Thursday, December 8, 2011

Decision Fatigue: You're Not Imagining Things

     Have you ever noticed how tired you are after a day consumed with decision making? Picking paint colors, planning a large seminar, selecting candidates for job interviews: all these decisions  place the same underlying pressure on your mental processes. In much the same way as your body cannot tell the difference between good stress (the excitement of a fabulous vacation) or bad stress (automobile accident), your mind cannot sort out significant decisions from what you might consider life's minor choices.
     At the end of a day of repeatedly making decisions, you can feel barely able to choose which sofa to crash on.
     There is some fascinating new research that links this feeling of fatigue to glucose depletion (see this article in The New York Times for a detailed discussion). There are many implications (dieters, take note: glucose plays a role in what you might condemn as your low will-power). The point I want to emphasize here is that the mere process of repeated decision making can exhaust you.
     This becomes a greater concern when your freedom is curtailed by things you cannot control. For example, let's say it is your job to design the uniforms for a new fast food restaurant (yellow and red polyester). Let's also stipulate that your native taste is traditional and sophisticated (cashmere and pearls). For this assignment, therefore, you are working within a framework that is outside your comfort zone (it is unlikely you would ever wear the color combinations, the fabrics, or the designs you are considering). You are working from demographic information about the restaurant's clientele (this is not pegged to your own social location, so you are out of your element again). You are charged with making the decision based on criteria that don't apply to your personal choices about clothing ("must fit a large variety of body sizes and shapes;" "must be water resistant; "must hold up to commercial washing machines").
     You are perfectly capable--gifted, even--when it comes to making these decisions, regardless of whether they align with your own personal taste. However, you cannot suspend your native tendencies. As a result, your cashmere taste is going to have to be put aside repeatedly in order for you to do your job. This takes energy. This is what I mean by constrained freedom in the decision-making process. (Those in poverty experience this constraint in nearly everything they do, for example, because they don't have the financial resources to exercise their own taste or judgment.)
     Back to your job: you spend the whole day looking at fabric samples, talking to vendors, reading statistics -- all in the service of meeting your goal of selecting a new uniform. Now you go to the supermarket. You are appalled to realize that, once again, you can't even begin to think clearly about what to fix for dinner. I'll bet you can't even decide between plain and onion bagels by this point. Not only that, odds are that The Bagel Decision feels like a bigger deal than managing all the details you've sorted out all day long.
     No matter what kind of decisions you're making, from designing restaurant uniforms to ticking off boxes on a multiple choice test to determining who will sit where at the reception, you will do a much better job and feel much better at the end of the day if you are able to relieve the decision-making process by changing things up in the middle of the day. Take a break. Let the decisions wait.
     Even fifteen minutes can refresh you. Also, make certain you haven't skipped a meal. Maintaining steady blood sugar levels will protect you from decision fatigue as well. (You already know this, if you've ever tried to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach.)
     Decision fatigue is not imaginary. You really are tired if you've been making decisions all day. Now I'm going to suggest that you have another choice to make: which decisions can you put off to tomorrow, in the interest of knowing what to buy at the supermarket this evening? and in the interest of peace of mind?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Concrete Thinking to Combat Depression?

     Do you tend toward abstract thinking? Or do you see yourself more as a concrete thinker?
     If you're not certain, here is a way to decide. Is your self-talk largely thematic, philosophical, and general? Or is it specific, incident-based, and particular?
     New research from the University of Exeter in Great Britain on a process they call Concreteness Training suggests that targeting your thinking style can bring about significant long-term reduction in symptoms of depression. Underpinning this research is the observation that an orientation toward abstraction is typical of depression. For example, a depressed person would be expected to view a single mistake as an indicator that she is a complete failure.
     Have you ever leapt to judgment in such a way? Let's say you miss a deadline, and your whole team takes the heat for it. They move on to the next task, but you are unable to do so. Instead, you stop in your tracks, convinced that you cannot ever do anything right, and that once again you've let everyone down, just the way you always do.
     Another example of this kind of abstract condemnation might be your conviction that you'll never find a job because so far, you haven't been able to do so.
     The University of Exeter research suggests that if you identify this problem as a result of your thinking style, you can work toward changing it. You can learn to identify the false correlations you might otherwise establish between one discrete event and your global sense of mastery,  your sense of who you are. You can learn to distinguish such thinking as you are actively in the process of doing it. You can learn to dismantle such a thought before it gains enough traction to reinforce your depression.
     How do you do this? We hear the word mindfulness tossed around frequently these days. It derives from the  Buddhist tradition of maintaining quiet awareness of things in the present moment. However, mindfulness by itself does not take us far enough. True interior peace comes from mindful awareness processed accurately by clear comprehension. In other words, it isn't enough to be aware. You must also think about things correctly.
     I believe that this is where the idea of Concreteness Training comes in. It is in concrete thinking that we can ground ourselves well enough to avoid leaping to generalizations about our competency and worthiness. For example, instead of deciding you are a complete failure now and forevermore in the example above, you could look at the situation in specifics. What did you do or not do that led to the missed deadline? Which part did you control? And which aspects were out of your hands? What did you learn from this experience?
     I would also suggest that once you run through these questions, you consciously couple your answers to memories of past successes. In doing so,  you will link what you have just learned to what you have done well in the past, which will set you on course for future successes. It will also bypass any abstract thinking that might lead you down the path to disgust or more depression.
     Remember, this is a process. It will take practice and vigilance. But the beauty of such an elegantly simple process is that you can teach yourself to do this on your own. Working with a therapist can help you stay on track, as can the proper assistance from medication, but the project of abstraction upheaval is under your own control. You can develop thinking tools that will influence and dislodge depression.
     The idea of Concreteness Training gives you a task, a goal, and a way to judge the outcome. Look for more on this topic as it becomes more widely known. Maybe someday you'll have an app on your iPhone that has the potential to help you keep your thinking in line with reality.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ignore the Envy of Others, but Remember It Comes from Pain

The Etiology of Envy
     This drawing came up on Facebook this morning. I've seen it before, but today it suddenly had a new meaning for me.
     If you have ever struggled to understand how someone could be envious of you, and why she has mistreated you as a result, this cartoon might help you see what lies beneath envy.
     Envy is generally indicative of two things:
     1) a person's lack of confidence in her own abilities, skills and accomplishments;
     2) a gross simplification of the process by which you have reached your goals successfully.
     Do you see that neither of these conditions has any factual bearing on you and your accomplishments? When someone is envious of you, she can hurt you. It can be toxic to bear the brunt of someone else's disappointment with herself. But it is not because of your success. It is because of her sense of failure.
     Here is what success looks like to you: You identified a goal, made whatever effort or sacrifices were necessary to reach it, and proceeded until you did so. This is a self-directed, self-monitored experience of working toward something you value, of taking care of your own business. It demonstrates a sense of responsibility toward yourself and respect for the merits of your decisions. It shows persistence, discipline, and focus. We say work toward your goal, not slide toward your goal.
     But an envious person does not acknowledge that distinction.
     An envious person wants to rob you of acknowledgment for your efforts. An envious person believes you were merely in the right place at the right time; you were just lucky to know the right people; anyone could do what you did if they felt like doing so. Envy attempts to undermine not only the process of succeeding but also the value of the success itself. Envy is the voice of someone in great pain, who cannot or will not apply herself in the same disciplined manner. It is the voice, for example, of someone who wants to play the piano but does not want to put in the hours of study necessary in order to learn to play the piano.
     Don't let another person's envy deride your sense of accomplishment. Sly and passive-aggressive comments about your success are meant to debase them, in order for the envious person to make sense of her own failures. If she can make you feel your success was fortuitous, she frees herself from the responsibility of working as hard as you do.
     Remember the great observation made by Louis Pasteur: Fortune favors the prepared mind. The smarter and harder you work, the more likely you are to succeed. Stick with it.
     Try not to let an envious person's inability to come to terms with this reality impede your progress. Compassion is always helpful, as an envious person is not a happy soul. But your successes are duly yours, and they are good.
     Stand tall upon each success you create in your life.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Burnout is an Over-Used Word: Let's Call It Emotional Exhaustion Instead

     When we first encounter a new word or term, we learn its meaning through context. For example, the first time you heard the word burnout, you might have related it to the wipe out experienced by executives who routinely work 70-hour weeks and then crash. Or emergency room doctors who rush from treating one traumatic injury to the next with no break. Or law students juggling jobs and home life with the intensity of their studies. Crash. Burnout.
     The problem with this is that if we don't identify our own symptoms as legitimately falling into one of the approved categories for burnout, such as those I mentioned above, we run the risk of not being able to identify its symptoms when it strikes. I propose we exchange the buzzword burnout for another term: let's substitute emotional exhaustion instead. Now the category expands. Perhaps now you can see room in it for yourself and the discomfort you are experiencing.
     You don't have to be paralyzed to inactivity by burnout. Like so many things, it occurs on a spectrum. You can be in the early stages of emotional exhaustion, or you can be advanced to later stages. Here are some of the things to think about if you feel you might be affected:
     Physical Symptoms: First of all, the obvious: are you tired all the time? Does sleep fail to refresh you? Do you lack the energy required to do simple, everyday tasks? Do you have more headaches, overall aches, appetite changes?
     Emotional Symptoms: Are you feeling trapped or defeated, increasingly pessimistic about your life? Has your sense of purpose slipped into a haze? Are you feeling less motivated and less satisfied by things that formerly brought you great joy?
     Behavioral Symptoms: Are you isolating yourself from friends and family? Are you letting responsibilities slip? Has your attitude toward your job changed, so that you routinely go in late or leave early? And what about alcohol or drugs? Are you taking things out on others due to frustration with yourself?
     You don't have to reach crisis point before making changes. Even if you recognize yourself in only one or two of these symptoms, you might be wise to take stock and make some changes in advance of greater stress.
     So what can you do?
     Becoming aware of the danger zones in your life is a first step: maybe you really do need to change jobs; maybe your stressful relationship really has run its course; maybe you need to find a way to pay for additional child care support at home. Also, of course, meditation and other spiritual practices can go a long way toward creating space for relaxing the hold that emotional exhaustion may have on you.
     All sorts of creative endeavors -- from painting and drawing to gardening or playing an instrument -- take us out of ourselves and offer our bodies and minds a break. Make an effort to incorporate into your daily life activities and experiences that feed your soul, and require nothing from you but your time and attention. Relax your efforts. Receive.
     Maybe you've rounded the corner into full exhaustion. My first thought for you is this: slow down. Let go. Protect yourself. When you are most exhausted you are most likely to withdraw from the company and support of others. Actually, this is the time when you need your friends and family most. You also need sleep. Rest. Take time out. Learn (rather, rediscover) how to do nothing.
     Perhaps it sounds impossible to follow this prescription. You're too busy. Too many people are counting on you. You gave your word that you would accept responsibilities, and you're holding yourself to it. These are noble thoughts. The problem, though, is fundamental: how can you expect yourself to follow through on all these things if you fall sick? Because I assure you of this: if you do not stop and take notice, put self-care into your daily program, and alter your course, your body will do it for you. It will force the issue. Please don't let things get to that point.
     Care for yourself. Then care for others. You can only offer them sustenance from a full cup. If yours is empty, you are only going through the motions. No one benefits from your exhaustion. And you, dear soul, will suffer until you grant yourself the time you need in order to renew yourself.
     Yes is the answer to the question: do I have time for a vacation?
     It is the only answer.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Gift of Old Friendships

     I had lunch recently with two old friends. We met when we were juniors in college studying for a year abroad at the University of Vienna. We see each other every now and then. Though the years continue to slip by, and our children are now older than we were when we first met, we continue to offer each other something that we cannot get any other way. The gift of old friendships is the mirror they provide into ourselves as younger persons, before great successes or great pains have etched themselves into our souls, before the time when we learned that things didn't always work out the way we philosophized that they would.
     I have come to see that all the cartoons you see of older people acting like children are metaphors. We don't necessarily become more juvenalized as we get older, as some of these cartoons suggest. But if we are fortunate enough to be in the company of others who knew us as youngsters, who remember our youthful energy and star-filled plans, then we are able to become ourselves in full spectrum: I am the young woman who loved Goethe, Beethoven, the opera, The Beatles, miniskirts, learning new languages; I have long, honey-colored hair. At the same time, I am also the mother of two adult daughters. I am the woman whose divorce shattered her dreams; the woman who returned late to graduate school; the woman who now writes with confidence that she knows what she's talking about because she has lived it.
     No, those cartoons are not literal, just as Hindu deities do not really have a thousand arms. Rather, such cartoons capture an aspect of who we become as we age. Like the god whose many arms demonstrate many talents and gifts and capabilities, our experiences as we age become a rich array of aspects of self, all of which remain available to us at any time, but which are not always brought to the fore.
     Is it in the presence of old friends that we are free to manifest all of ourselves. We are most transparent, most fully realized, when we are with those who have known us the longest.
     That lightness of being is the gift of old friendships. Treasure your friends, for later they will delight you in ways you cannot now even imagine.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Amanda Knox: The Horror and Pain of Injustice

     Amanda Knox was acquitted today. The court admitted errors. Amanda paid for them with four years of her life.
    But that's not all. The amount of stress Amanda lived with during this time is incalculable. Every system of her body has also paid this price, with hormonal floods that have kept her in a state of hyper-alertness. She has been in the hell of disempowerment that accompanies not being able to influence events in her own life.
     Today she was freed from the constraints of the Italian legal system. Her task now is to learn to put it behind her, and to move into her own future. This challenge is enormous.
     Have you ever experienced the anguish of being unjustly accused? Perhaps your experience was not in the papers, like Amanda's. Perhaps the scale was smaller: an ex-spouse passive-aggressively sets your children against you; a co-worker plants untrue stories about you with a superior; your siblings go to your parents behind your back.
     Maybe you've even been in court in a situation that forces you to learn that what is just and true and right must be cast aside; you must instead abide by the fact that you are caught in a machine, and that the machine is amoral, and that the lawyers will create a new cloth, and from it fashion you a new garment. It will not matter whether this garment fits or flatters; it is yours, and you must wear it, or remain imprisoned and naked.
     There is little a therapist can do in the face of injustice. I can listen. And I can suggest that you meditate, that creating some space for allowing yourself to consider your response is in your best interest, in the manner of Viktor Frankl. But there is still the physical toll your accusers have extracted on you as your body, heart, and mind process the stress you are under.
     Amanda can now say, "This is finished." The legal terrors she faced in Italy are over. That fact draws a line between the past and the future, and gives her a toe-hold for creating herself anew. She was no doubt unable to do so until today; that's the problem with being caught in an unjust cycle. Before today, all her energy had to go toward getting out of bed in the morning, defending herself from the psychic tornado that commandeered her every waking moment.
     It will take time for her to realize that tornado no longer holds her in its grip. She will have nightmares. She will have what appear to be irrational fears, displaced anger, disordered moods. She will have this stress carved into her soul for the remainder of her life.
     But the trial is over now. God bless her as she begins to move forward.
     And God bless anyone who remains caught in the tornado, for whom the sun has not yet reappeared.
     There is no sentiment I can offer that will feel as soothing as trying to touch the divine in such a crisis. That is where your hope lies. And hope is your bridge to the other side.
     In her darkest hours of deepest pain, Amanda had hope. Today she is resurrected.
     Hallelujah and amen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Hidden Costs of Being Out of Work

     If you are out of work, no one needs to remind you of the difficulties you're facing, and how deeply entrenched the idea of joblessness has become in your daily life.
     Unfortunately, it has likely become entrenched in your psyche as well. You are now at risk of going from thinking of yourself as someone without a job to someone who cannot get a job, and then to someone who will never work again.
     In this prolonged period of confusion in the markets, and of devastation in the personal lives of many Americans, the number of individuals touched by the onset of mental illness is increasing. Yet at the time when mental health services would most be welcome, these people are cut off from access to care.
     If you are in true crisis, feeling hopeless, or having suicidal thoughts, contact emergency services in your neighborhood. Here in Seattle, you can call 866.4CRISIS (866.427.4747) and reach The Crisis Clinic, a hotline that is open 24 hours a day, staffed with counselors who can listen and offer guidance and support. They can also suggest resources you may not realize are available to you. It is worth a call.
     If you are suicidal with a plan to do yourself or others harm, you can walk in to Emergency Services at Harborview Medical Center, for example, and tell them you are suicidal. They will help you determine what your next step should be. It could involve hospitalization in order to allow you time and opportunity to stabilize and move forward in a positive direction. 
     There is a medical center in every community that is prepared to assist you if you are in acute mental distress. That is what they are there for. Let them decide whether you would benefit from their services. Do not decide in advance to cut yourself off from options that may save your life, by thinking that mental health problems are for other people. Everyone has problems at one time or another. In this time of severe unemployment, many who otherwise manage with great skill feel cut to their knees. It is all right to ask for help.
     If you are not at a crisis point, but feelings of hopelessness have begun to color your thoughts, there are many self-help techniques available for you to try. Sometimes meditation helps, because it creates a quiet center in the midst of pain and confusion. It may not solve your problems, but it can allow you to feel some peace. In this peace, you may be able to find the strength to continue to gather your resources in your search for employment, instead of giving up.
     There are groups available in most communities for individuals to come together to share their feelings, situations, and thoughts, and to have the opportunity to understand that they are not alone in this difficult time of high unemployment. Often these groups are affiliated with a church. It is usually not necessary for you to be a member a particular congregation in order to participate in groups. A search of local directories can guide you, and when you find groups that interest you, call the church or agency and ask about participation. You may be surprised to learn how welcome your presence will be.
     The value in finding community at a time like this is that it can allow you to feel compassion for the pain of others. In doing so, you can begin to see that, like these other individuals, you did not do anything wrong. You did not do anything to deserve (one of my least favorite words) the loss of job and livelihood. Perhaps this recognition will allow you to extend these feelings of compassion to yourself, so that you can release feelings of shame that may unnecessarily be complicating your search for employment.
     Nothing is permanent under the sun. Not the leaves on a tree. Not the stars in the sky. Not the job you recently (or not so recently) lost. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know when I say this. I offer it as context, however, for the pain you are feeling about being unemployed.
     Life is a series of cycles. It is true that your life will never be the same as it used to be. That would be true, however, even if you were still employed. You could have a new boss with new ideas for how you should do your work. Your company could be bought out by another, and the entire philosophy could change. People quit, die, move on. It is an illusion to think that if you still had your job, things would be as they used to be.
     But at least you would still be able to pay your bills, right? So that is the main issue, perhaps. Money. It is a medium of exchange. We exalt it to something greater, and in doing so risk undervaluing ourselves when we don't have enough of it.
     So continue to look for work which will allow you to pay your bills. Remember, if you can, that your work does not define you. How you do whatever work you have does, however. And that includes how you look for work. How you hold yourself in crisis. How you continue to envision that you have the ability to resolve your problems.
     Bad things happen. We do not control them. We cannot read the future. We cannot, therefore, avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time on occasion. We can be let go from a job which we are performing brilliantly.
     But we are not dismissed as a person. We are dismissed as a worker. It is no more personal than anything else in this universe of ours.
     We make things personal. We define ourselves. We are our most essential selves when we face difficulties. Allow yourself to live in the grace of your own compassion, in the light of your own wisdom, guided by your own belief that there is a place for you in the world of work, and that you will find it.
     Hold yourself in high esteem. Do not give in to misfortune. Overcome it. Decide to thrive.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Let Autumn's Energy Renew You.

as the roses fade...
     In Seattle today, the weather has turned indubitably from summer to autumn. It's not just that the sky is grey, or that the raindrops mix with the cool air, or that the wind is carrying yellow and red leaves to the ground. It's also the lighting: clearly, the summer sun has slipped south to warmer climes. Its departure leaves us with deeper shadows, more saturated colors: we have evidence of something on the wane.
     For most of us, this is a time of year we associate with beginnings, because we grow up trained to an academic calendar. Fall means fresh starts: new classes, new friends, new styles in clothing. New. Fresh. Beginning.
     If you're not the one getting off to school in the morning, perhaps you're guiding your own children as they get back into the habits of schoolday life. Already, in a sense, you're once removed: it's a new year for them, but the newness of the year for you means meeting new teachers, going on new field trips, and fitting all the other children's activities into your already busy life. This busy life does not typically run on an academic calendar, and most of the excitement attached to fall's fresh starts is experienced instead by your children.
     Once they are off to college, the ties lessen further, and after they have graduated, poof! It's over. You may not have seen it coming. You may not have given it a second thought. But now you find yourself going about the business of your daily life, a life in which September is just the ninth month of the calendar. There is nothing new to celebrate, nothing new to look forward to or to wonder about. Buying fall clothes even feels different, because as you get older you realize that last fall's clothes are perfectly good, and really all you need is a new belt or a couple of cashmere sweaters to add to what you already have.
     You feel melancholy. Not depressed, really. Just sort of sad, in a way you can't quite figure out. Nothing in particular has happened.
     I believe something in particular has happened. Underneath it all, we are still children. Children usually respond with enthusiasm to the idea of starting a school year afresh. As the school year gets underway, and the new becomes the old, things settle down. Then it's time to look forward to the holidays. Such is the life of children.
     As adults, though, we still carry the emotional connection between fall and these exciting new starts. We were in school for so long that we are habituated to them. Now we have all the cues for a new start as the leaves rustle and the days get shorter, but we are beyond the reach of having our excitement met with gratification. There is nothing new, really, about another day or another week, in September. These days hold no surprises, no opportunities for starting over, no encounters without precedent.
     Unless we make it so.
     We can choose to muster all the energy we have spent our lives aligning with the expectations for autumnal change. We can then use this time to raise to consciousness the idea of paring away the old that may have come to fruition and full bloom, and is no longer useful. We can apply ourselves to the idea of renewal, and create for ourselves opportunities for fresh starts.
     It is in making room for the new that the new arises. Sometimes we have accumulated things, ideas, commitments to the extent that there is no room for a new thought to wedge itself sideways into our busy lives. Let autumn be a time for shedding the extraneous. Ask yourself some questions, much as you do when you purge your closets: Is this serving me well? Do I like it? Is there something I would prefer to have or do or think?
     We often hear the phrase go with the flow. Sometimes it carries the subtext of encouraging mindless  drifting. I suggest it can mean something more: it can suggest aligning yourself in the direction that the flow of your life is already going, taking advantage of your tendencies and predilections, knowing yourself well enough to foresee and avoid self-induced obstacles.
     Going with the flow can mean taking advantage of this glorious autumnal energy, and preparing for the newness that comes with all exfoliation: as the leaves fall from the tree, let the extras and redundancies fall from your life.
     Love autumn. Remember there can be no summer flowers without the wilting of blooms and the passing along of seeds for seasons to come. Is that not a new beginning unto itself?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Anniversaries: What Do They Measure?

     We celebrate many anniversaries in our daily lives -- from birthdays to Jarhzeits. They are commonplace. They are ritualized. As such, they are also taken for granted.
     Typically, an anniversary marks another year's passing since the original event took place. And what is it that we are actually celebrating or commemorating when we acknowledge an anniversary? In the case of a Jahrzeit, the Jewish custom of remembering the dead on the date of their death, we think about those who are no longer with us. On a wedding anniversary, we rejoice in the strength of our marital bond, and the shared history that grows with each year. On a birthday, it's cake and candles for one more year of lived experience.
     But sometimes amidst the joy that accompanies an anniversary, a shadow of melancholy flutters over things. We miss the company of those who have moved on; we question whether all these years of marriage are sustainable in the future; we wonder whether we've lived as fully as we might when we realize that another year has slipped by.
     But there may be something else, something deeper, that we miss. All the mention of the events of 9/11/01 in the run-up to the tenth anniversary of those terrorist activities have made me acutely aware of it.
     An anniversary is the line of demarcation between what came before and what follows. In the case of 9/11, the anniversary delineates the era of an America living in innocence, and an era of an America which will forever now live without it. You might question the use of the word innocence here, so I will amplify it by suggesting that our sense of incorruptible faith in ourselves was assaulted on 9/11/01, and each year since we have witnessed more falls from the grace of living in that faith as we continue to grapple with making sense of the new ways of the world and our place in it.
     We mourn the loss of those who died, and we mourn the pain of those who survived the loss of loved ones on 9/11. We also mourn the loss of the arc of our own lives, which was abruptly interrupted on that day. We mourn the loss of what we thought we knew about ourselves.
     There is a great deal to be said for resilience, however. Anyone who has ever changed direction while on course in order to avoid an unforeseen obstacle can attest to the fact that creativity and resilience can save the day. Oftentimes, the results can be greater than what was originally imagined, before things were shaken up.
     Yes, mourn your losses. Yes, remember how things used to be. But at the same time, make a conscious effort to open your eyes to the perennial gift of the present, and to its surprising potential to offer more than anything that preceded it.
     Be gentle with yourself if it hurts to pass an anniversary of any kind, and honor the fact that a dashed dream leaves room for a new one.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Trouble Making Decisions?

     There are many reasons for difficulties when it comes to making decisions.
     Sometimes, a situation is so complicated that several options seem plausible. In cases like that, it might be a good idea to grant yourself permission to act, knowing you are doing the best you can at the moment, given what you know about things. Remember that you do not have to make the perfect choice; a good one will do. Trust yourself to know which way to go. Your question to self here might be: Which decision can I make now that will put things in motion and feel right at the same time?
     Sometimes, things feel murky. You do not feel confident in any of your choices. You are not even certain you see them all. This is a time to allow yourself to wait: you'll make a decision when you understand more clearly what is required of you, when things make more sense. Be gentle with yourself, and trust that you will decide when you are ready to decide. Your question to self here: What else do I need to find out in order to feel confident in making a decision in this matter?
     But there is a third range of possibilities: you see the choices; you understand your options. The part that you do not know relates to what you want. You cannot figure out what is best for you. You think of one choice, and then another, and another -- and the more you think, the more confused you feel. Your question to self: How can I sort out my feelings, which appear to be pulling me in several directions at once?
     I can offer one simple suggestion, something I do when I am stuck between two options. It may sound corny, but it has worked for me on many occasions.
     I flip a coin.
     But it is not what you may think. I do not flip a coin with the intent of using the results to determine what to do. I flip a coin because I have learned that in that brief interlude between the time I toss the coin into the air and the time it lands, I discover whether I want it to come up heads or tails. 
     In doing so, I learn that at some level, perhaps a very deep one, I do have a favored outcome. I do have a preference. Flipping a coin helps it come to the surface.
     If you have not already discovered the truth in this little exercise, give it a try next time you are uncomfortably ensconced on the horns of a dilemma.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Feeling Overwhelmed? Who Wouldn't?

     There are two ways you can feel overwhelmed. The first is the result of having too many things pulling you in multiple directions at once. You get off the plane and feel a head cold coming on, remember you forgot to ask the vet about that lumpy thing on the dog's belly, and your cell phone slips out of your pocket when your roller bag bumps it as you mount the moving sidewalk on the way to baggage claim. That's a mess, and feeling overwhelmed makes sense, because you are overwhelmed.
     But there's another way to feel overwhelmed. I'm speaking of the existential variety of angst that derives from a sense of powerlessness, purposelessness, and fear. These are historically difficult times. While there is precedent for economic crisis, for international turmoil, and for societal changes, the rapidity and concentration of these elements in today's world paint a unique portrait of an age under siege.
     We, on the other hand, are creatures with an evolutionary history of adapting over time to changes in our environment. When these changes are unprecedented, massive, interrelated, and accelerated, our human capability to keep up is exhausted. We dangle in the winds of change like spiders on a tattered web.
     Feeling overwhelmed is a sane and healthy response. It suggests that you know your limits have been reached, and that you want to revert to a time and place at which the scale and magnitude of life's challenges were within your ability to comprehend, and even resolve. This is not nostalgia. It also is not luddite regression to a falsely remembered Golden Age. It is an intuitive understanding that something significant has been breached, and that you are in pain as a result.
     I encourage the exploration of relaxation and meditation techniques which help us put the words of the serenity prayer into action in our lives: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
     It doesn't matter which God you address. The fruits of this prayer are bountiful gifts that can help drain the power from that which overwhelms us.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thinking All the Time: Is There No Relief?

     "I wish I could turn off my brain for a while!"
     "I wish I could just watch tv without running constant mental background analyses!"
     "No wonder I can't relax. I can't get away from myself!"
     Do any of these statements sound familiar to you? If so, you've probably already tried several relaxation techniques, and perhaps even meditation. You have have discovered that they just don't work for you.
     Think about it. It is harder to turn an ocean liner than it is to turn a canoe. So what might be needed here, in order for time-honored meditation techniques, for example, to take root in your heart?
     If you accept the fact that your mind works a certain way, if you show yourself the respect you extend to others, you're on your way. From there, it's a simple next step to forgiving yourself for expecting yourself to be other than who you are. You're not failing at the task of relaxation. You may be, however, failing at estimating the complexity of the system you are trying to relax in the first place.
     Like everything else you've already learned to adapt so it works for you, meditation and relaxation are going to look different to you than to those whose minds work differently. You may have more of what Buddhists call monkey mind distractions as you sit down to clear your mind. You may feel torn in several directions at once. That's the way you feel al the time, though, remember? Why expect yourself to feel any differently just because you decide to relax? or decide to meditate?
     Remember, you're trying to turn an ocean liner here. Give yourself the time, space, and the focus required for such an undertaking, and don't expect your ship is going to turn like a canoe just because that's what most people have.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Are the Gifted Different when It Comes to Mental Health?

     Because I specialize in working with gifted individuals, I am often asked whether such persons have problems that are any different from the problems everyone else faces.
     Here is my answer: The differences lie in the way life is experienced, processed, and valued; for the most part, however, the basic issues are similar to everyone else's.
     What are these differences? And why would this require a specialized therapeutic approach?
     Let's back up a little and define the chameleon word giftedness. For our purposes here, I'll use the Mensa definition. Admission to Mensa, an international organization, is based on one criterion: a score on a recognized IQ test or recognized alternative (such as the Law School Admission Test or the Miller Analogies Test, for example) at the equivalent of 130 or higher. This represents the top 2% of the population, and is two standard deviations above the average IQ score of 100. Again, for the sake of this discussion, let us assume that intelligence is measurable and that these scores are valid.
     You can easily understand that if you are in a 2% sector of any group, regardless of its defining characteristics, you are a member of a small minority. As such, your experience in that group is going to be different from the experience of most members. When that group is the entire human race, as it is with IQ distribution in the top 2%, your life is going to be different from most people's by virtue of that single characteristic of your experience.
     It is often pointed, however, that IQ is only one facet of the human experience. There's a lot of commonality among members of the human family that we all encounter over the course of a lifetime.
     And that is true. The differences lie in the way these experiences are processed by the individual. As it happens, high sensitivity to nuances of meaning, value, justice, and sensory input are hallmarks of giftedness. These characteristics work together to determine the way a gifted individual's life feels to that individual. A gifted individual cannot help seeing the world through the lens of high intelligence. In other words, a gifted person cannot help seeing the world differently from the way 98% of the population sees it.
     In short, experiences such as losing a loved one or making an important decision are part of everyone's daily life. The intellectually gifted person's encounter (emotional, philosophical, and practical) with these experiences is different from that of most people. Therefore, a gifted person can benefit from working with a therapist who understands these nuances; who speaks the same or similar complex language of words and other symbols; and who recognizes that there is as much a difference between a person with an IQ of 130 and a person with an IQ of 160 as there is between 100 and 130, or 70 and 100.
     It is not, as some have alleged, an elitist perspective to say that the intellectually gifted are different from most people. No one charges the Michael Jordans of the world with athletic elitism, do they? Yet this label persists when applied to intellectual capability. To do so is not just, and it is not kind. Giftedness is not a choice; it comes along genetically, like eye color and the potential for athletic skill.
     Are the gifted different? Yes. Is Michael Jordan different? Yes. Do they all need compassion, kindness, love, respect, affiliation? Yes! In these areas, they are just like everyone else.
     Exactly like everyone else.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Do You Believe You Are Responsible for the Mess in Congress?

     If you are like many gifted individuals, you tend toward taking great personal responsibility for your actions. This includes responsibility for the consequences of those actions. So far, so good. 
     But how does this ingrained high standard apply in a case with as many moving parts as the Congress of the United States of America?
     If you voted, you most likely elected at least one person in Washington who is embroiled in the national embarrassment that is our current budgetary decision-making process. Is this costly impasse a direct result of your personal vote?
     Philosophically, you could build a convincing argument to support the position that you are, indeed, personally responsible for the mess in Congress. Here's where it breaks down, though: the government of the USA is not philosophy class. It is a human-built and human-operated system that relies on the good faith of individual participants in order to fulfill its mission. 
     You did your good faith part by participating in open elections to select individuals to represent you in Congress. I am assuming due diligence on your part before you entered the polling place. Often, we find ourselves in the position of voting against one candidate as opposed to voting for another, as a direct result of our conscientious consideration of the issues and principles endorsed by candidates for public office. Nonetheless, I assume your voting was informed by personal resolve to understand what your vote would mean. You are an educated voter.
     I would argue that your responsibility ends there. You are not responsible for the choices an individual makes once that election takes place. You cannot predict with 100% accuracy how any specific candidate, once elected, will perform.
     Therefore, I do not believe you are responsible for the extreme abdication of responsibility we see in Congress at this moment. Senators and Representatives are flying free, making a mockery of the system you upheld by placing your vote, because they are assuming their personal position is equivalent to the position of the people they represent. If that were so, most Americans would be cheering the debacle in Washington. Instead, with most of the rest of the world, we stand by in horror and disgust to see our country undermined by egocentric power mongers.
     Do I sound biased? I admit it. I am biased against self-indulgent elected officials. My concern is with individuals who may feel personally responsible for, and therefore guilty about, what is going on in our capital. Try to release those feelings. You placed your trust in your elected officials. That trust was abused. And that is not your  fault. To say so in the real world is to blame the victim.
     We have a choice. It is consistent with my definition of the role of personal responsibility in a democracy. We can choose to vote against every single member of Congress who is involved in the current chaos.
     It is not a clash of ideas or a clash of values that we are witnessing. It is a clash of personalities, egos, vested interests, and other degraded aspects possible in human interactions. Otherwise, solutions would have been reached well before this crisis appeared like an infected boil on the face of our nation.
     We can start over. We can hold our newly elected representatives to high standards, and continue active scrutiny of their behavior. We can demand good faith from them. And we can promise to show them the door if they show us their backsides, the way the current members of Congress seem to be doing.
     We must pay attention. We must then act. That is our responsibility.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Amy Winehouse: Death Stalks the Addict

     You cannot deny her talent. Her deep contralto voice was spellbinding. Unfortunately, she died today at the age of 27, with most of her music trapped forever within her.
     Her song Rehab rocketed her to the top of all the charts. In it, she laments the fact that all her friends tried to get her to go into a drug rehabilitation program, but she said, "no, no, no." Clever song. Catchy. And that gorgeous voice. But by saying no to rehab, she was also saying NO to facing reality, which is the driving problem that underlies all addictions.     
     We all have problems, which can sometimes knock us off our feet. If we face them, struggle with them, resolve them, then we grow, and actually gain wisdom. The addict, on the other hand, says, "um, no, I'd rather just escape."
     As a psychotherapist, I strongly believe that there is a problem in any kind of society that views rehab as a rite of passage. From what to what? It's often, as in Amy Winehouse's case, just a respite between one phase of active addiction and another. What kind of model is this? Where's the personal responsibility?
     We watch train wrecks in slow motion as celebrities implode before our eyes. But it's not just celebrities. Many of us have personal lives scarred by the addictions of another, or even by our own.
     It's not enough to go to rehab and get clean. An addict must commit to facing reality, with all its wonders, bumps and warts, in order to put aside addiction. It has to be a conscious decision. Addiction is stronger than will. You cannot beat it by saying you will beat it. And you cannot view rehab as a spa vacation. Like sticking to a diet, commitment to remaining clean is hard. It takes will power. It takes resolve. It takes help from others. We all know you can't lose fifty pounds and then go back to the Godiva box. You have to alter your fundamental approach to how you live.
     Amy couldn't summon the courage to face the reality of her own life, rich as it was with gifts, talents, fame, and fortune. What a loss. And what an object lesson.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How Schadenfreude Can Motivate You -- even though it feels naughty

     Seldom do we admit it. We show our compassionate faces in public. But what is that spark of delight we feel when someone else hits a rough patch?
     We've all done it. A friend who has everything going for her suddenly gets a serious diagnosis. A coworker who is headed straight for the corner office gets sidetracked by a messy divorce. Are we sorry? No. Instead, we feel a burst of glee at their misfortunes.
     The German word Schadenfreude is, in my opinion, another example of the perfect way the German language works: Der Schaden is damage, and Die Freude is delight. Put them together and what do you have? The conflicted situation in which we recognize another's pain while feeling pleased about it.
     Not surprisingly, psychologists link Schadenfreude with personalities who also feel envy and jealousy. The greater the one, the greater the other. But for most of us, it is a fleeting response, and we generally overcome it fairly quickly.
     For that reason, we can use it to our advantage. Next time you feel it, think about this: for one thing, you can see that bad things happen, but for the moment (at least) they're not happening to you. That is something to be grateful for. Secondly, you can feel encouraged in your own bumbles when you see something bad happen to someone who has the world in the palm of her hand. Success seldom follows a straight line.
     And because Schadenfreude allows you to cut yourself slack at the expense of another's misfortune, you can then extend that same compassion to the person whose suffering brought on your Schadenfreude in the first place.
     Speaking of Schadenfreude, I'd like to remind you of something you already know: no one is as put together as she may appear to be. Everyone has pain and trouble, though some people are better at hiding it than others. At root, however, we are all fragile creatures, and we need all the compassion we can get.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

You Are Not Annoyed

     You have that afternoon drowsiness that feels delicious. You lie down to take a nap. Close your eyes. Sink into the comfortable bed.
     The neighbors' gardeners arrive. Stoke up all their fire-breathing equipment. Gas fumes waft through the light shafts coming through your window. Dust follows. A big dog starts to bark. A jet roars overhead. And the gardeners are shouting to one another in order to be heard over all the racket.
     You sneeze and sit upright. Curse a little. If in that moment you were aware of such things, you'd notice your clenched jaw, your shallow breathing, and an overall tightness in your body. But you're not aware, because all you can think about is the gross injustice of the noise fiesta outside in conjunction with your desired nap. You spring out of bed.
     Now you're sleepy and cranky. You decide to go to the damned supermarket and get the damned shopping done. En route, you curb your instinct to flip off the driver next to you at the red light. Sure, his stereo is shaking your car off its tires, but you remember road rage... Instead, in the nanosecond between the changing of the traffic light and the movement of the car in front of you, you manage to honk your horn twice.
     Your day isn't likely to get any better. Why? Because you're reacting to everything going on around you.
     Imagine this:
     You're lying there drowsily when the neighbors' gardeners arrive. Cacophony ensues.
     You stay perfectly still. Listen to the sounds of the equipment. Think of the fact that you are able to hear it. You realize from all your past experience that nothing lasts forever. The gardeners will finish their work, and then leave. Imagine the contrast! How sweet that silence will be once it arrives. The dog barks. He's doing exactly what you would be doing if you were a dog: you'd bark at the noise, too. The jet adds another layer to the noise, but also to your environment in general. People going places, some thrilled about it, some sad. All the people, all the possible destinations, all the possible reasons for being on any particular aircraft at any particular time...
     You are able to remain relaxed because you are directing your attention yourself to the things you are able to control. When you are thinking about the people on the plane, you are not thinking about the gardeners who are now going about their work, and will soon be finished.
     In this scenario, you are not reacting: you are responding. And by responding, you control the effect that environmental stimuli have on your body and your mental state.
     Does this sounds simplistic to you? You can test it. Here's how:
     Next time something annoys you, become aware of it. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Will it last?
  • Is it intentional?
  • is it personal?
  • What is best for me right now?
     Odds are, the annoyance is temporary. It is not intentional. It is not personal. And the best thing for you to do is accept those three qualities and consciously decide what you are going to do about them.
     You can go through the mindfulness steps outlined above, mulling over the experience of the noise and its layers. You can get up and read in another room where there is less noise until it abates, and then take your nap. You can go to the supermarket, and then return to take your nap.
     Or, you can choose to stew in your own juices about something that is outside your command by taking it personally, and acting as if it were a permanent condition, something done intentionally to annoy you.
     Viktor Frankl taught us about choosing how we respond to what life offers us. His great work Man's Search for Meaning is a beautiful examination of what it means to be human, and how responding to one's environment instead of reacting to it activates the seat of human dignity.
     We can choose to react, or to respond. In choosing to respond, we also choose how we are going to feel at times when things could appear to be conspiring against us.
     It takes practice to remain mindful in the face of things that otherwise might annoy you, but you can do it, if you so choose.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Art: Fun for Your Brain

I just returned from the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon, where I gave a presentation at the Mensa Annual Gathering entitled, Help Me, I'm Gifted!

As part of the presentation, I hoped to offer participants the opportunity to look at what might be considered serious art without all the trappings of art historical accuracy, museum settings, or the impending threat of a quiz.

The first painting I showed was by Pablo Picasso, a Spanish painter who produced this particular work in Paris in 1903. I provided a minimal amount of background information, similar in amount and style to what you see if you visit a museum and read the card accompanying a work of art: called The Old Guitarist in the United States, and on exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute, this painting is also commonly referred to as The Man with the Blue Guitar. 

The Mensa audience quickly suspected the guitarist was blind. Why? Look at his eyes. They are closed tightly, in a sort of way that gives the impression of being permanent. And surely enough, Picasso originally called this painting Le Vieux Guitariste Aveugle. I don't know why we dropped the word blind when we started calling it The Old Guitarist in English.

Participants in the Mensa group noticed one aspect of the painting after another: the tattered clothing, the odd position, the elongated limbs, the utter sadness portrayed, and -- the fact that the only thing in the painting that is not painted blue is the guitar itself.

So why do people call this painting The Man with the Blue Guitar, I asked?

Because of the musical sounds that guitar would make. Because the whole feeling of the painting is so sad. Because Picasso was blue when he painted it. Because I'm blue looking at it.

They had fun with it. They didn't behave as if there were a right answer, or a correct interpretation. Blue Period, Schmeriod. No one was judging.

The fact is that in the past, the only people who've pointed out to me that the guitar is not blue were children, who are generally better at pointing out the Emperor's New Clothes than overeducated adults tend to be.

I showed another painting, a city scape by Giorgio de Chirico.

This painting evoked such good humored response that when the group felt finished with it, they asked me to show the third painting, which I had stated I'd leave out in the interest of time.

So I showed it at the end.

It was Banquet Still Life, an oil by Abraham van Beyeren, 1653-55. It hangs in the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum. Painted during the peak of Holland's Golden Age, it shows the remains of some sort of a feast.

In a word: Pronk. This is a great Afrikaans word that means showing off.

The Mensa group had fun with this one, too. What is the curtain in the background? The artist is saying: Look what I can do! All the fancy surfaces and textures! The silver pot seems particularly well articulated. What is that stuff in the bowl in front of it?

The final slide was the capper: a close up of that silver pot. It shows a reflection of the artist himself. Pronk, indeed!

Have fun with art.

It teases your brain if you look at it freshly, barring any actual knowledge you may have about the painting, the content, the historical period, or the artist. Just let your mind wander. You will see things you've never seen before. And you know what? That's perfectly wonderful.

We are taught to take art so seriously. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it creates haves and have nots, leaving out everyone who doesn't study art history. It can make you feel as if you don't have the right to an opinion or an impression, as in I don't know anything about art. I'm here to tell you you don't have to know anything about art in order to have an opinion, and to have fun with it. Even if you are encyclopedically informed, feel free to let your mind roam once in a while. Why hold back?

Do you honestly think the artist was thinking Serious Art and Art Criticism and This is My Ultra-Realistic Period when he pronked everyone by painting his own portrait into a commissioned work?

And who's to say Picasso had enough money to buy other colors during his Blue Period? He was a poor artist. Maybe all he could afford was blue paint!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Are You Too Sensitive?

     "You're just too sensitive!"
     "Can't you just ignore it?"
     "It's not bothering anyone else. Why is it bothering you?
     Do any of these comments sound familiar to you?
     If so, you may be among the 20% of the population that author and psychologist Elaine Aron calls Highly Sensitive Persons, or HSPs.
     Here are some of the identifying traits for HSPs:
  • being easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input
  • being aware of subtleties in your environment that most people appear not to notice
  • having a low pain threshold
  • having a rich, complex inner life
  • being deeply moved by the arts or music
  • being sensitive to and influenced by the moods of others
     In her book The Highly Sensitive Person Aron offers a comforting starting point for those who score as highly sensitive. She is quick to point out, however, that being highly sensitive is not pathological, and it is not a disorder. Rather, Aron believes it is the framework within which you view and experience the world, much like your personality and temperament.
     Aron makes distinctions between being shy and being introverted, for example. She also offers self-help guidelines. Her great gift is to help individuals learn to accept that being sensitive is a positive way of being in the world.
     I agree with much of what Aron writes, which is well-correlated to the foundational research done by Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski, whose work describing what he called overexcitabilities helped define the field of education for gifted individuals, who, as a group, tend to score high on Aron's HSP scale.
     I do believe, however, there is room for further research on one point: I would distinguish the 20% of the population Aron calls HSPs as that group of people whose sensitivities to environmental and internal stimuli are highly tuned. I would submit, however, that the remaining 80% suffers not from a lack of this sensitivity, but rather from a learned suppression of the stimuli that is so obvious to HSPs.
     Our culture primarily rewards those who succeed at all costs; who climb over obstacles without letting anything get them down; who are able to make the so-called hard decisions in life.
     Those are the very individuals whose anxiety and depression can grow and burgeon beneath the surface, putting them at risk for blowing up at any moment when the strain of suppressing further input becomes too great.
     It is to our artists and our poets, our musicians and other masters of  nonverbal communication with traits of hypersensitivity, that we look when our pain becomes so great that words fail us. Talented psychotherapists can also help an HSP navigate the world in a way that encourages and supports their management of emotional and other sensitivities.
     Both artists and therapists can also help those in the Sea of 80% get in touch with what stirs beneath the surface of their lives.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Your Brain in the City

     There's new research to support your hunch that living in the city is driving you nuts. In fact, this study suggests that if you're born in an urban environment, the manner in which you deal with stress is forever influenced by it, even if you move to the country. To quote from the article posted in
     A part of the brain called the amygdala, which is involved in anxiety, depression and the fight-or-flight response, was extra active in people who were from cities, the researchers report today in the journal Nature. What's more, that level of activity went up with the size of the city they were from.
     Regardless of where people lived now, results also showed that people who were brought up in cities had higher levels of activity in a region of the brain called the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC), which regulates the amygdala. And the more years they lived in urban areas as kids, the more active that region was. 
     In people and animals, hyperactivity in the amygdala has been linked to anxiety problems and other mental health disorders. What we show is that if you live in a city, those brain areas that are linked to mental illness are hyperactive, said lead researcher Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, a psychiatrist at the University of Heidelberg's Central Institute of mental health in Mannheim, Germany.
     This study does not deny that there are also benefits to living in a city, such as cultural and business opportunities. It does suggest these benefits might be overshadowed by the price we pay for them with our mental health.
     We're not like Jane Austen, saying that cities are bad and countries are great, said Meyer-Lindenberg. It's not black and white. The thing is that it was known before that cities are a risk factor for mental health, he added. What we show is how and what underlies that in the brain.
     The authors are speaking of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders, but also of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia. An argument could be made that these so-called illnesses are a normal reaction to an abnormal environment (densely populated cities), but that's fodder for another post.
     If, as the authors suggest, 70% of the world's population lives in cities by 2050, and if urban dwelling is highly correlated to mental illness, is there no greater mandate for city planners than to build living environments which are health enhancing, and (dare I say it?) health inducing? 
     There is a correlation between intelligence and sensitivity to environmental cues, which I will discuss in another post. Guard yourself to the extent that you can from the stressors of urban dwelling, and remain mindful of the impact urban noise, crowding, frustration, air and light pollution, as well as all that pavement, may have on your mental health.