Spring comes to the neighborhood

The c0f96d55f907f19adac3b8b649337d745rabapple tree is going to have a great weekend.  I can see her through the burgeoning green of the maple in my side yard.  The crabapple sits in my neighbor’s yard, currently housing an assortment of songbirds who are shuttling back and forth to a local feeder.  But the tree is focused on what’s happening in her flowers, not on the birds.  Birds are secondary, irrelevant.  The pink is deep, almost red, lightening at the edges of buds so swollen that they seem about to burst. The day is sodden and cold, so the buds are just waiting, just gathering moisture and strength, awaiting the next time the sun makes an appearance.  When that happens, well, you better watch out!  The crabapple is going to bloom, with a no-holds-barred eroticism that will pull every bee in a county mile into her orbit.  Watch out!  That sensuous hot pink, the seductive perfume….the tree will be humming as you walk by, humming and buzzing with the activity of a thousand winged things, all frantically doing what they do and the tree herself will be regal, vibrant, basking in the pleasure, taking it all as her due, enjoying the brush of stamen on pistil, the dusting of pollen, the industry of bees, the enjoyment of human passers-by.  Oh, what a weekend she will have.

The sensuality of spring is everywhere.  Birds are loud and demanding.  The frogs in the little pond across the street spend every evening declaring their intentions. The onions and potatoes in my kitchen bins are insistent:  sprouts happen, they tell me, and spring cannot be denied.

I feel it, too.  I feel the urge to create, to make something new.  I dig my hands into the soil of the garden, watch my mind generate ideas, stir up a new recipe in the kitchen.  Long spring days that last well into the evening, warmer weather that draws one outdoors, the smells and sounds and skin sensations of spring….all beg to know, what will you make?  What will you create?  What will you bring to this season of growth and newness?

 

The Being of Doing

Silver maple flowersThis morning I had a large load of laundry to hang up.  I found myself rushing to get it finished, hurrying to complete the task because I had another task to complete or maybe just because I wanted to get back to my cup of coffee.   The point was that I was going to spend twenty minutes hanging laundry and I could do it with my mind in the next task or in irritation or in feeling rushed, or I could hang laundry and practice being present to myself as I did it.  So I decided to take this task moment by moment, and try to see when I was derailing and when I might actually be in the present.  Hanging laundry doesn’t take a lot of attention and I can attach many memories and thoughts to it, so it was a bit of effort to stay present.  In fact, I was thinking I’d write a blog post about hanging laundry and that was yet another way I escaped the present moment!  Ahh, the monkey mind can be a clever fellow.

The most potent sensory moment was in snapping out my cotton flannel pajama pants and tossing them over the line, feeling the cold wetness on my hands and the dryness of my skin, smelling the damp cotton and the briefest sense of the enjoyment of the future of pulling on clean pajamas….maybe that was a memory and not a projection, but in any case, it was being present to my own inner experience as well as what was coming in from my senses.   I might have enjoyed more spending that twenty minutes sitting on my meditation cushion in silence, but I still would have needed to hang the laundry, and so I am choosing to see that as part of today’s practice.  How can I BE when I am still doing?   This is one way.

Be-ing is something that I can access all the time.   When I am deeply into thinking or remembering or reacting or otherwise unaware of myself, I can stop, notice my sensory experience, take stock of myself (“what do I notice in my body NOW?”) and connect once again to the ground of Be-ing.  I don’t need silence, my cushion, or even a quiet space, although they certainly can help.  But I am “being” all the time, even when I am not able to notice it.

How do you find yourself in the midst of a lot of doing?

Silver maple buds in march

Finding my limits

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how much I have to do, how much I want to do, and whether I can make those two points match up.  New Age-ish philosophy would suggest that there are no limits, that limits to oneself are entirely invented by the mind and thus can be transcended simply be believing that There Are No Limits.

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But what if your limits reflect something good and healthy?  What if your “limits” are really your boundaries?   I have limits, for sure.  I have boundaries, physical, social, and behavioural boundaries that I don’t generally cross or allow others to cross.  These things keep me safe, maintain my integrity.

Boundaries are a body experience.  When you feel yourself sitting on the chair, or feel your feet pushing into the floor, you have an increased awareness of your body in space. As you push those feet down, you can feel your muscles become activated, feel the blood flow more vigorously, feel your inner space.  You know, without even having words for it, where you begin and where the floor ends.   And you also know that the floor can and will support you without invading you or making you conform or hurting you in some way.

However, if that floor was made of Jell-O, or was covered with nails sticking point up, you would have a different experience.  You would still have your boundary….where my body is….where the floor is….but your boundary would tell you that you cannot trust the floor to hold you, or to hold you without impinging on you.

Your BODY tells you that, when you explore the boundary between your body and the floor. Limits are a good thing, I tell you!

I have social limits as well.   I don’t let people touch me without permission.  I don’t say “yes, I’d be happy to do that” if I really am not happy to do that.   I do not invite people to my home whom I don’t want to see.   Those limits are also good for me.

In other places, I want to test my limits, and maybe even shift the boundaries a bit.  Getting older has actually, much as I hate to admit it, meant that my joints are stiffer and less flexible.  When I practice yoga, for example, I try to ease my body gently past some of these physical limits, or boundaries.   When I run, I notice that I can shift the limits….training has that effect.   But those are active choices I get to make.  I am happy to know what my limits are, and grateful that when I want to move past them, I can sometimes do that.  But more grateful that I have them firmly in place for my own safety.  Boundaries help us know where and what we are, and help us in relating to other people.  More on that part…later….
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Leave “not good enough” behind….

This New Year, I need to lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking, train for a marathon, meditate every single day, read a novel a month, and quit spending money.  Entirely.    (The subtext:  I’m not good enough the way that I am.)

wpid-IMG_20140128_085300.jpgUnrealistic goals, you say?   You bet!  But we engage in this unrealistic process at least annually, and some of us find that we have to be in continuous self-improvement mode to feel even marginally okay about ourselves.

I have been considering this question of self-improvement.  It is a North American pastime, and weight-loss programs, gyms, and other businesses that cater to our sense of being not-okay tend to make a lot of money in January before the motivation flags.

I am interested in this not-okay-ness.  Many of us have a continuous internal criticism process going on.  When we are engaging in our self-improvement behaviour, perhaps the critical voice quiets, or maybe it changes tone. Maybe we feel a bit better for a little while, but usually the judgment shows up again, or perhaps in another way.

Imagine thinking about everyone the way that you think about yourself.  Imagine what it would be like to view everyone as “not good enough” or in need of change.  If you see your partner, your children, your co-workers as all needing to change (generally we need them to change to suit OUR expectations), you probably also see yourself in just as negative a light.   In fact, I suspect that if you see other people in the light of negative judgment, your inner experience of yourself is probably powerfully negative.  And it feels miserable and yucky to think ill of yourself and everyone else.   It becomes so pervasive that even things that you might otherwise see as good and wholesome take on a negative tone (for example, a friend has success and you cannot be happy for her, but can only think of the reasons why she doesn’t deserve it).

Wall sit wikihow creative commonsI’ve heard people say that they are afraid of not being hard enough on themselves.  They think that they might become dissolute, lazy, pointless, or some other scary thing if they are not continuously correcting and criticizing themselves.  Even the idea of letting go of the internal critical voice is hard to think about because who would I be if I didn’t think all of these things about myself?   The inner critic becomes so much a part of us that we cannot recognize that voice as someone else’s.   We think that we are hard on ourselves because we DESERVE it.  And we are hard on other people because they deserve it, and also because why should they get to be themselves if we can’t allow ourselves that luxury?

There is a way out of this, and it isn’t at the gym.  Or it could be at the gym, but the way out actually begins with being willing to question your experience and your thoughts.   What if you were actually wrong about your need to change?  What if you were really okay just as you are, and that your internal litany of self-criticism is just a reflexive thinking pattern?  Would anything else change in your life if you could flex around this issue?

Changing your thinking sounds easy.   You just have to change your mind.  But your mind has been practicing particular thought patterns for years.   Shifting those pathways is not easy but it is simple.  You just have to keep on doing it, over and over.   Let’s look at specifics.

You're making me ANGRYSTEP 1

It is easiest to start with people other than yourself.   So try this:  think about a person in your life, perhaps a very annoying person.  Notice how your mind generates a story about how annoying this person is, and the specific behaviors that annoy you.  See how fast this happens!  Notice pictures, words in your mind, whatever your mind generates, and then notice how your body reacts to this line of thinking.  Don’t judge yourself, just notice!  Now stop all of that internal stuff and begin to look inside your ideas about this person for something that you really appreciate, respect, or even envy.  See if you can generate appreciation, respect, or even pleasure in yourself about this other person.  Try to stay with this thought and the feeling that comes with it;  notice what happens in your mind.  You may generate other ideas that are about appreciation.  You may want to shift back into negative judgment.   Just notice and try to stay with what you appreciate, respect, or take pleasure in.  Watch your thoughts and how your body responds.

What did you find out?   Remember that you are finding out about YOU, not about the other person.  You are finding out what happens to you in your thinking about the other person.

STEP 2

After you have practiced step 1 for awhile, you might notice that your everyday annoyance and judgment of other people is shifting. A practice that can help you to be less critical generally is to make a requirement for yourself that when you indulge in a critical thought about someone, you have to generate three items about that person that you appreciate.  This will help to shift the balance of your thinking from negative criticism to a place where you are feeling more open and positive.  Notice how your body reacts to your thinking.  Remember, for every one criticism, THREE appreciations.

STEP 3

If you have friends who like to engage in offering judgment and criticism of other people as group activity, notice how this feels to you.   Notice how you feel when you join in, and how you feel if you just observe without judging your friends (or their target).  Watch your body and your mind as these interactions go on.

At some point, you might try the experiment of offering an appreciation about the target within your group.   Do this as an experiment to notice how it feels to you to actually go against the group-think, and to see how the other people in the group respond to you.  Can you tolerate feeling outside the group?  Does the open feeling that comes from appreciation help you to manage any anxiety that comes from stepping outside of the norms of your group?

Silver maple flowersSTEP 4

If you have been doing the steps, you probably have begun softening your stance toward yourself without even noticing.   Check it out;   when you notice that you are criticizing yourself, see how that feels.  Then see if it is possible to make a shift to identify something that you actually appreciate about yourself.  For example, I might have spent more money than I planned but I do a good job of providing for my family.  Or maybe I haven’t quit drinking yet, but I have become honest with my partner about it. You cannot lie to yourself about how well you are doing, because your critic will be on alert for that.  (Curious, isn’t it, how we can lie to ourselves about how BAD we are but we cannot lie to ourselves about our acceptable qualities. That’s a topic for another post.)

If you can agree that self-respect is important you might borrow this strategy from the   Emotional Freedom Technique .  Agree about the thing that needs to change, but take the stance that you can still appreciate yourself.    Here are some words to use:  “Even though I have twenty pounds to lose, I still appreciate and respect myself.”

“Even though I …..whatever your critic claims…….I appreciate and respect myself.”

If you want to be radical about this, you can even say something like “I totally love and appreciate myself.”

CONCLUSION

Now you can assess what you might want to change about yourself.   But you can make that assessment from a platform of self-respect and appreciation for who you really are, and not from a place of shame and humiliation that makes you criticize yourself.   Maybe you want to explore your creativity more.  Maybe you want to try a new sport, or dance more.  Maybe you want to learn a new language, or to write code, or to take care of lost animals.  Whatever it is you want to change, let it be about becoming more yourself in the world, and not about conforming to the image of a critical, judgmental part of the self.

In feeling the openness of living in appreciation rather than judgment, you can enjoy more and take more pleasure in your life.  We all know that life has challenges, struggles, pain and sorrow.  These are part of being human.  Those struggles don’t preclude us from pleasure and enjoyment.  We can have all of that, and more.

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Just noticing….

Blooming cactus LACI am fortunate in my life to be able to take a bit of time to contemplate, to reflect, and to consider my experiences.  I am not often in reactive mode any more: I don’t know if that is a change due to my age or to my life circumstances.  Maybe both…and maybe a lot of therapy in the middle has been influential!

Anyway, I have noticed two things lately that have made an impact on my thinking. First is this irony:    I recently posted with great joy about the silver maple trees preparing to bloom (see here).  Well, now they are open and my sinuses are responding:  I am foggy-headed, thick-thinking, and have a dull pain that moves around in my head.  Yes, I can claim the source but it still left me wandering around the house yesterday, wondering what it was I needed, what did I want, why was I feeling so…bleagh?

So I did what I know is the thing for me to do when I can’t figure it out.  I drank two glasses of water and headed to the gym.

What is it about the gym?  What is it about moving all that energy around in your body that makes you feel so much more like yourself?   I don’t have any answer for that, but the experience made me remember a “rule” I had made for myself back when I was running long-distance.  The “rule” was this:  “It is always better to run.”   This was a guideline for when I was waffling around indecisively.   Without fail, running improved my waffling and generally improved my sinus symptoms, even though I was often out in the offending allergens.

sitting peacefully
thanks to smileforme99 on fotothing

The second one is a bit different.  I have an injury to a shoulder:  something a bit intractable that I hope will be cured by strengthening my back and chest, providing more stability to a joint that is easily strained.   Today is a rough day for the shoulder, probably because of having to use it to work with back and chest.   I found myself wallowing, in that fogged-in, wandery kind of way, having work to do, having things to consider, having many items that probably needed my attention, but being completely unable to point my attention where I wanted it to go.  I finally acknowledged some organic realities:  I was hungry, my shoulder hurt, and more caffeine was not going to unfog this brain.  So I found food and ibuprophen and then took twenty minutes cuddled up under a blanket, gazing at my most miraculous blooming cactus and breathing.  I didn’t try to do anything at all, didn’t “try” to meditate, contemplate, or even reflect.   I just sat with what I was experiencing.

Latte LAC
Clever barista at Second Cup

It seemed sudden, my awareness in an instant, my noticing that my shoulder was easing and more relaxed, my head was clearing, and my upper body beginning to relax.  For the first time I was able to see clearly how that low-level discomfort (read: pain) in my shoulder was creating tension in neck, jaw, head and face, and how creating some space there shifted everything.  Soon enough I could get up and move into doing something…not because I HAD to (I can always do what I HAVE to do) but because I actually wanted to…my body felt more like it belonged to me.

I have been a body psychotherapist for years and for years before that I was in training and in therapy myself.  Yet I am continually amazed to see how my body IS me, and how the messages from the parts of me other than my mind are so very influential.  Allowing for space and time to explore my inner experience allows me to see how that experience may limit me, or how it may free me.  The experience of chronic, low-level pain pulls on energy reserves and causes the body to tense as if to protect itself.   Finding a respite from the pain means that the body has a respite from its vigilance, and there is more energy available for living life.

Seasonal rituals to support your life…

Silver maple buds in marchDaylight savings time starts on March 13th.  Before that, we’ll have some enlightening experiences here in the Canadian Maritimes.   Daylight will come by seven am.  This is a Big Deal, considering that in winter, most of us go to work in the darkness.  On the other end, before the clocks change, it will be light-ish outside until seven.   And when the big shift happens, of course it will be light until eight pm.   Unfortunately, the sun will also be rising at eight am (again).   Living on the far western edge of the time zone means something different than living in, say, the middle of the time zone.

But messing around with the clocks is one of those time-honoured things that logically makes no sense whatsoever (you gain an hour?  lose an hour?   Not really…..twenty four equals twenty four) but we do it because everyone else does it.  What makes a bigger difference for most folks is the actual change in daylight hours, which is a function of seasonal change and the tilt of the earth’s axis.

On a practical basis, early morning light means I don’t have to carry a flashlight along with the poop bag when I walk Max the Labrador in the morning.  It means that when I head home from the gym in the early evening before supper I don’t have to turn on my headlights.  It means that outside activities can continue later into the day.   It also means that my internal clock, which appears to be set to “hibernate” from the short days in December, has re-awakened.Silver maple flowers

I love that re-awakening process.  I like to watch it in the world and in myself.   Today, gray and cloudy and peculiar as the light is for late February, I can look out the office window and see the buds on the silver maples.  They are near to bursting:  silver maple buds form in the fall and when the juices start flowing the tress flower very early.  You do have to look pretty closely to see those flowers:  these are not flaming hibiscus calling for attention.  They are pretty subtle, feathery dark red things that open far earlier than most.  I’ve been living side by side with silver maples for ten years now, and I love that they are a very early reminder that the light has changed and that spring is coming, just as inexorably as winter came a few months ago.

Silver maple buds in january
winter maples

Another sign that I am waiting for is the song of chickadees.  Chickadees are a very common bird here;  so common we might miss what signals they bring.   The characteristic “dee-dee-dee” call is heard all winter in our woods.   But spring brings another sound;   a two-pitched dropping tone….maybe like from the fourth to the second of a major scale?   Yeah, my music theory is a little sketchy…but the sound is also characteristic of late winter/early spring in this part of the world.  I have an ancient association with it from my own children’s childhood.  There was a little segment on Sesame Street about tapping maple trees.  The horses pulled a sledge through the woods, while the farmer gathered the sap, and the sounds were of the animals, the sledge and the “dee-dee” of spring chickadees.   My Dearly Beloved, who knows about this stuff, tells me that chickadee call is all about finding a mate.  It is most decidedly a spring thing, and becomes increasingly rare as the season wears on, birds are nesting and raising young, and that biological urge goes underground for another season.5065-chickadee

I notice signs in myself.  I am eagerly awaiting the first of March so I can start feeding my houseplants again.  This is a rule I internalized from somewhere…stop fertilizing in October and start again in March.  I have no idea if there is a good reason to give them a break in the winter but I am willing to do it, as it supports my need for seasonal rituals.   The other thing I notice is my sudden interest in gardening again…what shall I try THIS year?   Where shall I put the tomatoes, for example?  What flowers worked best in the boxes last year?   Those thoughts, like the silver maples, have been in something of a dormant state for a few months.  I actually remember being relieved when I put the garden to bed in the fall…but a little time off from something can make it more attractive.

There is something, for me, at least, in seasonal awareness, and seasonal ritual.   We put little fairy lights on a timer in a big houseplant in October when the days get short.  When March 13th comes, it will be close to the time when we remove them, because the sun provides the light we seek.   There is comfort in these seasonal rituals, small as they are, comfort in listening for the chickadees and watching the maples bloom.   The world around us may be full of chaos, but earth turns, seasons change, and we go on.

Chickadee and Silver Maple blooms are Creative Commons licensed

Winter maples, Leslie Ann Costello

 

The Perfect Mommy: the myth that binds

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There is a terrible mythology operating among sensible, educated, intelligent women, and the result of this mythology is a whole host of trouble:  increasing stress levels, anxious thinking, moodiness, roller-coastering emotions and self-esteem.  This is the myth of the perfect mother, who, with no apparent effort, has perfect children.  She is totally self-sacrificing, perpetually loving, has boundless energy to give to her children, and her life, because she has sacrificed everything, is perfect.  Her children lead charmed lives, as well, because she is a perfect mother. 

Do you believe this?   I know that in your intellectual mind, you understand that it is an impossibility, unachievable.  We all “know” that nobody is perfect.    But deep in your heart of hearts, do you believe that if only you are perfect you can protect your baby and child from harm?  That you can support her development to the degree that she can become something wonderful and special?  That if you breastfeed longer, play the right music, keep her away from screens, anticipate her every need, that you can protect her from anything that might befall her?

Many moms seem to have this belief underlying their everyday behaviour.  There is a terrible fear of being less than perfect and thus putting your baby at risk.  And maybe the worst part is this “perfect” is a moving target!  Today it is about co-sleeping.  Tomorrow it is about enforcing a schedule.   Avoid peanut butter.  No, no, offer it early, prevent allergies!  When you are in the middle of this, it is impossible to see the whole context…. which is that the “right” way to raise baby is going to be different next week….and in five years, you’ll look back and say, oh, I can’t believe we thought that was right….

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A mom got really angry with me once for suggesting that she could maybe try to be a “good-enough” mom.  This concept is time-honoured, and I’ll get to the background in a minute.   The mom who got angry thought that she would be short-changing her children if she only was “good enough.”  She needed to be more than that, more than even what is possible, in order to justify her having these children in her life.  She couldn’t relax into the idea of being “good enough” because that would mean she didn’t actually deserve to have children.  What a painful, limiting way to think….and she wasn’t completely aware of it until it came out in therapy.  When those ideas get some light and air in therapy, then we have the ability to think about them, and decide if we want to believe them.   We develop the capacity for making choices in how we will mother.

So what about the “good-enough” idea?   Well, it got its start with Donald Winnicott, a very important psychiatrist from the U.K. in the last century.  He suggested that children have very particular needs in order to develop to their highest capacity. Most mothers supply these needs without a lot of outside intervention.  And once those needs are met, then adding more doesn’t do anything to support development.  It is actually energy spent that could be doing something else, like maybe taking care of yourself, or working at your career, or doing something you love.

How can you switch to being a good enough mommy when you have been programmed since forever to aim for perfection?  You have to reprogram your inner world and then restructure your outer world.

Inner world

  • Check your default thinking.   When you interact with your child and you hear self-critical thoughts come up in your mind, see if you can think “that was probably good enough.”   If that’s impossible, see if you can think “I wonder what good enough would be like?”
  • If you tend to catastrophic thinking (i.e. if I give my baby a bottle all these terrible outcomes could happen), do a reality check. Specifically, how likely are those outcomes?   If one happened, would you manage it?  Another approach to that worst-case thinking is to just notice that you are doing that kind of thinking again.  If it is a pattern for you, you might be able to notice that you are in your pattern.  Once you can see the pattern, you have some traction for fact-checking.  “Oh, this is my scary thought pattern.  I don’t have to believe these thoughts; this is just my pattern.”
  • Practice thinking about what is constitutes “good enough.” Do I have to read three books at bedtime or is one book enough?   Does the baby need to nurse five times a night at six months or is less going to be enough?  Don’t expect to know what enough is…. but at least when you are asking the question you can notice when you are giving too much.
  • Destress your life as much as possible, and focus on enjoying the time with your baby or children. More about that later.

Outer world.

  • Check your context. Are you inundated with other peoples’ views on perfect parenting?  Do you spend time on social media listening to women judge other peoples’ parenting?  Or do you spend time in social groups trying to improve your parenting?   See if the context supports your sense of being okay or if it contributes to a sense that you are not okay at this mothering thing.  It probably won’t be all or nothing:  there may be parts that feel good and supportive, and parts that feel judgy and uncomfortable.  See if you can extricate yourself from judgement.  That includes offering judgment as well as being the recipient.
  • Ask for what you want. In an effort to change the context to support you in being “good enough” instead of perfect, you can ask for support.  Ask for support for your parenting and tell them what that will look like.  For example, “Mom, I’d really like you to tell me that I am doing a great job, and that you know it is sometimes hard, and that you think I’m a good mom.”   You can’t control whether she will do it, but you will have made your preference very clear.
  • Destress your life as much as possible. Yes, you did just read that in the list above, but it is essential for both inner peace and an outer serenity.  More about this later.

 

Getting out from under the burden of perfectionism in motherhood is not easy, but it can be liberating.  You know what your child needs, and you know how you want your family life to be.  You and your spouse get to make those decisions for your family. It can just like the folks next door, or people on Pinterest, but it probably won’t be.  And just as perfect mothering cannot protect your child from real life, it cannot keep you from struggling with the complicated feelings that arise as our children grow, change, and face their lives.  Liberating yourself from the myth of the perfect mommy offers the possibility of deeply enjoying the process of raising children.

Photo credit: Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours for the lovely hands on mug picture.