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?
I just finished Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance and I highly recommend it. Aziz Ansari is a comedian and the main character of his show, Master of None, which is hilarious. He wrote the book to explore why dating in this culture at this time basically sucks. I won’t go into the whole book, but I’m going to focus on a concept he discusses in the middle of the book: maximizers and satisficers.
Maximizers are folks who want to be as sure as possible that they are making the right purchases and choices. They are the folks who research every taco place in NYC before picking one so that they can make sure to go to “the best.” They are the folks who go to 42 open houses and are in the real estate market for 3 years before they put in an offer on a home.
Satisficers might do a little research, but they pick more quickly and are less interested in finding “the best.” They might not mind buying the first jacket they see in the store if they like it or renting the first apartment they go look at if it seems to basically meet their criteria.
Most of us are some combo of maximizer and satisficer. But in our affluent Western society, more and more of us are maximizers in more and more areas. And here’s the clincher: research shows that even when a maximizer ends up with a purchase (or partner or experience) that is “better” than that of a satisficer, THE SATISFICER IS HAPPIER.
Even if you pick the BEST TACO PLACE in the world after an hour of research, you won’t enjoy it as much as the person who picked the 2nd taco place they saw on the street that looked good and smelled great.
WHY?!? And why are we all becoming maximizers?
With greater choice, comes higher expectation and more comparison. With more comparison comes the possibility that somewhere out there, there is an even better choice. And with the possibility that your choice is less than ideal, there is dissatisfaction and SELF-BLAME.
As Barry Schwartz, the author of Paradox of Choice, states, “The secret to happiness is lower expectations.”
Now obviously, there are some serious benefits to choice and to having options. No argument there. But there’s a spectrum between no choice and too much choice and we’re leaning out on the extremity of that spectrum, goggly eyed and freaking out over the 175 different kinds of salad dressing and 72 different cell phones we have to decide between.
So. This holiday season, when we are all barraged with messages trying to tempt us into buying the best gift, making the best cookie, hosting the best party, wearing the best outfit…try this on for size:
Aim for average. Embrace “good enough.” Revel in so-so.
Let’s all put on our satisficer hats and enjoy the sh$%&t out of what we’ve got. Right here, right now.
P.S. watch Barry Schwartz’s tedtalk: The Paradox of Choice