Happy Happy, Joy Joy

I recently read an article by a journalist who tracked her happiness for a year in an effort to see what motivates her. She did this in order to incorporate more of these happy generating things into her life. That's smart...science really is relevant. I appreciated her intentionality to document and track because it can be easy to minimize everyday simple pleasures.  As an anxious culture, we rarely sit in the here-and-now. This reality contributes to our difficulty to be presently engaged with ourselves and others (and I've already noted the actual health risks in a previous blog post). There is something to be said about taking time to capture the various here-and-now moments, collecting them, and reflecting on them. This benefits us by adding a level of conscious awareness. This is important if we want to lead fulfilled lives. 

While I have not kept an actual jar (though I like this idea), I do keep a monthly account of things that were particularly special and meaningful to me, from coffee with a friend, trying a new restaurant, a fun date, or getting an interview for a dream job. Even if there might have been something sad or stressful, I'll jot down the flowers a friend sent or the text messages that blew up my phone to comfort me. These are things I want to remember and be thankful for; it reorients me back to what I have in front of me in this given moment in time. My perspective shifts from what I lack to what has been given.

At the end of the year, I look back on each month and reflect on different things that were highlighted and otherwise would have forgotten. Because I've written it down, I can remember the great weather the day my friend and I walked Town Lake and the funny anecdote she told. It's a form of journaling that informs me of things that I value and give my time and attention. Because there are often repeated themes each month, I can be more diligent in how I choose to spend my time and focus. I can gauge how well I am doing at incorporating people and experiences that contribute to my overall mental and emotional health. Was this month particularly stressful or rejuvenating? The answer can be correlated to what did or did not make the list. This awareness reminds me I'm responsible for my own self-care and can take active steps to lessen my anxiety and stress simply by initiating with a friend to go for a walk or have coffee. While life will still be stressful, I do not have to feel helpless by those events or situations. I can take ownership of what I can change, what is within my jurisdiction and sometimes, that's a step in the right direction.

What are things that would make your jar/list? 

A Blessing, Restore

One day we will dance with no restraint, and we will love with no fear. For when the King returns, it will be as though our pain was but a dream and our hope is the only reality we know.                                                                                                                                   -T.B. LaBerge


Inside 'Inside Out'

A few years ago, Pixar knocked it out of the park (yet again) with Inside Out. This special film creatively depicted the significant role our emotions play in our day to day interactions with the world. It showed that each emotion is necessary and vital. Even more impactful, the film discussed the importance of grieving our losses. 

[We have] to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear.
— Dr. Dacher Keltner

Dacher Keltner, leading scientist in the study of emotions and a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, was one of the psychologists who served as a consultant for Pixar's Inside Out. He shared in a PacificStandard magazine interview with J. Wesley Judd, "Well, I think that the film really got a couple of big ideas about emotions right. One, [emotions] are really critical to how we look at the world — our perception and our attention and our memories and our judgment. They guide us in our handling of really important life circumstances, like moves and developmental changes...People in different traditions like to refer to emotions with a social idiom or a grammar of social interactions. Emotions are the structure, the substance, of our interactions with other people. If I’m falling in love with somebody, everything that I do in that euphoria of love — buying flowers, reciting poetry, touching the individual’s hair — it’s textured by the feeling, and it sets up these patterns of how we relate to each other. Those scenes in particular with Riley’s fights with parents and running away and coming back are all about sadness. That’s what it really got right. Emotions shape how we relate to other people."

One thing I personally and professionally appreciated about the film was its portrayal of Sadness. The film normalized an emotion often discarded because it is uncomfortable and is often a response to a loss. Often times, people will come into my office struggling with their sadness. Their sadness confuses them and they want to ostracize or minimize it. But it's a real emotion and true to the human experience.

Keltner and his colleague, Paul Ekman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote a New York Times article entitled, "The Science of 'Inside Out'" explaining that sadness is a healthy part of emotional development.

Dr. Keltner says, "One of the things I really resonated with is that we have a naive view in the West that happiness is all about the positive stuff. But happiness in a meaningful life is really about the full array of emotions, and finding them in the right place. I think that is a subtext of the movie: The parents want Riley to just be their happy little girl. And she can’t. She has to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear."

1. Emotions organize- rather than disrupt- rational thinking.
2. Emotions organize- rather than disrupt- our social lives.
— Dr. Dacher Keltner

He writes, "The real star of the film is Sadness, for "Inside Out" is a film about loss and what people gain when guided by feelings of sadness."

The articles continues by explaining insights from the science of emotion, "First, emotions organize- rather than disrupt-rational thinking. Traditionally in Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation." 

"Second, emotions organize- rather than disrupt- our social lives. Studies have found, for example, that emotions structure (not just color) such disparate social interactions as attachment between parents and children, sibling conflicts, flirtations between young courters and negotiations between rivals." 

""Inside Out" offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen's emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike."

Sadness purposefully contributes something beautiful to life. Keltner explains the "vital function of Sadness" is to guide the main character "to recognize the changes she is going through and what she has lost, which sets the stage for her to develop new facets of her identity." 

As a counselor, I want to help clients become acquainted with their sadness, their grief, by identifying and acknowledging their loss and its affect. In doing so, over time, their grief can add new textures and significant meaning to their lives. There is strength in the sorrow and beauty in the tears.

Sadness can be one of our best teachers. We have much to learn from her. Will we be willing students?

Big D

In order to open ourselves to the rich possibilities relationships can bring into our lives, there needs to be an acceptance that those same relationships can also bring hurt, sadness, and ache.

"Your best defense is a good offense." This might be true on the field or court but this strategy stays confined within those narrow parameters. For our lives, the best defense is a strong, impenetrable barrier between us and anyone who comes near. We saw that Cass used a pair of sunglasses to prevent others from coming too close and knowing him. He was safe from the pain that often comes from being in relationships but his precautions simultaneously denied him access to the comfort and intimacy that relationship provides. (All of this, of course, is happening unconsciously. Most of us don't wake up declaring we are going to push people away.)

In order to open ourselves to the rich possibilities relationships can bring into our lives, there needs to be an acceptance that those same relationships can also bring hurt, sadness, and ache. But we have been emotionally destroyed and devastated in relationship so feeling pain is not an option. We were made and desire to be known so being in isolation is also not an option.  So we creatively attempt to circumvent the natural consequences of authentic connection so we can still experience closeness while avoiding pain. We want a guarantee that we can experience intimacy and come out unscathed; it is a non-negotiable. Enter: self-protective defenses. 

We want a guarantee that we can experience intimacy and come out unscathed.

Enter: self-protective defenses.

The thing is, self-protection doesn't yield what we seek. We find that we don't have everything we want: perfect relationships and constant elation and euphoria, for all our effort, eludes us. Conflict, misunderstandings, and disappointment creep in. How dare they! To keep them at bay, we return time and time again to our perceived 100% guaranteed protective way. We WILL have pain-free interactions with people. To secure this, people must be pushed further and further away. This emotional distance reinforces people are dangerous. As a result, you feel the painful consequences of loneliness and despair. Our desire for healthy, real relationship is thwarted time and time again. We don't know HOW to change because we are unaware of what TO change. 

Defenses, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad; protecting ourselves is wise and healthy. The question is whether they are being used in a way to benefit and help you or if they are stunting growth and development. Becoming more aware of these protective ways of relating to people allows you the ability to determine what TO change and you can then see HOW to grow through self-exploration. These stories must be honored and given a place to safely be shared. Remember, the best defense is a good offense. 

Coat of Armor

My shield is down.
— Cass

There's a reason children (and adults alike) anticipate Halloween. Outside the bounty of sugar they will soon possess, it's an evening dedicated to being someone or something you're not. For a magical evening, you get to transform into whatever your heart desires and have it be accepted and sometimes even praised. 

If we take a closer look, there's something powerful in what the external can provide. Superheroes have their capes which can instantly transform an average news reporter into the Man of Steel. For us mere mortals, we have power suits, haircuts and access to blogs and online tutorials demonstrating how to dress for success. I find nothing wrong with physically transforming ourselves or wanting to look our best. The problem lies when a dependence is formed on physical measures to give us a sense of who we are.

The problem lies when a dependence is formed on physical measures to give us a sense of who we are.

The podcast, Invisibilia, is one of my new favorites. In the episode "The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes" the creators explore what clothes provide for their guests. 

One such guest, Cass, is "convinced the right article of clothing could transform him". As an adolescent, after daily encounters with bullies, he set out to find a way to make the bullying cease through what he wore. After multiple clothing experiments, he landed on a pair of sunglasses and to his delight, the bullying ended.

Cass found that these sunglasses provided him with protection. He was transformed into someone different, someone who was no longer made fun of, someone who was not the source of abuse and life was better for it. In fact, they worked so well that Cass has literally taken this defensive measure into adulthood. To this day, he still wears his sunglasses, day and night, indoors and out, with his closest friends and strangers alike.

He genuinely believes they hold a "magical power" and have the "ability to protect bullied kids". He explains that "shielding the eyes can provide cover to people who need it...special advantages for those who choose not to wear a mask over their face". But at what cost comes this cover?

Those who know him describe him as "Look[ing] at the world through a telescope". He stands at a distance with a physical and emotional barrier. This "shielding of the eyes" prevents him from intimate knowledge of people closest to him. Cass does not even know the color of his ex-wife's eyes. This measure of protection, his defense of choice, changes how he sees the world. It keeps him locked in a world of being the bullied adolescent that is unsure if he is safe or not without his sunglasses.

The interviewer asked him to take his sunglasses off and reported that he looked "naked" and "vulnerable". To her, he changed and seemed different. He explained that he feels flustered without his glasses ("My shield is down"). These glasses have been given power to embolden him to engage the world.

The objects offer security to the degree the child allows it.

These physical barriers of protection, what I call defenses, mirrors what happens on an emotional level. It isn't the sunglasses themselves that actually kept bullies at bay but rather what it gave Cass, a sense of power. It's the same with security objects children have. The objects offer security to the degree the child allows it. 

I'm not disparaging that Cass needed to find a way to protect himself. I'm glad he found a way to survive the cruelty of others. He resourced himself with what was available at the time. But he's an adult now and what was once used to help him is now harming him. He is unable to engage others without them. Because his shield is always up, he misses out on deeper, more intimate relationships and in turn others miss out on truly experiencing him. 

Because his shield is always up, he misses out on deeper, more intimate relationships...others miss out on truly knowing and experiencing him.

We are all walking around with our own version of sunglasses, our own shield. And like Cass, we needed them at the time but what was once helpful is now harmful. The cost of a shield is an honesty that is missing, a prevention of intimacy. Do we want to live life with little access to people and ourselves?

What might it mean to let others see you? What might it mean for you to see yourself? 

We'll explore the answers to some of these questions later this week.

Homeward Bound

I wanted to continue the conversation on Rumi's "The Guest House" and a reactive response of denying parts of oursevles. We last left off with the question of whether or not we would agree to exile nothing or as Rumi would say, "welcome and entertain them all".

To dispel the often misguided notion that counseling is solely to talk about your feelings, let me tell you that, for me, that is never the end goal I have for my clients. For those who are concerned that the purpose is to dredge up every past, painful memory, please hear me: we are not setting out to be masochistic (feeling pain for pain's sake) or indulge in every emotion that comes our way. While "feeling talk" does occur and is important to good therapeutic work, "the goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves" (Stephen Cope). A homecoming. 

What are the narratives that keep you from feeling whole?

For many of us, we've presented a facade that has led to being gone for a long while and aren't really sure how to get back home, back to what is authentic. The breadcrumbs we left along the way got eaten up. Or maybe we didn't ever feel at home in our own skin; we never had a chance to develop a healthy connection to our innermost being because it was not safe for various reasons. Either way, we're lost.

We've attempted to make due with the loneliness of our homelessness by distracting or numbing through various addictions (work, relationships, substances, food, shopping, working out, and on and on the list can go). But we know that in each of those places, you can't truly relax. You're not home. And that is a terrifying feeling.

You may feel like you've been gone too long and wouldn't even know if you'd be welcomed back. Or perhaps you're meant to be a vagabond, roaming around from the next place to the next. Shame tells you that you've pretended and hidden for so long that that is the only version of you that will be accepted. These are all important things to consider and examine and explore. What are the narratives that keep you from being reunited with yourself, from feeling whole?  

Until we can accept and embrace joy, depression, meanness, sorrow, the dark thought, shame, and malice, we leave ourselves stuck in no man’s land.

Our map back home cannot contain exiles. Those parts that have been split off leave us fractured which is the complete opposite of being whole. Until we can accept and embrace each arrival ("a joy, a depression, a meanness", "a crowd of sorrows", "the dark thought, the shame, the malice"), we leave ourselves stuck in no man's land. 

Can we, as Rumi beckons, treat each guest honorably? I love this notion of honoring our emotions, our parts, our self. Each, in its own way, is there to tell us something, sent as a guide. They serve as our compass and have an important purpose. And perhaps, instead of shutting the door in their face, by greeting them, hosting them, having gratitude for them, they may be "clearing you out for some new delight" and lighting the way back home, where the possibility exists of feeling safe, received and accepted. Whole