Finding Joy in the Routine

My life used to be a very on again off again experience. It was like my life was on pause when I did routine tasks such as grocery shopping, doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, or paying bills.  When these tasks were over, my real life would resume.  These were commercial interruptions to the meaningful things of my life.   As a result, I suffered through these tasks or, at best, endured them.

 

The reality is that our daily lives are often filled with routine tasks.   And this was a problem for me because I didn’t like doing those things. Consequently, a large part of my daily life was joyless.   I was doing things just to get them done.  When these chores were done, then I would have a few hours left in the day when I could feel I was actually living my life.

 

My perspective changed dramatically, though, about six months ago when I read Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth.  And that book connected to something my AA sponsor said to me years ago.

 

In A New Earth, Tolle addresses the way many of us live fragmented lives.  Life is not about what we are doing, Tolle says, but how we are doing it.  Whenever we see what we are doing as an impediment to our real lives, we approach it with resistance.  And that causes suffering.   Reality conforms to our thinking, so what I dread becomes dreadful.

 

Oftentimes for me, I don’t integrate ideas, even powerful ones, into my life until I connect them with other powerful ideas.  When they come together, it is an epiphany.  And these are life-changing events for me.  This happened while I was reading Tolle.  I remembered my sponsor’s words to me.  I was complaining about having to go home and mow the lawn.  I had nearly lost my job, my wife, and my house because of my drinking.  My sponsor said to me, “Instead of thinking that you have to mow the lawn, think that you get to mow the lawn.  You are blessed to have a lawn to mow.”  Those words got me through that task and many others for a while, but as time passed, I forgot them.

 

Then, as I was reading Tolle recently, my sponsor’s words came rushing back to me.  As Tolle’s words and my sponsor’s words converged into an epiphany, their wisdom found a permanent place within me.  Because I am no longer dying to my drinking, I get to do the tasks that are before me.  That was what my sponsor was saying. Tolle takes it a step further.  Don’t just do a task; pour your consciousness—your full attention—into it.

 

What I have discovered is that when I pour my consciousness into what I am doing, I immediately turn the stage lighting up on it.  I become more and more aware of all the wonderful sensations involved in the task.  For example, I used to hate grocery shopping.  Now, I look forward to it.  It’s because I have poured my consciousness into the present moment at the grocery store rather than thinking about what I could be doing instead.

 

Now when I am grocery shopping, I am in awe of all the produce that comes from so many different parts of the world, their vibrant colors, the wonderful smells of these fruits and vegetables, the appealing display of all these things.  It’s really is a thing of beauty.  But when I am resisting the shopping and withdraw my consciousness from the experience, it loses its luster and fades to drabness.

 

The key here is to pour your consciousness into whatever you are doing.  And that begins by noticing.  Notice the sights, the sounds, the smells, the texture of all the things associated with the task.  Feel your body respond and delight in the work.

 

So how can you get your consciousness to pour into what you are doing?  Tolle says there are three ways:  acceptance, enjoyment, and enthusiasm.

 

Acceptance is the opposite of resistance to a task.  And just moving from resistance to acceptance can be a life-changer.  “Our performing an action in the state of acceptance means you are at peace while you do it; it is surrendered action,” says Tolle.

 

When we move from acceptance to enjoyment, the stage lighting turns up some more.  We become more attuned and aligned with the task. We perceive what we are doing with a sense of joy.   In a sense, we are consciously joined with the task.  We are no longer just enduring it; it becomes what we want to keep doing.

 

This sense is further expanded and intensified when we move from enjoyment to enthusiasm.  “Sustained enthusiasm brings into existence a wave of creative energy, and all you have to do then is ‘ride the wave.’” Tolle says.

 

Like all tasks in our lives, we have a choice about what attitude we bring to them.  Whether we love or dread the task, we still need to do it.  Why not choose to accept it and pour yourself into it?   You may find that it becomes something that you enjoy—maybe even something that you become enthused about doing.  And that can bring a great deal of joy to all the parts of your day.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ

Five stress factors that can lead to relapse

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.  Oh, that wonderful vicarious feeling of the first drink as it melts away the stress of the day.

 

This became my routine, too, as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

 

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can see how it was my go-to stress reliever.  I didn’t look within for the source of my stress.  That would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living.  All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

 

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted.  So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work.  On and on.  Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

 

Sober now for more than a decade, I have revamped my personal creed to Sophocles’ original: Only the examined life is worth living.  In those 10 years, I have immersed myself in the Big Book as well as other psychological and spiritual literature. By looking within rather than away, I have finally gotten to know who I am.

 

But it’s still one day at a time. Stressors are still a part of the sober life. And I am very aware that if I don’t surface the issues in my life that cause stress, that I am very likely to relapse.

 

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood.   It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it.  When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it.  This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

 

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components.  The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

 

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power.  To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.  When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level.  I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad.  They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stressor is fighting change. There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.”  That was me until a few years ago.  Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering. During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.”  I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

 

The three external stressors are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

 

In my drinking days (and still to a much lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people.  Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation.  Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned.  I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

 

The second external stressor is lack of control.  That was a huge one for me.  I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it.  The desire is understandable.  Humans have an aversion to pain.  Yet, control is an illusion.  In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person.  Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

 

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it.  As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others.  People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power.  It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

 

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance.  It is a potent antidote to stress.  And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer.  When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its  three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation.  Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

 

Embrace Your Mistakes

The difference between the wise man and a fool is that a fool’s mistakes never teach him anything.

 

I believe that at the heart of this popular expression is personal responsibility.   The wise man takes personal responsibility for his mistakes; the fool blames others for his own.

 

The most powerful lessons we learn are from our own failures. The hidden power of mistakes is that they are the very ore from which wisdom is produced.  It is the alchemy of turning the base metals of error into something precious—and lasting.  We arrive at a higher level of consciousness when we take personal responsibility for our mistakes.

 

Equally important are the insights into our characters that mistakes can provide.  Mistakes, especially those that cause others pain and suffering, are like mirrors.  They reflect back to us moments when we were too self-absorbed to respond thoughtfully to others.  For example, failing to express gratitude for a friend’s help.

 

How can we change if we are unaware of our weaknesses?  We can’t fix what we can’t see.  Mistakes offer us a chance to discover our weaknesses and an opportunity to change.

 

All of us will experience lapses of awareness that lead to mistakes.  We are all flawed beings and that is a part of our shared human experience.  It is the way that we respond to mistakes that is the difference between the wise and the foolish.  It is the fool who will find a way to blame others to cover for his or her own social unconsciousness.   The wise person avoids excuses and will promptly take responsibility for his or her errors.

 

In Alcoholics Anonymous, we learn that honesty in “all our affairs” is what gets us sober.  When we look at the problems we create for ourselves and others, we see where we were at fault and we promptly admit our mistakes to those we have wronged.

 

As long as we blame others for our problems, we don’t have to change anything about ourselves.  No personal responsibility, unfortunately, means no wisdom, no growth, no emotional maturity.

 

In my life coaching practice, I have found that clients who struggle the most with personal relationships are those who are emotionally immature.   And that immaturity is because of an unwillingness to hold themselves personally accountable for their character flaws and the mistakes in judgement they cause.

 

Psychologist maintain that the average adult is really only about 14-years-old emotionally.  Many of us are really adolescents in adult bodies.  One of the greatest contributors to living in an extended adolescence is a failure to learn and grow emotionally from our mistakes.

 

And this is understandable in our current culture that places so much emphasis on self-esteem.  In her book Self-Compassion, Kristen Neff states, “People who are focused on maintaining high self-esteem will not look at themselves honestly because doing so will lower their self-esteem.  They, therefore, blame others for their own problems rather than taking responsibility for creating them.”

 

Self-esteem is dependent on forces outside ourselves.  It is based on the approval of others.  In the social media world of Facebook, people live and die according to how many “likes” they have received from a post.  Self-esteem then becomes something determined by popular vote.  This pre-occupation with building and maintaining self-esteem is not only the domain of social media but also finds a strong presence in our classrooms, our school-sponsored athletics, and in our families.

 

When we refuse to accept personal responsibility for our mistakes, we deny ourselves the opportunity to become more skillful and competent people.

 

Instead of self-esteem, Neff recommends self-compassion.   Self-compassion is internalized, and it is not about excuses but acceptance.  It is about treating ourselves as our best friend.  Unlike self-esteem, its pursuit doesn’t shy us away from our own personal responsibility   In practicing it, we hold ourselves accountable while, Neff says, reminding ourselves in moments of falling down that failure is part of the shared human experience.  We embrace our mistakes rather than looking away from them.

 

Though mistakes feel unpleasant, they offer a powerful catalyst for change, for self-awareness, and for emotional growth.  By having the courage to admit our mistakes, we open the door to learning and emotionally growing from them.  In doing so, we cultivate the capacity to respond more maturely and more skillfully in relationships with friends, family, and colleagues.  And that’s one of the beautiful things about life.  It continually offers us opportunities to move from living as the fool to thriving as the wise.

Ways to Socialize Soberly

I’m going to make a fool of myself.  I’ll feel out of place.  People will see how anxious I am.  If I don’t say much, people won’t know how boring I am.

 

These are the things that I would tell myself when I thought of social situations involving more than just a couple people.  If you can relate to this, then welcome to the world of social anxiety.  And, yes, it can be a huge burden and, yes, there are ways to overcome it.

 

Amazingly, it has taken me a lifetime to come to terms with my own social anxiety.  Many people shield themselves behind friends in social situations. Others become wall flowers.  Still others avoid socializing at all costs and, sadly, live a very lonely life.  For me, I discovered a cheat for social anxiety in my junior year of high school.  And that was alcohol. Unfortunately, when we continually use any coping behavior, we never address the issue—we only hide from it.  Soon I was drinking whenever I socialized…and then when I was alone as well.

 

The fact that nearly all people experience social anxiety should be an assuring thought to anyone.  But it wasn’t for me.  When I looked around at parties, I saw everyone else appearing so relaxed and so confident with others.  Why couldn’t I be like that?  Then I discovered pre-party drinking and embraced the magic of alcohol.  When I drank, I became the person I wanted to meet.  The more I relied on this social crutch, the more weight I put on it.

 

Dinner parties with guests sitting around a dining room table gave me the greatest social jitters.  In these situations, people could too easily see just how much I was drinking. I felt that I had to limit my drinking which reduced the effectiveness of my coping behavior.  Eventually, all my decisions about social situations boiled down to this:  If I couldn’t drink freely, I wouldn’t attend.

 

That crutch, however, became as heavy as a boat anchor, and it plunged me into the abyss of alcoholism. From the clarity of recovery, I clearly see that social anxiety was one of the most powerful forces that drove my drinking. I had a living problem and a drinking solution.  Now, in my tenth year of sobriety, I still push myself to more frequently attend social gatherings. It’s amazing how confronting our problems reduces their power over us.  Does social anxiety still haunt me?  For the most part, no.

 

But that old phantom returned this week.  I have a fairly big dinner party I promised my girlfriend that I would attend with her this coming weekend.  These situations are my Achilles heal.  With the invitation came a rush of anxious thoughts and a tightening in my stomach.  Yes, I have made progress with social anxiety in my recovery, but I’m still not immune to it.

 

This time I finally decided to seek out the advice of professionals.  This time I would take a different approach. This time I decided to confront my social anxiety head on, armed with new techniques rather than just ignoring the issue.

 

In his wonderful article “7 Techniques for Overcoming Social Phobia,” therapist Mark Tyrrell provides easy to implement ways of relieving social anxiety.

Here are his suggestions:

  1. Prepare to relax

Tyrrell says worrying is self-programming.  When we worry about an upcoming social situation, we are projecting ourselves into that situation and seeing ourselves failing once again.  Little wonder we experience anxiety when we are actually in that social setting.  Instead, he recommends that we take a warm bath or sit in a comfortable chair and visualize ourselves in that situation looking relaxed and confident.  Repeatedly doing this will create positive associations with socializing.

 

  1. Seek out social situations

The more we avoid something the more we send the message to the unconscious mind that it is dangerous and should be avoided.  This is true of socializing.  The solution is to actively put ourselves in social situations both in our imaginations (visualizations) and in person.   Soon, Tyrrell says, our conscious minds will begin to see socializing as safe and normal for us—even something to look forward to.

  1. Look at your surroundings

Oftentimes, when we are socializing, it is like we are walking around with a mirror in front of us, continually viewing how anxious we imagine ourselves looking and telling ourselves negative messages like “I’m boring.”  Tyrrell recommends moving our focus outward to the people in the room and to the room itself.  Notice the color of the walls, the room décor, and what other people are wearing.  After all, social situations are about focusing our attention away from ourselves.

 

  1. Ask questions

Tyrrell says that social phobia is all about worrying what other people think of us.  So shift the focus to other people by asking them questions that go beyond “yes” and “no” answers.  Google “Forty Fun Icebreakers.”

 

  1. Switch off your imagination

Imagination is one of our greatest assets but not when it comes to imagining what people are thinking of us.  When we find ourselves trying to mind read, we need to shut it down.  Yes, we can influence what others think of us, but we can’t control it, so why try, Tyrrell says.

 

  1. What do you want?

Our minds need positive instructions.  Tyrrell suggests asking ourselves, “How do I want to feel in these situations?”  He recommends closing our eyes and feeling how we feel when we were in the company of our loved ones.  Now, in social situations, bring those warm feelings with you and make a habit of sending them out to everyone.

 

  1. On being yourself

When we try to present ourselves as perfect, we come off cold and stilted. People who are willing to allow themselves to be a bit of a fool, Tyrrell says, are more socially confident.  People actually connect with us better when we are willing to show ourselves as flawed.  We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t.

 

 

And here is one of my own.  I have a habit of looking away immediately after someone asks me a question.  People can associate that with lying.  So lately I have been standing in front of a mirror and asking myself common questions I would be asked at a party.  I work on keeping eye contact with myself while answering.

 

All people suffer some degree of social anxiety. For alcoholics, we have relied on alcohol to provide us with the social “grease” to help us relax in social situations.  Other people become addicted to their own coping behaviors.  After the 12 Steps, we face the challenge of socializing cleanly. But if we take on this challenge with the same courage as we did our 4th Steps, and we apply these seven techniques, we can overcome our social anxieties.  We then look forward to socializing rather than dreading it. And what a feeling of accomplishment that will be!

Drug-free Solutions to Chronic Pain

One truth I have learned about chronic physical pain is the more you fight it the worse it gets. Another is that traditional methods for relieving pain often ignore a crucial player:  the mind.

After experiencing only partial pain relief from my spinal fusion 10 months ago, I became convinced that there was another issue that contributing to my chronic pain.  This led me to investigate solutions other than additional surgery or the use of medications to treat this pain.

In my previous blog titled “Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and Into Your Life,” I discussed the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in contending with pain.  In this blog, I am going to introduce you to physician Dr. John Sarno whose treatment of chronic pain was featured in a 20/20 segment.

 

As a brief recap of last week’s blog, it is our attempts to combat or avoid pain that keeps us in the trenches with our pain.  Like for many of you, pain killers only reduced my pain; they never eliminated it.  I also tried physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic.  Again, the relief was only partial and temporary.   What was constant was my preoccupation with that pain.  I was thinking about it continually throughout the day.  Sadly, this preoccupation with pain made my world smaller and smaller.  I avoided physical activities that I used to enjoy and withdrew from friends and family because of the pain.

 

ACT recognizes that total elimination of pain my not be possible for some of us.  So we have a choice:  we can live on the sidelines of our life with pain, or we can commit to re-engaging our lives despite the pain.  Amazingly, though, it is this re-engagement with life that allows us to experience freedom from our pain.  To test the validity of this, think of what happens to your pain when you are laughing with friends or fully engaging in a hobby.  For me, the pain disappears because I am not focusing my attention on it.

 

Like ACT, re-engagement in your life is at the core of Dr. John Sarno’s work.  In his New York Times bestselling book, Healing Back Pain, Sarno says that chronic pain is the result of suppressed emotions.  His term for this pain, regardless of whether it manifests in the back, neck, or other parts of the body, is Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS).  The source of this pain?  Suppression of emotions.  For those of you who experience migraines, it is clear that the pain is not something structurally wrong with your brain but that it is brought on by stress and the negative emotions it creates.  So too it is with chronic back and neck pain, according to Sarno.

 

“TMS is a sideshow designed to distract you from what is going on emotionally,” Sarno says.   Because our minds do not want to deal with painful emotions, that pain is manifested in our bodies, just like stress is manifested as intense headaches for migraine sufferers.

 

Interestingly, if you randomly picked 40 adults from the streets and gave each an MRI, you would find that many of them have structural issues with their backs—like ruptured or bulging disk. Yet, some of those people are not experiencing back pain.  In fact, orthopedic surgeons who see these supposed structural “problems” cannot determine just from the MRI whether that person is in pain.  Interestingly, too, when an MRI for a non-spine related issue reveals one of these back “problems,” the patient often experiences the sudden sensation of back pain.

 

So how can TMS cause pain?  The brain is the most complex creation in the known universe.  One of its functions is regulating oxygen levels in the body.  It provides more oxygen to the muscles when an external threat activates the fight or flight response.  Just as the brain can oxygenate the body more, it can also deprive parts of the body of oxygen.  “The direct reason for pain is mild oxygen deprivation,” Sarno says in drawing the connection between TMS and chronic pain.

 

So how do you treat TMS and the chronic physical pain it produces?   In Healing Back Pain, Sarno suggests a series of exercises that will get you in touch with the unpleasant emotions that cause TMS.  Often these emotions are in the form of anger or rage that the mind has suppressed, keeping us unaware of their presence.  Frequently, these suppressed emotions are rooted in childhood trauma, Sarno states.

 

If working through these exercises on your own doesn’t eliminate your chronic pain, Sarno recommends seeking out a therapist to guide you through them in order to  surface and release these pain-producing emotions.

 

Overall, the connection between ACT and Sarno’s work is freeing ourselves of the thoughts and emotions that create our pain and suffering. For those of you who are experiencing chronic pain, consider asking yourself this question: “Am I going to live my thoughts and emotions and the pain those create or am I going to live my life and the joy that can bring?”

 

Together, ACT and Sarno’s work can be a very effective way of treating chronic pain.   So if you are experiencing chronic pain despite surgery, pain medications, and other treatments, consider getting to know ACT and Sarno’s approach.  The 20/20 segment that features Sarno is available on YouTube.  An excellent resource for the ACT approach is the workbook Living Beyond Your Pain by Joanne Dahl and Tobias Lundren.

Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and into Your Life

Chronic pain is very discouraging.  Ten months ago I had a spinal fusion because of a back injury I suffered.  I had been in pain for two years prior to it. And now, as I’m supposed to feel the relief of full recovery, I still have back pain and nerve pain in my feet.

 

Like some of you, chronic pain has robbed me of my zest for life.  And it has left me feeling very discouraged—even hopeless.  But at 57-years-old, I am not willing to spend the next 20 years marooned by medications, living in an opioid stupor.

 

It’s time to get out of the preoccupation with pain and to get into my life.

 

Living an inspired life means making inspiring choices.  One of the most inspiring of those choices was to embrace the power of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

 

At the core of ACT pain therapy is an essential truth:  elimination of chronic pain is not possible for some of us.  But it doesn’t have to sideline us.  In their Internet workbook called Life with Chronic Pain: An Acceptance-based Approach, Kevin E. Vowles, Ph.D.  and  John T. Sorrell, Ph.D.,  apply the core processes of ACT to pain.

 

They acknowledge that pain, thoughts and mood, and basic functioning interact in a way that contributes to increasing problems and decreasing quality of life.  As so many of us who suffer have come to realize, treatments often fail to provide us with long-term decreases in pain.

 

Trying to change our thoughts and moods also becomes problematic.   “If you wake up in a sad mood, does telling yourself, ‘Don’t be sad anymore.’ lead to any change in your mood?” ask Vowles and Sorrell, knowing, too, that trying not to think about your pain only increases its hold over you.

 

Functioning, though, may be the area where your efforts will have the most impact, according to Vowles and Sorrell.   It’s about deciding what is vitally important to you and pursing it despite pain.  I have found that if I remain on the sidelines trying to avoid anything that may incite my pain, that my pain still exists.  On the other hand, when I am actively engaged in my life, I often forget about my pain.  Consider this: when you are laughing with loved ones, what happens to your pain?  Exactly!  It disappears.  Remember, we give power to whatever we give attention to.

 

Breaking ACT Down

 

The “A” in ACT is about acceptance.  It’s about becoming comfortable with discomfort. “It is not the same as defeat, helplessness, quitting, or resigning to a life of unhappiness, struggle, or misery,” Vowles and Sorrell say.   Acceptance of chronic pain, then, is living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.

 

The “C” in ACT is about commitment.   By combining acceptance with commitment, you begin  living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.  “Values are what you want your life to stand for,” according to Vowles and Sorrel. “Values are what you want to be remembered for by loved ones and close friends after you have passed.”

 

ACT is about accepting the fact that we all face difficult challenges that we cannot control, alter, or eliminate.  It’s not about “throwing in the towel.”  We, instead, commit to a life in which we are engaged in the present moment with things we value in the here and now.  We live a life, not in the absence of pain, but knowing that there is something more important than pain.

 

I leave you with words that you can say that will help you keep your mind centered on acceptance and commitment.  It is called the Serenity Prayer:  Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Some Lessons Ain’t Easy

I’ve had a tough few days with my mirrors.  I’m not liking what I see in them.  It’s not because I’m hung up on the effects of aging.  It’s because the mirrors are showing me what I am projecting on other people.  And that has caused me to stand back and see myself for who I really am.

 

Projection, in psychological terms, is a defense mechanism people unconsciously employ in order to avoid difficult feelings or emotions. It involves projecting undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else, rather than dealing with the unwanted feelings ourselves.

 

One of the benefits of relationships is that they serve as mirrors that allow us to see these projections.  Two traits are inherent to projections: that we are frequently unaware of our own projections and that all of us employ them.

 

Because projections come from the subconscious mind, they literally blindside us.  And that was the case for me this week.   I saw myself mirrored back.

 

I was out at a major home improvement store with my girlfriend.  She is very aware of the problem I have with a person close to me who is continually embroiled in conflict.  It’s kind of like crack to him.  As my girlfriend and I walked up aisle after aisle looking for staples for my staple gun, I became more and more frustrated with not being able to find a clerk to help with our search.  Nearly a half-hour went by, and my frustration turned to anger.  So I approached the manager and vented at him.

 

Though my girlfriend was standing in line, she could overhear me talking with the manager.   When we got out to the parking lot, she told me how uncomfortable my anger made her feel.

 

Of course, like many of us, I began rationalizing my behavior, saying that I never attacked the character of the manager and that managers need to hear from customers about stores issues so they keep their customers and…

 

Well, she wasn’t buying it.  In fact, she turned it around on me saying that I was doing the very thing that I found objectionable in my close friend.   Ouch!

 

Talk about being T-boned at the intersection of Unawareness and Projection Avenue.  I had been motoring through the morning on my defense mechanisms:  first projection, then rationalization.

 

As a life coach, these kinds of realizations strike me as especially painful because I feel I should be beyond them.  After all, I’m very aware of the concept of projection.  But the truth is that I am often unaware of my own projections.  Knowledge is not necessarily awareness.

 

And that is why relationships are the most powerful driving force to self-awareness.  They help us to see our projections reflected back to us.  What we don’t like about ourselves, we project onto other people.  It’s little wonder we see some people as our enemies.

 

Relationship expert Guy Finley says that people we perceive as enemies are like angels in disguise.   They are in our lives as mirrors that show us the things we need to change in ourselves.  When we notice the behaviors of these difficult people, and they upset us, we are reacting to things in ourselves that we don’t like.   His practice when dealing with this issue in his own life is gratitude.  Silently, he says to the imagined enemy, “Thank you. I didn’t realize that about myself.”

 

I remember from my early days in AA an old-timer who would say time and again, “If you spot it, you got it.”  It took me ten years to realize the truth of that.

 

God is the master teacher.  Experiences, even the so-called negative ones, are lessons.  When the cast of characters changes in our lives, but that same troubling issue keeps resurfacing, it is clear that it is not the other person but ourselves that is the source of our suffering.  God, however, is keenly aware what lessons are crucial for our development, and he will not let us move on from the lesson until we have mastered it.

 

Though these lessons ain’t easy, they are the ones that hold the greatest potential for our personal growth. My home improvement experience turned out to be a self-improvement experience.

 

May I, and may all of us, have the humility and the courage to honestly see ourselves in the mirror of other people.  It is in those moments that we have the greatest opportunity for change.  When that happens, we will begin to truly admire the person we see in our mirrors.

 

 

 

Three Steps to Releasing from Anxiety

Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.”  So it is true with me and probably with you as well.  When we follow our anxiety-ridden thoughts to their destination, inevitably we arrive at dark and fearsome places.

Anxiety is always about what MIGHT go wrong.  It hijacks our thought processes and takes us into fretful realms.  We may rise up in revolt, but the flight path seems predetermined and out of our control.

If this process is all too familiar, it’s because we have boarded that plane many times.  We think of an upcoming event or a task, and we play out the scenarios in our minds.  Then, as it often does, that inner terrorist rises from his seat and, before we can stop it,  we are captive passengers on Air Anxiety.

If you’re like me, you have worked hard to avoid anxiety’s emotional hijacking.  And we have tried a variety of methods to do so: affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, changing the thought channel.  Some of us have felt temporary relief from anxiety through the use of alcohol, prescribed and unprescribed drugs, gaming, Internet, and Facebook. Though we resist the tendency, we end up—time and again—passengers on an anxious journey.

Finally, after decades of struggling with anxiety, I have found a solution to this emotional hijacking in Acceptance and Commitment Theory (ACT).  And more specifically, in a very accessible book called Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong that applies the core tenets of ACT to anxiety.

“The principle reasons we get anxious is to protect ourselves from anticipated pain,” according to Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of the book.

Pain is an inevitable part of life.  Because we have an aversion to pain, we all become anxious at the thought of it.  And ACT acknowledges that all of us—even Zen masters—have anxious thoughts during a typical day.

This is because our brains developed in a very threatening environment.  We were not only predator but also prey.  What was bad was bad AND what could be bad was also bad.  So actual danger and the possibility of danger became one and the same thought.

ACT, however, provides a powerful psychological tool to cope with anxiety.   One of the keys to releasing from anxiety, Wilson and Dufrene say, is not engaging it.  When we spot a bear in the distance, it’s best to back away and create distance.  Same with our anxious thoughts.  When we feel ourselves being pulled into the thought, we need to disengage.

How do we do that?  By first understanding that all thinking is divided into two categories: the ruminating mind and the experiencing mind.  Rumination is what happens when the mind wanders.  Its domain is the past and the future.  The experiencing mind is about connection to the present moment.   If this sounds like mindfulness, then you are right.

Once we have this awareness, we can apply the concepts Wilson and Troy present that are based on ACT principles. They recommend that when a thought begins to generate anxiety, we apply this three-step process to release from its grip:

  1. Identify the thought. When we name the anxious thought, we alert ourselves to it and avoid stepping into its snare.

 

  1. Step back from it. The more we fight the thought, the more we get swept away in it. This includes trying to change the anxious thought to a positive thought.  Brain research has proved that the thought will recoil with even more power if we try to push it away from our consciousness. Instead, we release (defuse) from the thought rather than fuse with it.

 

  1. Make contact with the present moment. Change your attention from the future or past to the here and now.  Instead of sitting on the coach allowing your mind to toggle back and forth between the past and future, find something that you value to engage your mind in the present. This keeps you from endlessly reprocessing the past or worrying about the future. “Anxiety is always out of place in the present moment,” according to Wilson and Dufrene.

The key, then, to freedom from anxiety is to remain in the experiencing mind.  Anxiety cannot co-exist with the present moment because anxiety is always what could happen, not what is happening.

When we apply these three simple steps at the onset of an anxious thinking, we can find a freedom from anxiety that is simply more effective than other methods.  With practice, we can come to know a freedom from anxiety that is as refreshing as a good night’s sleep.

“If you can learn to remain connected to what’s going on in your life right now, accepting both the sweet and the sad, holding lightly the stories about what’s possible while turning your actions toward things that matter to you” then you have succeeded, as Wilson and Dufrene say, in avoiding the snare of anxiety.

May you all experience the joy of an anxiety-free life.

A Fabulous Tool for AA Sponsors and Life Coaches

Change can be daunting for anyone.  Many of us immediately feel anxious just at the mention of the word.  This may be what Frederica Mathewes-Green had in mind with the quote:  “Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.”

Addicts can relate because one reason we drank was that alcohol transformed us—without us having to do any work.   Tragically, this transformation is temporary and becomes increasingly elusive.   Instead, we must do the hard work change requires to experience the transformation—the miracle—the Big Book talks about.

And championing lasting change is a huge part of what we do as sponsors and coaches for the still suffering alcoholic and addict.

One of the most effective tools I have used in my life coaching practice and in sponsoring is motivational interviewing (MI).  This technique acknowledges that all people experience ambivalence to change.  They want to make a change. Yet, at the same time, they don’t want to make a change.

The power of MI is that the techniques empower sponsees/clients to arrive at their own reasons for making beneficial changes.  In a sense, they motivate themselves to change.   This is crucial because addicts frequently come to us harangued by the well-meaning spouse, family member, or friend to “get it together.”  From our own experiences as addicts, we know this only creates resentments, not the desire to change.

But there’s good news.  The fundamental tenet of MI is that we all possess the capacity for positive change. It’s only a matter of activating it.

Although I cannot do MI justice in a short blog, I want to acquaint you will some of it concepts.  These are taken directly from “Chapter 3—Motivational Interviewing as a Counseling Style.” To find the article, Google that title.   It’s published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US).

Motivational interviewing is a counseling style based on the following concepts:

  • “Ambivalence about substance use (and change) is normal and constitutes an important motivational obstacle in recovery.”
  • “Ambivalence can be resolved by working with your client’s intrinsic motivations and values.”
  • “The alliance between you and your client is a collaborative partnership to which you each bring important expertise.”
  • “An empathetic, supportive, yet directive, counseling style provides conditions under which change can occur. (Direct argument and aggressive confrontation may tend to increase client defensiveness and reduce the likelihood of behavioral change.)”

The primary task for those of you who want to use the MI approach is to help the sponsee/client to recognize how life might be better and then for him or her to choose the ways to make that happen.

When using the MI approach, keep these five general principles from the chapter in mind:

  • “Express empathy through reflective listening.” Because we have survived the same shipwreck of addiction, we have the capacity to be empathetic.
  • “Develop discrepancy between clients’ goals or values and their current behavior.” Your role is to help focus your sponsee’s attention on how current behavior differs from his or her own ideal or desired behavior.
  • “Avoid argument and direct confrontation.  The goal is to ‘walk’ with clients (accompany clients through treatment), not ‘drag’ them along (direct clients’ treatment).”
  • “Adjust to client resistance rather than opposing it directly.  Resistance is a signal that the client views the situation differently. This requires you to understand your client’s perspective and proceed from there.”
  • “Support self-efficacy and optimism. Clients must ultimately come to believe that change is their responsibility and that long-term success begins with a single step forward. The AA motto, “one day at a time,” may help clients focus and embark on the immediate and small changes that they believe are feasible.”

This blog is meant only to be an introduction to the Motivational Interviewing approach.  By seeing some of its key concepts, my hope is that you may become interested in reading more about MI.  By doing so, you will significantly increase your effectiveness as a sponsor/coach when addressing the often sensitive issue of change for the still suffering of this world.  May God bless your work!

The Glories of Gratitude

I first heard the phrase “develop an attitude of gratitude” in an AA meeting I attended in my first year of recovery.   My immediate reaction was “Isn’t that sweet.”  Then I dismissed it as one of those pathetic AA expressions.  Even though alcohol had totally kicked my ass Rodney King style, I was still carrying around with me this false bravado that placed me above gimmicky expressions.

Then, a few days later, I heard my sponsor say that he was “cultivating an attitude of gratitude.”  I stifled a gag and thought, “Hell, they’ve gotten to him to…although I like his word choice better.”

Here I am nine years later cultivating an attitude of gratitude.  What the hell happened to me?  Sobriety.  It works wonders—even on fools like me.  Yep, I’m kinda a gratitude junkie now.  I even got my girlfriend using now.  Before we turn off the lights at night, we take turns saying our gratitude out loud to each other.  I get a body rush of good feelings hearing each other go through the day, honoring the things that our Higher Power had blessed our lives with.

Gratitude softened me to life and strengthened my connection to it.  I was sleeping better and walked through my days with a heightened sense of appreciation.

About a month into it, the control freak in me raised its condemning head.  Alcoholism may really have a genetic link.  I thought of my drunken ancestor staring gloomily into the cavefire growing more and more irritated with his tribal homebuddies.   (In the picture above, my tribal ancestor is on the far left.)

“How long is she going to go on tonight?  That’s her seventh gratitude.  She’s like a gratitude relay runner who never passes the baton.”

With the patience that 10 years of sobriety can bring, I said to her, “You know, it might be better to just keep our gratitude to our top three for the day.” Realizing that I was sabotaging what I had created (What a surprise for an addict!), I decided to soften my comment with, “That way we can…uh…go into a little more depth.”

Fortunately, by the grace of God, I have been blessed with a girlfriend who laughs easily about herself and has taught me to do the same.  Just after the “more depth” comment, we both burst into laughter.  Yes, one of my most enduring gratitudes is for her.

Bill W. spoke of gratitude in the 12 x 12 suggesting a “genuine gratitude for blessings received and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we shall seek.”

Many times Bill W’s name has come up in my gratitude.  It’s like a verbal hug to Bill and to all my fellow travelers who have helped to “relieve me of the bondage of self.”

If you don’t already set a time aside during each day to practice gratitude, consider Bill W’s words.  Consider spending a few minutes in gratitude with your partner before turning the lights out.  Life can become pretty chaotic.  When it does, my girlfriend and I occasionally need to remind ourselves of the commitment we have made to each other by saying, “Let’s do some ‘tude.”

If you’re a single traveler at this point in your life, try writing in a gratitude journal before lights out.  When life grows dark, it will be a great way to realign your thoughts and heighten your awareness of just how blessed your life really is.

Well, night night to you, my fabulous fellow travelers.  May your path be illuminated by the radiance of God’s grace.