My Journey from Control to Acceptance

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Everywhere you look in modern American culture, you hear people saying they want to be happy. The goal of life is seemingly to maintain a consistent state of happiness.  It wasn’t that long ago that I believed staying “happy all the time” was achievable.  Then, one of the wisest people I know told me something profound.  She said, “I don’t think of happiness as a state I try to stay in.  Something happens and it makes me happy.  Through Christ, I have joy, peace, love, and hope all the time, but I don’t try to stay happy.”  While I couldn’t snap out of my perspective that quickly, for the past few years, this comment has shaped my growth.  I wanted to be a person who didn’t try to stay happy all the time.

The next teacher God placed in my path was a lovely counselor in the Midwest named Brenda. She took my call when I reached out for help during a moment of intense anxiety.  After I described my struggle with being present in the moment, a hyper focus on planning and control, and generally fighting to regain feeling “happy all the time” she suggested I get a book called The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. I went straight to the bookstore, bought the only copy on the shelf, and started reading it right away.

This book was utterly transformative for me. I knew that the need to feel happy was at the root of my problem, but I didn’t know to change my mindset.  This book, and specifically Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (“ACT” pronounced like the word “act”) literally taught me the skills and techniques to make that transition, and I continue to use them every day.

Dr. Harris argues that happiness is not the normal state for human beings because our brains have evolved to warn us of danger, not to make us feel good. He outlines four myths about happiness that most people believe, the last of which rang most true for me: “You should be able to control what you think and feel”.   In fact, we have very little control over our thoughts and feelings.  Positive thinking and a lot of popular psychology encourages people to just “think more positively” – which actually helps to set the happiness trap.  The trap is set when we believe that the only acceptable feeling is “happy” and then struggle against any of the “negative” emotions that consistently occur in life.

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The progression of information and skill development in ACT is brilliant! When I first tried to “be in the moment” when my anxiety was at its worst, it was a complete failure.  I knew that I didn’t have the coping strategies to be comfortable in the moment.  ACT starts with dealing with your thoughts and teaching you how to minimize the importance of thoughts.  Rather than trying to turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts, this therapy teaches you to see them for what they are – a stream of words running through your mind.  Whether or not you give your full attention to a particular thought should be dictated by your answer to this question: “Is this thought helpful?” That is, does it help you take effective action in your life?  If the answer is no, you can let that thought run in the background and not struggle with it.  The goal of this skill, which is called defusion, is to accept your thoughts.

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Next up are emotions. Unhelpful and/or painful thoughts can often trigger uncomfortable feelings.  By dealing with thoughts first, you are then left with the emotions that are currently occurring in your body.  Again, the goal is acceptance of your feelings, instead of fighting them and flipping on your struggle switch.  The skill of expansion teaches us to open up and give our feelings as much room as they need to move on.  This process involves acknowledging that the moment is as it is and the feelings in your body are only sensations that you can observe, breathe into, and let be.  Instead of adding a lot of additional discomfort and anxiety by struggle against what you’re feeling, this state of expansion lets your feelings move, much like the weather that is constantly changing.

Once you’ve learned how to accept your thoughts and feelings, then you’re ready to learn how to connect with the present moment. Connection is all about turning your attention to what is happening around you: what you can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch.  It enables you to connect with the people you love by truly seeing them, noticing their feelings and readily responding to their needs.  There’s no greater joy that being able to be fully present to a loved one, right when they need you most.  When I am “in my head” my response is too often, “I’ll be there in a minute.”  When I’m connected to the moment, I transition and respond more quickly and joyfully.

There’s a beautiful irony to the process of acceptance and connection. When you break out of the happiness trap and accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment, you’re then able to connect and be present in your life more fully, which tends to result in more happiness and fulfillment!  Because, just as my wise friend noted, happiness comes from something happening that makes you feel happy.  If you are distracted from the moment by your thoughts, you won’t truly be present to experience those things that make you feel happy.  I now recognize that what I once considered being “happy all the time” was actually a feeling of control that make me feel good.  Feeling the range of human emotions allows you to recognize when you’re happy, sad, mad, joyful, peaceful, frustrated, and all the rest.  You can’t have the highs without the lows.

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Then, once you are able to connect to the moment and let your thoughts and feelings come and go, the book focuses on living a life you value. Being intentional about what you believe in, what you’re passionate about, and what truly matters in life, then begins to shape the committed actions you take. Since we ultimately have little control over our thoughts and feelings, but a lot of control over what we actually do, it make sense to focus our attention on valued action.  I found that, once I was present in the moment, opportunities to act on my values presented themselves all the time.  Sienna wants to talk about her day?  Yes, stop everything and listen.  Teo wants to go throw the baseball?  Yes, let’s do it!  Dennis is getting ready to sit in the backyard with coffee and read?  I’ll grab my book!  A friend or loved one needs to share what they’re going through?  Let’s talk.  Those moments can easily be missed when your thoughts demand all of your attention.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy isn’t tied to any particular religion, though Dr. Harris does outline his version of the Serenity Prayer in the book. I loved this connection!  The Serenity Prayer is so meaningful to me.  Through a lot of prayer and God’s guidance plus the skills of ACT provided me with the ability to accept, discern, and trust in God.

This is obviously just a summary, so I’d encourage anyone who’s struggling with anxiety, loss of the moment, or self-defeating habits to check out this therapy.

Struggling with Control… Again.

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The little story of letting go that I recently shared was just the tip of the iceberg.  Turns out, I had a lot more letting go to do.

Several weeks ago, I had the sudden realization that I was an “Upholder” based on my tendency to meet all internal and external expectations.  Okay, that’s true and fine.  Then, I decided – “Why not embrace my Upholder Tendency and focus on establishing more concrete habits?  I can monitor them and stop spending so much mental energy deciding what to do.  I’ll decide once and then not think about it!”

Two new apps were downloaded – one for logging my blood sugars, meals, etc. and another to track my habits.  For the past few weeks, I’ve been monitoring my activities, eating fewer and fewer carbohydrates, and generally zeroing in on the habits I wanted to cultivate.  At first, I felt really awesome!  Look at my self-discipline!

But, all along there’s been this slightly nagging feeling that these behaviors were starting to trigger a desire for control.  But, I brushed it away.  Through prayer and surrendering, I’ve come to see that this episode is very much like the time I threw my planner away.  Less dramatically, I just deleted the habits app from my phone this morning.

There is a part of me that LOVES structure, discipline, and self-control.  However, that’s the part of me that, when nurtured, pulls away from the present moment, resides in my head, seeks to control myself and those around me, and generally feels that my little world is subject to my command.  I find myself feeling frustrated and short tempered when my children don’t behave the way they “should”.  I don’t feel my emotions deeply because I’m busy thinking about what “should” happen next, what I “should” be doing.

butterflyTracking and monitoring daily habits reinforces the idea that each day can be mastered by my choices and actions.  This directly contradicts the sense of curiosity that being present and accepting the moment fosters.  Rather than freedom, focusing on these habits started to make me feel agitated and distant from what really matters.

For me, the opposite of being in “control” is a state of surrendering, accepting, and trusting God.  He’s in control and will put in front of me what I “should” be doing at any given moment.  When I consider the fact that I don’t know what the day ahead holds, instead of feeling fear, I feel hopeful and excited.  My prayer becomes: “Lord, show me how I can love your people today.”  And then I stop focusing on my thoughts and instead look around me at my family, friends, coworkers, and strangers that cross my path.  That’s what I’m here to do, to love and serve others.  Not to track how much water I’ve consumed or whether I snacked too close to bedtime.

I have a reminder on my phone that pops up every few days. It says: “The thinking self struggles with control, but the observing self doesn’t.”  This was one of the great insights from The Happiness Trap.  At any given time, we can either be thinking or observing our direct experience with the world, but not both.  While thoughts and feelings come and go, we can actively choose where to place our attention.  Did that passing thought need my full attention, or should I look around me and notice the present moment?  We get to make that decision hundreds of times each day.

The struggle with control comes from the fact that our thoughts are largely out of our control.  When we get hooked by our thoughts, it’s typically because there’s something about them we want to change.  We make judgments, criticisms, or assumptions that cause us discomfort, so we engage our thoughts with other information, in hopes of changing our thoughts to be more positive or comforting.  I’ve learned (time and again!) that recognizing my thoughts are just words running through my head, which often don’t require my full attention, I’m much more peaceful.

When I trust that God will guide my actions through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, instead of relying on my very fallible thoughts, I feel immensely more fulfilled and at peace.

Acceptance is a Beautiful Thing

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I’m feeling restful and quiet today, in a peaceful and prayerful kind of way. Last Wednesday, I remarked that I had been feeling really happy and energized the past couple weeks.  Who knows how I’ll feel tomorrow, or next week.  Being able to feel the ebb and flow of my emotions is, in itself, a good thing.  I cherish the deep knowledge that all of these feelings are fleeting and transient.

I’m on Day 22 of a Whole30. If you’re not familiar with this plan, you basically just eat whole foods for 30 days.  No grains, dairy, legumes, alcohol, or added sweeteners, even natural ones.  Within a few days of starting this plan, it was clear to me that I’m still the girl who thrives on discipline.  I LOVE having strict rules for my diet.  It makes me (and my blood sugar!) feel under control.  Needing to take very little insulin each day was like achieving a little gold star…from whom, I’m not sure.

Focusing on my diet has extended to my family as I’m reading Grain Brain and learned that the medical community is realizing what we diabetics can clearly see on our glucose monitors, grains and refined sugar are not good for our bodies. Dennis and I have absolutely observed how refined wheat has impacted Sienna’s ability to focus and concentrate at school.  As a family, we’ve embraced a grain free diet and she is a very enthusiastic participant.  Last week, I overhead Sienna playing “paleo restaurant” in the bathtub and had to choke back my tears.  It’s brought me such joy to make her delicious, healthy food and watch her devour it!

Meanwhile, I’ve been training for a marathon and running longer distances each weekend. Setting a goal and making the effort to achieve it, likewise brings a sense of accomplishment and control.

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Riding this high the past couple weeks, I found myself prayerful considering whether I was falling into a place of striving to control my emotional state. A lot of planning goes into eating whole foods and long distance running training.  Was I feeling so “up” because of my hyper focus on planning?  Did I feel happy because life felt controllable?

As it happens, I started feeling a little uneasy and apprehensive last night, for no particular reason that came to mind. After reading for a long time and dismissing some passing thoughts about how well I’d fall asleep, I ended up tossing and turning for a long time last night.  When I woke this morning, I felt that tinge of dread that I’d be exhausted and anxious today.  Instead, I decided, “This is a good day to practice acceptance and being mindfully in the moment.”  I prayed Proverbs 3:5 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths. Then, I got up to make paleo pancakes for my family.

I now recognize that those nights when I don’t fall asleep quickly are gentle little reminders to surrender and stop trying to control my feelings. When I first read The Happiness Trap, I was struck by Dr. Harris’s observation that a full life involves the entire spectrum of human emotions.  That concept was something I could embrace.  Instead of a goal to be “happy” my focus became living the “full life” that God has providentially given me.  This full life was going to involve anxiety, sadness, anger, frustration, joy, fear, delight, excitement, boredom, etc.

A couple years ago, I’d still see this transition from high to relatively low as a problem, or at least a negative. But, time and experience has shown me that this is just life.  It’s real.  It’s not super fun and happy all the time.  If I still needed to feel in control, my struggle switch would flip and I would strive to feel “okay” again.  Now I know that staying present, defusing my unhelpful thoughts, and letting my feelings change on their own, is the healthiest mindset.

Acceptance is a beautiful thing.

Making Mental Space for the Important Stuff

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I had what felt like a mini revelation yesterday. Maybe it’s not that impressive, but here goes…

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After a few days of feeling disconnected and needlessly ruminating, I’d used defusion to flip my struggle switch back off so I could connect to the moment and let my thoughts come and go. Feeling super productive and mindfully present all day Thursday, I realized another benefit of being in the moment.  You can remember what you need to do so much easier!  I’d just gotten back from a lunchtime trip to Costco and I’d zipped through the store grabbing only the items on my list, without looking at it!  When I got to the checkout, I pulled out my list and reviewed it.  Everything was already in my cart.  It’s the little things, isn’t it?!

For the past several years, I haven’t trusted myself to remember much at all. Tasks I need to complete, items I need to purchase, etc., all end up going into my phone, computer, or a list on my desk to ensure it gets done.  I ask the ladies on my team at work to send me an email or IM me anything they’ve asked me to do when I’m away from my desk.  I think it started with pregnancy brain and then transformed into mommy brain, but whatever the reason, I try to get the items out of my head and into a system I will check later.  For work stuff, that’s still a good practice.

The types of things I find it so much easier to remember are… calling my sister to tell her that baby gifts are on the way, making a grooming appointment for Claira, having my A1C blood draw done before my next endocrinologist appointment, reminding Sienna to write a get well card for her friend who had her tonsils removed, texting a friend to see how their day is going. I’ll often think of things I want to do, but can’t do them that very moment.  These are the types of activities I used to write in my planner and enjoy crossing off later.

When I was living so much of life disconnected from the moment and focused on planning the next thing, I needed to write these things down or I’d forget about them. Now, I find that being present means that I’m mindful of the important people and priorities in my life, so I’m thinking of them naturally when I have the time and resources to attend to them.  Does that make sense?  Also, by having less “stuff” on my calendar and in my life to plan and organize, I have the time and space to give these important activities attention.

I remember when I first started down this transformation toward living more mindfully, I was afraid that I’d start dropping balls left and right. Wasn’t my planning and organizing responsible for keeping my world spinning??  Wouldn’t my house become a mess, my children become unruly (okay, more unruly!), my good eating and exercise habits unravel, my work productivity suffer greatly, if I stopped?  I quickly learned those fears were completely unfounded.

Instead, being in the moment means that I notice the things that need to get done when they can be done. Microwave dirty?  Clean it.  Dog looking shaggy? Make a grooming appointment.  Son’s toenails too long?  Cut them.  A friend or family member is on my mind? Call or reach out somehow. Sienna wants to play a game? Play with her.  Feeling distance from my husband? Hug him.

The important things will get done when we clear out the noise, activity, and distraction that demands our attention. I don’t need more planning and organizing to ensure I’m spending my time on what matters.  All I need is mindfulness and the mental space to see the needs and respond to them.

Life’s About Change…

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I’ve probably mentioned this before, but here it is again: I’ve never liked change. As a kid I remember getting upset when we changed out our couch or even got a new car. I liked things to stay the same, be predictable. A lot of the anxiety that hit in 2013 was due to the massive change of having Sienna start elementary school. So, for much of my life change was scary, threatening, and something to be avoided.

Now that I’ve done the hard work of getting in touch with my feelings and no longer plan excessively in order to control my emotions, I understand that change is persistent, healthy, and uncontrollable. There is a timeless quote attributed to Heraclitus: “The only constant in life is change.” Such wisdom in that little phrase.

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Although it’s irrational, I see now that I feared change because of this unrealistic idea that those feelings of discomfort and unsettledness would persist, forever. It was really the emotions that change evoked that I was avoiding, not the change itself.   But, ironically, feelings change all the time. People adapt. What is scary and disorienting at one stage of life, then become the normal, routine, predictable things in the next stage.

Dropping off Sienna at her elementary school was new and made me feel anxious and unsure of myself for several weeks. Then, it became normal and routine. This summer was her third year in the Extended Student Services “ESS” summer program. I know the drill and it has felt happily familiar as I dropped her off and picked her up each day.

Realizing that feelings are always changing was a huge revelation for me. In The Happienss Trap, Dr. Harris says that emotions are like the weather – they’re always changing. When I was feeling down, this insight provided hope that I’d be happy once again. When I’m feeling good, it’s a reminder not to hold on too tight, this feeling will inevitably pass.

Feelings are always changing and so are we. Imagining situations that may arise in the future and fearing how those circumstances will make us feel is the cause of most worry and anxiety. The thing is, even if that exact situation occurred, we don’t know how we’d feel about it in the future. Not only do circumstances change, but we change. What is scary or devastating to us in our imagination, may not be that awful when it actually occurs, sometime in the future. This is another reason why it’s fruitless to worry or try to control our feelings. Instead, it’s much healthier to live as The Serenity Prayer says: “Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time…” You simply can’t know how you’re going to feel or react to any future circumstances. But you can pray and trust that God will be there to support and strengthen you, whatever happens down the road.

Whenever I spend time thinking about change, I will eventually hear the lyrics to an old Patty Loveless song that goes: “Life’s about change and nothing ever stays the same…” There’s a poignancy and rawness to that line that never fails to touch my heart.

The Wisdom of “Inside Out”

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headLast week we saw the Disney movie Inside Out.  It was awesome!  I laughed. I cried. I loved it.

Part way through the film, Dennis leaned into me and whispered, “This movie is your life.  It reminds me of what you went through.”

“I know!  If only this movie was out two years ago,” I replied.

Without giving the entire movie away, the story is about Riley, an 11 year-old girl, and her personified emotions: Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness.  Each emotion is a character in Riley’s mind that dictates how she’s feeling.  They run Riley’s emotional life from Headquarters and store her memories, which are little marbles in Riley’s head. There’s a fair amount of sophisticated psychology behind the childlike interworking’s of Riley’s mind. It’s very clever.

inside_out___photo_time__by_miacat7-d8a4ifcThe drama of the movie comes when Riley’s family moves across the country and she tries to put on a happy face while all the core aspects of her personality are challenged by this major change.  Joy tries to convince the other emotions that Riley needs to “Think positive!” and be happy, rather than let Fear, Sadness, Anger, or Disgust run the controls.

The epiphany that Joy (and Riley) discover is the same lesson I learned over the past couple years: you have to let yourself feel the entire spectrum of your emotions.  You can’t truly feel joy if you don’t allow yourself to feel sadness, anger, fear, disgust, or any other emotion.  Once Riley lets herself cry and be sad, she felt the comfort and love of her parents.  That scene reminded me of the connection between sorrow and gratitude.  They are deeply intertwined; you can’t get rid of one without destroying the other.

joyAnother thing that struck me about this movie was how many of the emotions are considered “negative”.  Out of the five feelings, only Joy is acceptable in our day and age.  Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust are not considered pleasant emotions and therefore people spend a lot of time trying to avoid or minimize the time they spend feeling them.

When we returned home from our trip, I flipped though a couple pages of The Happiness Trap, just to see what insights grabbed me.  Sienna saw the book on the couch and read the title aloud, “The Happiness Trap?”

“Yep.  The lesson in this book is basically the same as Inside Out: You have to let yourself feel all of your emotions, instead of just trying to stay happy.  That’s the trap.” I told her.

She smiled and nodded, knowingly.

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Have you seen the movie yet?  What did you think??

Get out of your Head and into your Life!

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It’s been a little while since I posted something new here.  The past couple weeks have been full and fun.  Sienna’s school year ended and then Gaga came to visit.  We got to hear all about Gaga’s amazing European adventure, Dennis and I had a wonderful date night, and we took the kids to the pool a couple times.  We had a laidback, relaxing transition into summer.

During this time, I have embraced being present and as a result, I learned something new along my journey of awakening…

When I first realized that I had an issue with needing to control my feelings through planning and spending an excessive amount of time thinking, analyzing, (i.e. “in my head”), I had to learn to be comfortable in the moment.  As I practiced defusion, expansion, and connection – I still had a tendency to hold on to specific thoughts that made me feel better.  The thoughts were perhaps healthier and more helpful, but still it was an intellectual or mental exercise.

However, I did have times where I embraced the moment and felt surprising feelings that were genuine, inspiring, and poignant.  I liked feeling things deeply again.  I felt more alive.  True, I’d also sometimes feel down, but then the joyful moments felt more special and real.

I realize now that when I said I was “happy all the time” what I actually felt was a sense of control over my thoughts and feelings.  Control made me feel okay.  But, it didn’t truly make me feel happy.

cropped-sunset.jpgThoughts and feelings are not the same thing.  In order to feel, you actually have to stop thinking.  Contemplating something means you’ve retreated into your mind; you can’t pay attention to both your thoughts and the sensations in your body, at the same time.

I’ve noticed this with sunsets.  We have a great view of the sunset from our backyard, so I’ve had many different experiences with them.  Sometimes my mind is constantly going, telling my how beautiful it is, how peaceful this ought to make me feel, how lucky we are to have this view, etc.  Other times, I just look.  I breathe.  I notice the palm trees in the distance, the different layers of colors, the fog rolling in from the coast, the sound of the birds in the trees.  I experience the sunset and do not have any preconceived ideas on how it should make me feel.

So, that’s the next revelation for me.  In order to be in touch with my feelings, I have to be present and connected to the moment.  Thoughts come and go all the time, of course.  It’s not about controlling my thoughts, it’s about not giving my thoughts so much attention.

Life is to be experienced; to be felt.  My loved ones are to be seen, heard, and held.  Listening to Sienna’s stories or entering Teo’s game is how I can really be their mom and show I care, rather than simply thinking about how much I love my children. Taking Holy Communion and participating in the divine liturgy are how I connect with Christ, much more than in my moments of contemplation about God.  Going to the funeral of someone we never met in support of our church family is deeply fulfilling and allowed us to teach Sienna about death in a way that no intellectual conversation ever could.

A line from The Happiness Project says: “Get out of your head and into your life!”  I’ve had that line pop into my mind like a little mantra lately.  When I’m distracted by my thoughts and pulled out of the moment, sometimes reciting that is all it takes for me to let go and reconnect.