Anyone who has trained to offer mental health, spiritual, or psychosocial care knows that part of the training process in coming to a greater understand of oneself. It is important as self-knowledge can help each of us understand those things that trigger adverse reactions and learn how to both recognize and work within those triggers. The same holds true for all life’s relationships. In the following article, the authors describe the value of self-knowledge in our personal relationships as well.
One goal common to many types of psychotherapy as well as psychoanalysis is to learn about yourself, who you are (your inner self and outer self) at present and how you got there.
Yet knowing yourself may be one of the hardest tasks you’ll ever attempt.For many of us, a myriad of obstacles spring up when we attempt it.
If you tend to be intellectual or philosophical, you might get mired in questions such as: “Who is the me/self that is assessing the me/self?”
If you tend to be emotional, you might get bogged down in less-than-positive emotions around the issue.
If you are more likely to be spiritual, questions such as “Why am I here” or “Why was I created” can sometimes stymie self-knowledge.
But knowing yourself is important to all your relationships, helping you fine tune your sense of humanness.
Parents and Kids
Effective parents, for example, know themselves. Self-awareness without self-centerdness, is an important ingredient in any relationship but essential to healthy parenting.
In order to deeply understand what your child needs, to really “get” where your child is coming from, and how he experiences the world around him, it’s essential that you know who you are: what makes you tick, what brings you down, what uplifts you, what turns you off.
When we know who we are, we are more open to seeing beyond the surface in others.
But in order to understand who we are, we have to take the time to do so. By learning more about who you are and how you feel about yourself, your child, and life in general, you’ll be able to interact more effectively—and lovingly—with your child.
—From The Parent-Child Dance: A Guide to Help You Understand and Shape Your Child’s Behavior by pediatric behavioral specialist Miriam Manela, OTR/L and C.R. Zwolinski (PsychCentral’s Therapy Soup)
One of the most important things I’ve learned while working on The Parent-Child Dance with Miriam, is that in any relationship, having an appreciation for who you are and an understanding of how you “take in” the world, how you experience life, really makes a difference to how you relate to others.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it?
But sometimes you have to hear an obvious fact over and over again before it sticks.
You have to know what makes you tick, in order to find satisfying work. You also need to have an appreciation of what makes others tick, in order to create satisfying work relationships. This can be on the smaller scale, for example, you don’t need to know everything about that person in another department who you meet once a month, but knowing the person you are teaming with on a project can be vital.
Coworkers get together after work to relax and unwind, but this is the best time to pay attention and really listen to your coworkers. You may see a sense of humor you’ve never noticed before, or learn about the personal pressures they are under. Carry your knowledge through to your work relationship so you can be supportive, as well as tap into their talents and interests.
Friendships and Personal Relationships
Sometimes, we can be a little obsessed with having our own needs met. And sometimes we can push our own needs to the background, so much so that we forget who we are. Striking that balance requires paying attention and learning all the ways in which you cope, deflect, or deny.
Knowing yourself doesn’t mean that you cannot change yourself. You have to know yourself well enough to sense whether change will enrich your relationships, emotional well-being, and life in general.
Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is an internationally licensed psychotherapist and addiction specialist with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. Learn more about Richard here.
I find death reflection to be a very honest look at living. While it is only a microcosm of the mindset of the dying, reflecting on what it means to have limits to life is a valuable exercise. The following is one person’s death reflection looking at meaning in life after experiencing multiple deaths in the first week of 2015.
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have always imagined.” — Henry David Thoreau
“No, there have been four deaths,” my mom’s husband corrected me. “Your cousin’s mom died yesterday.” Talk about a grim way to start off the New Year. The man who lived across the street from my mom, the elderly lady my mom cared for years ago, my brother’s friend’s wife — she was only 32, four years younger than I am — and now my aunt. How is that for the first week of 2015?
The interesting thing about death is that if we’re not “old” or in poor health, it isn’t something that is at the forefront of our mind. Meaning, we think we have plenty of time. It’s this false sense of time that keeps us in jobs we’re unhappy with for a decade or in passionless relationships or from chasing our dreams.
Five years ago my brother’s friend Jona found out he had a rare form of cancer and within a few weeks he passed away. Jona documented his last six weeks in a blog — prepare to shed some tears. He was only 27. What would you do if you knew you only have six weeks left to live?
To have four people within my extended circle of family and friends die within the same week, made death feel not only inevitable, but closer to home. Regardless of how much or little time we have left, here are four things death teaches us about life.
“It often takes suffering and lost in order to remind us of how precious life is.” — Rob Bell
1. Our time is limited. Whether we live to be 27 years old like Jona or we live to be 107 years old, until science is able to figure out a way to make us live forever, one day our life on this planet will come to an end. Meaning, that we don’t have time to wait to take that trip to Italy we’ve been dreaming about the last few years or to start a business or to spend more time with our family because, like it or not, the clock is ticking. So how do you want to spend your precious days or weeks, or even minutes?
Six months ago while in France, I had a brush with death when a motorcycle nearly ran me over. That was enough to make me speed up the changes I was considering making at the end of the year. I’ll just give it a few more months and see, I kept thinking, when in fact I already knew what needed to happen and was basically procrastinating.
2. Follow our heart. As Steve Jobs so famously said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” I know it can be scary chasing after our dreams, ask anyone who has tried, myself included. Following your heart, following your passion, dreaming big is not easy, because if it were everyone would be doing it. But, here’s the thing, would you rather live a life of What ifs? or a life of I’m going for it!
“You are never too old or too broken. It is never too late to begin, or to start all over again.” — Bikram Choudhury
3. Second chances. Life is all about second chances. Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga said “You are never too old or too broken. It is never too late to begin, or to start all over again.” Each day, each breath, each moment is an opportunity for us to try again, a chance to create the life we truly want and to go after our dreams. When was the last time you asked yourself, Am I living the life I really want? If the answer is no, then maybe it’s time to figure out what you can do to change it.
4. The present moment. Now is the only guarantee we have. Now is what matters most in life. In the Power of NOW, Eckhart Tolles says, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.” Although some things take time and cannot be created overnight, the now is where the miracles happen. Now is when we have the opportunity to experience the intricate details of life. However, to fully experience the joys of watching your child take their first step or the majestic Na Pali coast, it is important for us to be fully present, to live in that space of wonderment where life is currently happening.
Current understandings of grief has shifted away from looking at grief as a continuous upward process through stages and instead looks to how individuals integrate loss into their lives. In the following description, we see how misperceptions of grief can be a hindrance for people, as the expectations of moving through grief are often unrealistic. With these misperceptions, when grief doesn’t move forward, people often get increasing anxious and concerned, and a vicious cycle begins. In the bereavement group I co-run, we had a person attend who shared she hadn’t cried for her husband for many months and worried something was wrong. We discussed how tears come for people at different times and in different situations. In a subsequent meeting, she shared that she had finally cried, as she was no longer trying to force herself to shed tears, the tears came.
By PATRICK O’MALLEY JANUARY 10, 2015 1:16 PM January 10, 2015 1:16 pm
By the time Mary came to see me, six months after losing her daughter to sudden infant death syndrome, she had hired and fired two other therapists. She was trying to get her grief right.
Mary was a successful accountant, a driven person who was unaccustomed to being weighed down by sorrow. She was also well versed in the so-called stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. To her and so many others in our culture, that meant grief would be temporary and somewhat predictable, even with the enormity of her loss. She expected to be able to put it behind her and get on with her life.
To look at her, she already had done so. The mask she wore for the world was carefully constructed and effective. She seemed to epitomize what many people would call “doing really well,” meaning someone who had experienced a loss but looked as if she was finished grieving. Within a few days of the death of her daughter she was back at work and seemed to function largely as before.
The truth of her life was something else. Six months after her baby’s death she remained in deep despair. She was exhausted from acting better than she felt around co-workers, friends and family. As is so often the case, she had diagnosed her condition as being “stuck” in grief, believing that a stubborn depression was preventing her from achieving acceptance and closure.
Was she in denial, she wondered. She also wondered if she was appropriately angry. The bottom line was that she knew she was depressed — a psychiatrist had prescribed an antidepressant — and that is what she wanted me to treat.
Earlier in my practice, I would have zeroed in on that depression. Was there a family history? Had she been depressed before? Was the medicine helping? What were her specific symptoms? Knowing the answers might suggest why she was stuck. Or I would have reviewed the stages of grief, as she had, looking for one in which the work remained incomplete.
But I had begun to operate differently by the time Mary showed up, which was 10 years after my own loss. My firstborn child had also died before he was a year old. It was why Mary had chosen me.
In our first session I put Mary’s depression aside. I asked her to tell me the story of her baby rather than describe the symptoms of her grief. Though she was resistant, she eventually started to talk.
Like most other things in Mary’s life, the baby, whom she named Stephanie, was planned. Mary was delighted with her pregnancy and had wonderful dreams for her daughter. After a routine delivery, Mary stayed home with Stephanie for the first three months. Returning to work had been difficult, but Mary was comfortable with the child-care arrangement, and managed to balance motherhood with her busy professional schedule.
Then Mary told me about the Saturday when she went to check on her napping daughter and found that Stephanie wasn’t breathing. She began C.P.R. as her husband called 911. There were moments of surreal focus as she and her husband tried to save their baby. Then this woman, so accustomed to being in control, had to surrender her daughter to an emergency crew. Her husband drove as they followed the ambulance to the hospital.
She described the waiting room in great detail, down to the color of the furniture. When the hospital chaplain walked in with the doctor she knew her baby was gone. She and her husband were taken into a room where they held the baby for the last time.
At this point in her story Mary finally began to weep, intensely so. She seemed surprised by the waves of emotion that washed over her. It was the first time since the death that the sadness had poured forth in that way. She said she had never told the story of her daughter from conception to death in one sitting.
“What is wrong with me?” she asked as she cried. “It has been almost seven months.”
Very gently, using simple, nonclinical words, I suggested to Mary that there was nothing wrong with her. She was not depressed or stuck or wrong. She was just very sad, consumed by sorrow, but not because she was grieving incorrectly. The depth of her sadness was simply a measure of the love she had for her daughter.
A transformation occurred when she heard this. She continued to weep but the muscles in her face relaxed. I watched as months of pent-up emotions were released. She had spent most of her energy trying to figure out why she was behind in her grieving. She had buried her feelings and vowed to be strong because that’s how a person was supposed to be.
Now, in my office, stages, self-diagnoses and societal expectations didn’t matter. She was free to surrender to her sorrow. As she did, the deep bond with her little girl was rekindled. Her loss was now part of her story, one to claim and cherish, not a painful event to try to put in the past.
I had gone through the same process after the loss of my son. I was in my second year of practice when he died, and I subsequently had many grieving patients referred to me. The problem in those early days was that my grief training was not helping either my patients or me. When I was trained, in the late 1970s, the stages of grief were the standard by which a grieving person’s progress was assessed.
THAT model is still deeply and rigidly embedded in our cultural consciousness and psychological language. It inspires much self-diagnosis and self-criticism among the aggrieved. This is compounded by the often subtle and well-meaning judgment of the surrounding community. A person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity.
To be sure, some people who come to see me exhibit serious, diagnosable symptoms that require treatment. Many, however, seek help only because they and the people around them believe that time is up on their grief. The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation.
Based on my own and my patients’ experiences, I now like to say that the story of loss has three “chapters.” Chapter 1 has to do with attachment: the strength of the bond with the person who has been lost. Understanding the relationship between degree of attachment and intensity of grief brings great relief for most patients. I often tell them that the size of their grief corresponds to the depth of their love.
Chapter 2 is the death event itself. This is often the moment when the person experiencing the loss begins to question his sanity, particularly when the death is premature and traumatic. Mary had prided herself on her ability to stay in control in difficult times. The profound emotional chaos of her baby’s death made her feel crazy. As soon as she was able, she resisted the craziness and shut down the natural pain and suffering.
Chapter 3 is the long road that begins after the last casserole dish is picked up — when the outside world stops grieving with you. Mary wanted to reassure her family, friends and herself that she was on the fast track to closure. This was exhausting. What she really needed was to let herself sink into her sadness, accept it.
When I suggested a support group, Mary rejected the idea. But I insisted. She later described the relief she felt in the presence of other bereaved parents, in a place where no acting was required. It was a place where people understood that they didn’t really want to achieve closure after all. To do so would be to lose a piece of a sacred bond.
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,” said the writer Isak Dinesen. When loss is a story, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no pressure to move on. There is no shame in intensity or duration. Sadness, regret, confusion, yearning and all the experiences of grief become part of the narrative of love for the one who died.
Patrick O’Malley is a psychotherapist in Fort Worth.
This is an essay from Couch, a series about psychotherapy at nytimes.com/opinionator. Some details have been altered to protect patient privacy.
“It must be depressing?” I hear this question/statement quite often, both among families I work with and people I talk to about my profession. I would offer that depressing is not an accurate word. Being with people in the dying process can be emotionally and physically draining, but at the same time very fulfilling and sacred work. I came across an interesting piece from a palliative care physician who offers her thoughts about working in palliative care as a letter to her spouse. I think the depth of her words speak to the multiple emotions one experiences in being with others during life’s most emotionally trying times.
Some time ago you and I had a crazy idea that it could be the two of us against the world. In our naiveté we thought we had a connection previously unknown to any other human couple. We, in our love, became a superior being that transcended the “you” and the “I.” We agreed that Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII was written about us.
Of course, between then and now, life has happened, just as it happens for all couples.
Our days are busy with children and meetings and work and parents and meals and errands and sick cats and lost keys, and sometimes in the routine of chaos we can say, “How are you? How was your day?”
And I say, “Fine. Yours?”
Sometimes that is true, it was fine.
Sometimes I say, “Really rough.”
Sometimes I say, “It was a crazy day.”
Sometimes I say, “I just can’t even talk about it.”
Yet, even as I have tried to give you a glimpse of the days, there is no way for you to join me in my sadness or frustration or mystified joy.
As we close out another year together, I am going to be honest now, as I should have been all along.
Before I say this, know that my intention is not to make you think my work is superior to yours, or more important, or more difficult, or more valuable.
You see, though, my work IS incredibly hard, and important, and difficult, and valuable.
In one day’s time I see humanity at it’s very best and it’s very worst as I hold another person’s hand while they walk the tight rope between life and death.
I get yelled at and blamed and accused of not caring, but I can’t argue back because I know that I am just the easy target for the anger and grief.
I watch people take their last breaths.
Before those last breaths are taken, though, I get to talk to people about what truly matters to them. We talk about life and death and what it means to live while dying.
I witness lives changing forever.
These are the day’s events that might seem easy to come home and talk to you about, but there are many reasons that I can’t be fully open about it.
Some of these need to be processed in my own mind and heart before I can put them into words to share with you. I need time to wrap my mind around them before I can ask you to wrap yours around it as well.
There are also some that, my dear one, would break your heart. I know you so well, and I know how much you love your family and how terrifying the idea of losing any of them is to you. You are so protective of us whom you love, and if I don’t want you to be fraught with anxiety and fear every time one of us leaves your sight. I choose to protect you from the sadness of the world.
More often, though, I am being selfish of my stories. I want to hold my days close to me and be able to cherish what I have seen or heard or felt. Retelling the story, or trying to capture the it in words is inadequate. It fails the beauty and mystery I’ve been a part of. It’s like catching fireflies, and thinking they are going to flicker in the jar on your nightstand all night long. Instead they give up their blinking and by morning are scattered among the blades of grass, dried and shrunken. I want to give you the fireflies as they are under the oak tree at dusk, not as the shriveled remnants of the beauty. Trying to capture and give you the view of the day when I know I can only possibly give you the tiniest glimpse feels shallow and disloyal to my patients and my colleagues.
I know that you don’t understand what I do or why I do it. I know that you appreciate and admire what I do, though, and for that I thank you.
I thank you for letting me cry when it is the only thing way I have of explaining my day.
I thank you for giving me space when I need it.
I thank you for not rolling your eyes when I insist on cramming in every bit of magic around the holidays because we must make every memory and every moment matter.
I thank you for declaring that if all patients had a palliative care doctor that the American medical system would be fixed.
I am sorry for the times I am emotionally out of reach from you and my mind is still at work, or with a patient or family. I am sorry for the times that I am not handling my stress well and I take it out on you.
When you ask me, “how was your day,” you should know that even with all the stress and chaos and hard work and lost keys, that my day, always, was great. It was wonderful and magic and a gift to be able to spend it doing the work that I love, or with the people that I love, or seeing a beautiful sunset. So I feel guilty when I am frustrated that the kid lost his backpack, or some other minor inconvenience that I get to experience because I am alive and healthy. This is part of the dichotomy of living with me.
Thank you, love, for your patience.
As we go into this new year, remember “I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love.”
Emily Riegel, MD is a palliative care physician at the University of Kansas Medical Center, where she sees both children and adults.
Turning a page on a year includes multiple lists looking back at the best of. One interesting list I saw was the 4 Greatest Psychological Discoveries of 2014. While this is one person’s list, I was most fascinated by the commonality of all 4 topics. They all speak to the need to be more conscious of who we are and what we are doing at any given moment. As people continue to focus on resolutions for change, perhaps there is something to how we cultivate the focus needed to strive to fulfill our goals.
Every day of every year, scientists toil away in their efforts to understand the workings of the human mind. What makes us happy? How do our emotions work? What should we be doing differently in our lives to make ourselves healthier, happier and stronger?
Each year, a few studies stand out as particularly helpful by outlining a clear path to accomplish a better and healthier life; studies that everyone should know about. Here are four such studies from the year 2014. I hope they will help you to shape your coming year.
We look for happiness in all the wrong places: We typically think of major life events, raises, large purchases, and success as the main sources of happiness in our lives.
But a Harvard University study by Zhang, et al., 2014 shows that we are overlooking a powerful and readily available font of happiness: the small things that happen from day to day. In this study, students were asked to place 5 mundane items that represented their daily lives in a time capsule, and to predict how much happiness it would bring them to see these items 3 months later. The students drastically under-predicted the joy they actually felt when the time capsules were opened.
The Implication: Pay more attention to the small things that happen in your daily life. Small sources of joy are powerful.
The mind/body connection: 2014 was the Year for Mindfulness. The concept of mindfulness has gradually morphed from simply “being in the moment” to a more complex definition: “being aware of your own thoughts and feelings in the moment.” This new way of viewing mindfulness has opened doors to new areas of research.
In 2014, study after study has shown that mindful people are better off in a variety of different ways. In fact, higher emotional self-awareness has been found to improve your overall health. A Brown University Study by Loucks, et al., 2014 showed that people who are more aware of what they are thinking and feeling in the moment have lower BMI (body mass index), lower fasting glucose, less smoking and higher levels of physical activity.
The Implication: We should all work on being more aware of what we are thinking and feeling in the moment, and why.
There is a simple way to fight your own negativity and anxiety: Negative, obsessive thinking is a common part of many emotional and psychological problems. A new study byNota & Coles, 2014 offers an option to try if you would like to reduce your own negative thinking patterns. These researchers found a clear connection between going to bed late at night, inadequate sleep, and excessive negative thinking/worrying. More studies are planned, but in the meantime, it makes sense to try this relatively easy fix.
The Implication: Try going to bed earlier and work toward getting 8 hours of sleep per night, and see if it helps reduce your negative, anxiety-driven thinking patterns.
People who treat themselves with compassion feel better about themselves and their bodies: A 2014 study byKelly et al., 2014 found that women who treat themselves with more kindness and compassion are better able to cope with disappointments and setbacks in life. They were also less reactive to other people’s judgments or criticisms of their body shape and size.
The Implication: If you are kind to yourself in the face of your own mistakes and flaws, you will be a stronger and more resilient person overall.
In a nutshell, here are my wishes for you in 2015:
That you will take joy from the small things in your daily life
That you will be aware of what you are feeling in the moment
That you will take care of yourself by getting enough sleep
That you will treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you offer others
Jonice Webb has a PhD in clinical psychology, and is author of the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Webb has been licensed to practice since 1991. She has been interviewed on NPR and over thirty radio shows across the United States and Canada about the topic of her book, and has been quoted as a psychologist expert in the Chicago Tribune. Prior to joining PsychCentral, she was the Mental Health Editor for BellaOnline, the second largest women’s website in the world. She currently has a private psychotherapy practice in Lexington, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. Webb currently resides in the Boston area with her husband and two children. To read more about Dr. Webb, her book and Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can visit her website, Emotionalneglect.com; or view her short videos on YouTube.
In my work with seniors and people diagnosed with a terminal illness, there is tremendous mystery regarding the experiences of aging and loss. The health care system dynamics are fraught with twists and turns that most of us are not equipped to handle. As people are working to navigate through the stages of health care, many losses will inevitably occur. People experience emotional loss, feeling a sense of no longer being themselves. And the family of the older adult or terminally ill suffer emotional turmoil from witnessing the losses the other feels.
Much has been written to try and help others navigate the system. However, as the system constantly evolves, the writing from even a few years ago can contain much that is outdated. A recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande M.D., attempts to offer guidance from someone on the inside. His work takes readers on a journey of aging and end of life care through personal stories of people the author knew from his medical world and his personal world, including his father, whose dying he describes using both his professional and personal eyes. Gawande offers readers what he sees to be innovation around senior health facilities and residences, about offering dignity in whatever way is possible in the midst of decline and how we are all fighting a battle medicine cannot win, namely death. The book is a personal testimony of a doctor discovering a world beyond medical procedure for curative means.
While his book is well written and reads smoothly, I would like to also offer a couple of critiques for what I see would have enhanced his presentation. As he is a doctor, focusing heavily on physical healing, I think he sometimes glosses over the holistic aspects of care that he is trying to promote by not including more disciplines in his presentation. For example, in his conversation about hospice, he follows a hospice nurse, the case manager, to see how she works with a terminally ill person but we never see the rest of the hospice team. While he does inform his readers that hospice care offers psychosocial and spiritual support through Social work and chaplaincy, he doesn’t show us what that would look like. The same is true in his analysis of senior housing facilities. While reading about the place in upstate NY that innovated with offering residents pets to care for, I felt he narrows the focus of dignity to giving people a sense of responsibility and purpose. My experience has been offering people connection to faith and spirituality can also play a major role in reviving selfhood and dignity.
Even taking the above into account, I found this book engaging on many levels. As someone in the field of senior care and hospice care, his descriptions offered me much to consider in my professional role in caring for people. As a human being who has and will experience various aspects of life, I think his work reminds each of us that we need to be aware of the power of change, both good and bad, as we age and the one’s we care for age. There is no escape but there are ways to bring respect and dignity to our interactions with family and friends going through these stages of life.
For many of us, the days are stressful and full of moments of cynicism and skepticism. I find this to be especially true when seeing all that is going on in the world and feeling a loss of control. As such, being positive and trying to avoid the doldrums can be too much to work towards. I found this short piece that lists out 6 strategies for positive thinking. I particularly like the notion that for many, it can be as simple as reframing our thoughts. If the day has you down, perhaps some of the following can be helpful in bringing it back up.
“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” – Zig Ziglar
You may have heard the saying that “attitude is everything.”
Whether you want to go that far or not, attitude is pretty damn important.
I really doubt you’ll find a happy and successful person out there with a poor attitude.
This is because attitude is directly related to whether or not you will live a happy, meaningful, and energized life.
Think about it, would you rather be the complainer who is down on their luck always focusing on the negative, or the person always finding new opportunities and looking at the bright side?
A positive attitude can completely change our life!
When we have a positive attitude we can deal with problems more effectively and will end up bouncing back more quickly from mistake and setbacks.
So, learning how to manage your attitude is crucial if you want to improve your life.
I know it isn’t easy to manage our attitude, and frankly it takes hard work.
So, here are six strategies to help you develop more control over your attitude.
1. Your attitude is up to you
First thing first: You are responsible for your attitude. Your attitude is an an inside-out job. It doesn’t come from your circumstance but instead from how you interpret your circumstances. You are in charge of how you respond to what happens to you. Start taking full responsibility for your attitude today.
2. Your thoughts are your reality
Many people don’t realize that how they think about something is ultimately how they will feel about it. In the words of supercoachMicheal Neill, “we don’t feel our environment, we feel our thinking.”If you want to control your attitude you must be aware of how you are thinking about your situation. If you focus on the negative things are going to suck! Keep things in perspective and stop only focusing on the negative!
3. Gratitude is the key
I know there are things to worry about and sometimes we really need to deal with problems. But if we aren’t careful our problems can become consuming and we forget about the good stuff. We all have things to be grateful for even when problems occur. We can still find ways to enjoy life even if things aren’t going our way. Focus on what you are grateful for. Literally make a list of five things you’re grateful for right now!
4. Avoid negative news
If you want to stay positive be aware of your surroundings. Avoid negative news and stay away from people who bring you down. Be conscious about spending time with encouraging people and taking in positive information from books, podcast, or blogs. Put yourself on a negativity diet. Just like you would be aware of what you feed your body, pay attention to what you feed your mind.
5. Look for the lesson
There is always something we can pull away from a bad situation. It may not be clear at the time, but there is always a lesson to be learned. What can you learn from a difficult situation? How can you use the situation to help you become a better person? Remember that life is a journey and we are always growing and learning.
6. Keep your eye on the prize
Keep the big picture in mind. Learn to focus on the long-term results you want instead of short-term emotions. Every day you have a choice to make positive decisions. Don’t let yesterday’s mistakes get in the way of what you want. Keep your vision in mind and focus on how you will feel when you reach your goals.
“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” – Hans Selye
Joe is a life-transition coach and a Licensed Master Level Psychologist (LMLP) in the state of Kansas. He is the creator and editor of the personal development blog Shake off the Grind which provides digital content, coaching, and products to help people with personal growth, emotional wellness, and spiritual development. He is also an advisory board member for the American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP) and is a certified meditation instructor.
As the author below indicates, we often look for instantaneous results when we try and change. While the reality is that true change is long and arduous, with many setbacks, perhaps we can start with some of the advice offered below.
Traditional psychoanalysis has the patient coming to treatment three to four times a week, lying on a couch and free-associating to whatever comes to mind.
The theory behind this treatment is that free-association increases awareness of what is in the unconscious mind. Once you make the unconscious conscious, patients should, theoretically, become less neurotic.
That type of treatment seemed to work well for the idle rich in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But does it work well in the digital era?
No way. We want our problems solved quickly. We want solutions to be provided speedily. We savor the power of parsimony. The fewer the words, the more we value them. Short, sweet and to the point is preferable.
Is it possible to take the wisdom of Freud and apply it to the Twitter generation? I’m going to give it a shot. Here goes:
Quit comparing yourself to the best. You don’t have to be the best to make a valuable, worthwhile contribution to the world.
Don’t belittle yourself. Quit calling yourself derogatory names. Laugh good-naturedly at your mistakes, but don’t denigrate who you are and what you’re about.
Avoid sitting on the sidelines, bemoaning your circumstances without taking any action to improve your lot in life.
Even the best ideas are worthless unless you use your energy to execute them.
When you’re overstressed and overworked, take a break. Rest. Relax. Enjoy. Be with optimistic people. Then, get back to work.
Tolerate disappointment. There are days in which nothing works out well. This is a “bad day.” Don’t make it into a life position.
Allow your interests to emerge in their own way. Don’t attempt to make them fit into the box you (or others) think they should fit into.
Because a decision didn’t work out as expected doesn’t necessarily make it a bad decision. Reflect on what went wrong, however, before you move on to your next decision.
Acknowledge what you experienced in your early years. But put your energy toward living in the present where making good decisions can truly enhance your life.
Keep doing what you enjoy doing even if there’s no immediate reward to it.
When you believe in yourself, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.
Success is not an overnight happening. It’s the result of a consistent, driving energy that keeps you engaged, focused and moving forward.
Well, there it is. A dozen pieces of advice — short and succinct. Freud would appreciate, maybe even envy them.
Will just reading this advice allow you to make dramatic changes in your life? I doubt it. Freud was right. It takes time to change ingrained ideas and tenacious habits. But does it take as much time as Freud believed? Absolutely not!
Our sense of time is dramatically different than it was for people who lived 100 years ago. A few months of therapy once a week or even bi-monthly can help people truly change the direction of their lives by clarifying their thoughts, modifying their emotions and expanding their options.
And long-term therapy (still only once a week) is an amazing experience that can transform a life — from one that’s plagued with stress, tension and negativity to one that’s enriched, energized and full of enthusiasm.
Dr. Sapadin is a psychologist and success coach who specializes in helping people overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior, particularly debilitating fear and chronic procrastination. She is the author of 6 self-help books that have been published in 6 countries. Dr. Sapadin has been honored with “Fellow” status by the American Psychological Association, an indication that her work has an international impact on the field of psychology. Visit her website at www.psychwisdom.com. Contact her at LSapadin[at]DrSapadin.com. To learn more about her books on overcoming procrastination, visit http://www.BeatProcrastinationCoach.com.
Meditation is seen as a universally based method of spiritual growth. And while this is clearly the case for most people, even something seemingly as important and powerful has a dark side. The article below was an eye opener to me, not so much about the dark side but as a reminder that spiritual practice needs guidance. Practicing without safeguards can be a precursor to emotional and psychological danger. In Jewish tradition, we have an ancient idea from the book Ethics of Our Fathers that a good practice is to “make a rabbi for yourself.” I have always thought this was something beyond finding someone to direct you in what to do. It is also a warning to have someone to bounce one’s experiences off of who is potentially more experienced.
Set back on quiet College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, sits a dignified, four story, 19th-century house that belongs to Dr. Willoughby Britton. Inside, it is warm, spacious, and organized. The shelves are stocked with organic foods. A solid wood dining room table seats up to 12. Plants are ubiquitous. Comfortable pillows are never far from reach. The basement—with its own bed, living space, and private bathroom—often hosts a rotating cast of yogis and meditation teachers. Britton’s own living space and office are on the second floor. The real sanctuary, however, is on the third floor, where people come from all over to rent rooms, work with Britton, and rest. But they’re not there to restore themselves with meditation—they’re recovering from it.
“I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror,” says David, a polite, articulate 27-year-old who arrived at Britton’s Cheetah House in 2013. “I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”
Michael, 25, was a certified yoga teacher when he made his way to Cheetah House. He explains that during the course of his meditation practice his “body stopped digesting food. I had no idea what was happening.” For three years he believed he was “permanently ruined” by meditation.
“Recovery,” “permanently ruined”—these are not words one typically encounters when discussing a contemplative practice.
On a cold November night last fall, I drove to Cheetah House. A former student of Britton’s, I joined the group in time for a Shabbat dinner. We blessed the challah, then the wine; recited prayers in English and Hebrew; and began eating.
Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, works at the Brown University Medical School. She receives regular phone calls, emails, and letters from people around the world in various states of impairment. Most of them worry no one will believe—let alone understand—their stories of meditation-induced affliction. Her investigation of this phenomenon, called “The Dark Night Project,” is an effort to document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices.
The morning after our Shabbat dinner, in Britton’s kitchen, David outlines the history of his own contemplative path. His first retreat was “very non-normal,” he says, “and very good … divine. There was stuff dropping away … [and] electric shocks through my body. [My] core sense of self, a persistent consciousness, the thoughts and stuff, were not me.” He tells me it was the best thing that had ever happened to him, an “orgasm of the soul, felt throughout my internal world.”
David explains that he finally felt awake. But it didn’t last.
Still high off his retreat, he declined an offer to attend law school, aggravating his parents. His best friends didn’t understand him, or his “insane” stories of life on retreat.
“I had a fear of being thought of as crazy,” he says, “I felt extremely sensitive, vulnerable, and naked.”
Not knowing what to do with himself, David moved to Korea to teach English, got bored, dropped out of the program, and moved back in with his parents. Eventually, life lost its meaning. Colors began to fade. Spiritually dry, David didn’t care about anything anymore. Everything he had found pleasurable before the retreat—hanging out with friends, playing music, drinking—all of that “turned to dirt,” he says, “a plate of beautiful food turned to dirt.”
He traveled back and forth from Asia to home seeking guidance, but found only a deep, persistent dissatisfaction in himself. After “bumming around Thailand for a bit,” he moved to San Francisco, got a job, and sat through several more two- and 10-week meditation retreats. Then, in 2012, David sold his car to pay for a retreat at the Cloud Mountain Center that torments him still.
“Psychological hell,” is how he describes it. “It would come and go in waves. I’d be in the middle of practice and what would come to mind was everything I didn’t want to think about, every feeling I didn’t want to feel.” David felt “pebble-sized” spasms emerge from inside a “dense knot” in his belly.
He panicked. Increasingly vivid pornographic fantasies and repressed memories from his childhood began to surface.
“I just started freaking out,” he says, “and at some point, I just surrendered to the onslaught of unwanted sexual thoughts … a sexual Rolodex of every taboo.” As soon as he did, however, “there was some goodness to it.” After years of pushing away his emotional, instinctual drives, something inside David was “reattached,” he says.
Toward the end of his time at the Cloud Mountain Center, David shared his ongoing experiences with the retreat leaders, who assured him it was probably just his “ego’s defenses” acting up. “They were really comforting,” he says, “even though I thought I was going to become schizophrenic.”
According to a survey by the National Institutes of Health, 10 percent of respondents—representing more than 20 million adult Americans—tried meditating between 2006 and 2007, a 1.8 percent increase from a similar survey in 2002. At that rate, by 2017, there may be more than 27 million American adults with a recent meditation experience.
In late January this year, Time magazine featured acover story on “the mindful revolution,” an account of the extent to which mindfulness meditation has diffused into the largest sectors of modern society. Used by “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs, and more,” mindfulness meditation is promoted as a means to help Americans work mindfully, eat mindfully, parent mindfully, teach mindfully, take standardized tests mindfully, spend money mindfully, and go to war mindfully. What the cover story did not address are what might be called the revolution’s “dirty laundry.”
“We’re not being thorough or honest in our study of contemplative practice,” says Britton, a critique she extends to the entire field of researchers studying meditation, including herself.
I’m sitting on a pillow in Britton’s meditation room. She tells me that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s website includes an interesting choice of words in its entry on meditation. Under “side effects and risks,” it reads:
Meditation is considered to be safe for healthy people. There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not been fully researched.
By modern scientific standards, the aforementioned research may not yet be comprehensive—a fact Britton wants to change—but according to Britton and her colleagues, descriptions of meditation’s adverse effects have been collecting dust on bookshelves for centuries.
The phrase “dark night of the soul,” can be traced back to a 16th-century Spanish poem by the Roman Catholic mystic San Juan de la Cruz, or Saint John of the Cross. It is most commonly used within certain Christian traditions to refer to an individual’s spiritual crisis in the course of their union with God.
The divine experiences reported by Saint John describe a method, or protocol, “followed by the soul in its journey upon the spiritual road to the attainment of the perfect union of love with God, to the extent that it is possible in this life.” The poem, however, is linked to a much longer text, also written by Saint John, which describes the hardships faced by those who seek to purify the senses—and the spirit—in their quest for mystical love.
According to Britton, the texts of many major contemplative traditions offer similar maps of spiritual development. One of her team’s preliminary tasks—a sort of archeological literature review—was to pore through the written canons of Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen Buddhism, as well as texts within Christianity, Judaism, and Sufism. “Not every text makes clear reference to a period of difficulty on the contemplative path,” Britton says, “but many did.”
“There is a sutta,” a canonical discourse attributed to the Buddha or one of his close disciples, “where monks go crazy and commit suicide after doing contemplation on death,” says Chris Kaplan, a visiting scholar at the Mind & Life Institute who also works with Britton on the Dark Night Project.
Nathan Fisher, the study’s manager, condenses a famous parable by the founder of the Jewish Hasidic movement. Says Fisher, “[the story] is about how the oscillations of spiritual life parallel the experience of learning to walk, very similar to the metaphor Saint John of the Cross uses in terms of a mother weaning a child … first you are held up by a parent and it is exhilarating and wonderful, and then they take their hands away and it is terrifying and the child feels abandoned.”
Kaplan and Fisher dislike the term “dark night” because, in their view, it can imply that difficult contemplative experiences are “one and the same thing” across different religions and contemplative traditions.
Fisher also emphasizes two categories that may cause dark nights to surface. The first results from “incorrect or misguided practice that could be avoided,” while the second includes “those [experiences] which were necessary and expected stages of practices.” In other words, while meditators can better avoid difficult experiences under the guidance of seasoned teachers, there are cases where such experiences are useful signs of progress in contemplative development. Distinguishing between the two, however, remains a challenge.
Britton shows me a 2010 paper written by University of Colorado-Boulder psychologist Sona Dimidjian that was published in American Psychologist, the official journal of the American Psychological Association. The study examines some dramatic instances where psychotherapy has caused serious harm to a patient. It also highlights the value of creating standards for defining and identifying when and how harm can occur at different points in the psychotherapeutic process.
One of the central questions of Dimidjian’s article is this: After 100 years of research into psychotherapy, it’s obvious that scientists and clinicians have learned a lot about the benefits of therapy, but what do we know about the harms? According to Britton, a parallel process is happening in the field of meditation research.
“We have a lot of positive data [on meditation],” she says, “but no one has been asking if there are any potential difficulties or adverse effects, and whether there are some practices that may be better or worse-suited [for] some people over others. Ironically,” Britton adds, “the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in America is actually medicine and science, not Buddhism.”
As a result, many people think of meditation only from the perspective of reducing stress and enhancing executive skills such as emotion regulation, attention, and so on.
For Britton, this widespread assumption—that meditation exists only for stress reduction and labor productivity, “because that’s what Americans value”—narrows the scope of the scientific lens. When the time comes to develop hypotheses around the effects of meditation, the only acceptable—and fundable—research questions are the ones that promise to deliver the answers we want to hear.
“Does it promote good relationships? Does it reduce cortisol? Does it help me work harder?” asks Britton, referencing these more lucrative questions. Because studies have shown that meditation does satisfy such interests, the results, she says, are vigorously reported to the public. “But,” she cautions, “what about when meditation plays a role in creating an experience that then leads to a breakup, a psychotic break, or an inability to focus at work?”
Given the juggernaut—economic and otherwise—behind the mindfulness movement, there is a lot at stake in exploring a shadow side of meditation. Upton Sinclair once observed how difficult it is to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Britton has experienced that difficulty herself. In part because university administrators and research funders prefer simple and less controversial titles, she has chosen to rename the Dark Night Project the “Varieties of Contemplative Experience.”
Britton also questions what might be considered the mindfulness movement’s limited scope. She explains that the Theravadin Buddhist tradition influences how a large portion of Americans practice meditation, but in it, mindfulness is “about vipassana, a specific type of insight … into the three characteristics of experience.” These are also known as the three marks of existence: anicca, or impermanence; dukkha, or dissatisfaction; and anatta, or no-self.
In this context, mindfulness is not about being able to stare comfortably at your computer for hours on end, or get “in the zone” to climb the corporate ladder. Rather, says Britton, it’s about the often painstaking process of “realizing and processing those three specific insights.”
Shinzen Young, a Buddhist meditation teacher popular with young scientists, has summarized his familiarity with dark night experiences. In a 2011 email exchange between himself and a student, which he then posted on his blog, Young presents an explanation of what he means by a “dark night” within the context of Buddhist experience:
Almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, [and] disorientation. …The same can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. I would not refer to these types of experiences as ‘dark night.’ I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon. Within the Buddhist tradition, [this] is sometimes referred to as ‘falling into the Pit of the Void.’ It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling … it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it’s Enlightenment’s Evil Twin. This is serious but still manageable through intensive … guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases, it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive.
Britton’s findings corroborate many of Young’s claims. Among the nearly 40 dark night subjects her team has formally interviewed over the past few years, she says most were “fairly out of commission, fairly impaired for between six months [and] more than 20 years.”
The identities of Britton’s subjects are kept secret and coded anonymously. To find interviewees, however, her team contacted well-known and highly esteemed teachers, such as Jack Kornfield at California’s Spirit Rock and Joseph Goldstein at the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts. Like many other experienced teachers they spoke to, Goldstein and Kornfield recalled instances during past meditation retreats where students became psychologically incapacitated. Some were hospitalized. Says Britton, “there was one person Jack told me about [who] never recovered.”
The Dark Night Project is young, and still very much in progress. Researchers in the field are just beginning to carefully collect and sort through the narratives of difficult meditation-related experiences. Britton has presented her findings at major Buddhist and scientific conferences, prominent retreat centers, and even to the Dalai Lama at the 24th Mind and Life Dialogue in 2012.
“Many people in our study were lost and confused and could not find help,” Britton says. “They had been through so many doctors, therapists, and dharma teachers. Given that we had so much information about these effects, we realized that we were it.”
In response, Britton conceived of Cheetah House as a public resource. “We’re still in the process of developing our services,” she says. “Lots of people just come live here, and work on the study. Because they’re part of the research team, they get to stay here and listen to other people’s experiences, and that’s been incredibly healing.”
As a trained clinician, it can be hard for Britton to reconcile the visible benefits of contemplative practices with data unearthed through the Dark Night Project. More than half of her patients reported positive “life-altering experiences” after a recent eight-week meditation program, for example. But, she says, “while I have appreciation and love for the practices, and for my patients … I have all of these other people that have struggled, who are struggling.”
“I understand the resistance,” says Britton, in response to critics who have attempted to silence or dismiss her work. “There are parts of me that just want meditation to be all good. I find myself in denial sometimes, where I just want to forget all that I’ve learned and go back to being happy about mindfulness and promoting it, but then I get another phone call and meet someone who’s in distress, and I see the devastation in their eyes, and I can’t deny that this is happening. As much as I want to investigate and promote contemplative practices and contribute to the well-being of humanity through that, I feel a deeper commitment to what’s actually true.”
TOMAS ROCHA is a research associate at the Mind & Life Institute and a doctoral student at Columbia University.
The following is one man’s written reflection on dying. It is worth reflecting on his words to garner a more intimate perspective on ideas of hope and growth when faced with the reality of terminal illness.
Just so you understand: I am dying. I am in the end stage of metastatic prostate cancer, and after six-and-a-half years of close association with the disease, I have another six months to two years to live. That probably sounds exhibitionistic, but I don’t mean it to. Nor am I fishing for pity. Truth is, I’d sooner have your laughter.
Man says, “I’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but I am going to fight it with everything I’ve got.” “My money’s on the cancer,” his friend says. Find me that friend.
When it is incurable, as mine is, cancer always wins in the end, but no one—I mean, no one—wants to hear any such thing. The preferred message in our culture is the sentimental one of hope. Hope is not, however, what the terminal cancer patient needs. Even if you believe in miracles, you cannot hope for one—not the way you hope the car’s skid comes to a stop before the cliff’s edge.
“By definition,” C. S. Lewis writes, “miracles must of course interrupt the usual course of Nature,” but if they were as common as mosquitoes in summer they wouldn’t be interruptions of the usual.
What cancer patients need more than anything is to take responsibility for their disease. From their doctors, from their family and friends, and especially from themselves, they need simple honesty about their condition, their treatment options, their chances. They require exactly what the psychological theorist Karen Horney said the neurotic requires if he is to grow as a human creature: the “square recognition of his being as he is, without minimizing or exaggerating.”
A cure may not be possible, but even in the face of death, moral and intellectual growth is. Susan Sontag was right, in Illness As Metaphor (1978), to object to the Victorian attitude toward consumption—that it was a narrowing of life to a focus upon what is good. There is nothing good about dying of cancer, especially when, as I do, you have four children under the age of eleven and a wife whom you lust after and adore.
But how then do I account for the fact that, every Shabbes after the Shemoneh Esrei, I feel compelled to thank the Creator of the Universe for my cancer? How do I explain the reaction of Bruce Pearson, the uneducated third-string catcher in Mark Harris’sBang the Drum Slowly (1956) who is diagnosed with Hodgkins’s lymphoma at a time when it was incurable? “I am doomeded,” Bruce tells his roommate:
But the world is all rosy. It never looked better. The bad things never looked so little, and the good never looked so big. Food tastes better. Things do not matter too much any more.
Except for the taste of food—chemotherapy makes everything taste metallic, when it does not taste like wet cotton mush—I know what Bruce is saying. The music I listen to, the literature I read when I can barely summon the will to lift a hand, never spoke to me with such finality as it does now.
Is cancer ever a blessing?
No, but only because no human experience, not even marriage, not even the birth of a child, is a sign of God’s favor and a promise of unbroken happiness. Cancer may be a death sentence, but there are many ways to read the sentence. Resignation is only one of them, and a particularly arrogant one at that, because it presumes to know, as it cannot, the outcome in every detail.
But if you are ignorant of the suffering that awaits you when you are first diagnosed, you are equally ignorant of the changes that cancer will work in your thinking and emotional life, some of which may even be improvements in old habits of thought and feeling.
You may, for instance, become more conscious of time. What once might have seemed like wastes of time—a solitaire game, a television show you would never have admitted to watching, the idle poking around for useless information—may become unexpected sources of joy, the low-key celebrations of being alive. The difference is that when you are conscious of choosing how to spend your time, and when you discover that you enjoy your choices, they take on a meaning they could never have had before.
You no longer waste or mark time. You fill it, because now you can see the brim from where you are lying.
“In a sense,” Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend about the lupus that would kill her at thirty-nine,
sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.
How could it possibly be merciful of God to reduce you to the hyperawareness, every second of your waking life, that death is relentlessly approaching? Even if it is a knowledge that most other men and women do not have, regardless of what they may like to say, is it knowledge worth having?
You find yourself on a distant planet, alone, with only your own inner resources to fall back upon. No amount of magical thinking or denial will alter your circumstances. You either accept what you have become, and rise above yourself to attend to the others who still need your attention, or you spend your last months in the confinement of self-pity.
In either case, death will come when it comes. The mercy, perhaps even the goodness, is in recognizing the gulf that separates life, which may include terminal illness, and death, which is inevitable, but not quite yet. Whatever your condition, you may always choose life, although you may also choose not to. As Hamlet says, “The readiness is all.”
D. G. Myers is a critic and literary historian who taught for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities. He is the author of The Elephants Teach and ex-fiction critic for Commentary. He has also written for the New York Times Book Review, the Weekly Standard, Philosophy and Literature, the Sewanee Review, First Things, Jewish Ideas Daily, the Daily Beast, the Barnes & Noble Review, the Journal of the History of Ideas, American Literary History, and other journals.
Image Used: Tropic of Cancer (2010), by Bill Claps, acrylic on canvas, 63 × 43 in.