Monthly Archives: June 2015

People Who Are Hurting Hurt Others

(Sorry this is a bit stream of consciousness. I wrote it in response to replies to the last post about my ambivalence about my father’s impending death.)

 

If you knew me better, if you knew yourself better, you would not have hurt me.

 

I don’t feel angry; I mostly feel sorry for my dad. I think about how unhealthy his own formative relationships must have been to produce the man that he is. Something about his upbringing or culture or early experiences or who knows what helped create the person he became, an angry and cruel person who repressed his feelings. Of course, once he was an adult, he had a choice. He could continue down the path he was on or he could change. He stayed mired in his own unhappiness, and like a sickness, let it infect others.

I say this because I truly believe that people who are hurting end up hurting other people. You cannot inflict emotional damage on others, especially loved ones, without carrying a lot of damage on the inside, without being wounded yourself. So I think how unhappy my father must have been and how unhappy he must continue to be, and I feel sorry for him.

I don’t know what hurt he carried from his childhood, but I do know what hurt he carries now. One of his children abandoned him and another child, my father abandoned. (For a parent, that’s some heavy shit to carry with you.) When my older brother became a teenager, he decided, ‘No more. I won’t be treated like this by a person who is supposed to love, protect, and support me.’ From that day forward, my brother stopped having anything to do with our father. For years my father’s letters to my brother went unanswered. Birthday checks went uncashed. Eventually my father stopped making an effort. Whatever relationship the two had, it ended a long time ago and would not be resurrected.

Before that happened, my father abandoned my half-brother. Back in 1972, my father’s girlfriend gave birth to a son. My father lived with them for almost a year after the baby was born, and then he walked out. He turned away and never ever looked back, erasing every tangible reminder of that child. It was as if my half-brother vanished, although it was my father who’d disappeared.

 

Ÿ   Ÿ   ŸIf you knew me better, if you knew yourself better, you would not have hurt me.

 

When you don’t address your own pain, I think one of three things happens, and none of them is good. Some of us bury our feelings. We hide behind alcohol or food or sex or anything that makes us feel better. This provides a temporary reprieve, but eventually the uncomfortable feelings return. Others of us blame the victim for our own failings. We say things like, “I wouldn’t have been so cruel if you had just been more obedient” or “I wouldn’t have cheated if you had been more attentive.” And still others of us delude ourselves by reconstructing history. We remember things as we wish they had been and not as it actually was. We put ourselves in the best possible light, preserving our pride and our ego. In whatever way we process our pain, if it isn’t dealt with, it doesn’t go away. No amount of pushing it away, blaming it on someone else, or reinventing it will clear the air. No, it festers and grows and ultimately wreaks havoc.

 

 

If you knew me better, if you knew yourself better, you would not have hurt me.

 

I thought about writing all this down and sending it to my dad before he passes, one final voicing of my unresolved issues that relate to him. But, honestly, at this point I have no interest in hurting him, and I know that’s what my words would do. They would scratch off the scab of a wound that has never healed, because my father has never dealt with his own suffering. He never admitted that he is flawed. He never admitted that he made mistakes. He never admitted that he is imperfect, human, like the rest of us. My writing this (again) to him won’t change him. I think that ship has sailed.

So, instead of sharing this with him, I’m sharing it with you all. I am bearing witness that pain begets pain and until we confront that pain it remains. My father will go to his grave with that on his conscience. He knows it in his heart of hearts. It’s sad but it’s his choice. He chose not to know me or any of his children better. He chose not to know himself better, and in doing so, he chose hurt all of us.

My Father is Dying

My father is dying. Literally. Several years ago he was diagnosed with hepatitis and diabetes, and the latter is killing him. He has lost sight in one eye and his vision in the other eye is worsening. He gets dialysis treatment several times a week. He is dying, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was first getting married, my dad was offended by my marriage for two reasons. One, I was pregnant (meaning I’d had sex outside of marriage) and two, I’d asked my brother, and not my father, to walk me down the aisle. It didn’t matter that I was in love and marrying the father of my baby. It didn’t matter that I was in college, and going to finish on time. All that mattered was that I had screwed up and had hurt him

When his dissatisfaction with my life choices was made known, by my stepmother as my dad has never been one to communicate feelings, I decided to say what I needed to say to my father. I wanted to enter the next stage of my life without the baggage of our relationship weighing on me, without any of his added guilt, which I felt was entirely misplaced and unfair.

I wrote him a letter in which I pointed out the nature of our relationship as I saw it. Here was a man who had been verbally and psychologically abusive to me, to my brother, and to our mother (in the few years they were together). Here was a man who was an angry, mean alcoholic throughout my youth. Here was a man who refused to pay child support, despite being taken to court, in an effort to get back at my mother for leaving him (and taking his children with her). Here was a man who had two biological sons, one divorced himself of the father-son relationship by choice, and the other was abandoned by my father a year after being born. I wrote all this to my father and asked him why.

But, my father never responded to my letter. It didn’t encourage him to ask for forgiveness or explain himself or do whatever one might do in this kind of situation. He didn’t even acknowledge it. Of course, by then he had found Jesus, so maybe my dad confessed his sins to God and didn’t feel the need to justify himself to his flesh and blood daughter. The one who had called his attention to her pain and sorrow, the direct results of his behavior. The one who had her own emotional baggage and shit to deal with because of his bad parenting.

Since that time, my father and I have had a distant relationship, which is fine by me. I don’t feel angry toward him although sometimes I feel a twinge of pity.

We are in contact via email and letters (although it is my stepmother who writes me actually) discussing things in generalities. The boys are fine. We went to Rome for vacation. Every 2 years or so we have a meal together. Ninety minutes of physical proximity and then I don’t see him again until the year after next, if I decide to contact him and make it happen.

I decided when I sent the letter, back in 1989, that I was done trying to make the relationship more than what it was or ever would be. Without his participation in fixing it there was only so much I could do or was even willing to do. I was done. I accepted that we would never have a relationship beyond that of acquaintances, but I was an adult and it was time to stop letting his shitty parenting be an excuse for my own shortcomings and flaws.

Easier said than done. Like everything with family and dysfunction and emotions, releasing this kind of past, filled with torment, is easier said than done.

So, my father is dying. And instead of feeling nothing or feeling relief, I feel a pit in my stomach. It makes me a bit anxious and sick. I keep wondering, ‘Why couldn’t he be human enough, especially after 45 years, to own up to his mistakes?’ I don’t know, and I doubt I ever will. All I know is that soon he will be dead and I will still have unanswered questions haunting me, this parenting legacy to deal with.

Being Present For My Life

Core Value #1 – Mindful Awareness

Remember how I began this blog discussing my core values ? I set a goal to work on and improve my mental health and outlook on life and one way in which I was doing that was by identifying and trying to live up to my values. My hope was that this practice would bring me a sense of happiness and peace, an emotional grounding, which I needed.

Well, 6 months into this project, it’s time to revisit my values and examine each one thoroughly, starting with the one I wrote about earlier this week – awareness, or mindfulness as the popular press calls it.

For me, Mindful Awareness (I’m blending the two terms for the rest of this post) encompasses 2 things – being present in the moment and not getting ensnared in our thoughts.

If you cultivate Mindful Awareness you are NOT living on autopilot, which is how many of us exist a lot of the time. We’re driving to work but thinking about our to-do list. We’re listening to our partner talk about his day but also silently replaying a conversation we had with our boss yesterday. We’re eating a meal while composing a text message. We get caught up in reexamining the past or planning the future and in doing that, we fail to exist in the here and now. We aren’t present for our own lives.

Mindful Awareness is about consciously experiencing your life as it’s happening. As University of Massachusetts Medical School Professor Emeritus Jon Kabat-Zinn says mindfulness is “about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.” I liken it to how my 6 year old interacts with the world. When we go for a walk at the park, she notices everything – the ladybug on the leaf, a cool shaped rock on the ground, the small bird on a far away branch. And she doesn’t just notice this stuff. She’s curious about it all and full of wonder. Meanwhile, I’m oblivious. I’m so focused on getting to the playscape that I miss where we are.

When I write about stopping to breathe or being still, this is the purpose. It’s to focus my energy on this very moment without competition or distractions. Sometimes I can do this for 2 breaths before my mind starts wandering away. But then I’ll remember, ‘Oh yeah, be present,’ and I’ll come back to the moment, noting what I’m feeling and what’s happening.

Mindful Over Mind Full

The other aspect of Mindful Awareness is that you accept your thoughts without allowing yourself to get tangled up with them. As Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center defines it, “Mindfulness involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.”

In the past, when something unpleasant or uncomfortable came up, I responded in 1 of 2 (very unskillful) ways. If it were after 5 o’clock – somewhere, anywhere – then I would avoid the unpleasantness by opening a bottle of wine and checking out. I don’t like this, time to make it go away. However, if my discomfort happened before an acceptable time to open a bottle of wine or if I was at the office then I would default to my other conditioned response, (mis)interpreting and spiraling out of control. Why did So and So say that to me? Does she think I’m stupid? I am stupid for acting like that. Why do I screw everything up? And on and on.

When I practice Mindful Awareness, my energy no longer goes to actively avoiding or over analyzing my thoughts. I can have a thought and not get lost in it. It’s kind of like having an itch that I choose not to scratch. Eventually the thoughts lose their power to provoke me, just like the itch will go away if you don’t mess with it.

Another upside to this failure to engage the thoughts is that I’ve become conscious of my behavior patterns (see above, disengage, avoid, distract – not good). This awareness helps me distance myself from the unhealthy conditioned responses, which only served to make me miserable. As Mark Twain wrote, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

I will continue to value and work on cultivating Mindful Awareness, trying to stay present for more than 2 breaths and remembering that what I give my attention to is where my energy goes. I choose to give my energy to developing my best self.

My Problems

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meditating in Every Moment

Although we typically associate it with this state, meditation is not about closing yourself off from everything and everyone, sitting quietly in some yoga position, and getting your Zen on. It’s not about religion or spirituality or the Buddha. Yes, meditation can involve any of those things, but those things don’t define meditation. Meditation is what people do in order to develop a skill that they can then take off the mat, out of the Zen den, and utilize in the real world – the noisy, stressful, unpredictable real world.

So what is this skill that we practice in meditation (which is often referred to simply as “the practice”)? Well, there are many skills, but one of the most important and central ones is the cultivation of awareness. You make yourself stay in the present moment. You don’t rehash the past. You don’t worry about or plan the future. Rather, you sit and are present for what’s happening right now, both the internal and the external experiences.

Furthermore, you observe the present without analyzing it, interpreting it, or judging it, which is our nature. A thought pops up and we immediately jump on it, getting ensnared. What can I do about this? How can I change this? What does this mean? But the goal of mindful awareness is simply to observe your thoughts without over-identifying with them.

When you look at it this way, meditation is not some isolated activity you do for 30 minutes a day. Instead, it’s a state of being; it’s a way of existing in the world. When you cultivate mindful awareness, you begin to see things as they truly are, without the added layer of interpretation. And because you are observing what you feel, you begin to recognize your conditioned responses, habitual thought patterns you have, which may be unhealthy. Once you are aware of these conditioned responses, you can begin to change them. So meditation is kinda like free therapy.

Meditation is a powerful tool, backed by lots of research, which convincingly demonstrates that it can reduce stress levels, improve symptoms of depression, enhance psychological well being, improve immunity, increase cortical gray matter, and even reverse effects of aging on the brain. But the best part is that it just makes you a happier, more compassionate person.

We only live in the present, so live as fully and mindfully aware as you can.

 

NIH primer on the science behind meditation.

You Tube video produced by IFLoveScience.

Meditation is acceptance

Image courtesy of Paodoruvel (morguefile.com)

Judgy McJudgers, My Self-Righteous Self

When something happens that threatens our safety, we respond automatically. This is a survival mechanism driven by evolution to defend us from danger. Lashing out, getting angry, screaming, whatever the behavior might be, it’s designed to protect us from harm.

But over the course of our existence, our egos have evolved such that certain ideas, words, and external events – none of which would actually cause us physical or psychological harm – now have the same effect, putting us on the defensive. We get angry or impatient or frustrated, or some other state of dis-ease, and respond by directing our ill will (lashing out) toward the individual or group who had the idea, spoke the words, or did whatever it was that pissed us off.

Fucking insurance companies! (I’ve said that more than once.)

My boss is such a dick! (That, too.)

Republicans – @#$%#!!! (Well, you get the picture.)

angry-woman

Image courtesy of Prawny (morguefile.com)

I allow myself to get outraged, which strokes my own ego. Someone did me wrong or hurt my feelings or disagreed with me on something, and I exact judgment. I’ll show them!

Oh my goddess. I need to stop this insanity right now. We all do. Who of us hasn’t been guilty of being over-reactive and channeling our inner Judgy McJudgers at some point in time?

Why can’t I kick and scream and rant (or sometimes break down and cry – yep I’ve done that) when someone says or does something I don’t like? I mean, am I just supposed to lie down and take their bullshit? (The answer to the latter is a resounding NO if the bullshit is actually inflicting physical or psychological damage, but I’m talking about the other stuff.)

I need to take a chill pill, because my behavior is likely based on a few misguided assumptions. The first is that I know exactly what’s going on with that person, the motivation behind their behavior. But, do I really know why that guy cut me off in traffic? Of course not. I assume it’s because he’s a dipshit but it’s equally likely, maybe more so, that his girlfriend just broke up with him, and he’s upset and distracted. If I knew the latter were the case, would I still react the same way, getting myself worked up, flipping him off and yelling in my car (which he can’t hear so it’s just for me, isn’t it)?

The second assumption is that the actions of others are all about me. As much as I’d like to believe it, my husband insists that the world does not, in fact, revolve around me. So, why do I take the things that others say and do so personally? Because, on some level, I feel my pride wounded, my ego bruised, by their actions. And when that happens it makes me want to do something that says, “Looky here. You are wrong, and I am right,” which is pretty childish when you think about it for 2 seconds.

Finally, there’s the assumption that my reaction will somehow change how the other person acts. This is laughable, because I know (KNOW – in all caps) that I can’t change how other people behave. In any situation, I can only control my own response, my own actions. Yet, here I go saying, “If you did this, then I wouldn’t act like that.”  or “When you say/do this, it makes me say/do that.”

When I lash out, it’s like stepping on the gas pedal, pouring gasoline on a fire. My own behaviour intensifies the situation and generates more negativity. But if I don’t lash out, the feeling I’m having will undoubtedly peter out on its own, just like if I chose to coast rather than put my foot on the pedal. Or if I chose to sit and let the fire slowly burn itself out rather than stoking it.

So what am I supposed to do when I feel affronted. Should I be a doormat, accepting whatever comes my way, even if I don’t like it? Hell no (see note above about when actual physical or psychological damage is happening). But I can choose to respond in a way that diffuses the situation rather than exacerbating it.  If I respond by being hostile then everyone involved suffers, especially me. And, if I respond by acting with kindness and compassion then everyone involved benefits, especially me. Word. That’s the truth.

Old habits die hard. I wish I could say that now that I’ve got this insight, I will never get angry again. I will never have feelings of hostility or dis-ease again. But, hey, those feelings are part of life (and directly related to interacting with other, imperfect humans who have their own issues). I can’t ignore or will those feelings away. All I can do is recognize them in the moment I’m experiencing them and sit with them. I can ask myself, “Is this worth me upsetting my own peace of mind over?” If not, then I just stay put until the feelings are gone. If yes, then I need to carefully choose my response so that I don’t practice ill will. If I can do this, then eventually I will break the old, unskillful habit and start a new, more wholesome one. That’s the plan anyway.

 

May I be more compassionate toward and less judgmental of others and myself.

 

 

My Life is My Choice.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

 

The truth of the matter is that each of us chooses the life we live. We choose to be happy or sad. We choose to be content or angry. We choose to take responsibility for ourselves or we blame someone else.

I’m not saying that making the right choice comes naturally, nor is it necessarily easy to do. But, in every instant of every day, we have a choice to be the way we want to be.

Life doesn’t just happen to us. It happens because of us, because of our choices.

How do I make my life, my everyday experience, what it is that I want it to be? Especially when I have a million errands to run, work to do, and a small child to mind? By setting an intention, letting go of negative energy, and practicing self-reflection.

 

Set an intention.

Every morning, I try to take time to think about what part of my self, a part that is rooted in my values, I’d like to grow. Today, do I want to be kinder? More peaceful? More mindful? Whatever it is, I think about simple ways that I can live that way just today. For example, if I want to be kinder, I tell myself that I will smile at everyone I meet.

Once I’ve thought about my intention, I articulate it. May I be kinder to others. May I smile at strangers I encounter. When you set an intention and articulate it, you commit yourself to doing things that will help you realize the intention. The intention is both the end and the means to the end.

Let go of negative energy.

Anger. Judgment. Resentment. These emotions may be natural, and they may play a role in protecting you from harm, but I’m talking about physical harm, not harm to your ego. It’s hard to let go of negative emotions, but I don’t want to give them space in my mind. When I do, it wears me down, exacerbates negativity, and prevents me from being my best self. Lose-lose.

So, I take some deep breaths and go back to my intention. It’s likely that if you want to manifest your intention, holding onto negative emotions will prevent that from happening.

Center yourself.

Our lives are often so busy that we can lose sight of the present moment and get overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done. Feeling overwhelmed leads to anxiety, stress, and emotional paralysis. So, it’s important to create time in your schedule to center yourself.

How you choose to do this depends on what works best for you. I meditate, run, and write. That’s what I need to do to take of myself. Maybe for you, centering yourself is working in your garden or relaxing with a good book. Whatever it is, take time to do it daily or thoughout the day. It will help you regroup and reenergize, allowing you to keep going with a calmer presence.

Practice self-reflection.

I try to return to my intention throughout the day. Sometimes this means I wear a certain bracelet or set my iPhone alarm to go off to remind myself to stop and contemplate how I’m doing. Have my words and actions supported my intention? Are there things I could or should have done differently? Asking myself questions like these makes me more aware of areas where I still need to work in order to reconcile my intention with my behavior. It’s all about becoming more aware of who you are and who you want to be. Reflect, develop awareness, grow up yourself.

 

My life is my choice. What I say, what I do, how I orient myself, and how I respond to others. My life is my choice. I don’t always make the best choice, but it’s a practice I work on daily.

I choose to live an intentional, positive, and centered life.

Puzzle image courtesy of mconnors (morguefile.com)