Monthly Archives: July 2017

What I Learned from my Dad

This week was my Dad’s birthday.  He would have been 99 on July 28. I hope you’ll humor me while I take a moment to remember him.  My dad was Harold Koestel. He transitioned in 2003, but I continue to feel his presence in my life daily.

As adults, especially parents, we sometimes forget how much just living our lives influences our children.  I often tell clients they have to be what they want their children to be, because they are watching every move!

My dad was a shy, gentle man who grew up speaking German in his home.  When he went to school he had to speak only English.  He had difficulty pronouncing some words (even as an adult), and he took this as an indication that he was not intelligent. This was by no means true.  My dad was also a hard-working, successful farmer.  He had a rough life in a lot of ways, and he didn’t always think enough of himself, but he taught me so much.

I learned to be giving. My mom was a teacher, so when I was home sick, even though he probably didn’t have the time, he would come in and fix my lunch – milk toast, just like I liked it. He was kind and gentle, and he never complained.

I learned to be compassionate. When I was a teen I drove my car into the ditch. Dad hopped on the tractor and pulled it out, saying, “No problem. Everybody makes a mistake now and then.” And I saw him nurture, love and care for his parents, mother-in-law and my mom until they each went on before him. I also saw him do for and give to other farmers and families in our neighborhood when they were down on their luck.

I learned determination from him. You decide what you want and then you do whatever it takes to get it. If you REALLY want it, you look at what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do. (And there had better not be anything on the “not willing” side).

I learned how strong the love of a parent can be.  After my brother and sister went to college, I was the lone helper for fall harvest.  When my truck caught on fire in the field, I was paralyzed with fear.  My dad jumped off the combine and ran across the field to pull me out of the truck to safety.  Although it wasn’t as dramatic as it might sound here,  I could tell he was scared too, but I also knew he would have risked his own life to get me out.

I learned to look for the funny side of life. He couldn’t wait to tell a dirty joke – and then he would giggle so hard he almost cried. He laughed so much that he had a hard time finishing the joke! He always looked at the humorous side of things. (My kids have never let me hear the end of it when I get so tickled I start to cry).

I learned how important it is to choose a profession for which I have a passion.  As I look back, Dad was very passionate about his way of life.  He had a deep respect for animals and for working with the earth.  He loved being out in the elements, regardless of the weather.  He worked hard, but it was a labor of love.  I feel the same about my work.  I have to watch myself to avoid compassion fatigue and to keep balance in my life.  There is always something else to learn that might help someone.  It never feels like work.

Dad didn’t go to church often, but he was still one of the kindest, most spiritual people I ever met.  I think he felt closer to his God when he was communing with nature.  While this was never a topic of conversation between us,  I have always felt very connected spiritually, and this bonded us without the need to express it verbally.  In fact, knowing what I know now about the Universe, I believe he was very uncomfortable as a human. I have been told by those whose sensitivity is more developed than mine that he exudes a very gentle, loving  spiritual energy  even now.

My dad wasn’t perfect.  He was a simple man – he didn’t like a lot of fuss. He didn’t join a lot of organizations or have public accomplishments that can be listed,  but he made the world a little better one kind deed at a time.  If I can have half the integrity I saw in him, I’ll be doing good!

Boundaries and Compassion

Learning about compassion for self and others, and setting boundaries are two issues that often come up in my sessions. Boundaries are of utmost importance in taking care of ourselves, and is one of the first tools we must practice when learning self-compassion.  But have you ever thought about how setting boundaries with others can also lead to more compassion towards them?

Nobody is born with boundaries.  We are taught about boundaries by our parents.  Some of us have no sense of boundary; others have built walls instead of boundaries. Still others have boundaries with holes in them.

Few people are fortunate enough to grow into adulthood knowing who they are, and what their rights are and aren’t. They don’t trespass other people’s territory and they don’t allow others to invade theirs. They have healthy boundaries and a solid sense of self.

Unfortunately, more of us emerge into adulthood with damaged, scarred or nonexistent boundaries.  Or we may have constructed such a thick shell around us so people can’t get close.

Many events contribute to this.  It happens when healthy boundaries aren’t role modeled or taught to children, when children’s boundaries and rights are invaded or violated, and when children are forced into inappropriate roles with those around them.

Abuse, humiliation and shame damage boundaries. They leave gaping holes where the violation occurred.  If we were emotionally, physically or sexually abused as children, we may grow up without healthy borders around that part of our territory.  As adults, we’ll be vulnerable to invasion in that area until we repair and strengthen that part of our border.

Inappropriate generational roles among family members, and inappropriate roles between our family and other families can damage boundary formation also.  We may not have learned to identify or respect other people’s territory or our own. Our original boundaries with our primary caregiver determines how we bound with others.  Our boundaries determine how we fit or bond with those around us.

Without boundaries, relationships will cause us fear. We feel vulnerable to losing all we have, including ourselves.

With boundaries that are too rigid, we will probably have very few relationships. We won’t dare get too close, because we don’t trust.  We may fear people will leave us.

The goal, as we get healthier, is to develop healthy boundaries, not too pliable or too rigid. And we need to patch any holes in our borders.  Developing healthy boundaries is our responsibility. We cannot afford to put the responsibility for taking care of ourselves, or looking out for our best interest, in anyone’s hands but our own.

As we develop healthy boundaries, we develop an appropriate sense of roles among family members, others, and ourselves. We learn to respect others and ourselves. We don’t use or abuse others or allow them to use or abuse us. We stop abusing ourselves. We don’t control others or let them control us. We stop taking responsibility for other people and stop letting them take responsibility for us. We take responsibility for ourselves. If we’re rigid, we loosen up a bit. We develop a clear sense of our self and our rights. We learn to have a complete self. We learn to respect others as well as ourselves. We do that by learning to listen to and trust ourselves.

So when most of us think about setting boundaries, we see it as a way to protect ourselves. They are how we draw the line in the sand and communicate that “this is my sacred space, and you can’t cross this line”. It is extremely important for each of us to become the whole, healthy person we want to be. But I repeat: We learn to respect other’s as well as ourselves.

In a new program by Brene Brown she talks about boundaries. She repeats a concept I have tried to practice for years: If we can believe everyone does the absolute best they can at any given moment, we can feel more compassionate and less judgmental.

It requires boundaries and integrity to be generous. Brene shares how surprised she was when she realized that the most compassionate people she interviewed in her research were people who set the best boundaries.

It’s impossible to extend generosity to someone who is taking advantage of us, being disrespectful, hurting us, not hearing us. We can only be generous to those people with whom we have set boundaries, and from whom we demand boundaries.

The only way we can extend true compassion to other people is from a place where we are clear on our own boundaries. We respect them, we are clear on their boundaries; we are standing solidly in our own integrity. And from this place of integrity, we can be generous in how we view them.

In my own experience, when I have allowed others to dictate my boundaries, I have become resentful of them and disappointed in myself. There have been times I have allowed someone to guilt me into doing something they wanted, and I ended up doing it (not out of generosity or choice), but because I felt forced.

Most of us were raised to be giving and easy to get along with, but that does not mean we need to let others walk all over us. Always saying yes is the easy way out – until it’s not.

When we impulsively say yes, it’s usually about thinking we have to please everyone or need everyone’s approval; or we want to fit in.  But what it really amounts to is that when we don’t set healthy boundaries with another person, they end up with all the power.  When we learn to set boundaries, we begin to take our power back (personal power/not power over any other person). Consequently, we have the choice of how to use that power.  We might feel more free to be compassionate, which will give us much more of a sense of connection with that person than we would have had otherwise.

It’s uncomfortable in the moment, but if we can project ourselves to the consequences of saying yes to something we really don’t want to do, we’ll get past the discomfort. (Brene calls this “embracing the suck”).

It’s hard to say no – especially to those with whom we have a difficult or guilt-laden relationship. I’ve learned I don’t have to give an answer immediately. What works for me is to slow things down; visualize myself having done whatever I agreed to, and then allow myself to feel how I will feel, (knowing I’ll be disappointed in myself or upset that I gave up time or energy for something I really didn’t want to do). I practiced saying, “Can I call you back? And the minute I hang up the phone, I realized, “Hell no, I can’t do that!” But in that moment before, when I was on the phone or in the presence of that person, I felt compelled to do whatever they asked.

And once I learned to say, “No, I can’t do that,” I realized that I was much more generous with my time and energy with that person the next time we were together. I didn’t feel forced to do anything. I felt genuine care and respect for them.

So setting boundaries can not only be self-protection.  It’s a wonderful tool that helps us be more compassionate with others, as well.

Practicing Self-Compassion

Self-criticism. Why do so many of us beat ourselves up over the smallest things? We would never talk that way to someone else we cared about.

One reason is that we each have a critical parent inside our head that judges us and tells us we are wrong.  It may have come from something our own parents actually said or did or it may just be from the social memes that we have incorporated into our belief system without actually considering whether they are true for our lives.  While we do have to follow laws (if we want to stay out of the prison system)  we don’t don’t have to comply with society’s (or someone else’s) rules about who we are at the core.

Many believe that self-criticism will prevent them from making stupid mistakes – or that it’s the best defense against criticism from others.  If I make it known that I realize I’m stupid/ugly/incompetent, etc, then they have nothing to attack.  And they might even throw some compassion my way.

The driving force of self-criticism is fear.  In my belief system, it’s the ego (the human side of us) that tells us we aren’t enough; that we’ll never measure up to others’ or our own expectations. Self-criticism and procrastination go hand-in-hand.  If I don’t put the effort into something early enough, long enough or hard enough, then I have an excuse for not succeeding. Then I beat myself up that much more.  I’ve had so many clients worry that they will be lazy if they aren’t hard on themselves.  Research shows this is not true.

Sometimes  we also put someone else down to make ourselves feel better.  According to Kristin Neff (researcher and author of SELF-COMPASSION), this is like eating a bag full of candy.  We’ll get a brief sugar high and feel great – and then we’ll crash.

Our emotions are real, but they are not necessarily our reality.  They’re real in the sense that they need to be observed, felt and honored.  But they are not  to be believed without question.  For example, many of us experience fear pretty consistently.  But that doesn’t mean that fear is real.  It’s often based on past experiences in similar situations or with people who trigger some old memories.  But it may not be the truth in the moment.

So if being self-critical doesn’t help, what does?   Aside from the ego telling us how awful we are, we also all have an inner soother that’s available to us. I believe that’s the connection we each have with our spiritual side.  The inner soother can help us change the words we use so we feel better about ourselves.  It’s called self-compassion.

People who practice self-compassion are better able to manage their emotions.  Painful feelings are temporary, unless we prolong them through resistance or rumination.  The only way to free ourselves of debilitating pain is to feel it.  There are no detours; we have to go through it.  However, if the driving force of self-criticism is fear, the driving force of self-compassion is love.   (Self-compassion doesn’t erase negative feelings, it embraces them with care and kindness).

One technique is to use the 3 doorways of KINDNESS, COMMON HUMANITY and MINDFULNESS.

KINDNESS: Silently say kind, nurturing words of support to yourself (the way you would to a close friend).  You might even give yourself a hug (if no one’s looking)  🙂

COMMON HUMANITY: Think of ways your situation connects you to others with similar problems.  I can PROMISE you are not the only one going through this.  You are not alone.

MINDFULNESS:  Try taking a few deep breaths to pull yourself back to the awareness of THIS moment, accepting that the situation is happening, whether you like it or not.  You can’t change it – might as well allow it to be what it is. Only then can you start dealing with it!

Now ask yourself what life might be teaching you.  There’s an opportunity somewhere in there.  To open your heart or your mind? To be more compassionate with others? Maybe this is a blessing, rather than a curse!

We often can’t see the lessons until afterward, but if we give ourselves a few moments, we can usually think back to other painful situations that taught us some of our more valuable lessons.  By pulling ourselves out of the thoughts and looking into the situation more objectively – with curiosity – we can distance ourselves from the current situation.

Remember, pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.

Caring for Yourself

While self-care is one of the most important parts of living a healthy life, it usually takes a back seat to almost everything else in our lives.  With current events, many of us are consumed with keeping up with the state of things and burning the candle at both ends to make our wishes known to representatives, while keeping up with family, friends and work responsibilities.

The following reading says it all. It was written for significant, partner relationships. But it fits all relationships. I think mothers, or care-givers especially will see themselves here. Although I like to give credit, I have no idea where I came across this – I believe it comes from a meditation book. I hope it’s helpful for you. At the end (**), I have listed some questions I ask myself on a regular basis. I’d encourage you to do the same.

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It’s a betrayal of a relationship to sacrifice self-care.

It is truly loving to take care of ourselves. If we regularly feel too tired, too busy, too preoccupied, or too ill to enjoy the rewards of friendship and emotional contact with our partner, then we are dropping our part of the bargain.

We have an obligation to notice our own needs, to look after ourselves like a treasured friend, and to make room for our needs with others. That does not mean “me first,” but it means there is room for everyone. If we constantly defer to others’ needs, we may be present only in body, not in spirit. True intimacy cannot occur when one person is an empty shell. When we speak up to each other, our needs will naturally conflict at times. That is a sign of vitality, so we search for solutions that make room for both persons’ needs. A basic rule for intimate relationships: We will pay each other the honor of saying what we want and need, and then talk about it to make room for our differences.

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** Spend a few minutes to think of a personal need and how you are taking care of it.

How are you communicating it to others? Or ARE you communicating it to others?

Are you accepting of yourself, even though you have this need?

Are you allowing yourself time during each day to nurture yourself in this area?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” or “I don’t know,” then you’ve found an area that needs work – not only for your life, but for the health of your relationships!

Seeds of Thought

It’s difficult these days to maintain a positive attitude.  Not that it’s ever been easy, but there are a lot of issues that present concerns that COULD develop into very real problems for many of us.  Real fear and anxiety are closely related, but still very different from each other.  Fear often presents itself when we are confronted with a real situation that threatens our (or someone else’s) well-being.

Anxiety or panic present when the THOUGHT of a possible situation creeps into our psyche. (Sometimes this is after something “bad” has already happened, so we try to prepare ourselves for the same possibility or worse; or sometimes we’ve just been trained to be anxious by adults in our lives). The possible situation is one we don’t want to have to face, or in some way, if this thing happens, there would be loss, or we won’t be in control.  It could leave us vulnerable.

These thoughts tend to plant a seed – they take up space and sometimes even set up house in our heads. And they grow!  Eventually, they take on a life of their own, and we begin to feel powerless over the anxiety or panic. They might start as rational concerns, but it doesn’t take long for them to become irrational and blown way out of proportion.

This is actually connected to the Law of Attraction. My understanding is that the Universe is just waiting to give us back what we put out – and it multiplies.  Often people get confused about the Law of Attraction and think if we just focus on what we want, it should come.  The problem with this perspective is often the way we think of what we want. The Law of Attraction is not about sending out what we want, as much as it is the energy of what we’re feeling that is put out into the world.

For instance, if I think, “I really don’t like this fat that has accumulated on my body, so I want to be thinner.” I’m coming from a place of lack or deficit with my negative thoughts about the fat.  Negative energy is much heavier and stickier than positive energy. So the Universe reacts to those negative thoughts with “Fat! You want fat? OK you get more of that!” It’s cumbersome and it drags us down emotionally.

So we need to focus on finding ways to keep our emotional energy at a place where we feel an abundance. The point is not to do it with the conscious intention to receive.  We just learn that we feel better (and lighter) when we stay in a more loving/giving energy.

We can’t always keep negative energy at bay, but there are ways that we can manage feelings like anger, sadness and anxiety. One way is through thought restructuring – by questioning if that angry thought we just had about someone else is really true; or if maybe there’s another way to look at why the other person said or did what they did.  If we can insert a more positive or compassionate possible motive and at least give them the benefit of doubt, it can lessen our anger or upset.

Another way is to stop ourselves from being so future oriented (I know, easier said than done), and bringing ourselves back to NOW. It takes constant consciousness about the thoughts we’re choosing, and learning to find ways to trigger ourselves to stop the thought. Once we are able to do that, we can ask, “what can I do now?” rather than catastrophizing about how awful it’s going to be (when we really have no way of knowing for sure if it WILL be awful). The opposite is also helpful.  For instance, rather than “shoulding all over ourselves” for something that happened in the past, we can be a little more gentle – thinking something more compassionate – like what we might say to our best friend if he or she did the same thing.

Stopping occasionally for deep breathing and meditation are also ways to get ourselves to calm down and flow into a little more positive direction.

This all may seem overwhelming right now, but if we really do stay in the moment and stay consistently as aware as possible, it isn’t as difficult as it might sound to change our process of thinking.

I don’t know the author of the reading below, but it helps me remember that, if I can change my thoughts, I can change my life:

Thoughts of anger attract more anger. Thoughts of goodness attract more goodness.

Thoughts of accomplishment enable you to see that accomplishment in every detail. And whatever you can see, you can find a way to be.

Thoughts of peace truly make you more peaceful. And that can lead those around you to carry peaceful thoughts as well.

Thoughts begin on the inside and quickly flow outward. The thoughts you hold in this moment will soon spread far beyond you.

The thoughts you send forth will eventually find their way back to you, yet by that time they will be much more than just thoughts. Those thoughts will return as circumstances, objects, challenges, opportunities and achievements.

Your thoughts attract more of whatever you think, because life has a dependable way of multiplying and manifesting them. So choose to always hold the most positive, enriching thoughts, and from those seeds a beautiful garden will grow.

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.

-Robert Louis Stephenson