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My Head is a Nice Place to Visit, But I Wouldn’t Want to Live There

One of my favorite quotes is: My head is like a bad neighborhood and I shouldn’t stay there alone!

I’ve shared that with many people over the years. What it’s always meant to me is that if I try to analyze my problems myself without verbalizing them to a trusted friend or therapist – or even just writing them down, or without allowing myself to actually feel through them – they just seem to take on more & more power over me. I call it the intellectual violence that I perpetrate on myself.

In the 12 Step Program we talk about getting outside our own heads, which I’ve taken to mean something similar – and also understood that if I carry the message on to others, then I will learn and grow more myself, as well as being of help to others.

Staying in the moment, which I remind myself to do on a consistent basis, also means staying out of my head. To do that, I usually switch the focus to my body.  As humans, we’re kind of thinking machines, so we’ll never completely get away from our thoughts. But we can work on being aware and conscious of what is going on around us as much as possible, so as not get caught up in that intellectual violence.

At times when I’ve had some real hurt in my life, I’ve meditated to help me stay in love as I dealt with it. Then, invariably, a friend or family member shared some very difficult problems in their lives. I’ve “gotten outside my own head” and reached out to them. I’ve put myself in their place and felt their pain. As a therapist, I’ve learned the art of being compassionate while detaching at the same time, so I can remain objective enough to be helpful. It’s much more difficult with friends and family, but I’ve been able to use that skill to be there for them.

During the time I was focusing on my friends and their issues, I totally forgot my own problems. And sometimes the issue I’d been working through just turned completely around and started working well again. I know it won’t be that way forever but I’ve learned to live in the moment and take joy in the good times when they are here without waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The part that amazes me is that I just know part of the reason it turned around is because I let go of it for a time, and gave from love to someone else who needed it. Don’t misunderstand. Very often, our problems need to be revisited until we see them through. But that means letting go of the obsessive thoughts about them and feeling the emotional part. And it doesn’t help to stay in the problem constantly. Otherwise, we’d never move toward a solution. Allowing ourselves to be there for others, even in the midst of our own pain (if we are able), can help us in that process. I swear what we put out there comes back to us – and even opens up the energy field for everyone else!

The energy in the world right now feels very heavy and sometimes dark – depending on who we are listening to or what we are focusing on. We are all experiencing some very harmful, painful events, even if it is somewhat vicariously for some of us. It’s difficult to just brush it off and go about our own business.

I have always been the eternal optimist when it comes to societal issues. I believe we are on the cusp of a more enlightened civilization, but there are those who are not as spiritually or emotionally in tune, and they feel very threatened. They are hanging on to everything they “know” (the familiar) because the unknown is too scary and they don’t seem to be willing or able to learn about that uncharted territory. That heavier energy is felt by all of us.

But I do think we can combat it by doing just what I said earlier. Let it go, even if for a few minutes at a time. Do whatever works for you to free yourself. Meditate, pray, play, plan the vacation of your dreams – even if you don’t believe you’ll ever really take it. Most of all focus on love. Look for stories about the people who are helping in the horrific situations we wake up to on the news every day.

Nothing in this world happens that is not first imagined. Contrary to what you may have been told as a child, daydreaming is not a bad thing, as long as we don’t stay there ALL the time. We need to envision the world we want to see – personally and socially in order for it to come to fruition. That’s the first step towards the solution. Then we come back to today and do what we can to move towards that vision.

“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”

– Eckhart Tolle

Who’s Life Are You Living?

This blog was written prior to the news of Tony Robbins misrepresenting the #MeToo movement. I do not condone the way he conducted himself.  I want to make clear that while his underlying message is similar to some concepts in this blog, I strongly support the MeToo movement and believe it has been instrumental in advancing the process of women (and some men) finding their personal power to stand up to abuse and harassment. (In fact I have written other blogs about this very topic). I work daily with traumatized clients and I’m very aware that trying to bully someone into feeling better about themselves is counterproductive, at best.  I am open to any discussion once you’ve read this blog.  I appreciate all my readers and always attempt to take other perceptions into account when writing,

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During my adult life, I’ve encountered many situations that left me feeling powerless. I have always been an independent, pro-active person, so when I begin to feel stuck in some way, I allow myself to feel the pressure, anxiety, sadness for a while because I’ve learned that it’s important to feel things fully at the emotional level before moving on. My rule of thumb is to keep the pity party to 24 hours if possible because it’s just as important to face our reality. Then I get into what I call “fix it mode.” My mind turns to “what can I do to move forward?”

This is where the Serenity Prayer can really be helpful to remind me that I need to do what I can, accept what I can’t change, and learn to be at peace with where I am, knowing there’s a lesson for me there – whether I see it yet or not.

When I was studying psychology, I learned the term “locus of control”. Those of us with an internal locus of control feel more personal responsibility for our attitudes, actions, and outcomes. We know that as adults, we have to be accountable for ourselves and our behavior. Those with an external locus of control attribute the outcomes of their circumstances to others and environmental factors. They usually believe they personally have few, if any choices, which can lead them to the *victim* trap easier than someone who lives with a more internal perspective. (That’s not to say those with an internal LOC don’t get caught in that web occasionally. None of us are totally independent of outside influences).

Years ago, it became apparent to me that, even though there are a variety of issues clients present, much of the time it comes down to one. People tend to live their lives for others. To please parents, bosses or spouses (which usually starts as pleasing parents & is just transferred to whoever is wielding power in their lives currently). This stems from that external locus of control; the belief that something or someone outside of ourselves is in control, encouraging the victim mindset. For some, the scary part is that it can continue to the point where a person takes little to no responsibility for anything that happens in their life, and in order to feel a little better about themselves, they are pulled into the blame game.

We are all victimized at some points in our lives. But whether we remain a victim, is up to each of us.

There are various ways to be a victim: operating from being stuck in the past, being stuck in family or institutional values without questioning whether they fit us; being intimidated or bullied by others or even by organizations. These things stem from a concept of NEEDING to be a part of a tribe.

If you’ve followed my blog for any time, you’ve probably seen me say that being vulnerable is a human condition and not weakness. Just as we’re all victimized at times, we’re also all vulnerable at times. We become weak when we continue doing and saying what others expect of us, or doing what makes others feel good, but it’s not really what we want for ourselves. Strength is operating from integrity and truth (our own truth).

Many of us are stuck in values that have been forced on us by family or other institutions (the workplace, the medical system, the educational system, bureaucracies such as government organizations, religions, etc). This is one reason teenagers and young adults feel a lot of frustration when they are trying to develop their own set of values by which to live (Gospel According to Patti). They may feel constrained by the rules their parents, religion or social tribe has advocated, but they are still very connected to the safety of these affiliations, so it often becomes a difficult transition. We can even be victims of our own thoughts. We are the product of the choices we make in our lives. When we’re stuck, we ask “Why me?” instead of “What’s the lesson for me here?”

Some don’t make the choice to avoid remaining the victim. They allow themselves to be manipulated by others, family, bosses, friends . . . Being a victim can become a habit. As I said, sometimes it develops from a belief that we have to fit in. Some don’t even recognize there might be a different choice. This is often when depression, anxiety and other issues arise. What I want those people to understand is that they do have choices, and one of those is to choose to teach others how to interact with them by the behavior and attitudes they accept – or decline to participate in.

We came to this life on purpose. Living an empowered, healthy emotional life is in an important part of life on earth. Allowing the victim role to take us over can undermine our strength and our ability to live out that purpose.

We each have to take responsibility for every situation in which we find ourselves. Even when others put us into these situations, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we often are responsible for being in a place (physically or emotionally) where we are at risk of being taken advantage of at that moment. Therein lies one of the lessons.

Sometimes there aren’t a lot of choices. As I write this I’m acutely aware of the MeToo movement and the struggles women and men have had for centuries at the hand of those who have wielded more power. There are times we are victimized that could not have been avoided. Please do not misinterpret this blog to mean that others who sometimes harm us are not responsible for their actions. We can’t take responsibility for what they do to us. However, there is always at least one option, other than remaining the victim. That is to eventually be able to look at it differently; to accept the situation for what it is. This may take a lot of time and effort, because we have to work through the emotional effects on us before we can be more rational about the situation. But (once we have done what we can) we can then allow things to play out as they will. As humans, most of us can’t see into the future. But if we approach what seems like an unbearable circumstance from a place of acceptance and love, things often fall into place in a much smoother, more positive way.

We didn’t come to this life to live it for anyone else. We came to learn our own lessons, through our own choices and our own consequences. How will we ever learn anything if we stay tucked away from the lessons?

Expand Your Perspective

When was the last time a stereotype popped into your head? If you’re like me, it happens all the time. That doesn’t make us racist, sexist or whatever-ist. It just means that our brain is working the way it’s supposed to in order to make sense of the world around us. We have to put things and people into categories – notice patterns and make generalizations to be able to function. But the same thought processes can also make us biased.

This tendency to stereotype that passes spontaneously through our minds is called implicit bias. It sets us up to overgeneralize, and sometimes that leads to discrimination even when we feel we’re being fair.

For instance, there have been studies showing we all have perceptional illusions – such as white subjects in a study perceiving black faces as angrier than white faces with the same expression; or college professors being 26% more likely to respond to a student’s email when it is signed by Brad rather than Lamar.

But we don’t like to think of ourselves as having this “implicit bias” because it sounds like we are purposely trying to favor one person or group over another. It isn’t nice to think of ourselves as not nice.

So what can we do to avoid exhibiting bias towards others? First and foremost, just being conscious that we have that tendency, regardless of who we are can help us respond with compassionate intention, rather than just reacting impulsively when triggered.

Something else that helps tremendously is to just get out of our own heads as often as possible, and to keep our focus on the people and world around us – noticing (with curiosity, not judgment) what might be going on in their lives to trigger their behaviors. When we focus on only ourselves – or others like us, we severely limit our options of how we view the world.  When our thoughts are centered only on us, those thoughts cut us off from a whole world of possibilities.

It’s all too easy to become frustrated, disillusioned, angry and bitter when our own perspectives are the only ones we consider.  Our own narrow concerns can seem painfully overwhelming if we give all our attention and energy to them, and we can even become a little paranoid, believing others are getting more than we are; or that we don’t matter as much as other people or groups.

If we allow ourselves to stay with this perception of society, we eventually may even act out to prove in some way that we are also worthwhile – or to knock the *others* down a peg. The way out of this mindset is to expand our perspective beyond ourselves.  If we genuinely take other people into consideration our positive possibilities multiply dramatically.

If we pay attention to the concerns of others, we’ll gain valuable insights that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us. When the concerns of our own egos fall away, an enormous amount of energy is set free.  When we are no longer restricted to our own narrow perspective, a whole new set of magnificent opportunities will open up to us.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

I have no idea where I heard this story, but it’s about a family (a father and several small children) that boarded a city bus. All the passengers on the bus prior to their boarding had been adults, who were enjoying their rides to their destinations – in quiet conversation, reading, listening to music or just looking out the window.

But when the family found their seats, the father just sat, staring into space as his children began running all over the bus, playing games, screaming at each other as they played, and generally annoying all the other passengers.

The passengers looked at each other in disgust, as this father did nothing to reign in his children. Eventually, one man had all he could take, tapped the father on the shoulder and said, “Hey man! Your kids are causing a lot of chaos here and disturbing all the rest of us on this bus! Can’t you do something about them?”

To which the father replied, “Oh, I’m sorry. We just came from the hospital. Their mother just died. I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

Instantly, the attitude of each passenger on the bus changed to one of compassion. One by one, they started engaging the children in conversation or finding quiet things for them to focus on for the remainder of their ride. A couple of them sat with the father and just listened to him. They had expanded their perspective beyond themselves.

When we can see things from another’s perspective instead of just how we are affected, we can genuinely take them into consideration, and we’ll gain valuable insight that will change what we see in the world – and how we interact with it.

 

 

 

What Do You Value?

The process of examining values often pops up in sessions with my clients. Many clients are stumped by the question, “what are your values?”

I don’t see how anyone can work through issues without knowing what is really important to them – and looking a little deeper into how and why they’ve embraced those things that can give our lives meaning.

I’ve developed a fairly simple process that can help. All you have to do is answer a few questions.

What are my values?
Am I putting my energy towards the things I listed above?
Where did my values originate?
Do they still fit for me?
If there are some that no longer fit, what else might be more appropriate for the life I want for myself moving forward?

Let’s look at each of these steps a little more in depth.

  1.  What are my values? To determine what your values are, just ask yourself, “What is important to me?” Some examples might be family, spirituality, religion (yes, they are different), friendships, alone time, financial security, honesty, trust . . . You get the picture.
  2. Am I putting my energy into what I say is important? I suggest writing every value down, then look at each one and ask yourself “Is this where I spend my time and energy?” For example, if you say family is your number one value, do you really put them above all else? Or do you spend more hours at work, going out with friends, looking at social media or watching sports or Netflix than you do enjoying your family? If you say honesty is extremely important to you, are YOU always completely honest, or do you just expect others to be honest with you? It’s important that you not expect something from others that you wouldn’t also apply to yourself. (This is especially true for parents and their children).
  3. Where did my values originate? Many of our values originate outside ourselves; from parents, religion, society, friends (ie, what everybody expects of me). Upon examination, some of those might still fit for you, but some may not have been your choice in the first place. In this step, I want people to really look at whether they have just taken on values they were told were important, and are living their lives to please others. If so, sometimes those values are no longer appropriate for them personally. I can’t count the number of times a client has come to therapy because they feel they’ve disappointed a parent or someone important in their lives. (It’s my belief that my job as a parent was NOT to just expect my children to take on the values I’ve embraced. Their path in life is very different from mine. I’ve tried to expose them to various perspectives on things so they can eventually choose for themselves what works for them).
  4. Do they still fit for me? This step is kind of like cleaning out an old closet that you’ve ignored for years. Some of the pieces of clothing might be too small now or have holes in them. Some might never have fit, and you just shoved them in that closet and forgot about them because you didn’t want to confront what they might mean. This is your opportunity to really examine each piece and determine if you want to hang onto it, or if it’s time for the dumpster. For some items, it might be that you’re not sure yet, so it’s OK to hang onto them, but set an intention to continue to evaluate how/if they benefit or handicap your life in some way.
  5. What might be more appropriate for me now? Now that you’ve examined all the values you’ve lived by (or ignored) for years, maybe there are some cavities left in your value structure. You may decide that ridding yourself of some of your old values helps you feel lighter, and you don’t need anything in their place for now. Sometimes we load ourselves up with rules that actually restrict our energy. But for others, now is the time for exploration. If you found several areas that don’t fit anymore, maybe you need to start looking elsewhere. Study different philosophies about that part of your life; talk to or observe people who have different views or who have led very different lifestyles than yours in order to see whether another value might fit for you. But do this as research – with curiosity. Do not simply take on another value just because someone else you know believes in that. That would defeat our purpose here.

This can be scary, but it can also be a very exciting time. It’s important that whatever you choose will become a foundation for your life. It has to fit into YOUR life; don’t try to squeeze into something just because you think it’s the thing to do. We all get to choose who we become, but most of us just put blinders on and go down the path of least resistance. It feels safer somehow. It’s not. Life is not supposed to be safe. It’s supposed to teach us lessons.

I examine my values occasionally, and I encourage my clients to do the same. It helps solidify our sense of self. When we know what we stand for, we begin to love ourselves more because there’s more of a purpose behind every choice we make. And we are being true to ourselves, not dependent on pleasing or fearing disappointment of anyone else. Therein lies true peace.

A ship in a safe harbor is safe, but that is not what a ship is built for.

-William Shedd

This is Why We Practice

I feel very strongly about practicing what I preach.  When I was running addictions programs, I worked the 12 step program with a sponsor, just as I expected my clients to do.  Now, when I encourage meditation, good nutrition and exercise, I make sure I do the same.

None of us are perfect.  We all have the tendency to slack off when things are going well, myself included.  But when things get stressful, we need to have the skills and strength to withstand the storms that come at us. If we’ve been neglecting the habit of using those skills that we know keep us healthy and strong just because we haven’t needed them, they tend to get rusty.

That’s where discipline comes in.  We all know that physically, if we work out on a regular basis, our muscles don’t feel as sore, and we feel healthier and better about ourselves.  So it is with emotional and spiritual health.  If we know meditation or prayer works to help us feel better about ourselves, feel more peaceful and to deal with the world around us, then we need to build that muscle by doing it consistently.  If we continually strive to express how we feel (taking personal responsibility for it – not accusing others of making us feel it), we might begin to see that the emotion stems from the way we perceive the situation. Hence, if we are open to checking our perspective, we should be more able to regulate and tolerate emotions in a healthier way.  In this way, we can work on not letting the emotions control us, but recognizing them as a response to the choice we made in how we looked at the original event.   Then we’ll have stronger communication skills when that important conversation with our boss, child or partner needs to take place because we’ll be more open to seeing their perspective as well.  The more we do these things consistently, the stronger we’ll feel when we need it.

In the last couple of years, the atmosphere in our world has become very heavy with fear, division and hatred being thrown around like it was a volley ball – or maybe more appropriately, a heavy medicine ball. This weighs on all of us, regardless of how involved we are or how closely we pay attention to the news. There are days when I have to stop between sessions to breathe, relax and clear my own body and mind because so many of my clients appear to be in crisis mode. It takes a lot out of them and, because compassion and empathy are two of the major tools in my tool belt, it takes a lot out of me. I’m grateful that, over the years, I have developed the ability to be compassionate, while also maintaining a sense of objectivity that allows me to not get too sucked into the energy of my client’s heavy emotions. I can’t be helpful to her/him if I’m not taking care of myself.

A few years ago, a friend shared this article with me and I love it because It says what I’ve just tried to relay in a much more eloquent way:

You will be called on to expand. And this is why we practice.

I traveled to Dharamshala, India with six friends to meet with The Dalai Lama. It was cell-altering and heart-expanding. (The story is here.)

The week before our arrival, there had been a horrible event in which some monks were murdered — most shockingly, by other monks. The story was on everyone’s mind and in our small, private meeting with His Holiness, the first thing we did was offer our condolences. His response captivated me.

“Ah, yes, thank you for your thoughts,” he said. “This is why we practice, for times like these when compassion is so necessary.” He didn’t nod in mutual disdain. He didn’t show any drama. He was soft and … practical.

This is why we practice.

For times like these.

You don’t need to forgive until you need to forgive. You don’t need nerves of steel until you need nerves of steel. You don’t need to call on your reserves of compassion, or fortitude, or faith until you’ve used up everything else.

This is why we practice.

This is why, that even when life is ambling along nicely and there’s food in our spiritual cupboard, we still make sure that we get to yoga, or the reading group, or Sunday services.

When we’re healthy and happy we make sure to dance, we hit the court, we pick up the phone to check in, we drop by with something in hand.

When we’re believing in the fairness and the glory of human nature and the so-called Fates, we keep seeking, and meditating on reality, and praying for healing though nothing obvious ails us.

We keep standing up to make our art even when we could be predictable pedestrians.

Because the day will most certainly come, as it does whether you are a whole-hearted Lover or in denial of Grace, that you will be struck down or ground down by life. It can come in tiny tearing heartbreaks five times a day, just walking through your neighborhood. It could come in the name of tragedy that could only happen once in a lifetime.

And you will need to withdraw the insights that you put into your heart’s escrow. And you will need to call on your people — the unseen and the ones right in front of you – to help you meet the day.

You will be interrupted. You will be called on to expand. You will be asked who you are and why you are here.

This is why we practice.

-Danielle LaPorte