This is an article I wrote for a series on “How to Heal A Broken Heart.” on the website Love, Evolve, and Thrive. For anyone suffering, this piece was entitled: Watch for Ways Your Mind Re-Writes the Past:
The human mind is so creative that we have come to rule the planet so-to-speak. However, there are two tendencies of our minds that often cause us a lot of trouble.
1. We tend to focus on the negative in the present moment and in our speculations about the future.
2. We tend to remember the past with rose-colored glasses.
Usually, I write about the ways that the first point affects us. But here I want to focus on the second point and the ways that it skews our reality during a breakup.
Think about physical pain and how quickly we forget how much it hurt. People joke about how our world’s population would be much smaller if women didn’t so quickly forget the pain of childbirth.
Think about how many people like to tell the exasperated parents of young children how “it goes so quickly” and “enjoy every minute because they grow up so fast!” These people have forgotten how frustrating and exhausting it was to change diaper after diaper or handle tantrums and spoon applesauce.
It’s good, in some ways, to let go of the negative in our past and move forward into the future. But in a painful breakup, this tendency can really hurt us. We feel the immediacy of the pain and look back longingly at the moments our lover held us in the night…the ways we laughed together…the ways he or she made us great spaghetti or traveled with us to New York or Paris.
There’s nothing wrong with mucking about in the longing for a lost love—for a limited period of time. It soothes something inside to go over those sweet memories and release the tears of loss. But then, come back. Remember that the sweet times were true, but no human, no relationship is only sweet.
Ponder, too, the farts. Remember the times he was late. The way she always used up the last of the juice and didn’t buy more. Remember that he or she didn’t always understand you. Didn’t always respect your needs. Didn’t always listen. Not necessarily because he was unkind (though maybe he was) but because he was human. This is a human loss. Keep it at human scale. It hurts and it will heal. Remembering to remove the rose-colored glasses of romantic loss helps.
When the bag of microwave popcorn burned at my daughter’s school and the fire alarms went off her anxiety about fires began. It’s a loud noise and they’d never held a fire drill before, so she didn’t know what was going on or what to expect. She began crying in the morning before school; was afraid to go to the bathroom while at school in case the alarm went off and she was alone in there.
We brought her to therapy for a number of months and she and the therapist worked through the worst of her anxiety. We did nurturing, connecting activities and she and the therapist explored the content of her worries. But though it got a lot better, the fear of fires has stuck around and arises here and there. Through helping her work through this and the other 9-year-old fears that arise for her, I’ve realized a valuable tool I use as a therapist with my adult clients that I think most parents should know:
In the quest towards spiritual and personal growth, I have one entreaty: Resist the urge for sanitizing. Resist the desire to achieve airbrushed perfection status. Just say “No” to exquisitely arranged living rooms and Martha Stewart-esque fruit tarts and children’s gorgeous birthday parties.
You are human. Messy, dimpled, tender and jealous. Your car is filled with empty yogurt containers or crumpled tissues. You had a spat with your husband this morning and your library books are two days overdue. Your children drool on their pillows while they dream their sweet, soft dreams. Your thighs jiggle.
It’s too easy to get off track on the path towards your dreams and goals if you forget that humanness will make tangents, roadblocks, and delays inherent in the process. Humanness is not a state to surmount, but one to embrace.
In the insidious sanitization of life in the media, we can forget how wonderfully sticky life is. (Click for more dear reader!)
How can you get yourself to go to the gym instead of sitting back down on the couch to watch the 5th episode of Master of None?
Is there something you can do so that the next time your spouse is asking you a question at the same time that your kids are clamoring for snacks, you don’t snap at one of them?
How many things do you want to be different in your life? How many habits do you want to form or break? Chances, are there are quite a few.
I’d like to meditate more regularly, be more patient with my family, start meal planning instead of throwing together things that I find in the fridge, keep my car clean and my bags and papers more organized, and much more…
But, by definition, habits are hard to break. So much of our behavior is motivated by our subconscious. Our minds integrate the firing patterns of habits and we do so much in our days with our presence at half-mast. Maybe we’re driving but we’re also worrying about finances. Perhaps we’re putting our kids to bed but we’re also figuring out what we want to eat for a snack.
Our minds evolved to function on autopilot and multi-task. However, when we’re stuck in painful patterns (depression, relational conflict, etc) we need to be able to make conscious, willful decisions based on how we want things to change. This is made even harder when, under stress, our minds venture into fight-flight-freeze mode.
I think of this tendency towards subconsious action and fight-flight-freeze as our trance tendency. We fall into a trance–swayed by all kinds of neural firing and habitual patterning and we lose the ability to make proactive, conscious choices.
So how do we break the trance?
- Be clear about your motivations: If you’re not really sure you want to start working out more or you’d actually rather have a messy car than cart all those containers and papers and gloves and sweatshirts that collect then admit that to yourself. No judgment please. Not actually wanting to achieve a certain goal that you think you ought to want to achieve actually helps you on the road to figuring out what you DO want to achieve. Better to be honest than to continue to fall short because your heart’s not really in it.
- Take good enough care of yourself so that you maximize your chances for success: Let’s face it. If you don’t get to bed early enough, you’re going to be too tired for morning yoga or morning sex or whatever it is for which you’re aiming. Set yourself up for success as best you can at this point in your life.
- Practice mindfulness meditation: There are a zillion and a half research studies that show how beneficial meditation is. It doesn’t have to be spiritual. It doesn’t have to be for a long time. Mindfulness meditation is exercise for your mind. It increases our self-awareness which gives us a better chance of being proactive rather than reactive.
- Pay close attention to your personal warning signs: Do you get a fuzzy, hot feeling before you snap at your kids? Does your heart start to beat harder? Do you hear a voice in your head that says: “I’ll just pay that bill a little later…”? Use those signals as alarm bells!!! Those are the indications you’re going in the opposite direction from your goals! Take notice!
- Celebrate small successes and forgive mess-ups: You’re not going to be perfect. If you met your goal one more time this week than last week, you’re making progress.
Change is hard AND possible. For all of us. (Yes, you too.)
69% of a couple’s problems or challenges are perpetual. A.k.a., they’re not going to change much over the course of the relationship. This is what couples researcher John Gottman has observed over his 20+ years of studying couple’s behavior. Whatever subject you and your partner have conflict about today, you’re likely to still be having conflict over in 5 or 10 years. Gottman, scientist that he is, probably would take issue with my generalization, but I think that in addition to our relationship problems being perpetual, probably the majority of our individual challenges and issues aren’t going to drastically shift either.
But before you go crawl back under the covers, let me say I think this is actually good news for us.
Why good news? Because that fact gives us permission–no, actually encourages most of us (myself included) to stop banging our heads against walls that aren’t going to move. And just because the walls might not move, doesn’t mean that our experience of bumping up against the walls can’t change drastically.
Now, I’m not saying to assume that you can’t change or resolve anything in your life. Even IF 69% of problems were perpetual, that still leaves 31% which can change or end. I think, however, that we can all probably make a list right now of issues in our lives that we feel we have a good chance of tackling and another list of issues we’ve been wrestling around with for the better part of our lives.
For me, for instance, a tendency towards anxiety and over-analysis or stress during transitions are some challenges I’ve had for most of my life. I have invested considerable time and energy understanding and trying to shift these tendencies. To a certain degree they have changed, but they’ve never gone away completely. What IS changing, is the way I relate to these challenges.
Just as meditation and mindfulness teaches us to develop awareness of, compassion for, and non-attachment to our thoughts, ultimately we practice meditation and mindfulness to be able to apply these qualities to our lives in action. These are the qualities which, despite the ongoing tendency of anxiety, depression, disorganization, hot tempers, and so on, can help us relate to our lives in lighter, more fluid, more compassionate ways.
I might not be able to prevent myself getting anxious during a big life transition, but I can:
anticipate that anxiety might arise and reduce any anger or disappointment in myself
notice it early on after it does arise so that I can respond quickly to take care of myself
use humor to lighten the experience
relax into the sensations and emotion and reduce the fight/flight/freeze response.
These are just some ways that I can improve my life even if I don’t get rid of my anxiety.
We can grow and change in beautiful ways, but we have the most power to do that effectively when we make friends with our enduring character traits; our temperaments, our tendencies, the particular constellation of beauty and bunk with which we entered this world.
What qualities about yourself are you tired of trying to change? To which ones might you bring gentle acceptance and skillfulness? If the challenge is going to be there anyway, can you make friends with it?