framework to look at happiness.  He suggests that happiness can be divided into three categories:  the affective dimension, the cognitive dimension and eudaimonia.

When we are operating in the affective (or hedonic) dimension we’re thinking short-term.  What was our mood today?  Sad, scared, anxious, happy?  In the cognitive dimension we take a step back and look at our live overall.  Wiking asks:

“How happy are you in general?  Think of the best possible life you could lead, and the worst possible.  Where do you feel you stand right now?”  “When trying to evaluate happiness, the important information is what your dream is and how close you feel to living that dream.”

The concept of eudaimonia takes happiness one step further.  Eudaimonia is the Ancient Greek work for happiness and is based on Aristotle‘s perception of happiness–i.e. happiness comes from living a meaningful and purposeful life.  If you’d like to read more about the ‘meaning of life’ you can check out this previous post.

Chasing Happiness

I think that it’s safe to assume that we all want to be happy.  In fact, it’s often a motivating factor in why we behave the way we do.  In some cases, we even go so far as to believe that we have a right to be happy.  In at least one country, the right to happiness is codified in their founding documents.    The United States Declaration of Independence  gives citizens the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

As with most things that we want very badly, we are seldom content to let them come to us–instead we chase them.  Advertisers know this.  Consumerism is based on the idea that we will buy things that we think will make us more popular, thinner, fitter, smarter…ultimately happier.

Not only do we chase happiness, but in today’s world of ‘fitbits’ and other ways of constant monitoring, there are ‘happiness apps’ that use results of research into brain science and happiness to give users daily exercises that will help to improve their overall state of happiness.  If you’re interested, you can check out Psychology Today’s review of the Best Happiness Apps of 2018.

Unicorns

What if happiness is like a unicorn?  In fairy tales, we learn that if we are looking for a unicorn we’ll fail if we chase them directly. Instead, we need to sit quietly and wait.  She will come to us, and not usually full-on, but  glimpsed out of the corner of our eye.

I like the idea of happiness being somewhat mystical–like unicorns.  It comes when we’re not looking for her.  We can put things in place to encourage her to visit, but we can’t force her to come…or stay forever.

If we measure happiness from the affective standard, it’s easy to look at happiness as something to grasp and get attached to. This can only lead to disappointment.  However, if we think of the long game, happiness over time, we can relax and not get so caught up in our ‘internal weather’.

Happiness and Depression

There is a time when we do need to be aware of our daily happiness–if we suspect that we may be suffering with depression.  One of the symptoms of depression is the absence of happiness or no longer finding joy in activities that used to fulfill us.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • sadness
  • tiredness
  • trouble focusing or concentrating
  • unhappiness
  • anger
  • irritability
  • frustration
  • loss of interest in pleasurable or fun activities
  • sleep issues (too much or too little)
  • no energy
  • craving unhealthy foods
  • anxiety
  • isolation.

If you have been experiencing any of the these symptoms for more than a few weeks, you may be dealing with depression, and need to seek medical support.

Happiness…individual, illusive and part of what makes life worthwhile.  May she find you!

And now what is happier than a baby goat and kittens?  Enjoy!

 

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The Precariousness of Balance

When people find out that I publish a blog post on a regular basis, they often ask where I find ideas to write about.  I share that the inspiration can come from lots of different areas.  Sometimes it’s a book or article that I’ve read. Sometimes a discussion with a friend, colleague, client or stranger has been the spark.  And then there are posts that  I write as a way to wrestle with a topic that I am puzzling with…such as today’s post on balance.

What is Balance?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘balance’ in a number of ways…

  • as a piece of equipment used for measurement
  • physical equilibrium (keeping your balance on a sailboat)
  • the equal space between two opposing elements (junk food vs. exercise)
  • in the context of art, balance is an aesthetically pleasing integration of elements
  • an amount in excess especially on the credit side of a bank account
  • mental or emotional stability.

The ideas of physical equilibrium, space between opposing elements and mental/emotional stability are somewhat helpful, but they don’t quite fit what I’m looking for.  They are describing an exact point, but life is made up by a series of ‘points’ or moments.

Balance as a Concept

At some point during the time that a client and I are working together, we will talk about how things may be different when they have finished therapy.  What is their picture of life after ‘the change’?   In order to discover your view ‘balance’, substitute ‘balanced’ for ‘finished therapy’ or “What is your picture of life after you have achieved a level of balance?”  I suspect that each of you will answer differently.

When we recognize that what is an ideal balance for one person, is completely out of balance for someone else, it becomes clear that ‘balance’ as a concept is incredibly individual.  Also, what a balanced life looks like at one stage of life no longer fits at a later stage.  To complicate things, that sense of being balanced can change from one day to another depending on energy levels, weather, people contact, or an endless bunch of other factors.

Finding Balance…By Paying Attention to the Opposite

I wonder if being able to live a balanced life requires a certain level of self-awareness…knowing not only when we feel balanced, but also being aware of when we feel ‘off-balance’.  Feeling ‘off balance’ is one of the most common reasons that people begin to see a therapist.  They may not be sure what is going on, but they don’t feel ‘right’.

Similar to the old saying, of “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”, maybe we don’t recognize that we are living a balanced life, because everything is ticking along nicely.  We are living our lives with few problems.  We look for balance only when we become aware of it’s non-existence.  Then we play the game of adding more of this and less of that in an attempt to bring back feelings of equilibrium.  How many of us have thought that “I just need more sleep… or less work, or more fun, or less … and life will be better”.

Once we can imagine what a balanced life looks like for us…what we are aspiring to…how do we get there?

Tools for Living a Balanced Life

It appears that the search for a balanced life has been a human activity for a long time.  Here are some of the tools that I have found:

  • The 80/20 Rule:  The idea behind this tool is that when looking for balance it’s unnecessary to micro-manage things in your life or constantly correct when things feel a bit off-kilter.  People use this as a way to balance spending (80% of total income) and saving (20%), or managing food.  If 80% of your diet is healthy, don’t worry about the rest.
  • The Buddhist Idea of the Middle Way:  The Buddha came to this idea after living a life of extremes.  In his youth, he was a wealthy prince, and then chose to give it up to live as a ascetic.  As a holy man, his practices were so extreme that he almost died.  As part of his spiritual journey, he discovered the value of living between the two extremes, or the Middle Way.
  • Everything in Moderation:  This tool fits with the Middle Way as the search for balance doesn’t preclude anything–just don’t do too much of it!
  • The One in/One out Rule:  This tool helps to maintain balance once it has been reached.  Basically, for every new thing you add into your life, something else must leave.  This could apply to things, people (in some cases) or activities.
Can We Have It All?

One of the reasons that many people search for a balanced life is their desire to have/or do it all.  But is this possible?  Maybe, but not at the same time.

Perhaps one piece to the search for a balanced life is that we need to expand the time-frame.  Rather than asking if we’re balanced in this week, month or year; maybe we can ask if we are living a balanced life at this stage.  Or what if the Merriam-Webster definition is right and balance takes place in the moment, only to shift out of balance so easily?  Hmmm….the search continues….

And now…an amazing display of balance–elegant, graceful and inspiring….Enjoy!

 

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The Caregiver’s Journey–Part 1

I recently attended a one-day conference (organized by Hospice Waterloo Region) for caregivers and professionals who support them.   As I sat with the other participants, and heard the stories of people who are actively being a ‘care partner’ for a loved one(s), I was struck by the love and dedication that helped them to make meaning of the difficult role that they had agreed to take on.  I was also aware of the feelings of exhaustion, frustration, fear and loneliness that many bravely shared as they told their stories.  This is the first in a three-part series on Care-giving.

The information in this post is a partial summation of  information that was presented by Dr. Virginia Wesson, Psychiatrist and Dr. Rhonda Feldman, Psychologist.   Both Drs. Wesson and Feldman see patients, and their families, at The Cyril & Dorothy, Joel & Jill Reitman Centre for Alzheimer’s Support and Training.

The Caregiver’s Journey

According to data presented that day, there are 3.3 Million caregivers in Ontario.  Of those, 500,000 of them are ‘young’ caregivers (falling between the ages of 6 and 25).  If as a society we were asked to pay for the caregiving services provided free-of-charge by loved ones, the bill would be in the Billions of dollars.  Wow!

Based on the numbers, if we are not personally affected  by the need to take care of a family member or friend, then we know someone who is–a friend, co-worker, other family member…the list goes on.  As people in our circle, how can we support them as they support others?  I suggest that a first step is to understand the path that they are walking.

Dr. Wesson believes that there are three stages to the caregiving process:  the early stage, the middle stage and the late stage.

The Early Stage

When a partner, spouse, close friend or family member has been diagnosed with a debilitating illness we often experience shock and grief.  While we may have suspicions that our ‘person’ has been struggling, having it confirmed can still be devastating.  We don’t know what the future really looks like, and we may feel that we are starting an ‘endless’ journey.

If we are the primary support, we can be overloaded with information by medical staff or our own research.  On the other hand, we may feel that we are being provided with little information and not sure where to turn.

Once the initial emotions subside, and if the disease in question is progressing slowly, the illness may intrude in our life, but we are able to carry on with a sense of normality.  You may be providing more emotional support vs. physical support for your loved one, taking on more of the hands-on chores that may now be more difficult and becoming a ‘manager’ of the care required by your loved one (i.e. managing medical appointments).

Coping Strategies for the Early Stage

It is during the early stage that you can start to put supports in place for the future.  Will there be physical changes that need to be made to your surroundings?  Are you aware of community organizations that can be called upon when needed?  How may other family members or friends can be asked for help?  What do you need to take care of yourself–such as self-care activities?

This is the time for planning.

The Middle Stage

By the time you have reached the middle stage, you have realized that your loved one isn’t going to get better.  Their illness is a constant consideration as you plan your day–both personally and professionally.  Some people may have decided to leave their jobs, or scale back their hours of work.  Many may be coping with the financial stresses brought on by the illness–either through loss of income or rising expenses.

Feelings of loneliness and overwhelm can be common at this stage–especially as your world is shrinking due to care-giving responsibilities that never seem to end.

Coping Strategies for the Middle Stage
  • Be realistic about what you are able to do.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • If you have not done so already, now is the time to call on your support system for help…friends, family members, outside organizations.
  • To the best of your ability, keep up with your self-care practices–eating well, exercise, and any activities that help you to cope.
  • Be aware of the abilities of your loved one, due to their illness.  It may be less frustrating when we understand that their actions are due to physical challenges vs. negativity.
  • Try to find any positive aspects or meaning  in the care-giving role.
The Late Stage

By this stage, caregivers may be feeling that “I can’t do this anymore”.  If they have had little or no support, they may be suffering from burnout.

There may be feelings of both internal and external conflict as the need to make decisions start to arise.  Internally, there’s the struggle between the guilt you could be feeling as it becomes more difficult to take care of your loved one in their home and the possibility of them moving into a place with full-time paid staff; and the recognition that continuing the current way of doing things is becoming impossible.

Family conflict may come into play if family members are not agreed on next steps, or resentments have come out regarding the sharing of care-giving duties.

Coping Strategies for the Late Stage
  • As above, be realistic about what you can do…physically, mentally and emotionally.
  • Look to your medical supports for information about what can be expected during the late stage of illness and how much care will your loved one require.
  • Access mental health support either privately or through community organizations that specialize in your loved one’s illness.  Organizations such as Cancer Support Centres, Alzheimer Society, etc. have care-giver support groups.

While it may seem like it, as a care-giver you are not alone…no matter where you are on the journey.

Next week, we’ll look at care-giver burnout and further ways to cope.

And now…a TED talk on the positive effects of exercise on the brain…Enjoy!

 

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The Anatomy of a Worry

The following content is a summary of information contained in The Cancer Survivor’s Companion:  Practical ways to cope with your feelings after cancer by Dr. Frances Goodhart and Lucy Atkins.  While the book is from the perspective of cancer patients, I believe that much of the information on worrying is applicable to all of us “worriers”.

We all worry.  It’s part of being human.  But if we look closely at a worry, what is it?  How does it work?  What is it made up of?  How do I cope with it?  Can I make it go away?  One way of dealing with a challenge is to intimately understand it–so let’s dissect a worry and see what makes it tick!

What Is A Worry?

Finances…health…job…family members…what others think of us…I bet that we can all give a list of what the topics that we worry about, but what actually is a worry?  Goodhart and Atkins define a worry as “a natural, instinctive, human response to a perceived threat”.  When we worry, we are afraid that something negative is going to happen.  Worries are future-driven.

While worrisome thoughts may cross our minds, worrying becomes a problem when we can’t stop and begin to ruminate on specific ideas.  These thoughts start to take over all of our brain space to the point that we can’t think about anything else. When worrying becomes out of control, we can’t determine between big and small things to worry about–we worry about them all equally.  Our sense of perspective is gone.

Worrying is such a common, human experience that you can buy something to do your worrying for you.  A Worry Bird!  They also come in a charm bracelet version, so you can take it with you!

How Does It Work?

There are four parts to a worry:  thoughts, behaviour, feelings and body sensations.  They are all inter-related and play off of each other.  A body sensation (perhaps a muscle spasm or stomach ache) triggers a thought about a threat which leads to feelings of fear.  This fear may then cause us to stop what we’re doing and focus on the subject that is worrying us (I’m getting sick or my boss wants to get rid of me…), then we’re off to the worry races.

Treating Worry as a Science Experiment

The key to coping with a worry is to learn to handle each of it’s parts:  thoughts, behaviour, feelings and body sensations.  When we can do that, we can break the cycle and decrease the control that worries have over our lives.

One of the ways to get a handle on worry behaviour is to treat it like a science experiment.  The more we know about an activity, the better able we are to change it.  When you find yourself caught in a worry, pay attention.  When did the worry start?  What were you doing at the time?  Was the trigger a feeling, action, body sensation or thought?  As we gather more information, we can start to see trends and triggers.

It’s Usually About Our Thoughts

For most of us, the worry trigger is our thoughts that are fed by thought traps.  Here are some common thought traps that lead us down the path of worrying.

  • Mind reading:  We are mind reading when we are making judgements about what others are thinking.  (“I know that she’s mad at me because she didn’t return my text”.)
  • Fortune telling:  None of us are able to predict the future.  When we make negative assumptions about what will happen, we are giving in to worry.
  • Thinking the worst:  When we are in a worry cycle, we never think the best, but of the most negative possible outcome.  (“My boss is looking for any reason to fire me…if I’m late, I’m going to lose my job.”)
  • Labelling yourself:  These are all the negative “I am” statements that we beat ourselves up with…”I’m lazy”, “I’m dumb”…
  • If…then thinking:  Logic stops being our friend when we link it to thinking the worst.  “If I don’t hear from the recruiter today, then I didn’t get the job.”
  • Should and oughts:  When we ‘should’ or ‘ought’ ourselves, we are putting unrealistic expectations or demands on ourselves.   “Even thought I’m feeling overwhelmed, I should be taking care of everyone else.”
  • Selective thinking:  When we only remember the negative parts of an interaction or situation and forget the positive parts, we are falling into the trap of selective thinking.

Now that we have gathered information, what’s next?

Coping Strategies

One you know your triggers, you are on the way to getting the upper hand on your worry.

If your trigger is a thought:

  • Write down your actual thought.
  • Compare the thought to any of the thought traps listed above.
  • Problem solve about what you can do, if your actual worry became real.
  • Being able to do this exercise takes practice, so in the beginning you can work with someone your trust.

If your trigger is a body sensation:

  • Slow your breathing–counting your breaths as you breath deeply is a useful technique.
  • Exercise–go for a walk, dance around your room, do a few yoga poses–anything that will help to release the energy surge that often accompanies worrying.
  • Relaxation techniques.  There are many guided relaxation exercises on-line.  Check out this link for an example.

If your trigger is a feeling:

Here’s a method for dealing with negative feelings.  Feelings are energy–they arrive, peak, and subside.  When we can recognize their pattern, we can practice sitting with them until they move on.

For example:  When a feeling of fear arrives, try not to get hooked into the ‘story’ of the fear, but watch the ‘fear’.  What does fear feel like in your body?  Do you feel hot or cold?  Does it sit in a particular part of your body that leads to a negative body sensation?  If you don’t feed your fear with thoughts, how big does it get?  How long does it last?  Over time, you will be able to ‘ride the wave’ of feelings/emotions.

If your trigger is a behaviour:

Sometimes a worry begins with an action.  For example, if you are coping with an illness, researching information on the internet may trigger worries about possible diagnosis or outcomes.

Once you know what the triggering behaviour is, you can avoid the behaviour when possible.

While worries are a fact of life, but they don’t have to let them control us.  We can get the upper hand!

And now…some classic Bobby McFerrin…enjoy!

 

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Is This Normal?

Another common question I hear from clients during therapy is “Is this normal?”.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are many definitions depending on the area of ‘normal’ you are looking at.  Since we’re not talking about the areas of science or math, I’m using the definition of “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern” as a jumping off point for this post.

Individually, we often come up with our personal idea of normal by looking and comparing ourselves to others.  That’s how we determine what is the standard or regular pattern.  However, what happens when what we are experiencing is unlike that of our those around us?

Another Definition

Miriam-Webster also defines ‘normal’ as “occurring naturally“.  From a life perspective, I think that this meaning is more helpful, and forgiving.  Every person is an individual–with their own reactions, thoughts, and feelings.  These occur naturally based on our experiences.

In Buddhism there is the concept that we are the sum of our experiences.  We can be a mixture of the happy five year old and the despairing teenager; the ecstatic newlywed and the stressed parent; the toddler and the senior.  It all fits organically into who we are at this moment.  Therefore, while there can be a range of ‘normal’, I suggest that this range is very broad.  The challenge comes when ‘our normal’ negatively effects our life or the lives of those around us.  That’s when we may want to seek help.

The Only Constant Is Change

Another Buddhist concept is that everything changes–nothing stays the same.  This means that we are constantly in transition.  Sometimes the changes are minor–we gain or lose a few kilos, we need to change our route to work, a house plant dies.  At other times, the changes are major–we lose a partner, or we get sick.  Changes don’t always have to be negative.  Maybe a new member joined our family or we started a new relationship, moved to a new city.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Full Catastrophe Living writes:

“Even inanimate material is subject to continual change:  continents, mountains, rocks, beaches, the oceans, the atmosphere, the earth itself, even stars and galaxies all change over time, all evolve, and are spoken of as being born and dying.  We humans live for such a brief time, relatively speaking, that we tend to think of these things as permanent and unchanging.  But they are not.  Nothing is.”

“The point is that life is constant change from the word go.  Our bodies change in countless ways as we grow and develop over the course of a lifetime.  So do our views of the world and of ourselves.  Meanwhile the external environment in which we live is also in continual flux.  In fact, nothing at all is permanent and eternal, although some things appear that way since they are changing so slowly.”

So if everything is in constant change, how do we find normal?

Coping With Change

When we think of change/transitions the concept of resilience comes to mind.  Resiliency is our ability to adjust and recover.  We build our resilience by practicing self-care (sleep, diet, exercise), having realistic expectations about what we can do, avoiding toxic thinking, being able to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing a support system.

When we are able to cope, we are working towards a ‘new normal’.

A Story…

Peggy was an 84 year old woman who had lived in her home for 60 years.  When she arrived to the house as a newlywed, it was a mess.  The previous owner had let the place go, and it was in much need of repair.  Peggy and her husband Ron renovated the home themselves–learning the necessary skills as they went.  Once their children were born, the house moved from it’s new pristine condition to the patina caused by a busy family.

Peggy’s memories were tired to her home.  She could tell  you the origin of each bump on the wall or scratch on the floor.  When working in the kitchen, she could “see” the face of her late husband sitting at the table.  Peggy could “hear” the hurried footsteps of her children as they raced up and down the stairs.  On cold days, she could feel the draft coming through the living room window–the window that had defied their attempts at weather proofing.

Change Arrives

One night, Peggy awoke to the smell of smoke.  Looking outside her bedroom, she saw that the hallway was filled with smoke.  Peggy called 911 from her room and fire fighters were able to rescue her through the window.  As Peggy stood outside, it was clear that the house could not be saved.  The property was well insured.  Peggy would be able to afford a new place, but her home and many of her belongings were gone.

Peggy moved in with her son while the insurance was being settled.  Because she liked her privacy and independence, Peggy knew that living with either of her children was a short-term solution to her housing situation.  After a few months, Peggy found an apartment that she liked.  It was close enough to the library and her favourite grocery store that she could walk there when she wanted to.

The months between the fire and actually settling into her new home were busy. Peggy was distracted from thinking in any great depth about what had happened.  However, once the last of her new furniture was in place and all was quiet, the enormity of the change hit her.

Now what?

The New Normal

How many times have each of us, after a major change, said…”When things get back to normal…”?  But what if the change, like Peggy’s, is the new normal?  What if we have experienced a life-changing event?

Major changes, even good ones, usually involve loss.  Peggy’s loss is easy to see–her home and possessions.  However, some are more difficult to determine, and may not become apparent until we are faced with post-change life.

While Peggy liked her new apartment and it’s proximity to places she regularly visited, she missed the walk through her old neighbourhood.  She was accustomed to checking on the progress of her friends’ gardens or greeting the cat who lived on the corner.  At the beginning Peggy was a little late for appointments because she forgot to factor in the time it took for her to get from her unit to the parking garage.  In the kitchen, preparing meals too a bit longer as she had to hunt to find utensils that were in new places.

Everything felt difficult and feelings of grief began to emerge.

The Mourning Process

When we experience a loss, grief is a natural response.  For Peggy to be able to be able to move to and embrace her new normal, it was important for her to work through the tasks of mourning.  Peggy’s next steps:

Task 1:  Accept the reality of the loss.  Peggy has already started this task as she spends time in her new apartment and becomes aware of how much has changed–both large and small.

Task 2:  Process the pain of grief.  The key to completing this task is to give ourselves permission to feel pain.  Rather than turning away, we acknowledge that we are hurting and missing what we have lost.  When we pay attention to our pain, we may notice that it has isn’t as sharp as before, or doesn’t visit as often.  During the first year in her new home, Peggy would often find herself caught up in a grief cycle, as she moved through the “year of firsts”.  She discovered that if she sat with her tears, they would eventually subside. Peggy learned that she would feel sad leading up to a major family event or holiday.  These celebrations now took place at her son’s home as she no longer had the space.

Task 3:  Adjust to a world without what was lost.  As time went on, Peggy found that she thought about her house less often.  The depth and frequency of her sadness started to ease, and she started to think about what a future in her new home could look like.

Task 4:  Start a new life, while keeping a connection to what was lost.  One day Peggy was surprised to notice that she was looking forward to her walk to the library.  She had started to pay attention to the houses on her route, and was curious to see how a recently-started renovation was going.  When the next family event approached, Peggy suggested that it be changed slightly so that a new version could be held at her home.  As she became more comfortable in her apartment, she started to host smaller dinner parties for friends and family.  Peggy was starting to create new memories in her new home.

As Peggy became more comfortable and life felt less difficult, she was approaching her “new normal”.

 Embrace YOUR normal!

‘Normal’ can fit into a broad range of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. So long as your normal isn’t negatively affecting you or others; then I suggest the wisdom of accepting what currently is.  Life can be stressful enough without comparing ourselves to others and questioning ourselves when our normal is different from someone else’s.

And now, a lesson in ‘normal’ from SpongeBob SquarePants…enjoy!

 

 

 

 

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Boundaries Are Your Friend

For anyone who has had to deal with a troublesome nearby resident, they can understand the truth in the old saying “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Just as a fence is a physical boundary that allows for privacy and controlled interactions, emotional boundaries do the same.  In this post, we explore the wonder that is boundaries.

What are boundaries?

Simply stated, a boundary is a bottom line position, coming from an awareness of what we need and feel entitled to.  It takes into account the limits of our tolerance.  They are derived from our values and gut-level responses that define what we can accept in our relationships.

When we let others know what we will accept by setting limits, we are using boundaries.

Boundaries are not…

Melanie Beattie, in her book The New Codependency, explains that boundaries are not:

  • limits we set because someone told us to;
  • empty or angry threats;
  • attempts to control others;
  • limits we don’t or can’t enforce.
A Story…

Julie loved getting together with her friend Susan. The two women had met a few months previously when Susan moved into the neighbourhood. They had liked each other on sight, and would meet weekly at a nearby cafe to catch up on their lives, share stories and discuss current events.  However, after a few weeks things began to turn sour.  While Julie enjoyed their coffee dates, she started to feel annoyed by Susan’s frequent late arrivals.

At the beginning, Julie would dismiss her frustration as over-reacting.  It was only 10 minutes, and once Susan arrived the conversation would take over and all would be well.  In order to continue to enjoy her time with Susan, Julie started to make excuses for her friend–‘her life was busy’–‘she was unbound by rules, which was one of the things that made Susan so much fun’–‘she’s a free spirit’.  Eventually, these rationalizations stopped working, and Julie started to feel angry.

Julie had been brought up in a family where the consideration of others was a core value.  It was important to take other’s feelings into account when making decisions.  Behaviours such as punctuality were a sign of respect.  As Julie pondered these ideas and how they may be affecting her reactions towards Susan, she wondered what do to about this new relationship.  Should she stop meeting Susan for coffee?  What if she just put up with the status quo?  Maybe she should say something?

Why do we need boundaries?

We put boundaries in place for ourselves, not others.  For some people–especially those who identify as care givers–this idea is hard to wrap our brain around.  When I suggest the idea of setting a limit to clients, I’m often met with the response that to do so would be selfish.  However, boundaries are not selfish–they are a form of self-care.  Not only are they not selfish, but, when used well, can ease interpersonal interactions.

Sometimes we need to let our friends, family, coworkers, etc. know how we want to be treated.  Being able to clearly voice our boundaries is a way to do this.

Why we don’t have them?

In some families, boundaries are rare.  Being able to create and maintain boundaries is a skill, and if we grew up with adults who are unable to set limits, then we may repeat this family trait.  As children/young adults if we were able to start to put boundaries in place, and they were ignored by family members, then we often stop setting limits.  We learned that not having boundaries ‘normal’.  In order to learn about boundaries we need role models.

Other reasons why we may not have developed the ability to set limits:

  • We are overly dependent on others.  When we feel that we are unable to be alone or take care of ourselves, then we are more willing to accept negative behaviour from others.
  • We have low self esteem.  Perhaps we feel that we are not worthy of being treated well by other people, so we don’t set boundaries.
  • We don’t have the words.  Sometimes we are unable to find the words to express our limits.
  • We want others to like us.  If we care too much about what other people think of us, we may be afraid to risk their good opinion by putting boundaries in place.
  • We are “uber” caretakers.  As mentioned above, if we see boundaries as selfish, then we won’t enact them.
How to develop boundaries.

If we haven’t been able to develop the ability to create and set boundaries when growing up in our family of origin, all is not lost.  Like most skills, it is never too late to learn.  However, just as it’s harder to learn to ride a bike at the age of 30 than at age 5, learning to set limits in adulthood requires work and patience!

The first step is self-awareness–becoming in tune with our values and beliefs.  What is important to us?  How do we want to be treated?  What is acceptable?  No acceptable?

One way to finding the answers to these questions is anger.  Anger is a wonderful teacher as it shows us when our values and beliefs have been walked over.  In our story, Julie became aware of her bottom line about Susan being late because her value of punctuality and belief around respect were crossed.

Once we know what are boundaries are, it’s time to put them into words.  We’re defining a ‘bottom line’.  A standard way to do this is using the structure of “When you do this, I will do this”.  When creating a boundary it’s important that it be clear and enforceable.

The Story Continues…

After much thought, Julie decided that she valued her relationship with Susan enough that she didn’t want to end it before making an attempt to clear up this issue.  However, she was prepared to stop meeting with Susan if the tardy behaviour continued.

The next time the women met, Susan was late, and the following conversation occurred.

Julie:  “Susan, I really enjoy our coffee dates and getting caught up.”
Susan:  “Me too!”.
Julie:  “While they’re fun, I’m getting frustrated about your late arrivals.”
Susan:  “It’s usually only 10 minutes–15 tops.”
Julie:   “Ten to 15 minutes doesn’t seem to be a big deal, but in my family punctuality was important.  Being on time meant that you respected the person you’re meeting.”  So, in the future, I’m going to wait for five minutes.  If you’re late , then I’m going to continue on with my day.”
Susan:  “Hmmm…”

What happens when we set limits?

While we can control our boundaries and how we set them, we can’t control how they will be received.  Sometimes, other people hear what we are saying and accept our limit…all is well.  However, often things don’t run so smoothly.

If stating our bottom line is a new behaviour for us–especially in a long standing relationship–the other person could become angry, disbelieving or dismissive.  They may make attempts to make us feel guilty.

One common response is push back behaviour.   Push back behaviour is an attempt by others to test our limits to see if we are serious.  Are we going to enforce or follow through with what we said?  In some cases, the behaviour can become extreme as the other person hopes that the boundary setter will become so tired of the increased negative behaviour that they will give in.

While once understood, in some cases, push back behaviour can become almost humourous.  For example, a partner refused to do the couple’s laundry unless the other partner put the laundry in the hamper–leading to that partner to let the laundry to pile up to become laundry ‘mountains’!

Unfortunately, push back behaviour can become nasty and even dangerous.  Emotional and physical safety is a non-negotiable boundary.  If you are feeling unsafe, support is available by calling 911, the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, Anselma House, Haven House and Mary’s Place.

The Final Chapter…

The next week Julie arrived at the cafe at the usual time. Susan wasn’t there.  As promised, Julie waited for five minutes and then left.  When Susan arrived 10 minutes later, she was told by the barista that her friend had come and gone.  Susan was annoyed and thought that Julie was being ‘childish’, but as she sat quietly with her coffee, she missed her friend.

The following week, Susan was only a few minutes late and apologized to Julie for her tardiness.

Julie still needs to enforce this limit as Susan doesn’t see punctuality in the same light as her friend.  In this way, Julie continues to enjoy her time with Susan without added frustration, and Susan knows what to expect if she is late.  As time evolved, the women were able to set up a system–when Susan knew in advance that she was going to be late, she contacted Julie ahead of time and they met a bit later.

And now…some great fence humour from Tim the Toolman Taylor…enjoy!

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The Path to Forgiveness

In this post, we explore the concept of forgiveness…What is it?  Who benefits?  Why is it important? And, most importantly, how do we do it?

The idea of forgiveness is a difficult thing.  When we have been disappointed or hurt by someone else our instinct is often to recoil and protect ourselves.  When a person close to us breaks our trust, the last thing we want to do is forgive them.  On the other hand, when we have hurt others, forgiving ourselves can be just as difficult.

However, in order for  true healing to happen, walking the path to forgiveness is a necessary journey.

What Is Forgiveness?

When we think of forgiveness, we may think of cheesy movies where by plot’s end, mortal enemies have become best friends–the closing scene showing them walking hand-in-hand into the sunset.  While this could happen in real life, forgiveness doesn’t usually look like this.

One way to describe forgiveness is to point out what it does not do.  According to Ron Pevny, in his book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging, forgiveness does not…

  • Mean that we have to ignore our hurt feelings.
  • Change the past, or assume that we have to forget what happened.
  • Mean that we have lost and the offender has won.
  • Excuse the act that did the wounding.
  • Absolve the offender of karmic or legal consequences.
  • Mean that we will resume a relationship with the other person–especially if it is not safe (emotionally or physically) to do so.

What forgiveness does is to provide the opportunity for healing and being able to move on with our life, without being limited by what happened.  According to Buddhist philosophy,  “Holding on to resentment is like picking up a hot coal with our hand with the intention of finding an opportunity to throw it at the one who has hurt us.”.

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu states,

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past.  Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.  We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.  Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor.  When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings.  We become our own liberator.”

When we can forgive, we are able to stop labeling our self as a “victim” and move forward from a place of growth.

Holding on to negative events that lead to ongoing feelings of resentment, anger, hostility may undermine our health.  In one study, psychologists asked people to think about someone who has hurt them, while monitoring their heart rate, facial muscles and sweat glands.  When people remembered these grudges, their heart rate and blood pressure increased.  However, when they were asked to think about forgiving these people, their stress responses returned to normal (Book of Joy, pg. 237).

Steps to Forgiveness

While it seems obvious that forgiveness is a good thing–for our physical and mental health–how do we do it?  Especially since rehashing the juicy details of past hurts can provide an addictive energy rush.

It’s important to remember that forgiveness is a process; one that is repeated over and over as new feelings and details arise as we work to let go.

Pevny breaks down the path to forgiveness into the following five steps:

  1. Uncovering and feeling what happened.  Before we can forgive, we need to be clear about what we are forgiving.  It’s important to explore the actual event–what were the circumstances?  Who said what?  What emotions did you feel?  Take your time and be gentle with yourself.
  2. Committing to forgive.  Forgiveness is a choice–sometimes a difficult one.  When we have held on to resentments for a long time, they become part of our story.  Forgiveness is choosing a new story.
  3. Humanizing the offender.  Forgiveness begins to happen when we are able to separate the person from the action.  To do this requires compassion and the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective.  Maybe there were things going on that you didn’t know?
  4. Honestly looking at your role in relation to the situation.  This is especially challenging when the emotions are still raw, so it’s useful to use your logic vs. emotions.  Human relationships are never simple.  As my grandmother used to say “It takes two to tango.”
  5. Forgiving and continuing to forgive.  Forgiving is an act of will–we choose.  This act will play out differently for each person.  For some, it’s a private, quiet letting go.  For others, they want to meet with the person involved and voice their forgiveness.  No matter how it manifests, forgiveness is an ongoing process.
What If I Need to Forgive Myself?

When we have hurt others, the feelings of guilt and shame that we carry can be overwhelming.  While we may be able to show compassion to others, doing so to ourselves is more difficult–if not impossible as we’re our own harshest critics.

Pevny suggests that the five steps are applicable to those working on self-forgiveness, and may include specifically asking for forgiveness from those we have hurt (if possible and appropriate).  However, sometimes the person we have hurt is ourselves.  Pevny writes:

“In a great many cases, what needs self-forgiveness is not harm done to others but personal weaknesses or perceived choices or actions that we feel have damaged our own lives.  Self-forgiveness depends upon our willingness to carefully examine our choices and actions and, in many cases, acknowledge that we did the best we could with the awareness we had at the time.  If we see that we did not do the best we could, it requires that we use our regrets not to berate ourselves but as important guideposts on our journeys into a positive, conscious future.  The biggest catalysts for our growth are often (perhaps mostly) what we learn from our mistakes, weaknesses and poor choices.”

Rewriting our Stories…Sometimes We Need Help

Whether we need to forgive ourselves or others, walking on this path gives us the opportunity to rewrite our story–and sometimes the stories of others.  And we know that the journey isn’t easy.  Self-care is important.  If you start on this journey and feel that you are losing your way, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member or professional to provide support.  Sometimes, our hurts are too big walk up to on our own.

And now…a quick lesson in self-compassion.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

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