The Dark Side of the Holidays – Or the Best Season that Money Can’t Buy!

Some of us go into this season dreading it….

We have a sense of impending doom, when we think of the long to-do lists that loom, when we consider all the decorating, cooking, buying, giving and planning that goes into the season.

Some find that the financial situation is so tight that being able to live up to the perceived expectations means going into debt for the coming “happy” New Year. The resentment follows like a holiday hang-over when the presents are unwrapped. Presents that effectively will need to be paid for with uncertainty and fear in the coming months.

At this time of year, glossy portrayals of family bliss, adored children with wrapping paper piles, tons of presents, old and dear traditions, lights and lovingly prepared family meals are everywhere.

And for many of us this is far from reality.

For some money is not the problem, but they are not looking forward to the emotional toll of having family members bicker and fight over the turkey. Or they dread the disrespect that their children, their spouses or their relatives show them, even as they try to give everyone a pleasant time.

This is a time of heartache and suffering for many of us. Even the ones among us who are not looking like we are on the surface. It can be a time of  pretending as we put on a happy face and allow the merriment of the season to wash over us, at least in public!

If you or someone you know is in this situation, there are a few things we can do to create a more joyous Holiday experience. First a quick internal assessment:

  • What would you really like to experience this Holiday Season? Try to back up and focus on internal aspects. So, for instance translate “I would like to be able to afford this or that” to the feeling that is below that wish. How would it make you or someone else feel?

If the “home is where the heart is” – then what is truly in your heart?

Sometimes we discover that our focus on how to set the table, what we would like to give, etc. is a cover-up for what we really want: A feeling of love, kindness, togetherness, meaningful relationships, a way to matter to others or simply absence of pain, despair and loneliness.

  • Identify what might be holding you back from having this experience that you would like to have

Is it money? No family? Not enough time? Or is it a perception that this is what others expect? Is it the sense that you by sacrificing yourself for others at this time makes you feel important?

  • Find out how you can step out of habit thinking, and find a way to create the experience you would like by thinking about it in a new way that includes what you have and not what you wish you had.

Can you show your love for your family without having to stretch yourself thin? How can you prepare them (and yourself) for this in a way that allows a new sense of anticipation?

If you are alone, how can you plan a meaningful time for celebrating you – or where can you look to find others who are in the same situation and help create a great experience for them as well as yourself?

If you family is bickering – how can you create new rituals with them that will further a spirit of togetherness and not the same old same old?

  • What components are needed to make this new way of doing things work?

As part of the preparation we can ask family and friends for input as they help us create new traditions.  The mad dash we normally engage in is largely self-imposed. And many of our relatives actually appreciate a less stressful season with more emphasis on togetherness and less on keeping up appearances.

Convention is a town in our own head!

And it is possible that all that we need to change our “have to’s,” is to just have the conversation – first internally, and then with others. You might be surprised at what you find when you lift the veil of convention.

Happy Holidays. To coin a phrase: Have it YOUR way!

How Is Your Election “Hangover”?

Looking at the numbers from last night’s election it would be easy to state that about half our country is jubilant today and the other half feels despondent. .

Yet, looking at the exit poll numbers, it looks as if there is a third group that is equally large.

People in this group might feel a kind of indifference at the election result. Like there was no good choices anyway.

So if this is true, our populace in America today is almost evenly split in three groups: One that feels post-election triumph, one that feels post-election blues, and a third group that is coping with post-election indifference.

People in the triumphant group might be liable to “shout it from the roof tops” as if it were some sort of personal achievement that the “right man won”.

People in the group that feels defeated might feel profound loss and, as someone tweeted last night, a sense of “the world is over”.

The people in the third group might feel a variety of emotions from cautious optimism to moderate resignation to downright anger at not having someone in politics they can believe in. For many in this group the reaction might be a lack of interest and a sense of disengagement.

No matter which group each one of us are in, I think today calls for a reality check.

Our perceptions color our reality. For instance, it is clear that you can have two people watch the same movie and have completely different interpretations of what they saw.

Likewise our next four years can be colored by what we choose to focus on.

If we walk around in a exhilarated self-righteous daze, we will probably get disappointed at every “set-back” and every obstacle in the President’s future way.

If we see our world through fearful, hurt and disappointed lenses, we might find “scary” and “alarming” signs around every corner – and take them to mean things they don’t.

If we are indifferent we might find a place of resignation with our own ability to make a difference and our country’s leadership in general.

Maybe if we step out of our groups for a moment and look at our lives, it is good to remember that things to a large degree depend on our interpretation of them.

We can choose to step out of our assumptions and beliefs at any point in our lives. Instead of seeing ourselves and our world through the lenses of Republican defeated, Democrat victorious, or Independent indifferent – who are we really?

We all want to enjoy life, love and be happy. We want the children of the future to have opportunities for the same. It is blood that runs through our veins whether we are Democrats, Republicans, Christian, Muslim, American, Asian, African, Buddhist or Portuguese.

I wonder how our interpretations of the post-election season change if each of us step out of the tendency to segregate and divide – and instead step into a place of appreciation for our own individual blessings and our collective possibilities as a nation, and as citizens of the world too.

What can each of us do for peace and prosperity in our own lives, in the lives of our friends and neighbors, for our country – and indeed for the world in general?

If we take off the blinders of interpretation, we might actually be able to see choices and opportunities that we didn’t even know we had. If we step out of the jubilant fog, the defeated haze or the indifferent murkiness, we might actually find that each of us can make a real difference.

This difference might be just sending our neighbor a friendly smile even though he or she had that sign in the lawn that really irritated you for months.  Or it might be simply going to work comfortable in your own clothes appreciative of each moment, each blessing and finding yourself impervious to the despondence, jubilation or indifference all around. Just appreciative of what is. And the possibilities that we all have to make a difference.

It starts right here and now. With you and me.

Can We Be The Change We Wish To See?

The Scream. By Edvard Munch

– What do you see when you look at that person from the “other” political party speaking their “truth” at you like you don’t have a single functioning brain cell?

– What do you see when you look at the people from another religion who dress and act differently from you?

– What do you see when you look at the homeless person on the street corner?

– What do you see when you look at the man in the Ferrari, who just cut you off in traffic?

Many times we get triggered. We find ourselves irritated, angry, anxious or even afraid when we meet people who seem different from us. They look odd, they sound strange, they might talk about things that we find absurd. Or they might simply invade our personal space and push our buttons.

Yesterday I was having a delightful conversation with a group of people. We talked about if God has a face. Some of us felt the question was irrelevant. Others felt that God is an entity too large for personification. And then someone simply said:

– “Of course God has a face – it is the face of everybody I see”

I wonder what would happen if we started looking at everybody like they were a personification of God? Or if God is a concept you do not subscribe to, then what would happen if you looked at everybody like they were a part of you?

What would happen in our political process if the boundaries between “us and them” ceased to exist?

What would happen in religion, if we stopped name-calling (or killing) those from another faith than our own?

What would happen?

Maybe we would feel less anger towards “those other people”.

In neuroscience it has been found that anger interrupts the functioning of our frontal brain lobes where rational thought, compassion and empathy take place. When angry, we return to an emotionally charged and primitive behavioral pattern that is very useful if we were a dinosaur (or if we are in legitimate danger) – but maybe not all that practical for a modern-day human being living in a complex world. We tend to feel self-justified and self-righteous. We get reactive and are not able to respond with kindness or even with a rational outlook.

Instead we turn into an emotional loud-mouthed (or internally raging) person.

What would happen if our political discussions were not conducted from this place of opposition, but rather from an inclusive place of “we’re all in this together”. Or if the warring fractions in religious wars reminded themselves that they are really both reflections of the face of God?

It takes a conscious intention to change the way our brain does business. But neuroscience shows it can be done. And reminding ourselves that our “enemies” are in fact a part of us, or have the face of God, might help. It is easy to look at a newborn baby and see the face of God. But can you look at Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner the same way?

Just food for thought.

Why would you want to?

Well, sometimes our normal anger response, the sense of “knowing better” and the feeling of the other side being inferior does not bring us any solutions or a lasting sense of achievement. We simply mire ourselves more and more in our habitual thinking patterns. And the world doesn’t change if we don’t.

So what do we have to lose? Next time we are tempted to go on the offensive whether in action or in our thoughts – maybe it makes sense to give it a try:

-“I am looking at the face of God”

-“I am looking at a part of me”

Maybe we will find that as we unlock new thinking patterns in our brain, new solutions come to mind.

Maybe, as we discover what it feels like to not hide behind our bastions of preconceived notions, we also find a new sense of empathy and understanding.

Maybe it is worth a try….

Parenting Teens – Hello Fear, Shame And Guilt

A few years ago, one of my teenage sons looked at me with contempt and blasted the following remark in my face:

“You just want me to do well, so you can brag about me to your friends. Well, I am not a piece of property you can shine up and show off!”

Ouch…. And I did not have a comeback ready.

Later I reflected on what he had said – and in all honesty, there was a part of me that would enjoy to join the clubs of moms and dads who take turns talking about the amazing achievements of the fruit of their loins. I hear it all the time: the chatter about what grade point average, what unachievable SAT scores and what amazing college scholarships their kids get.

Bragging rights. I guess parents have it.

And yet, my son’s comment went to the core of the make-up of my self-image as a parent. A hidden part of my parenting style that I needed to pull out in the sun and look at. Because on some level he was right – and I did not like to admit it.

Our children are such amazing teachers. Especially when it comes to checking out all the little parts of us that we take for granted. When our kids become teenagers, they look us over with a magnifying glass, we get weighed and measured, prodded and pushed.

My buttons definitely got pushed by the above remark!

And so, yes – there was a part of me that wanted to stand in the groups of parents and bask in the glow of being in the “good parent’s club”. The kind of parent, who thrives in the absolute knowledge that his or her kids are well-adjusted, well-prepared, well-tutored, well-dressed, well-trained, well-behaved and see them off into well-planned career paths.

I think there is a silent expectation in many of us as parents that our children need to grow up and show to the world, what a wonderful parenting job we have done. We live to see them stand on podiums and pick up awards and honors. We put our own needs aside, so we can help them get ahead. Some go as far as to live vicariously through them.

And when our children fall short of our expectations, it is easy to beat up on ourselves as parents. Even some of the parents who have the well-prepped and high-achieving kids dwell on their own imperfections even as they portray a glossy and superior parenting image to the world. Their children might all of a sudden turn anorexic or flip out on risky sexual behaviors, drugs or alcohol. Or they might have stress and high-anxiety. Ulcers that eat their stomach linings at night. What could have been done differently to avoid this?

No matter what route you take as a parent there are plenty of times where the voices of “should-have-could-have” turn up. And feelings of shame and guilt follow.

The truth of the matter is that most of us do everything in our power to be great parents. Whether we let our kids grow their hair long and stand out, or we insist they cut it and conform. Whether we want them to find their own path or we feel we must choose for them.

It is not rocket science. If only it were that simple!

As a life coach, I have learned to look at simply what is. Not to make things into what they are not. Often we parents catch ourselves in the “what are people going to think” trap. Or “she will never get anywhere with those grades/that hair color/that boyfriend…”  We imagine all sorts of the worst possible scenarios – and before we know it, we act upon our fears and not simply what is.

Our brains are wired for fearful responses. In our distant past, we constantly had to be on guard against wild animals, food scarcities, enemy tribes, etc. And it is natural that when it comes to guarding our young, we snap right back into this kind of primordial mental wiring: To protect our kids against danger. It is in our deepest instinctual blueprint for the survival of our kind.

Yet when it comes to being an effective parent to modern-day teenagers, a fearful reaction to their actions and choices might not always be appropriate. Fear of what we imagine might happen can be directly counterproductive.

As we step back from the situation and assess what is going on right now, we might want to delay a speedy comeback. Inserting a rash comment into a contentious moment with a teenager is like pouring gasoline on a fire. I do not think that, short of pulling our kids out of immediate danger, we ever miss something by avoiding a rash reaction over a more measured and later response.

“Ok, I am going to have to think about what you just said and get back to you”

This buys some time and allows us a moment to not lose our composure. It also affords our son or daughter a chance to reflect on what they just said.

Secondly you can take a look at your own involvement. What is pushing your buttons? What is it that this situation is saying about you as a parent? About your own past? About your own fears?  Often we just react, because we are triggered. Our own sense of failure as a parent on any level has been activated.

Thirdly, we can take a look at what might be going on for our son/daughter that might make them feel the way they do. Again with a focus on an unbiased “what is”. Not what it could turn into or what we think they should be feeling!

With this new more complete picture we can now choose to respond.

When I dug a bit deeper after my son fired off his remark to me, I realized that, yes – a part of me would love to brag about my kids’ achievements and therefore indirectly my own implied success as a parent. Yet the deeper issue was that I deeply and desperately wanted my son to connect to his own sense of ambition and directionality. I felt that he had so much inside of him that I valued. Things in him that, I felt, he didn’t show enough to others. I wanted him to find his wings and soar. Not to glorify me or my parenting style – but simply for him to experience lift-off on his own, and fly into the world with an authentic and self-directed  and capable motion. I was impatient for him.

It was my interpretation – and it was well-meant. It was just not usable to him at the time.

Yet, speaking from this level of awareness made a difference for me. And maybe in the long run it might have for him as well. Who knows…

When we communicate with our teenagers from a level of authenticity and honest reflection, with a willingness to also own up to our own issues, we have a chance to connect more deeply. We offer a model that gives them a chance to not feel at fault or misunderstood. They still might think we are full of doo-doo… A teenager’s main job after all is to separate from their parents. Yet, a foundation of authentic communication goes a long way for them to be able to feel emotionally supported as they find their way. And the benefit for us as parents is that we spend less time with those constant companions of modern-day parenting: Fear, Shame and Guilt.

Glass “Half-Empty” Blues

“I am just sick of negative people!”

I overheard a person the other day that was complaining along those lines. And the more she complained the more the other person looked ready to run away. And many times we do this: we are not aware that we are sending into the world the exact thing we profess to dislike ourselves.

Negativity is not inspiring and rarely brings with it anything constructive.

Here is a well-known story from the oral tradition of the Cherokee Nation:

A Grandfather from the Cherokee Nation was talking with his grandson.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight between two wolves.”

The young grandson listened intently.

“One wolf is anger, envy, war, greed, selfishness, sorrow, regret, guilt, resentment, inferiority/superiority, false pride, coarseness, and arrogance. He spreads lies, deceit, fear, hatred, blame, scarcity, poverty, and divisiveness.”

The other wolf is friendly, joyful, loving, worthy, serene, humble, kind, benevolent, just, fair, empathetic, generous, honest, compassionate, grateful, brave, and inspiring resting wholeheartedly in deep vision beyond ordinary wisdom.”

Grandfather continued; “This same fight is going on inside you and inside all human beings as well.”

The grandson paused in deep reflection and recognition of what his grandfather had just said. Then he finally asked;

“Grandfather, which wolf will win this horrific war?”

The elder Cherokee replied, “The wolf that you feed!”

Many of us intend to feed the joyful and loving sides of ourselves. Yet we still “fall into” being negative. Our family, partners, friends and business associates are on the receiving end. And if our intentions and actions don’t line up – it doesn’t matter how well we mean it – it is our actions they respond to.

So how do we change this habit of inadvertently and unconsciously getting side-tracked into fearful and divisive actions, no matter how well-intended we might be?

A new practice takes time to become a new habit. And “feeding our inner wolves” is all about practice.

In coaching we look at what habits we can change. By doing this, we also modify how we perceive the world. We have a choice if we want to see ourselves living out a self-fulfilling travesty or experience forward-moving momentum.

According to the law of attraction, like attracts like! And so feeding our own inner sense of love and worthiness attracts it into our lives. Feeding our own sense of fear and dread likewise attracts that which we do not want.

It can start simply. By starting to listen to the statements we make almost without even noticing:

“I will never figure this out.”

“Why even bother!”

“It is a scary world we live in”

It is not about whether these statements are true or false. It is a matter of sending out statements that affects the way we think, the way we feel and ultimately the way we act. And our world responds accordingly. It mirrors back to us, what we put out.

An example of another way to express the feelings at the root of the above statements could be:

“I love learning new things”

“If I don’t try I will never know.”

“I am thankful for ……. in my world”

Some of my clients install an internal “Eeyore alarm”. And when they feel tempted to make a negative statement, they remind themselves that here is an opportunity for reframing in a new way to get a result they really want. As they start aligning their intentions with their actions, their world starts responding accordingly.

Over time and with practice, it becomes as natural as riding a bike – and as perceptions change, so do lives.

 

 

 

Decision Time

“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

“Better safe than sorry!”

“The higher you fly the harder you fall.”

“Bloom where you are planted.”

“Better play it safe!”

These are all quotes from our upbringing and beyond. Well-meaning parents, teachers, friends, partners have at times tried to protect us by helping us take the safe route.

And this is fine.

And then there is this inner doubt that is created from this kind of conditioning. We fear failure.

It happens to each one of us many times in our lives: we are in a situation that forces us to make a choice. A choice between the known and the unknown. The known might have grown too small and constricting, yet the unknown seem like a mountain in front of us with untold possibilities and risks at even measure. We are at a cross road!

When we face new situations and with it our fear of failure is activated, we might look to inspirational stories. We all know the one about Thomas Edison and why he hadn’t failed but knew of 10,000 ways that didn’t work, etc. And there are many others. It is useful and inspirational to read such stories, yet might not really cut to the core of what we might be feeling.

Inside we might be hearing a little voice that sounds something like this:

“You’ll fall on your face if you try that”

“Who do you think you are?”
“They will laugh at you for trying this.”

“What makes you think you can make this work now when you couldn’t before?”

And no matter how many inspirational quotes and empowering stories we read to boost our courage, this little pesky voice always seems to yell the loudest. This voice  might even feel comforting, like a friend who is trying hard to protect us from our own foolishness.

This little voice does want to protect us. And it is important to acknowledge this. It is not an enemy we need to destroy or annihilate!

The problem comes in when that little voice of caution becomes so loud that it blocks our perception of what we might miss if we only listen for the cautionary tale it tells.

Are you going to take the Opportunity Exit – or just keep going?

This kind of work is often part of coaching sessions. We work on our inner voices of caution that hold us back from stepping into our highest potential. Here is a version that you can use yourself:

  1. Express your wish for new possibilities. Write it down.
  2. What will be possible for you when you seize this new opportunity?. Write it down.
  3. Welcome the voice of caution. It is trying to protect you. Do not fight it. Write down what it says.
  4. Ask the voice of caution where it comes from (is this the voice of a well-meaning parent, is it the voice of previous defeat, is it the voice of convention, etc.) Notice which parts of this voice truly feels aligned with your highest purpose and what parts feels constricting and not really your own. Write it down.
  5. Now with both want for new opportunities and fear of failure clearly separated out in front of you, it is time for you to make a more informed decision. You now have a clearer view of which part of these voices of caution are the voices of convention and conditioning versus the voices that align more fully with your highest purpose.

Keeping in mind that we rarely get all or nothing scenarios. Every new opportunity holds within it aspects that might be difficult to deal with as well as exhilarating new possibilities – and every staying within what is known and perceived as a safer (and possibly more comfortable in the short-term) choice likewise has perceived positives and negatives.

Here is to making a more aware choice in every decision in your life!

Are YOU in a Jackpot Relationship?

Yes, of course it is nice to win the jackpot. Yet, a Jackpot Relationship might be both draining and abusive!

People in such a relationship might hope that the relationship will magically change for the better even as the same patterns are repeated over and over. It is very much like the gambler who keeps putting money in the slot machine. Every time he or she is ready to quit – there is a small pay out that is just enough that the gambler keeps investing time, energy and cash.

We all have various degrees of rose-colored glasses attached to our faces when we fall in love. We see the person as we would like him or her to be. We see what we interpret as the potential (or as a former disillusioned client of mine called it: “the P-word”) in our new partner, and we see them as we think they are – or as we hope they could be. In addition we project our own expectations on them.

We then continue in the next phase of the relationship. We realize that our beloved is seeing things in us that are not really who we are. However, we play along. We know that by continuing the masquerade, we continue the feel-good hormones that flood our bloodstream when our new love looks at us admiringly.

Later, we take off the rose-colored glasses and stop playing along. The “Honeymoon is over” phase of the relationship. Here the naked truth is revealed. You no longer play along, flaws become mutually obvious.

 

Some relationships have what it takes to navigate the waters and transform into lasting and mutually beneficial unions. The partners learn to accept each other for who they are, give each other space to grow and mature. When they help each other it is not through self-sacrifice – but instead with a genuine and sincere desire to allow the other person the space to grow, develop and mature as they in turn take responsibility for their own growth, development and maturity. Supported not smothered. With mutual respect and love.

This is not a jackpot relationship. It is however a great recipe for a successful and lasting relationship.

So what is a Jackpot Relationship?

It is the kind where the masquerade from the initial rose-colored glasses phase keep going intermittently. Psychologists call it “Intermittent Reinforcement”. It is a type of relationship where one person has hurts, disappointments, loss or abandonment issues that have not been properly addressed and incorporated. As a result this person constantly plays out the hurts from the past in the changing cast of characters in his or her current life. Even though the original cast, where the real problems happened, are long gone. It is an instant replay of old hurts that recycles again and again.

As this kind of relationship develops the person, who finds him or herself being included in this kind of psycho drama, gets to the point where he or she realizes that they have had enough. They have invested their time, energy and love into this person and received anger bursts, cold shoulders, indifference and possibly worse back with increasing frequency. They want out. They are constantly paying the emotional bills of those who are seen by their partner as having caused their disappointments and hurts.

Now the person with Intermittent Reinforcement behavior has a sixth sense that their partner is about to pull back. And they then do a complete switch. They beg forgiveness, they cry, they plead, they serve food, sex, money, gifts or other commodities of the relationship. They promise they will change. Just like the slot machine pays out a small reward, when the gambler is about to quit. They bring back the hope that the rose-colored glasses can stay on forever!

And there might be a few good days following. The feel-good chemicals of the relationship are back in high doses. Both believe that from now on everything will be fine.

And then gradually or suddenly the old behaviors of the unresolved issues rear their ugly heads again – and the psychodrama starts its cycle anew.

Just like the gambler keeps hoping for a jackpot, so do the people caught in the cycles of Intermittent Reinforcement. The pay out of happy relationship feel-good hormones is just enough that they, like the gambler, keep pulling the lever again and again investing money, time, energy and love in the hope that one day the relationship jackpot will happen; there will be no more old psycho dramas to recycle, the issues will finally have resolved themselves. The promises of change and the words of admissions will finally work – and all will be well. And  without inner work, and awareness of the issues, this is just as likely as the big million dollar jackpot at the 5 cent machines in Las Vegas!

If you recognize this kind of behavioral pattern in your relationship, seeking help with a therapist or coach can help to end the seeming endless cycle. There are many ways of changing the behavior and depending on the type of issues at the root of the recurring dramas, ways of gaining awareness and taking control.

Winning the jackpot is a nice idea. However, the real winning relationship comes when we stop the charades and stop hoping it will “just happen”. For us to be in successful and lasting relationships we need to be able to step into our power and allow our partner to do the same. And there might be a few casts of previous characters to deal with before we can successfully do so. The main thing is to know that it is possible – and there is help to be had!