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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How to be mindful with a mind that’s full in 2017

Welcome to the end of the first week of the New Year. I am not alone in saying that 2016 presented its fair share of obstacles, life altering experiences and game changing events. None of us want a repeater in 2017. Last week, I set out to create an image of how I wanted this year to unfold. Within this image was a list of intentions to guide me along the process. Why not resolutions, you ask? There is a huge difference between resolving something and intending to act. The former implies that there is something wrong; that there is unfinished business hindering you from getting to where you want to be. To make such a list drives into your consciousness all the failures, road blocks and let downs of years’ past. Intentions are purposeful actions. I intend to hug strangers, eat broccoli, travel to Cuba and so on. Intentions allow you to be mindful even if the rest of your brain is locked up in the junk of 2016.

Doing for ME above all others…

One of the most powerful intentions I put on that list, which set the tone for all the others that followed was doing for ME above all others. This is huge! I am an empath and a nurturer. My profession by definition draws on both these qualities, sometimes to depletion point. Oftentimes, I forget myself and my own needs. Therefore, placing ME at the top of my intentions keeps me mindful of number 1. Channeling that nurture inward allows my higher self to steer me forward. She’s the one with the clear voice and my best intentions in mind. Her judgement of situations and people is never cloudy. She is my gut and she is always spot on. If this is too woo-woo for some of you, let me rephrase it as learning to put your needs first. If it puts you last on the list, just say NO.

Walk away from other people’s tornadoes…

You cannot take on or personalize other people’s struggles in this life. Once again, the empathic nurturing self wants to provide solutions, love the pain away, walk alongside them in their process. What you need to realize is that it is their process, not yours and trying to invite yourself into the tornado leaves a destructive path in its wake. As my post on unconditional love explored, it’s okay to walk away.

Any kind of day can be made better by working out…

I told myself whenever I was feeling off in some way or another, I would do a quick workout and then re-evaluate how I was feeling. Being in your physical body prevents you from ruminating and that form of distraction can reset your nervous system in profound ways. Feel good hormones called endorphins surge through your system every time you exercise. Why not take advantage of nature’s mood elevators? Who here has 15-20 minutes a day to feel good? I DO!!

Fantasize like a 5-year old…

Small children fantasize 24/7. Their play incorporates a ton of make believe and they love telling long drawn out stories of what they envision their future/fantasy selves to be like. My niece is always telling me her I want to be a princess fantasy complete with what her hair will look like and the types of rooms in her home. Why is it so hard for us adults to do the same? The inability to fantasize about certain things I desire for myself is like telling my inner 5 year old not to dream because I don’t believe it will come true.  There is power in falling in love with that story or as a close friend put it watching the movie of your life play out all the while rooting for the heroine – YOU. I intend to tell myself elaborate stories of future me with as many details as possible and enjoy the vision in progress.

As my list took form, I felt an energetic shift within myself. The first week of the New Year has been an optimistic one not because anything profound has actually happened, but because I feel more at home within myself than ever before. Let the above intentions guide you in making a list of your own. See what shifts occur within you. This is YOUR year.

Going Up to Bring You Down: Body Shaming in a NYC elevator

On one of the last truly hot and humid days in NYC, I decided to wear one of my favorite outfits – a black crepe halter dress with plunging neck and back lines. I love this dress not just for its fit, but also because it shows off the muscle tone of my upper back and chest. I feel strong, ethereal and sexy whenever I wear this dress. It’s one of those wardrobe staples every girl should possess. By the time I arrived at my destination, I was glazed in a dewy sweat sheen.

Going up to bring me down....body shaming in a NYC elevator.
Going up to bring ME down….body shaming in a NYC elevator.

I stepped into the elevator with a middle aged woman and three men, one of which held the door for me and offered to press my floor. I thanked him for his good manners. One by one, the men got off at their respective floors. When the elevator reached mine, it was just myself and the woman in the back. I noticed she had a cane and was leaning into the wall staring at the floors lighting up overhead. As the doors opened, I picked up the hem of my dress and started to step out. What I heard next shocked me. “Wear a bra!!” she angrily blurted out. It took me a second to process what she said. As I turned back around to confront this unprovoked insult, she pressed the button to close the elevator door in my face.

I was shaken and for the rest of my day, I tried to comprehend what had triggered this woman’s body shaming of a complete stranger.  The universe’s attempts to make good on the event by showering me with random compliments about the dress or my body did nothing to take the edge off her insult. Its sting stayed with me long into my commute home in the evening. I looked at the sea of faces sitting across from me and wondered were these people also thinking shameful things about myself or each other? What is it that provokes us to shame each other?

I have written about the topic of bullying before in previous posts. Females choose a more social form of aggression as their preferred method of taking others down a few notches. Body shaming falls under this method. This form of relational bullying is usually rooted in deep issues of self esteem. It is used to maintain status, weed out competition and provide a means of addressing fear and jealousy. Was this the reason for the middle aged woman’s verbal bomb? Targeting me because I presented a mirror to her of what she wasn’t and subsequently taking me down in order to alleviate her own insecurities? Then another thought hit me – if women like her are doing this to each other well into middle age, what hope do our little girls have of building a healthy self image and learning to be “girls’ girls”?

After a lot of thinking, I came to the conclusion that the best action I could take to counter the shame was to be that example. After all, I do consider myself a “girls’ girl”. I appreciate the beauty of other women and celebrate in their successes. I am able to be this way because I have worked through the self esteem issues of my youth and accept who I am at this time in my life. I complimented the dress of a woman standing next to me on the train, which made her smile for a good long minute after I told her. I held the elevator for another woman rushing to catch it, who breathlessly thanked me and then told me to have a wonderful day upon exiting. I helped a middle aged woman on the train remove a bracelet that was squeezing into her wrist and causing her major discomfort. She called me an angel and showered me with kisses and hugs. All these acts of random kindness left me feeling a more loving vibe that reverberated to those around me. Ironically, I saw the woman that had shamed me waiting for the elevators a couple of weeks later. I held the door for her as she entered. She said nothing to me. I couldn’t help but look at her, wondering if she recognized me. It was clear she didn’t. With her eyes fixated on the numbers lighting up above, I exited the elevator and this time, no comments followed me out.

Additional reading:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-long-reach-childhood/201109/bullying-in-the-female-world

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/women-who-hurt/201109/relational-aggression-and-the-job

 

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Redefining unconditional love

When most of us think of unconditional love, we think of love without conditions or limitations (e.g. I love you, no matter what!!) Humanistic psychology adds to this definition by associating it with true altruism – an act of sacrifice, helping or sharing purely for the benefit of the other, not the self. The best example given of this kind of love is that which parents have for their children. Their love is consistent no matter what the child does or doesn’t do. They are willing to throw themselves head on into danger or plunge themselves into debt to protect and provide for their offspring. When it comes to our other relationships in life, this absolute definition is not so easy to apply. Certain situations and circumstances require us to make adjustments to the way we love and as a result, it may appear that our love is conditional. However, I would argue we are confusing consistent with conditional.

Our relationships help us to develop both psychologically and socially. Our interactions with friends, lovers, playmates, teachers, bosses and so on all play a part in allowing us to learn the lessons necessary to understand who we are. Part of our personal development involves understanding how to love those closest to us even when they do things that are hurtful or that we don’t agree with. For all the flack that judgement gets, sometimes we do have to call out the truth when it’s staring at our loved one in the face and they refuse to see it. We also have to do this with ourselves or be willing to hear it from others. Unconditional love is not about allowing your face to be clawed off, having your psyche attacked or attacking others and expecting them to “take it” or “get over it”. It’s about loving that person enough to tell them the truth and be able to walk away if their behavior or reaction is toxic.

There is no worse break up, in my opinion, then the fallout of a close friendship. Even when faced with a verbal attack or some other form of relational aggression, you can still love the person behind all the abuse, even when distancing yourself from the abuse itself. This is the misconception that most people have about unconditional love. They see the distance taken as an example of the conditional nature of your love; that you are abandoning, rejecting or (there’s that word again) judging the person. However, going back to the psychological definition, true unconditional love involves sacrifice and actions done for the benefit of another person, not yourself. Does it benefit that friend for you to accept their abuse? Does it benefit that friend to keep silent about how they are hurting themselves and others? Even worse, does it benefit that friend to allow their behavior to continue unchecked, so that it affects other areas of their life? No. I would argue that calling out the behavior, even if it means sacrificing the friendship, is the most unconditional act of love there is.

Love is a powerful motivator and mediator in life. Instead of love without conditions, I would redefine it as altruistic love without limitations. Things happen. Life happens. Sometimes the most solid person in our lives becomes the most unstable. Don’t limit your heart. Keep the love you have for them outside of the instability in there. It bridges the distance you’ve taken and it’s palpable…

The Grey Experiment

“You look tired!”

“You don’t want people to think you’re letting yourself go.”

“What a shame! You have such a youthful face.”

“No, really…how old ARE you?”

All of the above statements have been made to me by friends, relatives and surprisingly, complete strangers. What they are all commenting on is the color of my hair; not a complete head of grey, but a village of silver and white that sprang up at my sideburns and crown beginning at the age of 19.  Yes, 19. This early onset of grey is genetic; both my sister and I inherited the premature greys from our mother. Three traceable generations before her went grey in their early 20s. I remember a story about my great grandmother almost becoming an “old maid”.  As her male relatives haggled with potential husbands over her dowry, her dark hair became fully grey. By the time she was married at age of 30, which was considered over the hill in those days, she was perceived to be much older due to her hair color.  It probably didn’t help that her husband was also almost 60.

Speaking of perception, societal pressure for women to maintain a “youthful” appearance is evident in the way we react to graying hair.  A recent UK news story spoke of scientists isolating the gene that causes hair to lose its pigment. The end goal would be to eventually create a pill that would target that gene and “stop the clock” on the greying process.

Guess I’ll be needing that pill, huh?

When I saw my first white hair at 19, I promptly plucked it out.  At the time, I was also dyeing my hair to match my moods (thank you, Manic Panic).  As a result, I never allowed enough of the grey to come in to be noticeable to myself or anyone else.  Paradoxically,  a baby face with a head of silver had become a beauty trend.  Girls and young women purposely dye their hair different shades of gray before their biological clocks have them looking so au naturale. So, where is the disconnect? Going gray is only acceptable if you choose to do it and are visibly in your 20’s as opposed to it happening naturally. J-Lo is 46 years old with amazing skin and body fitness. If she stopped dyeing her hair, she most certainly would have some greys. Would that make her any less of a sex symbol? Would her younger boyfriend leave her? Would the world tell her that she was letting herself go?

gray_20something yr old
The grey 20 something year old…

I wanted to see how long I could go without reaching for the L’Oreal bottle. I decided to stop dyeing my roots in June of 2015. I was already sporting a tan and the village of grey coming in on my head was being oxidized by the sun giving it a reddish and blondish hue depending on the light. My clients complimented my “highlights” and my deepening bronze skin tone. It was still all positives once September rolled in and I started my semester.  Within the first three weeks of school, I got my first comment. It came from a girl who had a penchant for blurting out whatever was on her mind  in the middle of class no matter how inappropriate (social pragmatics = 0). Sitting outside our classroom, she looked at me and said, “What’s up with your hair?” I asked what she meant. “You don’t dye it,” she replied in a flat tone. While I was mildly annoyed in the moment, it didn’t deter me from maintaining my decision to keep it REAL. I told her I liked how it looked and kept reading my textbook.

By the end of October, there was a solid inch of grey hair from my crown downward. The tan was also fading and as the semester became more rigorous, my hair was going up in a bun most days to be out of the way. I arrived to school sometime around Halloween and the security guard in front of the gate stopped me from entering. He asked for my ID and when I showed it to him, he did not believe it was me. He kept saying that it did not look like me. I took my hair down and shook it out to match the style in the grainy image on my card. Still, he was adamant that it wasn’t me in the ID. He then called over the other female guard to show her my ID. All this time, there were young people filtering past us and none of them were being stopped for IDs. So, I made mention of that. The answer: They’re students. Before I had a chance to answer that I, TOO, was a student, the female guard playfully hits her colleague and tells him it is my ID, it’s just my hair that was throwing him off. They both laughed and instead of apologizing to me for all the trouble, he thought it would be a good idea to compare me to the bride of Frankenstein with her grey streaks and wild up-do. Your Halloween joke was not funny.

As final exam time approached in early December, I had experienced a few more incidents. The post office worker who told me I was “brave” for leaving so much grey. The 20-something year old boy who made a crass comment about the color of “other hair” on my body. And the handful of much older gentlemen who complimented my hair and asked how I take such good care of myself. More than anything else, the little comments were wearing me down; things like you look so tired, school is aging you, stop putting your hair up if you don’t want people to say anything. I found myself near tears as I wrestled with the urge to dye my hair again. In the end, I made an appointment just after Christmas and dyed my locks back to black. What broke me was the idea that major judgements that could affect my future, both personally and professionally, would be made based on the “age” of my hair. I left the beauty salon feeling like I had my armor back, not my youth.

 

Additional Reading:

http://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/369413

http://recil.grupolusofona.pt/handle/10437/6666

https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=QD_eCQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA133&dq=hair+color+and+self+esteem&ots=ExFkYHlghp&sig=AG9Y01Aw1VmXoihOo7WiY9a2_iw#v=onepage&q&f=false

 

 

Pas si fort

This is what I look like at 7 a.m. when the incessant honking begins…

Recently, one of my clients shouted in French, “Pas si fort” after her neighbor repeatedly slammed his front door during our massage session. The sound was magnified by the thinness of her walls and affected her ability to fully relax. Translated to English it means “Not so strong.” The reality of living in a building with multiple apartments is the constant noise. While the sound levels vary, most people consider it a form of white noise. I am not one of those people. I don’t want to hear the next door neighbor screaming Farsi curses and the people upstairs throwing up in their bathroom at 1 a.m.  every night like clockwork. It’s an odd thing to know the intimate details of people’s patterns and routines without ever having a conversation with them. I feel voyeuristic; almost stalker-like. But these observations are hardly forgettable. I can’t help but listen.

I am one of a percentage of the population who has a heightened sensitivity to sound, also known as hyperacusis. It is characterized by a collapsed tolerance to environmental sounds of a certain volume that can happen gradually over time or suddenly when in crisis. Mine began about 2 years ago after being terrorized by constant partying and threats in my own home from the son of my then landlord. I barely slept and my nervous system was on high alert at all times. Consequently, the sound of sirens, loud music, screaming and beeping became almost intolerable when previously I had never been bothered by such things. Gone are the days of restful sleep through anything. I hear EVERYTHING now.

Is that who’s making all that noise outside my window???

Beyond a crisis, hyperacusis can be caused by hearing loss, where the tiny hairs in the inner ear have been damaged and become sensitive to certain frequencies played at louder levels. This is known as recruitment. Also, hypersensitivity to certain frequencies at louder levels can occur in conditions like Autism, which exist from birth. Phonophobia and misophonia can occur with hyperacusis. The former is a fear of the sound that one is intolerant to in the environment it is occurring in both real time and when anticipating its next occurrence. The latter has been associated with an adverse response to soft sounds like that of eating, chewing and lip movements. Interestingly, misophonia has been listed with specific diagnostic criteria in the diagnostic “bible” of psychological clinicians known as the DSM-5, but it’s not considered a discrete psychological disorder. Its origins are thought to be more neurological and need to be studied further. And speaking of the brain…

From an evolutionary standpoint, being able to pick up on sounds that others ignore lets me respond to potential danger much sooner and thus, will ensure my survival. DNA testing exists now that has isolated the gene that makes one more likely to have heightened sensitivity to sound. So it’s both environmental and biological – go epigenetics!! Nevertheless, those of us with sound sensitivity have to find a way to deal with the loud world that surrounds us. Aside from moving out of my apartment building and city limits, there are some therapeutic options. The main one is a combination of cognitive therapy and desensitization through retraining. Its goal is to get you to think about the sound with less of an emotional response and expose your ear to intolerable sounds in order to neutralize them. This weakens the neuronal activity associated with the fight-or-flight response these noises often produce. Other forms of treatment are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) alone, psycho-therapeutic hypnotherapy and occupational therapy. CBT allows the person to gain control of that automatic emotional response produced by the sound and desensitizes them to it. Hypnotherapy, through a reputable practitioner who is often a psychologist as well or recommended by one, uses the power of suggestion to overcome the emotions (usually the fear/rage response) to the sound. Lastly, occupational therapists deal with the sensitivity as a sensory processing disorder; therefore, they introduce each offensive sound at varying degrees of intensity along with other sounds in order to help the brain accommodate and then dismiss them. Guess I won’t have to move after all 🙂

 

 

 

SOURCES:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misophonia

http://www.hyperacusis.net/hyperacusis/4+types+of+sound+sensitivity/default.asp