Making Every Day Thanksgiving Day

“Gratitude is an opener of locked-up blessings.” – Marianne Williamson

I just love Thanksgiving.  It is a holiday focused on gratitude.  It is a day to appreciate the blessings in life and take notice of the abundance that surrounds us.  There is so much that we take for granted.  What would life be like if we lived everyday as a ‘Thanksgiving Day?’  I once heard Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, discuss the importance of gratitude.  He said to imagine the worst toothache pain you ever had.  Feel how uncomfortable it was and remember the intensity of the pain.  Now give thanks, there is no toothache today.  How easily we forget to be grateful for not having toothache pain once it is gone.  There is so much wisdom in his words.

In day to day life we get caught up in the drama, the rushing around, the responsibilities and the busyness that it is easy to forget to be grateful.  We forget that in this moment, we do have enough.  We are alive, so there is enough air to breath, food to digest and energy in our bodies.  Are we grateful for the bed that we slept in, the heat in the house or the food in the refrigerator?  Most of these things we take for granted until they aren’t there.  We take for granted that the lights will turn on when we flick the switch, but it is only when there is a power outage that we remember how grateful we are for the convenience of electricity.

Is it only when we are faced with an illness that we are grateful for our bodies?  When was the last time you were grateful to your heart for beating or your red blood cells for carrying oxygen?  What an amazing miracle our bodies are!  Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  When we look at the world as though everything is a miracle, there is gratitude in everything.  Thanksgiving does not need to be a once a year holiday.  It can be lived daily.  Thich Nhat Hanh sums up beautifully what living in gratitude can be, “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Getting Back on the Road of Life

“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” –Roy E. Disney

There are times in our lives when things seem to be going smooth and the journey is uneventful.  Other times the ride is rough.  What is the difference between these times?  While we can’t control much of what happens in life, we can choose how we respond to life events.  We can choose to either be in alignment with our core values and who we say we are, or we can be out of alignment.  If we say that we are compassionate and caring, yet yell and curse at the person who cut us off in traffic, we are not in alignment with our values.  I think of our values as the lines on the road of life.  If we stay within the lines, for the most part the ride is smooth.  If we start to drift off, it gets pretty bumpy.  If we continue to ignore the bumps, it isn’t long before we start crashing into things.  The longer we live out of our values, the rougher the ride is.

In order for us to be able to detect when we are off the road of life, we first need to get clear on where the road is.  This comes from identifying our core values.  What are the values that are most important to me?  I give many of my clients a homework assignment to come up with a list of at least ten core values that they hold.  We then go through the list, one by one, and rate them on a scale from 1-10 to indicate how often they live the values they say they hold.  It is interesting to begin to self-reflect and recognize how often we are off the road of our values and how difficult it is sometimes to stay on the road.  We all have an internal guidance system which warns us when we are beginning to drift off the road.  There is a feeling of being off or what I like to call the ‘yuck feeling’ when we are drifting.  It is easy for our minds to ignore that feeling and continue on.  Our minds are great at justifying why it is better to tell a little lie then to follow our value of honesty, but that is when we are drifting off the road.  Becoming aware of our values and then listening for that internal guidance system to warn us that we are drifting, can get us back on the road of life.  How would living in your values and staying on the road of life change you?

The Shame that is Hidden in Our Words

“The blow of a whip raises a welt, but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.  Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as have fallen because of the tongue.” –Ben Sira 28:17-18

The past couple of posts have discussed the work of Brené Brown and the research she has done on shame.  This week, we explore how shame manifests in the way we talk to others.  As I read Brené’s work, one of the things that struck me was how powerful our words are.  When we ourselves are not feeling good and are in a place of shame, an often automatic response is to shame others.  Shame is a tool to control others and is often used as a form of discipline.  Although we no longer use the ‘dunce hat’ on the child sitting in the corner as a form of punishment, many of the techniques and ways we discipline are equally as shaming.

This post is difficult for me to write, because as I start looking back at things that I said and did as both a parent and teacher, I now realize how much shaming I did, often in the name of discipline.  It is not easy for me to look back and recognize how hurtful some of the comments that I made must have been.  I remember saying things like, ‘How old are you?’ and ‘Look at how nice everyone else is sitting.’  While at the time I was attempting to get my students to behave, I now understand the magnitude of the shaming words I spoke.  When my son picked out an outfit that didn’t match and I argued with him to change into something more ‘appropriate,’ there was shame in implying that his choice of outfit was not good enough.  Over and over I can recall times when I shamed.

Increasing my awareness of the power of shame has affected the way I talk to others.  I am now much more aware of whether my words are building someone up or shaming them.  It is not easy though.  I still find myself shaming without thinking about it until later.  Being critical, judging or laughing at someone are all ways that we shame without realizing it.  They are easy traps to fall into.  Shame is a message that there is something wrong with me and I’m not lovable.  It isn’t hard for someone to get the message of shame just from the tone of my voice, the way I look at them or my body language.   We don’t even need words to shame!  Becoming aware in the moment of the interaction takes practice.  It is frightening to think about how many times I use shame without my conscious awareness of it.   What would change if we all thought about the destructive force of shame and increased our awareness of it before speaking?  Are you ready to communicate without shame?

How Do We Protect Ourselves When in Shame?

“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” –Brené Brown

In the previous post I introduced the work of Brené Brown and the distinction she makes between shame and guilt.  She identifies shame as a fundamental feeling of unworthiness or brokenness.  It is something that is wrong with us.  Guilt is recognizing that a behavior is not in alignment with our values or who we say we are.  Guilt is focused on what was done and is therefore is something that we can change.  There is an important distinction between shame and guilt in how we see ourselves and interact with the world.

Dr. Linda Hartling’s research identified three strategies of disconnection, which Brené has termed our ‘Shame Shields.’ They are Moving Away, Moving Towards, and Moving Against.

  • Moving Away is withdrawing. It is playing small and making ourselves invisible.  When someone uses the Moving Away shame shield they tend to avoid conflict and disappear whenever they feel uncomfortable.  They isolate or make themselves scarce when there is an uncomfortable situation.
  • Moving Towards is the shield of making everything perfect and pleasing others. When there is a conflict, people who use this shield will work diligently to make sure everyone else is happy, often at their own expense.
  • Moving Against is deflecting and fighting back. This person uses anger and aggression to protect themselves.  They will shame the other person in order to take the pressure off their own feelings of discomfort.

While we all use these three shields from time to time, we usually have our go-to shield.  This is the shield that immediately comes out whenever we feel threatened or vulnerable. The problem is that, as we use our shield it often begins to crack.  Our tendency is to put a larger shield up, so no one sees the crack.  Eventually these shields become so heavy that the weight is unbearable.  By recognizing our own shield, we are able to become more aware of how we are responding to situations.  That awareness is our power to make a different decision.  It takes courage to identify our shields and begin to respond differently.  It is often easier to see others’ shields then it is for us to examine our own.  That is normal, but it also falls under the shield of deflection.  While it is helpful to understand the shields others are using, it is our awareness of our own shame shields that creates the change within us.  How different would your life be without your shame shield?

The Difference Between Shame and Guilt

“Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.” –Brené Brown

Shame is a topic most people avoid.  It is uncomfortable and dark.  The truth is, we all have shame.  It is a universal emotion and research has shown that the only people who don’t feel shame are those that are pathologically unable to feel empathy.  So, if you can empathize you have shame.  While most people use the terms shame and guilt interchangeably, Brené Brown has helped me to understand that there is a significant difference between them.  This understanding has changed the way I look at situations and has made me aware my own self-talk.

Brené makes the distinction between the two in this way; shame is a label of who we are and guilt is a behavior or something that was done.  Shame is a fundamental belief that there is something wrong with us.  It is the feeling of being flawed or unworthy.  Guilt is the recognition of a behavior that is not in alignment with who I say I want to be.  When I make a mistake at work, if my self-talk is about how stupid I am or what an idiot I am, that is shame.  If my self-talk is about what a stupid mistake I made, that is guilt.  It sounds like a slight difference, ‘I am stupid,’ versus ‘I did something stupid,’ but the distinction is critical.  When we are in shame, there is something wrong with us and we have no power to change who we are.  When we did something wrong, it is the behavior that is not working.  We can change a behavior.  We can’t change who we are.  The distinction between these two is absolutely critical.

As you begin to listen to your own self-talk, take note of any shaming statements and see if you are able to shift them to focus on the behavior or situation instead.  This is a challenge, but it is important to discern which thoughts are empowering us to change and which are keeping us stuck.   For example, when I look in the mirror and tell myself that I’m fat and focus on scale numbers that keep going up, I’m in shame.  When I notice myself talking like this, I can choose to instead remind myself that I have been eating fast food and have not been exercising regularly, which have caused the scale numbers to go up.  I now have the power to make a behavior change.  I may feel guilt about the number on the scale, but recognizing that there is a behavior I can change gives me the power to do something about it.  Guilt can be a powerful motivator for change, but shame eats away at our core sense of value.

Shame is a deep topic and Brené Brown has written extensively on it.  I will share more about her research and her understanding of how shame works in the next few weeks.

How Clogged is the Filter You are Communicating Through?

“Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.” –Obi-Wan Kenobi

Merriam Webster defines communication as, “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.”  It sounds so simple, yet miscommunication is one of the biggest issues with which many people struggle.  When we communicate it is not just the words that are spoken.  There is a whole other level of communication that is shared with the tone, inflection and body language of each person.  Then there are our own thoughts and opinions about the person, the situation and our beliefs about ourselves.  When we talk with another person, it is filtered through all of our own ‘stuff.’ When a co-worker I trust and respect says that I did a ‘great job’ on a project, I may appreciate the compliment, but if a co-worker I don’t trust says the exact same thing my mind may start to imagine all kinds of scenarios in which they are against me in some way.  My ‘stuff’ influences how I react to the same words.

Our minds are wonderful at deduction.  Many times, it serves us well.  We get a few clues and we are able to piece together meaning and fill in the blanks so the story makes sense.  Unfortunately, we also fill in the blanks with incorrect information from time to time.  We assume we know the intent of the other person and what they meant by what was said.  When I envision us as people, I see our ego as being a filter that surrounds us.  As we get information it passes through our ego.  When our filter is clear, we are able to objectively look at the facts of a situation.  The more clogged the filter, the more we include our own judgements and assumptions.  Miscommunication happens when we fail to explore how the debris on our ego filter may have distorted our view of the situation.  Take a step back the next time you find yourself in a situation where miscommunication is occurring.  Ask yourself what the facts of the situation are and begin to reflect on any debris that may be distorting the facts.  The more clogged the filter, the harder this will be to do, so start with little issues first.  The more we recognize our own debris, the more we are able to remove it and begin to clear our ego filters.  That will improve communication.

Are You a Human BEing?

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”  Henry David Thoreau

Think for a minute about your daily routine.  How often during the day do you feel rushed or overwhelmed?  Is there a long ‘to do’ list that never seems to end?  A typical day for most people is filled from morning to night with activities and commitments.  When we compare our lives to those of our early ancestors, we have many modern conveniences that were intended to make life easier.  Instead of giving us more quiet time to reflect though, we seem to fill it up with more stressors.  We are bombarded with news and busyness without having time to simply relax and be still.  In his Conversations With God books, Neale Donald Walsch discusses how we call ourselves ‘human beings,’ but many of us rarely take time to ‘be’ with ourselves.  Instead, he says, we should be calling ourselves ‘human doings.’

It is difficult for many people to take time to just be.  We tend to equate how productive our day was with how much we got accomplished.  This is not to say that taking action and doing things is not important, but equally important is time to take care of ourselves.  Many of my clients struggle to give themselves quiet time to just be still.  For some, there is a sense of guilt that comes when they ‘waste’ time in meditation or quiet reflection.  For others, there is a fear of being alone with themselves.  The busyness is a distraction from having to face the demons they have avoided.

To become a ‘human being’ we need to find time to be still.  That ‘being’ time may be meditation or quiet reflection.  It may be walking in nature or painting a picture.  It is time to unplug from our busy lives and to reconnect with our essence.  Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  When we detach from doingness, we connect to beingness.  If it is difficult to take time to be, this is an area to be explored.  Is it a priority?  If it is something that is being avoided, where does the guilt or fear come from?  Seek support to explore this if necessary.  Instead of avoiding that shadow, face it and go into it.   How would your life change if you took time to truly be a human BEing?

The Problem with Labels Part 2

“Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week I introduced the first part of the problem with labels, that by giving something a label it automatically becomes separate.   Noticing that something is separate is not a problem, but when we lose sight of the interconnectedness of everything on this planet it becomes a problem.  When we forget the fact that we are interdependent on others and our environment, we make choices that don’t sustain us.  We get so caught up in the labels of separation that we forget we are more than labels.

So, this brings us to the second problem, who are we without the labels?  During sessions with clients I will sometimes ask them to imagine a basket with their name on.  We then visualize taking all of the labels off themselves and placing them into the basket.  We list the labels one by one as they are removed.  When they have taken off the labels I ask them what is left?  Almost every client tells me that there is nothing left.  They don’t know who they are without the labels.

This is the void that I feel many people have in life.  They have forgotten who they are at the core.  Our authentic self is the pure essence of our being, but it is covered over with so many labels that we forget.  To help some of my clients get to know who is under the labels, I ask them to visualize themselves as a newborn baby.  They don’t yet have language to describe the world, so all they can do is feel who they are. I discuss the senses that they begin to feel.  It may be comfort or love, it could also be hunger.   Without language to label these things it is just an experience.  I then ask them to keep those senses aware as they begin to visualize growing up.  Without putting labels on themselves I ask them to remember when they felt the most alive.  We discuss what that aliveness is for them, when they felt connected to something or someone.  Under all of the labels we have for ourselves, there is an awareness that remains.  It may feel like love, peace, or light.

Getting reconnected with our essence, our authentic self, is what I believe we are all meant to experience during our brief time on this planet.  Some people find that connection in meditation, prayer, nature or in loving a pet.  We can only find it when we remove the labels and judgements for a moment and become fully present with who we truly are.  That sense of aliveness, love or light is who we are without the labels.  We see the world and our connection to it when we take off the labels and become fully present.  What would your world look like if you took some time every day to remove the labels?


The Problem with Labels: Part 1

“You look beyond the veil of form and separation. This is the realization of oneness. This is love.” –Eckhart Tolle

Who are you?  It is a simple question that we often ask without much thought.  We usually answer the question with a list of labels.  I’m a mother, daughter, sister, counselor, or Pennsylvanian.   We use labels to describe our physical characteristics, economic status, and aspects of our personality.  All of these labels help us to categorize and define ourselves.  Our brains love order and predictability.  The labels provide neat boxes for the brain to store information.  This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but there are two issues with using labels to describe ourselves.  The first issue is separation, which will be explored here.  The second issue, which is the difficulty in removing labels, will be discussed next week.

When we label something, it is defined as separate from all other things that do not share the same label.  From the time we are young, we are taught to label everything in our world.  A child beginning to speak will start with labels for objects; ball, banana, mom, or dad.   Having a label automatically defines it as a separate object.  Once we have a label for something we can objectify it.  The bird is separate from the tree, the drumstick is separate from the drum and you are separate from me.  Labeling things as separate is not a problem, but it becomes a problem when we fail to remember how interconnected everything really is.  What happens if we separate a plant from water or sunlight?  The plant can’t survive without either, so is the plant really a separate object?  What happened to the water or sunlight when it was absorbed into the plant?  Do we still consider the water separate when it is in the plant?  Under a microscope, we can still see the water molecules, but we don’t usually refer to a plant as water.  We as people are dependent on plants for food.  People could not live without plants, so are we separate?  By utilizing labels, we put nice borders around things, but when we really begin to think about it, we are all very interconnected and dependent on each other and the environment in order to survive.  Labels, and the separation that comes with the labels, blinds us to the interconnectedness that we experience here on Earth.   We are truly an interdependent part of a larger system.  We don’t think much about the system, because generally we see ourselves as separate from the system.  It is an illusion that has led us to make some damaging choices.

The next time you look at a person, become aware of the labels that come to mind.  Which ones are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad?’  Notice how the judgement of the label creates a sense of togetherness or separation.    When it is separation, are there connections that can be made?

Next week I will explore what happens when we begin removing the labels.

The Wisdom of Virginia Satir

“Communication is to relationships what breath is to life.” –Virginia Satir

As I have studied various counseling theories, there is one that stands out as my favorite.  That is the work of Virginia Satir, which is profound in its simplicity.  When she looked at families, she knew that each member of the family was longing for love and acceptance from each other.  Her goal was to validate each member and to help them see where the breakdown in communication was occurring.  One of the ways she did this was by identifying the roles each family member played and how it affected the way they saw themselves and the world.  She identified three necessary parts to healthy interaction; the self, others and context.  When these three positions are balanced, there is congruent communication.  When one or more of these three positions are denied, distorted or eliminated, defensiveness and stress occur in the communication.

When someone sacrifices themselves in a situation to put the needs of others and the context of the situation first, they became what she called a placater.  Placaters will put their own needs aside and will often say ‘yes’ when they really want to say ‘no.’  They will do whatever is necessary for others to be happy and will sacrifice as much of themselves as needed to please others, often out of fear of being rejected.

A blamer, on the other hand, has no problem sacrificing others in order to maintain their sense of self and the context.  They put the responsibility completely on other people when something goes wrong.  They will often say things like, “What’s the matter with you…” or “I can’t believe you…”

The super reasonable person is like a computer.  They sacrifice the self and others to only focus on the context of the situation.  They tend to take a detached stance and will focus on principle and what is ‘right’ instead of on people’s feelings or emotions.  They will often use the word ‘it’ to communicate, such as, “It is important to…” or “It doesn’t matter.”

The irrelevant communication stance doesn’t address the self, others nor the context.  This is someone who can’t tolerate discomfort in a conversation and will immediately change the subject and talk about something else.  They seem to hope that their distractions will avoid the hurt, pain or stress.

While we all take on aspects of these styles from time to time, by objectively looking at these communication stances, it is easy to see how defensiveness arises and clear communication breaks down.  When the self, others and the context are all taken into account, issues can be addressed head on.  There is compassion for the other and respect for the self to address the context of the situation.  What roles have you been falling into and what would change if all three aspects were balanced in congruent communication?