Lisa has written extensively about topics related to marriage, relationship and emotional health. She has the ability to present complex psychological concepts in an easy to understand way with lots of simple and practical tips for her readers to improve their relationship and overall emotional health. Many of her readers love her transparency in writing about her life as a therapist.
Cecily Mak shares her personal journey and paradigm shift around the role of alcohol in her life. A clarifying moment in time, the realization that her marriage was over, was the catalyst. Shortly after, she admitted to herself that, yes, she had been abusing alcohol.
“Whatever you do, don’t tell people you don’t drink. They’ll think you’re weird.”
Last night I attended an international boarding school reunion at a lovely rooftop venue on Park Avenue in New York City. I was among approximately 75 people of many ages, diverse backgrounds, and exotic nationalities, our experiences at a Swiss boarding school at some point in the last seven decades being the thread that tied us all together. I attended the reunion alone and knew nobody.
It’s always interesting to experience these types of events as a non-drinker. Whether it is a professional networking happy hour, a school fundraiser, a milestone celebration, or any of the many other types of professional or social gatherings comprised of mostly strangers there to meet, connect, exchange, possibly meet again, alcohol is almost always the common theme. Let’s face it: Alcohol is an excellent lubricant. A drink or more makes these events easier and often more fun. Our inhibitions lessen. We’re less intimidated by the unknown. We’re more likely to introduce ourselves, open up, share contact information, and sometimes more.
I’ll admit it: Though I still enjoy them, it is harder to attend heavily anonymous social or professional events without alcohol. It takes work to move through a crowd and meet strangers without the alcohol buffer. It’s often awkward to order a non-alcoholic drink and reassure the person asking “Yes, I’m sure, just a sparkling water for me, please.”
It’s also a little more tiring. A couple of hours is usually my limit. I meet the people. I do the things. I listen to the talk/toast. I exchange contact info. I have interesting conversations. Then, I’m finished. I’m thinking about getting enough sleep to be up and out the door for a run at 6am, not where we are all going to go to get some late night food and a nightcap (salty pizza and a double Oban with one rock being my historical favorite).
I am a regular at these gatherings and have been for most of my life. I was trained at a young age how to host and attend with style, grace, and just the right amount of drink. Starting in high school, carrying on through college, a brief chapter as a model in LA, three years of law school, three years at a law firm, seven years as a music lawyer, six years as a Silicon Valley executive, and now as a new entrant in the blockchain/venturing industry, I consistently attend a multitude of gatherings that include alcohol as a focal point, an essential part of the experience. A whisky tasting with colleagues in Dublin. Dinner followed by karaoke with the new team in Tokyo. Cocktails at the end of a grueling two-day offsite in Brooklyn. A wine tasting at high end Italian restaurant in Las Vegas. These are a few of the things I’ve attended without drinking alcohol, just in the last seven months.
I can then layer in the personal life experiences: twelve years (so far) as a mother with many wine-loving fellow-mom friends, eleven years as a professor (almost always hosting a round of drinks after our evening classes), and a fifteen-year long relationship with a DJ/burner/creative (imagine it and it probably happened). I’ve had my share of social and professional drinking and partying. I’ve delighted in the boozy client dinners, the champagne-soaked baby showers, the big nights out on the town with rockstars, endless day-night-days at Burning Man, sloppy family holidays, girls weekends galore, and plenty of amazing pinot noir tastings in spectacular environments with fascinating people.
If I’m honest with myself (and I’m getting better and better at this every day), I was headed in the wrong direction with alcohol when I decided to stop drinking almost two years ago. My years of “use” and enjoyment purely for enjoyment’s sake were behind me. I had evolved to a place in which I was (ab)using alcohol to dull, tolerate, to avoid, to endure. Lucky for me, I was inspired to stop before this (ab)use progressed further, possibly descending me into the grips of addiction and depression I witnessed take my mother’s life.
Choice Day, September 1, 2017 (photo by R. Dragonfly)
A gifted therapist I started to see several months after stopping, primarily to help me understand alcohol culture and some of the changes I am experiencing in embracing a sober life, has helped me put some terminology around this all. He tells me there are three levels of drinkers: users, abusers, and addicts/alcoholics. I was a bit disoriented in the beginning of my alcohol-free journey and needed some structural guidance, language-wise. I never felt like an alcoholic. I never had a DUI, I never went to rehab or needed AA. I just stopped only to realize my life is better without it. I also knew I wasn’t just a casual user either. I was drinking at least a little almost every day and probably more than I should have on some days. There were certain things I couldn’t imagine doing, people I wouldn’t see, places I didn’t want to go without a context-appropriate beverage in hand. And there were certainly mornings I awoke annoyed with myself for not drinking less the night before. But I had grown up and matured as an adult surrounded by loved ones, a social life, and a professional ecosystem that assured me that this was all just fine, normal in fact.
After a few conversations, we concluded that I was abusing alcohol when I decided to stop. This was more than casual use and not as serious as an addiction or alcoholic label. I was (ab)using alcohol to cope with a heartbreaking time in my life, to escape, to avoid, but not to celebrate. It took me some time to accept this. What I was doing for almost the entirety of my adult life didn’t look like abuse or a problem of any kind, it looked like what most of my friends and family were doing: a cocktail or two after work, wine with dinner, the occasional beers on the beach, the meandering afternoon-into-evening in wine country, mimosas with weekend brunches. In fact, many friends and a couple of family members have tried to talk me out of this seemingly austere decision. “You didn’t seem like you had a problem.” “I never saw you drunk.” “Are you sure you are choosing not to drink for the right reasons?” (This last one is particularly puzzling to me. Another post, another day.)
It all looked “normal” but I was drinking just enough to dial the volume of my inside screams down, calm my pounding heart, sometimes get to sleep. I was getting to a place of needing to drink to transition from work-mode to home-mode, from chore-mode to entertain-mode, from bedtime routine-mode to chill out on the sofa mode. I often felt I couldn’t really relax, socialize or be fun without a little kickstart. In some of the harder, final months of my marriage (and habitual drinking), I recall not even wanting to eat dinner with my family until I’d had a cocktail. Though it seemed normal and harmless enough, this meant less presence, less connection, less consciousness, less health, all things I celebrate and rejoice in today.
So, how and why did I stop?
It was pretty spontaneous. I’d met a few women in the years leading up to my own decision (my “Choice Day”) who inspired me. One was a new mom who didn’t want to be buzzed, ever, around her daughter. Another was an overworked executive who quit one day and discovered a love for running that has evolved into a thriving fitness-for-urbanites business. Another radiates health and attributes her clear eyes, glowing skin, and regular meditation practice to living alcohol-free.
I made the decision to stop in an unexpected and unplanned moment of shock and awe. I awoke before dawn on September 1, 2017, and knew in the core of my being that it was The First Day of the Rest of My Life. The previous thirty-six hours were a neon-lit array of events and circumstances that, strung together, confirmed once and for all that my marriage was over. I was in the middle of the desert at Burning Man, surrounded by thousands, profoundly alone, surprisingly at peace, and with great trepidation peeking over the edge of the other side of The Continental Divide of My Life. In this moment, I was reminded by a loved one that I needed to be as crystal clear and present as possible for at least the next thirty days. Decisions I knew I was going to be making and communications I knew I would be initiating would impact my children, my health, my finances, my community, my career, my family, and more for years to come. I knew that in order to make sure that this all unfolded as harmoniously as possible, I needed to be completely present (sober) in every moment. I didn’t want to look back on a single regrettable text, conversation, signature or kiss. There was no room for being blurry or loose. This was the time to be sharp, clear, feeling, and present.
It was surprisingly easy. I am very fortunate. I have not struggled to not drink. I haven’t needed AA, rehab, or any other medical/psychological support in making this profound change in my life. (That said, I can’t imagine having navigated these seas without the bright lights in love, friendship, and support from many amazing people I’ve been beyond blessed to journey with. Again, another post for another day.) I never went through withdrawals, battled cravings, or questioned my decision. In fact, I tell people all the time, I’ll have a drink when I want one. I just haven’t (and now that it’s all out of my system and I am fully embracing what I’ve affectionately called ClearLife, I doubt I ever will).
Cecily’s sons at Stinson Beach, Christmas 2018.
After thirty days, the positive impact on my life was so profound in so many ways, I started another month, and another. Sleep was deep and uninterrupted. My skin, eyes, and posture lit up. I started running early in the morning before work. I mastered my finances. My mind sharpened. My heart opened. I started to write again. Anxiety and fear withered into a memory. I have grown to be more comfortable with touch and eye contact with loved ones. I lost almost twenty pounds. Things that had been on a rolling to-do list for years were crossed off, energy freed up. Most importantly, what felt like a loving and functional relationship with my sons has evolved into a deeply powerful bond of mutual respect, understanding, and awe that I hadn’t fully experienced pre-ClearLife. And somehow there is no more yelling, anywhere. There was for a while, including between my sons and me.
In months three and four (the 2017 holiday season) there were a few evenings when I chose to consciously drink, experiment, yet these experiences were only affirmative; I was finished. The last drink I had was on December 29, 2017. There was a home-cooked steak dinner, a raging fire in a handsome fireplace, wonderful conversation, and peaceful sleep, but none of this was made any better by the cocktails or wine. Not knowing it was the last of the last, looking back, it was a beautiful way to say goodbye to what was no longer going to serve me.
Simply put, my life is better without alcohol. I could not be more grateful for the awakening, strength, and self-awareness that has empowered me to make perhaps the biggest decision and shift to date. And my kids are growing up with one parent who lives a pretty awesome and fun life, but doesn’t drink. I never had that example in my own childhood.
I don’t bring it up, but at events like last night’s reunion, sometimes it does come up in social settings. When I ultimately tell people that I don’t drink, most ask if I had a problem. Common responses include:
“Oh wow. Do you do anything or are you completely sober? Nothing?!”
“So, are you an alcoholic?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. What happened? Are you ok?”
“For how long? Is it forever?”
“Wow! I could never do that.”
Funny, alcohol is the only drug we need an excuse to not be taking.
So it was interesting when I was at the alumni gathering last night and one of the first (and only) people I spent much time talking to was a seventy-something year old man who also doesn’t drink. He’d just finished the Boston Marathon and was more fit and bright-eyed than most of my forty-something friends. We spent almost a half an hour talking about our common education experiences, marathons, travel, our careers, and how to stay healthy into and through our 70s when we stumbled into the “I don’t drink either” part.
“Whatever you do, don’t tell people you don’t drink. They’ll think you’re weird.”
This was thought-provoking. He went on to explain that he dodges the topic in his busy social and professional circles by being the life of the party and generally not getting into a discussion about alcohol if asked. (Meanwhile I’m wondering how he could possibly leave this detail out if answering questions about his health and fitness at his age.)
I’m driven to help shift this. I’d love to live in a place and time when it isn’t weird or stigma-inviting to not drink alcohol. There is a movement underway, somewhat reminiscent of what happened to Big Tobacco. Younger people are drinking less. The mocktail (or “zero-proof drink”) industry is exploding. The stigma associated with not drinking seems to be fading, despite the marketing muscle behind trying to keep us going. A growing list of celebrities are publicly opting out of the booze. We are spending billions of dollars a year on improving health through diet and exercise, but neutralizing all of this time and money spent with a steady dose of ethanol.
I don’t want my (our) kids to feel like they have to drink to have fun, be fun, or fit in. I also want to be able to talk about this if asked without inviting or suggesting judgment either way. So, here’s a baby step. Maybe if more of us are more open about our choices around alcohol (and there is a growing number of us!) we’ll be less weird over time.
Physical intimacy in your relationship doesn’t have to be boring – even if you’ve been married for decades! But if you find yourself getting tired of the same old routine or you’re just looking to heighten the passion you already feel for one another, read on.
Being intimate with our partners is one of the biggest ways we connect on both a physical and emotional level. The oxytocin released during sex is responsible for bonding, building trust between partners, and lowering stress.
Whether you want something sweet and romantic or X-rated and naughty, these 5 tips are sure to spice up your sex life.
1) Do Something Different
One naughty way you can spice up your sex life is to be brave and try something different, and we don’t mean get-frisky-in-the-car different. We mean get entirely out of your comfort zone. This might make you feel awkward at first, but the thrill you’ll get from trying something new and naughty will outshine any temporary discomforts.
Say it. Dirty talk is a great option for spicing things up. Send your spouse a scandalous text telling them all the things you want to do to them when you get home or engage in some dirty-talk during sex.
Role play. Role play dating is another excellent way to expand your sexual horizons. Meet your spouse at a fancy bar and pretend to be strangers. Try and pick each other up and practice your best pick-up-lines and build sexual anticipation. You can also role play during lovemaking to get things really exciting.
Order a monthly delivery. Many couples enjoy signing up for monthly subscription boxes that are adult themed. These boxes often include naughty toys and games that enhance pleasure and boost your communication skills.
2) Get Experimental
Studies show that, sadly, 81.6% of women will not orgasm from penetrative sex alone, so it’s important to incorporate new and fun aspects of pleasure for her. One way that couples can do this is by bringing lubrication into the bedroom.
Lube gets a bad rap these days. Many think that only post-menopausal women need “help” down there, but statistics show that 50% of Americans find it easier to orgasm when using lubrication
Another fantastic way you can get experimental with your spouse is by playing with sex toys. Don’t let intimidation prevent you from having an amazing experience in bed. Sex toys are great for solo play or for enhancing sex with your partner.
3) Take Your Time
One fun way to bring some excitement into your sex life is to set the mood. Routine sex may be satisfying, but it’s hardly exciting. Instead of jumping right to the finish line, why not enjoy the scenery along the way?
Set the mood by lighting candles and setting some mood music.
Focus on kissing. Remember when you were a teenager and you could spend what felt like hours just kissing your crush? Revive your teen years and kiss your partner with passion. Not only is this a passionate form of foreplay, but research indicates that women are more likely to be sexually attracted to a man if he is a good kisser.
Another great way you can focus on the moment during sex is by locking eyes with your partner. Eye-contact creates a heightened sense of intimacy and self-awareness.
Having a massage night is another option for taking it slow and setting the mood with your spouse. Get some fantastic smelling oils and take turns giving each other massages. Running your hands all over your partner’s body is the perfect passion-arousing foreplay that feels great and works wonders for reducing stress.
4) Make Sex a Positive Experience
Everyone knows that communication is essential for a happy marriage, but did you know that sexually communicating is just as important? Studies show that sexual communication is positively correlated with sexual satisfaction and heightened relationship quality.
Make your sex life fun by having a “show and tell” with your partner. Show off all your most sensitive areas and tell them exactly how you like to be touched.
Not only is this great for building sexual anticipation, but it’s a great way to communicate with your spouse about how they could be pleasing you better without hurting their feelings.
As an added benefit, research shows that women who have a positive view of themselves sexually will have an easier time becoming aroused and report higher levels of passionate love.
5) Don’t Be So Serious
Physical intimacy is beneficial for your health. Not only does it reduce risks during pregnancy and reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease, but it also boosts immunoglobulin A, which is responsible for warding off the cold and flu.
SAGE Journal also brings out that when in love, people focus on the long-term, which enhances holistic thinking and creative thought. Furthermore, loving sexual encounters improve analytical thinking.
The bottom line is that sex is one of the most intimate and special things you can do with someone. Yes, there are both emotional and health benefits to getting physical with the one you love, but it’s also supposed to be fun.
There are many fun and exciting ways you can get creative with your sex life. Don’t be afraid to do something out of the ordinary, take your time with your spouse, get experimental and naughty, and don’t be so serious. After all, sex is supposed to be fun.
Linda Graham, MFT and author of Resilience and Bouncing Back, looks at the power of response flexibility, an important aspect of resilience. It’s the ability we all have to shift our attitude in any moment, no matter what has happened.
Reflective intelligence hones your perceptions and responses to any event, any issue. You can uncover and examine complex patterns of “thinking” that could derail your resilience and rewire them if you wish to.
You can learn to pause and become present, notice and name, allow-tolerate-accept, observe – to increasingly complex objects of awareness – sensations, emotions, thoughts, patterns of thought, beliefs, assumptions, values, points of view, identities. Mindfulness even allows us to observe the processes of the brain that creates those “mental contents” and shift them to something more flexible and “open-minded” when necessary.
Many people think of mindfulness as a kind of thinking or cognition. Not exactly. Mindful awareness is more about being with rather than thinking about – knowing what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it. This awareness and reflection about experience (and your reactions to your experience) creates choice points in your brain. You can respond flexibly to whatever is happening, moment by moment by moment.
Here’s my own story of shit happens, but shift happens, too, to illustrate mindfulness helping me change my relationship to my thought patterns.
When I had an office in San Francisco, I would park my car in Golden Gate Park and walk two blocks to my office. I could do that on automatic pilot. One day I was worried about something, not paying enough attention to where I was walking, and blithely stepped into a sidewalk of freshly laid wet cement – up to my ankles. Ooh! Yuck!
Immediately the self-critical talk started. “You stupid klutz! Look what you’ve done. You’ve ruined your shoes. You’re going to be late for clients. You’ll have to re-schedule clients. You’ll probably lose clients over this. You’ll lose your business…” all in less than three seconds.
By then I had enough mindfulness and self-compassion practice under my belt that I could stop…”Wait a minute! So I was pre-occupied! I’m sick and tired of winding up feeling lousy about myself when I was just unconscious for a moment. For once I’d like to just deal with something and not make it all about me being stupid.”
With that interruption of my catastrophic thinking, I realized I did have a choice about how I was going to handle this. I picked up my feet out of my shoes and picked my shoes out of the cement. And tried for a little bit of compassion for myself. “Shit happens. I’m probably not the only person on the planet who made a mistake today because they weren’t paying attention. This is probably not the only mistake I’m going to make today. Sure, I’m a little embarrassed, but that doesn’t mean anything more about me than I just wasn’t paying attention.”
There was an apartment building nearby with an outdoor water faucet, and as I began to wash off my shoes, it dawned on me: “Yes, shit happens. Life is happening this way to me in this moment. But ‘shift happens’, too.” I could open to the lesson of the moment: choosing to shift my perspective and cope resiliently right there, right then.
One of the construction workers came over and gave me some paper towels to dry my shoes – and to this day I’m grateful he was kind; he wasn’t teasing or humiliating. And then I realized, If I can change my attitude in this moment, I can change my attitude in any moment. That’s the big shift.
Shift happens, too.
If I can shift my attitude in this moment,
I can shift my attitude in any moment.
This was all said more eloquently by Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who survived three and half years in Nazi concentrations camps, including Auschwitz:
“Between a stimulus and a response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Mindfulness helps us notice what’s happening in the moment, and our reaction to what’s happening in the moment, no matter what’s happening in the moment. We can catch the moment and make a choice. We can shift our attitude, our perspective, we can shift our choices of behaviors in any moment. That reflective choosing supports our response flexibility. That is the response flexibility that allows us to be resilient.
How you respond to the issue…is the issue. – Frankie Perez
The practice of mindfulness allows the practitioner to become of the awareness itself, the consciousness itself, that can “hold” whatever is happening in the moment without being caught up in it, often likened to a vast sky that the storms and clouds of our experience blow through. In the Eastern spiritual traditions where mindfulness developed thousands of years ago, mindfulness was considered to be practice powerful enough to bring the practitioner all the way to full Enlightenment.
I believe that to be true. Many, many people across the ages and across cultures have lived into that truth. Here, as we apply the practice of mindfulness to recover our resilience, we can unpack the events of my story above to learn how this might be so.
A minor mistake – inadvertently stepping into the cement – too much automatic pilot hurrying through my morning, not enough conscious awareness of what I was doing or where I was going – triggered a startle response in my nervous system: Ooh! Yuck! And that triggered a well-worn pattern of catastrophic thinking – disaster! With the accompanying shaming-blaming-harping on myself, “You stupid klutz!” Etc.
It was the mindfulness that stopped that pattern. “Wait a minute!” And the reflection, “So I was pre-occupied!” and the choice, “For once, I’d like to deal with something….” that changed the pattern.
The catching the moment, making a choice, opened up new perceptions in my mind: “I’m not the only person on the planet today…” and new possibilities in my behaviors – washing off my shoes. That moment of coping led to the reflection: “If I can shift my attitude in this moment, I can shift my attitude in any moment.”
That’s the insight into the response flexibility that is the foundation of our resilience. Mindfulness allows us to know what’s happening in the moment as it’s happening. We can integrate the capacities of mindfulness to reflect on “what is,” with the cognitive capacities of the pre-frontal cortex – capacities of executive functioning – to analyze, plan, make judgments, make decisions. to reflect on what could be –This integration is what allows you to “monitor and modify” your responses to your experience, not just in the moment but for the long haul. You can choose wisely.
We’ve all heard of FOMO. “The fear of missing out,” the anxiety that an exciting event may be happening that you’re not a part of.
This initially was a term assigned to teens, often exacerbated by social media. Then FOMO crept into the culture a bit more insidiously, especially for those with an underlying vulnerability to feeling excluded and alone. The hyper-social extrovert who is recharged by people, activities and events can get sucked into the hole too. I suppose for a few of these folks, it might ultimately be fairly harmless.
The question is ultimately whether the “fear” leads to compulsive behavior and unpleasant hangover emotions. At its worst and left unchecked, FOMO can lead to depression, bitterness and dents to the sense of self. Someone with pervasive FOMO might often spontaneously “quit” social media in an effort to manage their uncomfortable feelings around the perception of being left out.
In walks JOMO, “the joy of missing out,” the antidote and positive reframe of its predecessor.
JOMO essentially means you’re good with where you’re at. You’re able to let go of the “shoulds” and not panic about whether there is a better choice to be made. It asks us to practice saying No as a form of self-care. In order to do this you need to be clear on what’s important to YOU in your life first.
What do you like?
What are you passionate about?
How do you recharge?
Once you have more clarity about who you are, the next step is to live in alignment with this. For example, what if you discover that you actually have some homebody tendencies? Perhaps staying home on a Friday night could have more appeal than you thought! Or in your quest to get to know who you are you discover that you actually prefer smaller groups to crowds? This might impact your choices too, especially if the worry of not participating is alleviated.
If you have struggled with comparing your life to others, stress about the “best” choices and regret when you miss an event or experience, you might need to go social media cold turkey to remove the noise to allow yourself to refocus on what’s important. Considering social media tends to show people living their best lives, it might be activating and distracting to your important mission.
If you’re a people pleaser, it may be uncomfortable and possibly scary to assert your opinions. If so, you might need to dig a little deeper into the belief systems driving that. What in your family of origin has influenced your need to adapt to others (perhaps at any cost)?
According to Brene Brown, JOMO is “Feeling content with staying in and disconnecting as a form of self care.” I love this paradigm shift as it highlights the power of disconnection in emotional health rather than what FOMO tries to tell us, that if you miss connecting, it’s the end of the world. Once you better know who you are and what brings you joy, it will become easier to let things go and live by your own rhythms.
And eventually, just maybe, if someone asks you “what’s happening” this weekend, you really might not care.
I had enough recently. So I stopped. In hindsight I didn’t realize that pause was coming but had a vague awareness of overwhelm creeping up on me, a barely audible whisper telling me I was trying to do too much again, an invitation to give myself a break and regroup.
In the past when I took on too much, I ignored my intuition and plowed ahead with an unconscious belief that I “should” do more as my identity was firmly wrapped around this notion. Does that sound familiar? Do you believe you ARE what you DO? This is very common with perfectionistic and driven types where either emotional validation was limited and/or achievement highly rewarded in their family of origin.
This recent time when I had enough, it was different because I had already learned one of the most life changing lessons there are:
“I am a human being, not a human doing.”
Alas, being a “human being” does not exclude me from the need to earn a living to help support my family. I’m a practicing psychotherapist working with individuals and couples in Marin County, CA. Additionally I am a writer on topics related to emotional and relationship health, the founder of this site, LoveAndLifeToolbox.com, and the author of online helping tools in the form of courses and ebooks. Though related, these are two distinct businesses. My primary income is from my therapy practice and for many years I’ve been slowly developing the other but truth be told, in order to make the online business flourish at the rate and level I would like, it needs to be a sole focus and I’m not willing to ditch my therapy work as I love it!
It’s just me managing this site, I have no team working under me to write and upload new content, respond to emails, be on top of sales and manage the social media. In the last year I began a major expansion including online courses which has challenged my tech-unfriendly brain in the most unpleasant of ways. There have been obstacles and it’s been slower than I had hoped, things remaining on my to-do list, seemingly forever. (Who can relate to the never ending to-do list? But it sure feels good to cross things off, doesn’t it?)
I’m also a mother ofthe a hilarious, intelligent, sporty, baseball playing 12 year old boy on two teams much of the year. In his early years I was his baseball and soccer coach. Now I am involved on his local Little League Board and am the league photographer covering many games a week. I love action photography and shooting these kids. It makes me happy. I’m also a wife, a daughter, a friend, a lover of the outdoors, travel and our dog, Chili.
We as people, at least in the American culture, tend to do and take on a lot. In my therapy practice, I hear the repeat tales of people trying to keep up, do more, do better, manage sports and activities of multiple children and other manifestations of DOING. By the way, there is a big difference between “doing” because you are driven to and “doing” because it feeds your soul.
Give yourself permission to stop and be.
I came to a point recently where this website and my online endeavors felt larger than me and crossed the bridge between bringing me joy to feeling like something looming over me. This is when I stopped. No posts, no social media, no responding to the daily requests to post on this site, advertise (I still do not accept advertisements) and general maintenance. In the last month or so I had a few lingering moments where my fear of loss and defeat kicked in, “What if my traffic drops to zero? What if I fall out of the search engines? What if people don’t come anymore because there has been no new content?”
Ok, so what if?? What would be the worst thing that would happen in the grand scheme of things? When I began writing and tending to this site, all those years ago, I did so out of love and enthusiasm for what I was doing and the education I was providing. This is where I need to be coming from when I focus my energy here. And this is where I am coming from now after Spring break with my family, finally with enough time to regroup. Revitalized and once again, enthusiastic.
There are countless situations where your voice might tell you, you’ve had enough. Are you listening? Whatever your version is of having enough, hopefully it’s something you can give yourself permission to at least pause. Clearly some things in life fall in the “must-do” category for survival. But I do believe people put a huge amount of pressure to do and be in ways that are not healthy. If you can identify this in the first place, it’s a great first step. Next would be an intentional action to honor the fact that you’ve had enough. Take a break to re-energize yourself to jump back in. Or not.
I’m happy to be back and will commit do finding ways to do so that I can manage and if I come to another point where I can’t or no longer feel positive about it, I will take a break again. And it will be ok.
Things often ultimately work out more than our minds let us believe.
Fear can be the ultimate ruler of your life, if allowed. It can whisper in your ear that you’re not good enough, you’re a fraud, you won’t be able to do it, you’ll be made fun of, you’ll be rejected and abandoned or that bad things will happen to you.
Fear leads to avoidance which leads to pulling away from life. It can also impact the way you see yourself, your self esteem and confidence. It can also prevent you from breaking free of anxiety, depression, and so many other psychological issues.
It’s helpful to know that your nervous system is designed to maintain a certain degree of vigilance— in fact, we’re wired to remember things that go wrong, and fixate on where there might be trouble. Scientists refer to that as evolution’s negativity bias: We are Velcro for difficult experiences but Teflon for pleasant ones.
If you live with a sense of danger “around the corner” you react by mentally and sometimes even behaviorally going into one of three modes: fight, flight, or freeze. So with fear, if you regularly feel like a victim, if you close down and withdraw, or instead if you become angry and judgmental, your reaction becomes part of your physiology and character.
If you chronically react to fear with anger and judgment, your body is living with an unhealthy level of stress chemicals. Not only that, on an emotional level, you can become habitually defended or aggressive.
And what’s really sad is that we become mistrustful of others as well as ourselves.
What if all of this could be changed? How would your life be different if fear wasn’t in the driver seat?
Tara Brach, PhD is a well known expert in meditation and emotional healing, helping people all over the world to heal the shame and fear that can keep them stuck, much of her teachings derived from the wisdom of Buddhist teachings.
In this free video, Tara Brach speaks to therapists like me (but ANYONE can benefit) about how to begin to face your fears and change your life.
This is incredibly relevant to people all over the world who are losing themselves to their smartphones. Classified as an addiction by many, it’s impacting relationships and likely changing brains of our young generations. This is New York Times author, Kevin Noose’s journey to try to free himself.
My name is Kevin, and I have a phone problem.
And if you’re anything like me — and the statistics suggest you probably are, at least where smartphones are concerned — you have one, too.
I don’t love referring to what we have as an “addiction.” That seems too sterile and clinical to describe what’s happening to our brains in the smartphone era. Unlike alcohol or opioids, phones aren’t an addictive substance so much as a species-level environmental shock. We might someday evolve the correct biological hardware to live in harmony with portable supercomputers that satisfy our every need and connect us to infinite amounts of stimulation. But for most of us, it hasn’t happened yet.
I’ve been a heavy phone user for my entire adult life. But sometime last year, I crossed the invisible line into problem territory. My symptoms were all the typical ones: I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping. I tried various tricks to curb my usage, like deleting Twitter every weekend, turning my screen grayscale and installing app-blockers. But I always relapsed.
Eventually, in late December, I decided that enough was enough. I called Catherine Price, a science journalist and the author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” a 30-day guide to eliminating bad phone habits. And I begged her for help.
Mercifully, she agreed to be my phone coach for the month of January, and walk me through her plan, step by step. Together, we would build a healthy relationship with my phone, and try to unbreak my brain.
‘A Bit Horrifying’
I confess that entering phone rehab feels clichéd, like getting really into healing crystals or Peloton. Digital wellness is a budding industry these days, with loads of self-help gurus offering miracle cures for screen addiction. Some of those solutions involve new devices — such as the “Light Phone,” a device with an extremely limited feature set that is meant to wean users off time-sucking apps. Others focus on cutting out screens entirely for weeks on end. You can now buy $299 “digital detox” packages at luxury hotels or join the “digital sabbath”movement, whose adherents vow to spend one day a week using no technology at all.
Thankfully, Catherine’s plan is more practical. I’m a tech columnist, and while I don’t begrudge anyone for trying more extreme forms of disconnection, my job prevents me from going cold turkey.
Amy Eden offers a deeply personal look at how abandonment in childhood later played out in her relationships. But she learns to deconstruct her “urge to flee” and stay present instead.
First you’re abandoned, then you live with an urge to flee.
I have spent my entire life anxiously ready for things to fall apart. My shoulders are never completely without tension, same for my eyes in their sockets. There’s always the potential for a need to leave. I have spent my entire life ready to bail out, to get out, to save myself. To run. I’m sitting in the back of the restaurant facing the door and patrons, ready, at all times, for The End.
I should have sought work in a hospital emergency room as something.
I have ended many relationships in an angry flourish that lived up to that anxious anticipation, heaping a longtime on-and-off again boyfriend’s belongings outside my locked apartment door in NYC, walking out of a bar mid-conversation on a man with whom I lived and not returning home that night in Cambridge, or by lashing out in writing, with agony and bile, to end things in San Francisco…in a satisfying manner that justified the hell I’d supposedly been put through.
It’s pretty obvious that my break-ups were all about me reenacting abandonment from my childhood, and trying to hurt my parents back for leaving me. They’d messed with my head and my heart, dammit. (After my parents split up when I was three or four, I lived with my mother for a summer until she brought me to her parent’s house for what was supposed to be a weekend but turned into a year or two, until my father appeared to take responsibility for me.)
I’ve been aware of this ‘urge to flee’ more and more over time. I think I know why. Over time, I have become a person who’s increasingly more committed to things, committed to a job, committed to a relationship, committed to a child, committed to living in one place…
My fiancee and I are in the same relationship, but we experience it very differently. He expects it to last the rest of his life, and he thinks we’re built to last. These things are probably true; however, while he experiences our relationships like a comfortable blanket that soothes and warms him and is reliable and softer with increasing cycles through the washing machine, I experience it more like an animal brought in from the cold, who is trying to learn to curl up into the softness but startles at the smallest inconsistency or upset all too easily–“What’s that noise? Get up, grab the flashlight, gotta go!”
But! I have hope! Slowly, through becoming more and more aware of my daydreams centered around fleeing (and having some daydreams that were shockingly extreme ‘the end’ scenarios), I’m actually learning what it’s like to let go of my rip cord, just let my hand fall to my side and not reach for that cord to release, and “be” in my present reality. That’s a satisfying moment. I bet it’s what normal people feel like.
If you’re aware of your ‘exit strategy’ daydreams, then you have the awareness and opportunity to practice putting them in their place (you know the daydreams, the ones in which you move to a different state, where you’ll be happier and things will be easier and you’ll get a fresh start — or the daydream about your plan for the relationship break-up, where you’ll go, what you’ll do next, and the better person you’ll be in your new life — or the daydream about quitting your job so that you won’t have to deal with such critical, micro-managing, ego-tripping bosses ever again, or where you get a job that has only easy tasks that you’re really good at and where there are no difficult co-worker relationships…those daydreams).
The next time you catch yourself daydreaming about fleeing your current commitments, observe yourself and learn. Look for the why behind the onset of the daydream:
What preceded the daydream – what just happened (whether an occurrence or a thought)?
What problems does the scenario in the daydream solve? What difficulties do you get to avoid dealing with in that other life in the daydream?
What will be easier ‘on the other side’?
Pay attention to all of that.
Meanwhile, practice staying put. Let the itch to flee exist, but don’t indulge it. Instead, observe it, and recognize it for what it is. Don’t let it have ultimate power over you anymore.
It’s delicious when I remember to let go of my exit plan for a day and enjoy what I’ve got. Why not let people get to know me – I mean, since I’m going to be sticking around? (I once lived with a roommate for four years but never really got to know her/let her know me; from the day she moved in, I anticipated her leaving and getting a new roommate. ) Staying put and letting go of my exit plan blueprint is an unfamiliar freedom that I need to practice at, till it’s more of a habit, and easier to be in a state of then that of fear.
With fewer endings in our lives, we have much more room and energy for…
…pursuing the inspiring daydreams.
Do you have a personal story to share? Go to my Contact page and submit your emotional health or relationship success story idea for possible publication in LoveAndLifeToolbox.com.
Linda Graham, MFT and author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, looks at how “unlovability” is wired into the brain and the experience of rejection gets encoded in neural cells around the heart. She offers ways to feel lovable again, as we all should.
When we’re not caught in the suffering of feeling unlovable, it’s fascinating to learn just how those afflictive pockets of inadequacy, unworthiness, failure, shame, get so deeply embedded in our neural circuitry in the first place. In these uncertain times, when we’re especially vulnerable to the fear and self-doubt and second guessing creeping in, it is skillful means to learn how to re-program our body-brain’s conditioning and generate new neural circuits that support our feeling lovable, loved and loving.
Here’s a simple exercise to evoke the sense of contraction we often experience at a cellular level when we experience an unexpected hurt, rejection, or disconnect. I learned this one from Stuart Eisdendrath, M.D. and Ronna Kabatznick, PhD, at a daylong on Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. They use this exercise in their MBCT groups at UCSF.
Allow yourself to sit quietly for a moment, eyes gently closed. When you’re ready, imagine yourself walking down the street on the sidewalk someplace familiar to you. You’re fine, humming along, and then across the street walking toward you, but on the other side of the street, you see someone you know and you wave hello – and they don’t wave back. Stay quiet for a moment. Simply notice what happens inside as you perceive and react to not being seen nor responded to by them.
There is an automatic, unconscious, “separation distress response” when someone we are connected with turns away, or in this case someone we want to connect with doesn’t respond. There’s a uhh!! in our body, coming from the brainstem that triggers a moving toward or a pulling away. Or often an even larger cascade of feelings and stories that try to make sense of what just happened. If any part of the story goes in the direction of “It must be me; I must be bad,” we’ve tapped into an old embedded shame circuit of feeling unlovable, unworthy, undeserving. As a therapist, or even as a vulnerable human being, I encounter these deeply tormenting feelings of “unlovableness” all the time. It’s almost endemic in our Western culture.
When the earliest experiences of reaching out for connection (even in infancy) are met with non-response, indifference, disregard, dismissal, or with anger or critical blaming-shaming, that experience of reaching out gets paired with a feeling of hurt or rejection or confusion. We withdraw back in to ourselves for protection. We begin life primed to reach out and connect — and we learn to fear wanting or needing connection. The visceral experience of that hurt or rejection is encoded in neural cells around our heart.
We literally feel the sensations of heartache or a broken heart.
If our experience of reaching out and being met with nothing or with pain, and then our retreating for protection is repeated often enough, the amygdala, which is both our fear center and our emotional meaning center, begins to encode a memory, a warning, around our yearning paired with an anticipation of hurt and rejection. That neural pairing becomes an unconscious implicit memory even before we have the self-consciousness to create a story about being unlovable. That pairing can become a self-reinforcing recursive loop. Our brain becomes so used to firing in this repeated pairing it generates a kind of neural cement.
Then, as a child continues to grow and explore the world and wants to connect elsewhere in new relationships, new experiences, if the same parents who responded to the child’s early yearning for connection respond similarly to the child’s yearning for exploration, with disregard, neglect, or overt criticism and shaming, the child’s self-concept of its desires and of its self begins to go negative. “There must be something wrong or bad with me for wanting this.” And the child again withdraws into a protective shell, only now isolated in fear of relationship because of fear of rejection and fear of feeling shamed – unacceptable, unlovable. The same process of encoding experiences as memories of the future now encodes the shame experience in the neural circuitry; with enough repetitions, more neural cement.
We can feel this neural cement viscerally as a limbic collapse – eyes down, head down, chest collapsed. If no other relationships come along to do the attending to and attuning to our inner experience with interest and curiosity, not judgment and not blame, but interest and curiosity and empathy and acceptance, these circuits stay split off, operating unconsciously. The encoded neural circuitry not only isolates the child as a person; it isolates itself within the brain, not integrated with later experiences of acceptance and love. We grow up and learn to relate as we do, but these buried circuits can still be triggered in relationships when our yearning for connection meets a wall, leaving us vulnerable to perceived or real slights and rejections.
These unconscious internal working models then influence all future perceptions. They filter those perceptions. They even distort our perceptions. And how this impacts adult relationships now is fear of rejection and fear of shame can lead us to avoid or block intimacy – even unconsciously. And if shame blocks us or cut us off from receiving interest and mirroring of our goodness and empathy and acceptance of our intrinsic worth from others, there’s no change and no healing. We can no longer go there or admit that there’s any there there to go to.
Tara Brach, clinical psychologist and the founder of Insight Meditation Society in Washington, D.C., describes the Buddhist path to healing shame beautifully in her best-selling Radical Acceptance: Living Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. Acceptance and love are what heal what she calls the “trance of unworthiness.” And they are the only things that heal feeling unlovable. Our culture strongly encourages us to develop self-esteem through accomplishment and achievement. And while mastery and competence actually do re-condition our early conditioning in important and helpful ways, it is acceptance and love that re-wires the circuits of shame. And mindfulness of love and acceptance, taking in the acceptance and love of others, is what re-programs our circuitry.
Modern neuroscience can now explain this movement, this healing process. A person must have, or generate, many, many experiences of feeling accepted and loved. This could happen in therapy or healthy intimate relationship or with an attuned friend or beloved benefactor, or a devoted pet. That feeling accepted and loved must be experienced viscerally in a felt sense in the body. Then when a sensation or feeling or memory of hurt or shame comes up, that old painful experience is now paired with the already positive experience of feeling seen and known and cared about and loved by an accepting other. The new experience is strong enough to pair with the old memory, o fire new neuronal connections in the brain. Each time the new experience of acceptance and love holds the old toxic memory of unlovability or shame with love and awareness, acceptance and compassion, synaptic connections are modified and the old implicit memory pattern begins to change. If the new experience of love and acceptance is large enough and steady enough, with enough repetitions of pairing, neural firing and modification of synapses, over enough time, the felt sense of love and acceptance becomes the super-highway of response and the old shame becomes the back country road we don’t have to go down anymore.
We know that the felt sense of being loved triggers oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone that sends of signals to the pre-frontal cortex which is the part of the brain that regulates all of our emotions and all of our body sensations to send its own neurochemicals down to the amygdala, the fear center and calm down the fear response. A neurochemical, “there, there, it’s OK, it’s OK, you’re OK.” Self-acceptance also calms us down and helps us see things clearly, undistorted by fear or shame. I heard at a neuroscientists’ retreat at Spirit Rock recently that self-reported levels of self-acceptance correlate with oxytocin levels in the brain. These positive experiences of love and self-love, acceptance and self-acceptance, establish a new positive recursive cycle in the brain.
We begin to foster and create the circuits in the brain that steady a sense of feeling lovable, loved and loving.
With Valentines Day approaching, many couples are considering ways to demonstrate their love and affection for each other. What meaning do you attach to Valentines Day? What are your expectations? For me, it’s more about thought and meaning than expensive gifts. However, the reality is some people truly feel loved by expressions of material love; gifts! And that’s ok for them, we all have our “thing.”
For those for whom finances are tight, there are many simple and sweet ways you can show your partner you care about them without breaking your piggy bank. Valentines Day is also an opportunity to get creative.
Here are 8 simple ways to make your partner feel cared for on Valentines Day:
Prepare a stay-at-home picnic surprise complete with blanket on the floor. Leave a trail of candy hearts leading your honey to the spot.
Buy a package of kid Valentines, like the ones you probably passed out in 1st grade and leave them in secret places to be discovered throughout the day.
Write a love letter to your sweetie – by hand. This will demonstrate extra effort make and care for them. Put it in an envelope and stuff it with chocolate hearts in red foil.
Send your mate a loving text at work telling them one thing you love about them.
Draw a bath for your overworked partner complete with sweet smelling soapy items, bubbles and other treats. This might be a good place for the candy heart trail as well.
If weather permits, take a walk or hike together to a place neither of you have been so you can discover it together.
Buy a mini journal with blank pages. On each page write down all the things you love about them. Date it for a keepsake.
Purchase an assortment of small tokens of love, putting effort into personal meaning, inside jokes or stories about your relationship.
If you have the means and desire to “go big” and make it a high impact, expensive event – that’s great too. Just remember that there are many ways, big and small, to show your love this Valentines Day.