The Hooks

“Today, I will be aware of the hooks that snag me into the care-taking acts that leave me feeling victimized. I will ignore the hints, looks, and words that hook me, and wait for the directness and honesty that, I, and others, deserve.

–Melody Beattie (The Language of Letting Go, 1990)

 

Many empathetic people are drawn to the healing professions because of our natural tendency to care for others. We spend our days holding space for their well being and laying hands on their aches and pains. Our minds tune in to their emotional states and for many, the release of negative emotions accompanies the physical work we are engaged in with them. At the end of the day, we are covered in an energetic film of their stuff. Long ago in the early days of my program, an instructor told us of the importance of creating an energetic boundary between ourselves and our patients or clients. He called it a cloud – nothing could penetrate it, so whatever came off of them during a session would stay locked in the cloud. He was honest in saying this would be easier said than done. Even today, at almost 8 years into my massage therapy practice, I still have moments where I’m not sure if what I’m feeling belongs to me or to the clients I saw that day.  Guess my cloud isn’t always on point.

What muddies the energetic waters even more is the expectation in our personal lives to be the bearers of the emotional burdens of others. How much space can you hold when you’re already at a deficit? When do you get to hold it for yourself? If you find that you’re sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of “showing up” for the people in your life, you have to do a serious self-inventory. There’s no faster way to burnout than being hooked from every angle. Many of these people are family, lovers, close friends and even colleagues. Some hook consciously and deliberately; others aren’t even aware of this automatic need to reach out to you to shoulder their load. Either way, when the hooks are cast, we always seem to bite.

                          A hook???? Of course, I’ll bite!                                     

Hooks come in many forms. They can be, as Beattie described, a look, a sigh, a word or an action that triggers us to feel responsible for helping them. With that responsibility comes the behavior that isn’t in our best interest. Beattie refers to it as codependency. Another way to think about it is when you care more about their issues than they do and do the work for them, no one wins. They “depend” on you, but offer nothing in return. In their minds eye, you are the one that will predictably show up and take on their troubles, so they won’t have to. Since when did you become  emotional waste management?

The best way to avoid getting hooked is to demand, as the quote states, honest and direct communication of one’s wants and needs. If you’re too tired to listen, say that you’re too tired to listen. Say exactly what you feel. If a loved one walks into a room, sighs deeply, then slumps into a chair, acknowledge it with your eyes, but not with words. They want you to ask them what is wrong. They want you to offer help. Let them ask for it directly. Then, you can check in with yourself and empathically decide whether you can do it or not.

Saying no with love is better than saying yes with guilt.

The passive aggressive hook is one of the worst guilt provoking mechanisms out there. It also has the power to conjure up feelings of anger, helplessness, shame, and inadequacy to name a few. It’s hard not to bite on it, but it can be done. Let’s say that loved one, after slumping into their chair, turns to you and says, “You know, I had a really bad day today, but you probably don’t care. (pause) Nevermind.”

Your response?

“Ok.”

To an empath, this may feel so counter intuitive, because we do care. We care A LOT. However, trust that this simple answer is preventing you from participating in a guessing game that will inevitably lead to the tidal wave of feelings described above. They may continue to bait you, especially if they cannot tell you directly what is wrong with them. Their attempts might end up conjuring up those feelings of guilt, shame, etc. for you anyway. Trust that they know you care, which is why they are doing this manipulative hooking.

Your response?

“Tell me what’s wrong.”

Do not ask, but calmly command them to tell you. They may not answer you, but the boundary has been drawn. If they want access to your care, they will have to be clear about what is going on with them and what they need from you. This involves some level of pause and mental regroup. For the ones who do it unconsciously, it sort of turns off the autopilot and gives them a chance to think about why they are baiting you. If the issue is small or comes from a place of uncertainty rather than a true need for help, it will give them the space to reflect and the opportunity to do their own waste management. For the ones that do it deliberately, it provides a clear boundary – this hooking will not work anymore.

I don’t think I will ever be able to step out of the care taking role, nor do I want to, but my personal and professional lives could benefit from a little boundary building. Just last night, I was tested with a massive bait from a former patient. My body reacted with all the feelings of a nervous system peaked for attack with appropriate text responses at the ready. I did not use them. I chose not to respond. It was extremely hard to do that, but I was able to lay down that boundary even if the aftermath cost me some sleep.

My care for you is not limitless. It is not at the expense of my own well-being. Just as you demand I hold space for your troubles, I must make the same demand of myself. And in the totem pole of priorities, I am always at the top. I will win out every time. It’s the only way I will be of any good to myself and others.”

–me (2018)

 

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The Healing Decade

I started setting my intentions for 2018 last weekend.  Today’s blizzard and frigid conditions have made it possible to do a whole lot of reflecting on the events of years past, my growth from them and what obstacles still exist. I discovered something very interesting. The major shifts of my life have come in ten year bundles buffered by life altering events on either end. Rather than posting a year in review, I’m choosing to do more of a life in review starting with the significant event that set in motion all the things that have led me to where I am today.

The trauma decade (11-21 yrs)

At age eleven I had a serious car accident. My injuries confined me to a wheelchair and then required over a year of intense and painful PT to get me back on my feet, literally. All the activities that I engaged in prior to this accident which made me feel good within my body were now a source of intense fear and anxiety. I had serious psychological injuries that were never addressed. My self concept and my sense of independence were deeply affected by this accident. Complicating matters worse was a strict, authoritarian upbringing where verbal and corporal punishment were the status quo for relating to children and the wonderful world of puberty, where changes occurred outside of my control. I was a wounded child in a woman’s body with a mountain of responsibility and guilt placed on me for pretty much everything that was going wrong. The depression, post traumatic stress, anxiety and negative self concept all set the stage for my budding eating disorder, which manifested into full blown Anorexia at age 21.

The transformation decade (21-31 yrs)

Anorexia wreaked havoc on my body and mind in the first part of this decade, but my inner resilience helped me to pursue my childhood dream of singing and performing. Yes, I definitely had a very warped end goal when it came to music making. I needed heaps of external validation to feel “okay” with myself, so any drunk heckling from an audience member would upset me to the point where I couldn’t finish a song. I also modeled because I needed that attention to reassure myself that I was desirable and lovable. Of course, those two things do not go hand in hand. When I sought treatment, the onion began to unfold. I was forced to face a lot of vulnerability and insecurity. It was terrifying. I didn’t have any coping skills. My eating disorder and all this hyper-focus on my appearance and sexuality were the ways I dealt or didn’t with my issues. I turned the dial way down on all of that. I started to examine the reasons behind a lot of the things I was doing. I wasn’t ready to quit it all cold turkey, but a transformation was occurring. During this time, I entered into a serious six year relationship with a man whose personality pushed buttons of change for me. Coinciding with this was my Saturn Return. Even if you’re not a believer of astrology, many of us undergo a major reevaluation of priorities and cognitive growth between the ages of 28-31. This is proven by behavioral neuroscience. At age 31, I was successfully in remission from Anorexia and newly licensed in my chosen profession of massage therapy. I felt optimistic, but I had only cracked the surface. The floodgates were about to spew.

The healing decade (31 yrs and counting)

When a train is approaching a station you feel it initially as a tiny flutter of air that gets progressively stronger until it practically knocks you over when the thing emerges from the tunnel. That’s exactly how this decade has been thus far. At age 31, something shifted for me – the flutter of air. My sister gave birth to her first child and holding him triggered a desire for family that overwhelmed me. Everything that I felt comfortable and complacent with needed to go and believe me, it WENT. The great purge gained momentum as the years progressed. This last year and a half, I experienced a mass exit of relationships that no longer served me and the pulling out of the many energetic hooks placed into me by the people I had chosen to give my time and my heart to. Despite all the loss and the ache I feel in many parts of my being, I have never felt lighter and more myself. It’s amazing how clear your intuition and wisdom become when you aren’t burdened by other people’s stuff. My graduate program has given me a lot of perspective on how I perpetuated and maintained some of the situations that plagued me in the first half of this decade. My inner circle consists of some really incredible, intelligent and supportive people who are doing the work on their end and who I admire greatly. The best advice I got this year came from an article a “soul” friend shared with me about reclaiming my power. I get to control who gets access to me. I can and will heal through all this loss and painful adjustment because I have reclaimed that energy for myself. I am surrounded by the best cheerleaders. These people show up. They reciprocate. They care. One of my intentions for this year is to continue to allow them to take care of me, even when I don’t always know how to ask. This vulnerability is a strength that will set the stage for the type of partnership I want for life; the pivotal event I know is coming.

In the meantime, I will keep my gaze on “the bandaged place” as the Sufi poet Rumi so eloquently put it because through that wounded place “the light” will enter me. Amen.

 

 

 

 

I know you are, but what am I?

When did “I’m good at Math.” turn into “I’m a genius. You’re stupid.” 

When did “I think he likes me!” turn into “I’m hot. Everybody wants me.

When did “Oh, my butt looks so cute in these pants.” turn into “You wish you had my body, bitch.

 

Society has done an amazing job of conditioning us to hear confidence as cockiness. Positive “I” statements as narcissistic. It’s frightful that a healthy self concept can be skewed so negatively. But it happens and the lower the self esteem of the other person, the worse it is. 

In the behavioral neuroscience courses I’ve taken, many of us struggled with understanding sensation vs. perception. The take away from all those lectures was that perception isn’t necessarily reality. It may not have anything to do with what actually happened. The example in class was of an experiment where people listened to a piece of classical music and then reported their mood afterward. Same stimulus, but many different perceptions. People reacted to the same piece of music differently – some fell asleep, some were crying tears of joy, some became angry, others sad and so on.

Much like the classical music, the positive “I” statement also goes through that auditory pathway into the sections of our higher brain that gives the statement meaning. The meaning comes from our own experiences and core beliefs. How we perceive the words may have nothing to do with the words themselves or the person they came out of.

There’s a Greek expression my father used to say – He who has fleas feels itchy. Essentially, if someone has something in their mind (fleas), their reaction is going to reflect that (itchy). Itchy is their state of being. So, if you make a statement of self esteem and the person you say it to has a low self concept or suffers from cognitive distortions, their filter is going to assign a negative meaning to it. It will become evidence that they aren’t good enough. They will mind read you and assume you think you’re superior to them. They might even call you names and tell you they want nothing to do with you. Being around you doesn’t make them feel good because they don’t like the mirror you have become for them.  Nothing you do or say is going to change that. In the end, they need to take a hard look at their own reflection instead of flipping it back onto you.

You are absolutely allowed to acknowledge your accomplishments and take pride in your traits. We are all little works in progress. The more support we give each other, the more likely it will inspire growth and self love. I look to people who make positive “I” statements and feel inspired. In my head I hear “I should try that” or “Oh, that makes me want to write again” or “I wonder how I would look with that hair cut.” But I wasn’t always like that…

Between the ages of 19 and 22, I suffered from dysthymia or what is now called Persistent Depressive Disorder. It’s a chronic low grade depression that casts what feels like a shadow over every area in your life. My self esteem was almost non-existent and my thoughts were extremely negative. I walked around with a pervasive sense of hopelessness. I definitely perceived everything and everyone through that filter. I had a close friend who was gorgeous. She had body confidence for days, could talk to just about anyone and got the attention of boys/men wherever we went. Being in her company made me acutely aware of all the things I felt I wasn’t. I would get upset or border on crying many times we would go out. I would tell her things like, “You just want everyone. Let me have someone too.” She would look shocked, tell me I was also beautiful and could have whomever I wanted, but I felt like she was just telling me these things out of pity. I perceived the tone of her voice as patronizing. I would ask her why she was talking to me like I was some kind of loser. She would give me this look of confusion mixed with annoyance, which made me scared she would stop being my friend. I would apologize profusely and then compliment her repeatedly. I perceived her as being annoyed with me all the time. It got to the point that I felt so self-conscious being around her that I decided to stop talking to her. I didn’t return her calls. I didn’t make any effort to reach out to her. I needed to relieve myself from the anxiety and lowness I felt when I was around her. None of this was her fault. She did nothing but be herself; a self that I couldn’t be. My depression and distorted negative thoughts convinced me I had no business being around her. In one of the last voicemails she left me, she was semi crying and asking what happened; how it hurt her to not know what she did to make me disappear. It’s really sad and messed up. As I look back on that period in my life, it makes me see recent experiences with former friends in a different light. It’s easier to forgive when you’ve been in their place. It’s easier to have compassion when you know what level of lowness their words and actions toward you came from.

These experiences helped me see how far I have come from that dark time in my life and taught me to be more compassionate for that suffering when I see it and experience it in others. If I could say anything to that friend now it would be, I’m sorry. I had a lot of issues and you were a good friend to me despite it all. You didn’t deserve to be treated like that. I hope you can forgive me.

And to those former friends who treated me in kind, I forgive you too.

 

 

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My Macro Journey to Fitness – Part 2

Feed me, Julia!

But how?

Prescription Food

In the Fall of 2009, I started my program in Massage Therapy at The Swedish Institute. Along with foundational coursework like Anatomy & Physiology, I was given an education in Eastern medicine. In my introductory class, we discussed the 5 Element theory to diagnosing and treating imbalances in the body. It broke down the acupressure point meridians and the paired organs that represented diagnostic elements. Dysfunction in these paired organs manifested physically and emotionally in the body. Treatments included bodywork, acupuncture, herbs and nutrition. There were foods to avoid and foods to promote the function of these pairs depending on the diagnosis given. Each element itself was associated with certain tastes and manners of eating.

My mind was officially blown!

Food as a healing prescription instead of an anxiety inducing activity resonated with me. I wasn’t at the point yet where I even liked to eat. All I knew was that I had to eat.

Maybe those cravings for lamb burgers were more than just cravings!

I soon learned that eating disorders like my Anorexia stemmed from imbalances in the paired organ relationship of Stomach and Spleen. Makes sense, right? Food goes into the Stomach and then is transformed and assimilated as energy or Qi that gets stored in the Spleen. Depleting my body of nutrients meant I had very little stored energy. People with Stomach and Spleen deficiencies experience a loss of appetite, digestive issues, difficulty putting on muscle, general weakness and lack of tone in their limbs, metabolic imbalances and irregular menstrual cycles. The emotional/spiritual manifestation of their imbalance is anxiety, worry, excessive thinking, pensiveness, obsessiveness, remorse, regret, obsessions, and self-doubt.

Pretty much summed me up.

I bought and borrowed every book I could find on TCM (i.e. Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Eastern theory. One of my class exercises was to create a 3 Day menu for an element of our choice. You know which one I chose. I ended up implementing this menu in my own life. In the first few months of 2010, I started to see muscle definition and an increase in my strength. My program was a mostly strength based workout with my trainer 2x per week and 2 days of some kind of cardio endurance training on my own.

But by March, I found myself overcome with a strange new craving after my cardio workouts and it scared the crap out of me.

SUGAR!

Not your optimal post workout nutrition

Even though it was scary, this powerful urge for sweet made a lot of sense. Metabolically, I was depleting my energy reserves with the duration of my cardio activities. It was my brain telling my body you need the quickest form of energy available or you’ll crash. This energy is glucose. We derive glucose from consuming carbohydrates. The sugars in carbs are broken down to synthesize glucose which goes directly into the blood stream, also known as our “blood sugar.” From these same carbs, we also manufacture glycogen, a more complex sugar which is stored in our muscles and the liver. When blood sugar is depleted, a chemical messenger gets released that signals the glycogen stores to be broken down to glucose, which then gets sent into the blood stream to replenish our levels.

My, then, boyfriend was all too happy to entertain this new craving and together we indulged it. Maybe I felt safer to consume sweets in his presence because it took the edge off of the guilt I felt. Sugar in any form was something I avoided and restricted. It caused me to have anxiety and made me moody. My periods were more painful. And the worst result of all was an increase in my body fat percentage by the year’s end because I wasn’t careful with my portions.

This habit could not continue.

I clearly had to change the way I was working out on my own and what I was consuming afterward. I didn’t want all my hard work to be for nought.

The science of snacking, post workout

I looked into the chapters on nutrition in a few different Exercise Science textbooks. Many of them spoke about consuming a high glycemic index carb within a half hour to an hour of endurance workouts in order to replenish blood sugar levels and prevent the muscles from being targeted for glycogen breakdown. Muscles need that energy to repair themselves, not to keep you from fainting after your workout. Also recommended for muscle repair and recovery was a protein, preferably from the 8 essential aminos family and especially high lucein in nature, along with a source of Omega 3 fatty acid. The above macro-nutrients were recommended to be eaten within 90 mins post workout. If I could create a snack that encompassed all the macros I needed, I would not only be doing my body good, but would also be shutting the sugar cravings down for good.

Box Jumps – an advanced exercise in this High Intensity Interval Training routine

I discovered High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT while watching a documentary on obesity in the UK in 2011. I learned that 20 minutes of intense activity done in short intervals using 90% of my max energy level with even shorter rests in between accomplished more than any of my 90 min cardio benders.

This was a more efficient way of getting my cardio in no matter what my schedule was like. I started with beginner level intervals and within a year, made it to more advanced routines. I already had a good cardio base to work with and I was careful not to do movements where I felt my form was anything short of perfect.

MAJOR NOTE: HIIT is something to work up to. You cannot go from a sedentary lifestyle right into this kind of exercise. You need a strong cardio vascular system and a keen understanding of form before going “balls to the wall” – seek out a trainer that can get you there!

It may have taken almost 7 years, but I had finally found the fitness formula that worked best for me – a combination of strength training and HIIT along with proper nutrition to support my activity levels.

And an amazing thing happened. I started to like eating.

My Macro Go To’s

I make my own post workout snacks on the days where I was not running to work after training. I’m not anal about measuring out the exact proportions of high glycemic carb, protein and fat, but I more or less estimate a portion size that my body responds well to (i.e. no cramping, stitches or bloating after eating)

One of my favorite post workout snacks is a cup of full fat Greek yogurt, with 3 Medjool dates, a tsp of Greek honey and 2 tsps of tahini.

I also created a shake recipe that tastes a lot like lemon cake batter. I blend 1 cup of Kefir (a fermented milk drink similar to yogurt that is a great source of probiotic strains for your GI), 1 frozen banana, 10 blueberries, 1 tsp almond butter and 2 tsps ProOmega D-Xtra liquid from Nordic Naturals (a great source of Omega 3 fatty acid).

Lemon flavored source of Vitamin D3 and Omega 3 fatty acid

Lastly, when I’m in need of a snack on the go between clients, I prefer the  Go Macro macro-nutrient bar along with some kind of fruit. My favorite combo to date is the cashew butter macrobar “sweet rejuvenation” (pictured below) with a medium sized ripe apricot.

 

ADDITIONAL SOURCES and READING:

Journal of Applied Physiologyhttp://jap.physiology.org/content/89/5/1845.full

Muscle Glycogen Synthesis Before and After Exercisehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2011684

Haff, Gregory G and Triplett, Travis N. “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 4th Edition” (NSCA, USA)

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My Macro Journey to Fitness – Part 1

Redefining my relationship with food was one of the hardest challenges I overcame in my recovery from Anorexia. It’s been a decade plus journey with plenty of weak moments and falling off of the wagon. In an effort to hold myself accountable and practice what I preach, to both my clients and loved ones, I’d like to tell you a bit about the role nutrition played in getting me to where I am today.

The Miseducation of Julia Fragias…

The body is a wonderfully efficient machine.

Starve and abuse it, but in a continuous loop of feedback mechanisms, the brain catches wind of what you’re doing and tweaks every cell in the body to maintain your existence. When I started to eat again, my brain clearly didn’t trust me. It adjusted my metabolism to a lower rate in order to make sure the calories I put into my body wouldn’t disappear.

It took a while to earn that trust back.

The image you see above from 2007 is a softer, fuller girl almost 2 years into recovery from Anorexia. I didn’t know how to exercise properly. I didn’t know how to like food, much less understand now-common concepts like macronutrients. I was instructed by my then counselor not to restrict food and was assured my metabolism would normalize. Eventually.

But, of course, I was still afraid to eat.

I categorized foods into “safe” and “off limits.” How did I decide what made them safe? They were low in fat or fat free. Vegetables or fruit were safe, as long as they didn’t bloat me. Liquids were safer than solids. It also helped if they were low in calories per serving. I ate my “safe foods” repetitively and copiously.

My criteria for safe were so far off the mark that they actually contributed to my rapid weight gain. As my body continued to expand, I had to fight the urge to restrict my eating. I wanted someone to give me a magic menu or list of foods that I could eat without anxiety.

I wanted safety, but I needed education.

Through therapy, I was getting served a whole lot of how to eat through mindfulness, which was helpful – chew your food well, eat slowly, savor the flavors, be grateful for the nourishment – but nobody was telling me what to eat.

How could I begin to structure balanced meals that would fuel my body efficiently?

Count your macros…

My self education was to obsessively watch fitness channels on Youtube. This was when I first came across the term macronutrient. The body builders and fitness professionals I was taking notes from all shared the same advice – count your macros. It’s a catchy word, especially when repeated like a mantra, but what exactly are they?

Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats: compounds we derive the most energy from and that make up the bulk of our diets as humans. Our cells need these nutrients to grow and develop properly.

Finally, I had something specific to focus on. I concentrated on the ratios of these compounds that the fitness community recommended were optimal for fitness and good health. I constructed a daily diet that consisted of ready made and home made protein powder based shakes, protein bars, bags of nuts, bananas for my pre-workout, and cans of water packed tuna for dinner.

Finally, I had a new “safe” list!

Problem was, it was even more restricted than my previous one.

My workouts were cardio endurance based only and lasted between 60 and 90 minutes to the point of utter exhaustion. There are a number of reasons why this is not the fitness route you want to go down, but I will get into that in my next post. I dropped about ten pounds, but I was constipated, had started to develop eczema patches all over my body and odd outbreaks of hives, had terrible insomnia and brain fog. As if that weren’t all bad enough, I put on virtually no muscle tone.

At the end of 2007, my annual blood test indicated I was deficient in many vitamins and borderline anemic. Essentially, I was malnourished. My doctor didn’t help matters either by telling me I needed to lose a few pounds. He came to this conclusion based on a chart of height and weight ranges of which I was at the high end of normal. FYI – this chart also said I was a normal weight when I had full blown anorexia. Scary, truly.

Here’s an example of a Height to Weight Chart, like the one my doctor used to determine I needed to lose weight. These things are AWFUL!

I left the doctor’s office terrified.

I abandoned my diet and let my body’s cravings guide my food choices. This was recommended by a therapist who believed the body intuitively knows what it needs. She was also trying to prevent my patterns of restriction and categorizing food. I remember meeting up with an old friend, who had struggled with childhood obesity and was now super fit. I asked him how he learned to eat properly. He laughed at me and said, “Julia. NO ONE eats properly. It’s how you exercise that counts.”

Working with a trainer, he put on lean muscle that raised his metabolism and allowed his body to burn off more calories at rest.

And he noticed something interesting.

The fitter he became, the less he craved the fried pork chops, plantain chips and soda of his youth. Remember what I said about the wonderful efficiency of the body? As his body grew healthier and stronger, so did his food choices.

He strongly urged me to contact his trainer. After I got over myself (my bad experience with personal trainers was documented in my post A Body Is A Terrible Thing To Waste) I set up my first session in August of 2008.

I started on the strength-training program the trainer designed for me. It was around the 6 week mark that I started to feel something I never expected to feel again. Hunger.

I was hungry all the time.

To actually feel my stomach rumbling and experience the weakness of NOT attending to that hunger was frightening to me, but also a huge step forward. Hunger was a sensation I had psychologically dulled for years with my disordered eating habits. So, for the first time since my recovery began, I ate when I was actually hungry.

This. Was. A. Game changer.

I was most ravenous within an hour of my workouts. I found myself craving meat, which was shocking because I had been a vegetarian for 7 years and the thought of animal protein in my mouth used to nauseate me. This hunger and these new cravings were my body’s call to action.

FEED ME, JULIA!!!

But how?

Stay tuned for Part 2…

 

 

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In-sight

It’s amazing what you notice when you literally can’t see…

A few weeks ago, I went in to my optometrist’s office to have my eyes checked. I needed an updated prescription in order to get new contacts. What I learned was that my vision had been grossly overpowered for pretty much my entire young adult life (Math: Aged 15 through 38 makes for 23 years of wearing contact lenses, kids)

I left his office wearing a prescription I think I may have had when I was 10. All of Park Slope looked slightly out of focus with a diffused fuzz surrounding lights and street signs. He told me my brain needed time to get used to this downgrade. My eyes had been conditioned to over focus. This got me thinking about my painful at times issue of noticing the little things that others miss. Conversations I can’t seem to filter my attention away from, scenes that play out in the far corners of train cars when people are staring deeply into their smart devices and smells that no one else seems to pick up on, but send my olfactory bulbs into overdrive. This is the story of my life. I fantasize about what it must be like for the people who do not notice; who aren’t capable or do not care to notice. I envy their ability to walk through life oblivious to all that detail.

I still couldn’t see shit hours later. How long was it going to take my brain to acclimate?

I woke up the following morning and popped the tester contacts back in. When I got to the city, I realized I could not discern clear facial features of anyone more than ten feet away from me. This walk down one of the longest city blocks to get to my work is like an American Ninja Warrior gauntlet. I’m in a constant battle for space, bobbing and weaving through people staring up or down but never straight on, exaggerated arm swings with lit cigarettes that narrowly miss burning a whole into my side and those people who literally just STOP without warning (yes, there is such a thing as rear ending a pedestrian). Since I couldn’t anticipate people’s movements, I had to just go with the flow. I got knocked into by a guy carrying a humongous Starbucks disaster drink. Ask me what he looked like? I have no freakin’ clue. It’s easier to let moments like that go when you don’t have the afterimage of his face stamped in your memory.

I rushed down the subway stairs and made my train just as it was pulling into the station. The bright orange circle was the letter B to my downgraded eyes. It was, in fact, a D. Getting off a few stops later, I waited until the next train fully pulled in and squinted to see the letter clearly. I almost doubted myself. I almost asked the teenager sitting next to me what the letter was. I didn’t. I gazed at our reflections in the darkened window facing us. We looked the same age. My eyes had now become a Photoshop filter. I smiled not really caring what part of Brooklyn I might end up in if my vision had tricked me.

After a week of this, I started to feel like those people I envied. I realized just how much mental real estate I give over to details that honestly take the joy out of my life at times. There is an expression “the devil is in the details” and it rang true for me. Learning to pay attention to what matters most instead of getting lost or despondent over every micro element of what I’m seeing, hearing or inhaling is my take away from this experience. My eyes may have found their focus now, but I feel like I inadvertently got a dose of exposure therapy in the process. And I’m not mad about it at all.

 

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Using Your Whole Brain to Avoid Drama

A few months back, my sister and I were chatting about how she had learned to cope with her kids’ misbehavior and meltdowns. Unlike the old school European tactics of our parents, she had discovered a way that built a level of self awareness in her children even some adults lack. This magical teaching tool is No-Drama Discipline (image above) written by two of psychology’s leading experts in parenting.

I decided I wanted to read this book not because I am or will be a parent anytime soon nor because it is required reading for my grad school endeavors. What appealed to me about it was gaining another level of understanding the way in which our brains react to emotional situations. While it may be geared toward parents trying not to psychologically scar their children in the process of raising them, its tools can be applied to almost any relational conflict in life.

The WHOLE brain…

The authors speak of the brain in two parts – an upstairs and a downstairs. This rather simple separation makes sense in terms of our reactions. Think of your upstairs brain as your rational, intellectual side that likes to problem solve and think through things before it reacts. It’s the part that has had many millennia of trial and error to evolve into the task master that it is. The downstairs brain is your primitive, reptilian side that reacts immediately and strongly to things that stimulate it. It’s governed by emotional reflexes and, if left to its own devices, would have kept us from ever becoming “human.” The whole-brain approach these experts describe is getting the upstairs and downstairs to work together in order to build a positive sense of self, accountability and resilience, delayed gratification and a host of other mindful things in children.

Adults can have trouble integrating their upstairs and downstairs brains too. We have ALL been there; a situation where reason flies out the window and we would sooner punch a wall than ask questions. That’s the downstairs brain running the show. This reactivity is noted by the authors as being a plea for help or a sign that a child doesn’t know how to process and express the BIG feelings that have overwhelmed him or her in that moment. Adults, too, can have trouble articulating BIG feelings, especially if there is a level of vulnerability involved. What it boils down to is if you punch that wall, will you still be loved? If you are at your lowest, will people still be there for you? If you are your worst self, can you still be lovable? The answers to these questions are in the following steps.

Step 1 – The Connection Cycle

In dealing with relational conflict, the authors emphasize tuning in to the mind beneath the behavior (77).  This is focusing not on what the person has done or said, but on the underlying why. This is sometimes easier said than done; however in the initial moments of the behavior’s aftermath, connecting with the other person begins to communicate a sense of comfort. The connection cycle begins with a physical touch, followed by validating where the other person is emotionally, listening to what they have to say and then reflecting on it. This first step demonstrates that you know the person may be in a bad way at the moment, but you are there and willing to understand them. This approach teaches our kids how to love through good times and bad, as well as promotes the secure attachment vital for their healthy, future adult relationships. Cue the word adult..

Step 2 – A little Redirection

Connection is very much about being in the present moment. While you can’t bend time to undo the offending or upsetting behavior, the “moment” doesn’t have to define the other person, the relationship or life as you both know it. With connection established, you now have a firm grip on why the downstairs brain ran amok. In order to get the upstairs brain on board to resolve the situation, the authors refer to a series of strategies in redirection. I’ve chosen the ones that best apply to adult conflict.

Reduce words – Do not nag, lecture or harp on what happened, since the why behind the behavior is known. Do not do this days, weeks or months after the conflict either. People tune out or conversely, ruminate on the negative. No one feels good in the end.

Describe, don’t preach – I’ve placed this after the above because it relates to what you say. Just describe what you observe. Take all the emotional language, assumptions and judgement out of it. If anything, ask them to help you understand what happened.

Embrace emotions -You want to make sure they know it’s okay to feel BIG emotions, but they are not a license to ACT. This is done through setting boundaries i.e. the standards of behavior that are okay and not okay, while also maintaining connection and being empathetic (97).

Emphasize the positive – Give your focus and attention to behavior you want to see repeated. Statements like “I love it when you…” or “It makes me so happy when we…” open up a dialogue that redirects from the negative thing that happened.

Creatively approach the situation – Humor and playfulness are just as fun in adulthood as they are in childhood. While some situations may be serious, there are still ways of poking fun at ourselves (e.g. Wow, I was being a crazy pants back there!) or at the circumstances (e.g. I feel like this Emoji face right now…and then doing it).

The last strategy of redirection involves teaching mindfulness. One important tool is the do-over defined as a second chance at handling a situation, which is meant to build a child’s empathy and mindfulness. Ask questions like, What could you have done differently? What will you do next time? Ask yourself those same questions.

Mindfulness is the most honest resolution to any relational conflict.

Reading this book allowed me to understand the why behind the demise of a close friendship. It also helped me to have a difficult conversation with someone I cared for deeply with more presence and understanding than if I let my hurt feelings do the talking. Moreover, it paints conflict resolution as a warm and nurturing experience; something I never experienced growing up, but I can now model for my present and future relationships. This book is LIFE!

 

To order a copy: https://www.amazon.com/No-Drama-Discipline-Whole-Brain-Nurture-Developing/dp/034554806X

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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