Archive | July, 2013

The Cleansing

31 Jul

Crash! It hit me and it felt amazing. It knocked me off my feet, I had to hold my breath and wait for a chance to come up for air. And then… I could not wait for another. Wave after wave, I was loving my time in the ocean. The weatherman predicted rain and the waves were proof it was coming. The water was rough and I enjoyed it immensely. It was pounding the stress out of me with every rising foam-filled crash. They knocked me down and pulled me back out towards the sea over and over again. It was a cleansing I could not get anywhere else.

In the brief moments when the waves died down, I did what my friend and I call “doing the Jesus.” I laid on my back, arms out to my sides and my eyes to the Heavens. I was floating and offering in sacrifice every worry, every fear, every last bit of stress. “Take it from me!” I’d float until I was pulled under by the next big wave that came to retrieve my sacrifices and carry them far, far away. It was a beautiful thing that left me exhausted and feeling free.

There is something so spiritual about the ocean and the way it is constantly taking from the shore and pulling out to sea the things we no longer need. It is one clean slate after another, erasing and erasing all that we need to let go. We can give our hardships away to the waves and rejoice in the warm sand knowing they are gone, at least for the while that we are there in the presence of the crashing waves. The smell of the air and the sounds of seagulls are simply bonus.

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Self Renovation

28 Jul

I’ve been cleaning and painting a house every day for the last week. It’s my rental house. I have dusted, scrubbed, washed, swept, wiped down and picked at things with my finger nails that I probably shouldn’t have. I’ve taped, cut in, painted and repainted every nook and cranny. I’ve changed light bulbs, put in curtains and air fresheners in every room. The place went from trash to treasure in about 10 days time. To see the change has been nothing short of moving and somewhat emotional.

I was about 5 days in when I began to see the changes really taking place and my first thought was, why haven’t I done this in my primary home? What has kept me from spending money on new lighting, paint and vanilla fragrance in the home I live in every day? It didn’t take much time to convince myself that was what I should do. Another 5 days went by and then I did what I always do, I make meaning. I find a way to relate it to my existence as a human being and learn a lesson. I strongly believe that is what we are all here to do anyway.

If you’ve ever dabbled in any dream analysis and tried to figure out why the heck you keep dreaming you’re late for class, running around naked or your legs won’t work when you’re running from the bad guys, then you may know when we dream about a house, it often represents ourselves. When we explore different rooms in the house, we are often exploring different parts of our being – perhaps our roles as a parent, a sibling, a professional, a creative being and so on. Or perhaps it’s the cynical part, the depressed part, the hurting part, the people pleaser part and the broken parts.

Now back to my task of making meaning and allowing this rental house to represent me for the sake of learning. Before I did the cleaning, the house smelled. It was instinctual to turn away and walk the other direction. Is there anybody that perceives me that way? I’m not asking if I stink, and I’m pretty sure I don’t but I am asking if people are more inclined to approach me or turn away from me at first glance and at first encounter with my energy. Am I positive or negative? Do I attract or repel? And if I did a little more upkeep on my attitude, would I draw more positive people to me? I believe what I put out there comes back to me so it is on my to-do list to refresh my attitude.

The old flooring had stains. It had weird icky gooey stuff. It had years of memories, liquid and otherwise. I picked at some of these trying to clean them up. What kinds of stains am I carrying around? I know when people unknowingly pick at one of my old wounds the feelings come gushing out at a rate that is more than called for in the present situation. In other words, they see me “over reacting.” I’ve been triggered and they don’t know it. I think instead of letting these old hurts continue to embarrass me and cause me to look overly dramatic and then just scab over, I might just try some therapy, some meditation, some healing of the soul. Rumi says the wound is where the light enters so I’ll make sure I don’t make them disappear completely (aka denial) but I’ll take better care to clean them and prevent further scarring.

The most damage and dirt in the house was upstairs. It is also in the “upstairs” of me. It’s in my eyes when I look in the mirror and in my mouth when I say those ugly things about my hair and my body. It’s in my ears when I hear only the negative. It’s in my head, in my thoughts and in the old scripts I’ve repeated over the years. I need a lobotomy. Okay, not really, but obviously it’s time to clear the dust from my eyes and see the beauty in this woman that God created. I will shut this mouth and do what my mother said; if I can’t say something nice (about myself) well then I won’t say anything at all. I don’t know what to do about the way I hear things. I guess I’ll probably encourage those that love me to repeat themselves again and again until I can hear it for what it is. They say I am beautiful, that I am kind and strong and smart. That is worth hearing so I will listen. My brain that has the old scripts is really just that little girl version of me still crying about who knows what. I believe the adult version of me is going to just have to sit her down for a come to Jesus meeting and tell it like it is. I will tell her we’re cleaning house and it feels good.

How You Do Something Is How You Do Everything

22 Jul

I heard this phrase last year at the annual conference for the American Counseling Association. We had invited celebrity and well-known actress Ashley Judd to be the keynote speaker. While I understand she may have some radical political views, I will not be referencing anything of that sort. I only want to share with you a little bit about the powerful messages she so bravely shared with us as she picked through some of her most trying childhood memories and shared her story of recovery.

How you do something is how you do everything. I heard the words and they slowly began to melt over me as if the world were moving in slow motion. I am sure my mouth was wide open as patterns of my life and those I know began to move through my mind. It was as if I’d never heard anything more truthful in my life. Think about the words and how they might apply to you or people you know. When we talk about “doing” we are talking about behavior. Are you always neat and organized and on time and overly structured? Are you a bit messy, frazzled, and always running a bit behind? Would all of your closest friends use the same three words to describe you? Probably, because now I see how true it is, how you do something is how you do everything. Are you a half-asser? Have you ever seen the end of any project? Or do you finish everything you start and give a 110% without a second thought? This is where our labels come from. “Oh, she is such a hard worker!” Or on the flip side, “He’s the laziest guy I know.” Our behavior speaks for us and often represents our character and people begin judging and assuming and lumping us under one big label just to keep it simple. They decide if we’re honest, trustworthy, active, capable, silly, organized, mean, kind, and in general if we are good or bad.

If there were ever a companion phrase that goes along with this one, it would be, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” You guessed it. Because how they do something is how they do everything. I believe in exceptions on occasion, but I rarely chalk things up to random, especially people’s behavior. If you stick around long enough, you will see the patterns. What you thought was random behavior or a one-time fluke can then be filed under “red flag.” You’re next step would be to run in the other direction. Run fast.

I think you’ll find it easy to look around you for patterns of behavior in those closest to you. The harder part will be looking at your own patterns. If you are unable to see it for yourself right away, try to think of things you have heard over the years. What have people said about you? This may be hard because we tend to block out some of the more hurtful comments. If you only heard it once, let it go. If you continue to hear it, then perhaps there is some truth in it.

How you do something is how you do everything. By the time you’re grown, your behavior is fairly predictable and in line with your morals and values. With the exception of chemical imbalances and serious disorders, you are likely presenting yourself to the world in a consistent manner. So… what do people think of you? You don’t know? Find out. There is power in awareness. Become aware of how you are perceived by others. If you don’t like it, change it.

Is Your Answer YES or NO?

12 Jul

I have a lot of questions. I would like exact answers to all of them if that were possible. In general, I don’t do well with ambiguity. It makes me anxious. I like my world simple and clear and planned out as much as possible.

The irony is I rarely see things in black and white when I am peering into someone else’s world. I can hear five sides to a story and believe them all. I can see different perspectives and understand how each person sees it. In another’s world, I love to dabble in shades of gray. I find it fascinating. I will sit in your world all day long and ask you open ended questions and dig deep to find out who you are and how you are feeling about your place in the world. I will see the beauty in your answers as black and white fade into each other and you find your way through it.

There are a few questions that are always up to the individual to answer and they must be answered with a YES or NO. They are existential in nature and based on the psychosocial development stages of Erik Erikson. They roughly correlate with our chronological age as we move from infancy to death and the way we answer them in one stage dramatically affects the way we answer them in every stage that follows.

If you are imagining a conversation with yourself and wondering if you answered yes or no, I’ll have to stop you right there. These questions rarely come off our tongues but they are buried in the core of who we are as human beings. They originate from our self concept and continue throughout our lives to shape the way we see ourselves, often at an unconscious level. You can always tell by the way one lives their life if they have answered with a yes or a no. Let me explain.

In the very first year of our life, born from our mothers we begin asking ourselves, “Can I trust the world?” This is our greatest stage of dependence for our every need to be met. It is the responses of our caregivers that help us answer with a resounding YES or emphatic NO! Did they hear our cries, feed our hungry bellies? Were our needs met in general or were we abandoned and left to soothe ourselves. If you find in general that you have distrust in people and the world, you might check back on your early days. For most of us, having had “good enough” caretakers allows us to answer YES when asking ourselves if we trust the world.

Over the next couple of years a new question arises. We want to know, “Is it ok to be me?” This is where we begin to toddle away from parents and say things like, “me do it” and “no”. We do this to begin creating our independent selves by trying to do things by ourselves and going against authority. We seek the autonomy that is necessary to create an individual personality. Do you ever notice how toddlers seem to be looking back at their parents just as they are getting into trouble? It’s important to allow for safe exploration but always keep a close eye encouraging any appropriate independence that you can. They really are watching to see if you are there, not because they don’t want to get caught, but in fact, because they do want you to “catch them” if they fall. When we can answer YES to the question of, “Is it ok to be me” then we have gained a sense of autonomy. When we answer NO, we are carrying our first load of shame by age 3.

By the time we hit age 5, we have moved on to the next question, “It is ok for me to do, move and act?” This is a time when we like to see our ideas carried out and can get extremely frustrated when the adults in our lives are still trying to do everything for us. Our self esteem during this stage grows from our ability to contribute to the family, which means we need to be able to try and do things on our own. We need to have our ideas accepted which allows us to answer YES. Otherwise, we can gain a sense of guilt, fear, failure and begin limiting our ideas in the future, telling us that we have answered NO to this particular question. Parents can help greatly in this stage by emphasizing process rather than product and assuring their children that mistakes are ok and they are often how we often learn.

The next stage last roughly 8 years or so. It lasts just long enough to bump us close to the teenage years. It’s the middle childhood years when we are attempting to absorb so much knowledge as well as develop our physical and mental skills. This is when we begin the comparison game. Our peers are so important to us, we often check to see if we measure up. We ask, “Can I make it in the world of people and things?” This is often the time when sports and other interests are introduced to us. When we line up ourselves with our peers, we want to know if are competent. When we are competent and measure up, we answer YES. When we feel inferior to our peers, or the adults in our lives downplay the value of our peers, we answer NO and are left with a great sense of inferiority. These are the years when parents are better off sharing their own personal stories from childhood to show empathy. Lectures and making unfavorable comparisons will not serve their children well during this stage.

The following stage takes us from about age 13 to 21. The big question during this time period is, “Who am I and what can I be?” It’s no wonder the teen years are so tough, it takes a lot to work through this stage which is centered on establishing a stable personal identity. It is more than knowing our role in the family. It is finding out who we really are and expanding our horizons, even at the risk of conflict with our parents. Our social world is everything at this stage and our parents quickly move to the bottom of the totem pole. Parents, who use active listening, allow for natural consequences and continue to share their own experiences can really support the crystallizing sense of identity that is necessary for independent living that allows us to answer this question with a YES. When we answer NO, we have often been denied opportunity to grow in the presence of parents that are too rigid and unwilling to recognize the need for independence at this stage.

Well we’ve made it into the adult world, but the questions don’t stop here. From roughly age 21 to age 40 there is a natural yearning for intimacy. The big question now is, “Can I love?” This is a time of finding a career and forming lots of relationships. Often during this stage, we grow close with one person in particular and find that sense of closeness. This allows us to answer with a resounding YES! The inability to form friendships and a close relationship will result in a feeling of isolation. In other words, you will have answered with a NO. I mentioned before that our answers in previous stages can greatly affect stages that follow. Imagine answering NO to previous questions regarding if you can trust the world and if it is ok to be you. Do you see that playing out well in your intimate relationships? Are you wondering why your adult relationships don’t ever work out? It is worth your while to revisit previous stages and see where something went wrong. I can see you connecting the dots now… Aha! Don’t worry, I’ll finish the stages but I won’t leave you without some hope. Keep reading!

Whether or not you find out if you can love, another stage is right on it’s heels with yet another question. The thing that most often comes to mind when we hear about turning 40 is that ever dreadful midlife crisis. Will I have one? What is wrong with these people? Stop wondering. Nothing is wrong with them. They are simply in an existential crisis. What I mean is they are asking the big question for this stage of life, “Can I make my life count?” For some that have never been happy in love, never found their dream job or followed their passion, never had the family they hoped for, they can begin to panic. We want to know during these years that we are leaving our “mark” on the world, that we are making a difference and can proudly answer YES, my life counts. Depending on our experiences during this stage, whether we are working, parenting, volunteering, etc., some of us may feel stuck and experience a sense of stagnation rather than generativity. This means we are answering with a very sad NO, my life does not count. These people are so easy to recognize. They have inconsistent relationships, poor intimacy skills, a sense of isolation, they continue to rebel, they are poor role models, and they are suffering from a sense of despair and life dissatisfaction. Oftentimes, they are so lost in the midst of these negative traits, they cannot see their own predicament much less know what to do about it.

The last psychosocial stage takes us from about age 60 to the end of our life. It is a natural time of reflection and the time to ponder the question, “Is it ok to have been me?” It goes without saying that if the earlier stages were full of YES’s, this stage is likely to result in a feeling of great satisfaction about a life well spent. Now it is simply time to relax and enjoy the final years and answer with a final YES and a great sense of integrity. For those souls who have had significant negative experiences during the prior stages, with depression and despair along the way, they are likely to feel overwhelmed in this final stage of life and may emotionally give up on life before it gives up on them. This would be their final NO in life answering the question, “Was it ok to have been me?” This leaves them in a state of despair.

I just can’t leave you on such a sad note. There is always hope. Always. If you feel like you are answering NO in your current stage of life that is ok. That is your incentive to take a look around and figure out what you’re going to do. People get stuck all the time in stages. Just because you’re 40 years old now doesn’t mean you moved out of the previous stage of intimacy vs. isolation. It means you haven’t been able to move out of it with a YES. The good news is this…you can revisit any stage you want and identify what it is you need. While you can’t go back to being swaddled in a blanket and being fed from a bottle, you can certainly go back and begin addressing the question of trust. You have the power to create your own experience as an adult and move yourself successfully through each stage. It can be heavy work, so don’t hesitate to call on a professional counselor to take the journey with you. Consider them to be your greatest witness as you begin saying YES all the way through!

A New Twist on Old Advice

9 Jul

I heard some great advice the other day. It wasn’t new advice and it didn’t come from a stranger. It was a twist on old advice from someone I greatly respect and get advice from all the time. For whatever reason, on this day, I heard it differently. It was simple really. She said, “You’re behavior is all you’ve got. Hold on to it.” It was a twist on, “You can’t control other people, only yourself.” or even, “You can’t control situations, but you CAN control how you respond to them.” I hear this advice all the time. I give this advice all the time.

This time though, it was more about recognizing when other people’s behavior is out of control or at best, not to my liking, I always have the option to control my own behavior. I can make a conscious choice not to get caught up in their rage. I can ignore their “f” bombs rather than throw in my own. I can hear them escalate and soothe myself rather than join them in their chaotic world. If I can manage that, I might even choose to throw in a little prayer for them or at least a “Bless their heart.”

Behavior is observable. We see it and therefore, we judge it. We decide if it’s good or bad and whether or not we like it. What I have managed to forget is that while I am busy judging, my behavior is simultaneously on display and living in the land of right or wrong for others to see. What would they say? Could I defend myself? Am I modeling appropriate behavior for younger eyes that are watching?

People that push our buttons are excellent “baiters.” They dangle the bait right in front of us and it is all we can do to no jump up and take it. We think we’ll be quick enough to grab it and fool them. Get in and get out and we win! The truth is, they catch us, every time. We are hooked and immediately on the behavioral decline right along side them. How do they do it? I’m curious about that, but I know my time is better spent figuring out how not to take the bait. I think I will tell myself that my behavior is all I have…hold onto it. I’m going to hold on for dear life. I am the only one accountable for everything I say and do. I might even bless their heart.

Why Praise Can Be Bad for Kids

8 Jul

Some of you may be familiar with my work in education and in particular my work with gifted and talented students. While fascinated with this particular population, I am always baffled by underachievement and how often it occurs in a population that seems born to succeed. I love the research done by Carol Dweck and appreciated this article that references her work. While Dweck studies the gifted population, I believe this article written by Murphy and Allen has something that all of us can learn. I hope you enjoy reading it. I’d love to hear your comments.

“Wow, you got an A without even studying.”
“Your drawing is wonderful — you’re my little Picasso.”
“Keep it up and you’ll be the next Peyton Manning.”

If you’re like most parents, you offer praise to your children believing it is the key to their success, those flattering words can boost a child’s self-esteem and performance. But according to a new study, praise may do more harm than good.

For the study, researchers divided 128 fifth-graders into groups and gave them a simple IQ test. One group was told it did really well and must be very smart. The other group was told it did really well and must have worked hard. One group was praised for intelligence, the other for effort. Asked if they wanted to take a slightly harder test, the kids praised for their intelligence were reluctant. Of those praised for their effort, however, 90 percent were eager for a more challenging task. And on a final test the effort group performed significantly better than the group praised for its intelligence.

Many of the kids who had been labeled “smart” performed worst of all. The “hard workers” got the message that they could improve their scores by trying harder, but the “smart” kids believed they should do well without any effort.

Praise Can Bring Down Performance

“Contrary to popular belief, praising children’s intelligence did not give them confidence and did not make them learn better,” said Carol Dweck, a professor of developmental psychology at Stanford University and author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” Her surprising research, which she has repeated with hundreds of kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds, was published recently in the journal Child Development. Dweck found that children’s performance worsens if they always hear how smart they are. Kids who get too much praise are less likely to take risks, are highly sensitive to failure and are more likely to give up when faced with a challenge. “Parents should take away the fact that they are not giving their children a gift when they tell them how brilliant and talented they are,” Dweck says. “They are making them believe they are valued only for being intelligent, and it makes them not want to learn.” When parents, teachers and coaches label a child, they tell the child that he or she is the label and is judged for this label, not for his actual capabilities. The child becomes risk-averse and doesn’t want to chance messing up and being labeled “dumb.” In other words, a “smart” child often believes that expending effort is something only “dumb” kids have to do.

Be Specific About Praise and Don’t Be Afraid to Withhold It

The key is to be specific about the praise you give. “Parents should praise children for their effort, their concentration, their strategies,” Dweck said. For instance, next time your son gets an A on an exam for which you know he hardly studied, tell him you think he should try a tougher class next semester. When he scores the winning touchdown, instead of telling him he’s the best player on the team, ask him how he trained to run so fast.

The flip side is that parents must be honest when their children do not perform as well as their peers. If your daughter finishes last at the track meet, and you know it is because she’s younger and less experienced than other competitors, it is better to tell her that she did not deserve to win because she still needs improvement than to tell her you thought she was the best, no matter what the judges said. But it’s hard to refrain from telling children how smart or perfect they are. “We believe that by telling them they’re smart, they’ll believe they’re smart, and if they believe they’re smart, they’ll attack their schoolwork with confidence,” said Po Bronson, a father of two who wrote the cover story in the current issue of New York Magazine, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.” Writing the article forced Bronson to re-evaluate his own parenting techniques after learning of Dweck’s research. “I was frightened of this idea that telling a child that they’re smart makes them think that effort is only for dummies, and if you’re smart you shouldn’t have to rely on effort,” Bronson said.
It has not been easy, but Bronson and his wife have changed their ways.

“I have found that I just need to be honest,” Bronson said. “Being honest is going to serve us better in the long run.”

Tips for Parents

• Avoid labels. Praising for effort sends the message that your child has the power to improve and change, but labeling him “smart” gives him little control over changing how he is perceived. Be mindful of labeling yourself (“I can’t do my taxes — I’m terrible at math”) and others (“Your gymnastics partner is such a klutz”).

• Teach kids from an early age that the brain is a muscle that can be strengthened with practice. This sends the message that kids can directly affect their intelligence, which may empower unmotivated teenagers.

• Lose the guilt. Parents often praise their kids to make themselves feel good, or to protect their kids from failure. But it’s critical for parents to help their kids to learn to cope with setbacks and to help them focus on ways to improve.