Happy Halloween

May you be greeted by smiling pumpkins, offered only treats and walk under twinkling stars and moonbeams of hope.

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Critical Thinking or Haunting Thoughts?

People, we are notorious for being our own worst critics. A little bit of reflection is a fine skill to hone. A dash of critical eye is good. There may indeed be things you could have done better, or would do differently. It is true too that you are not likely to be good at everything. Part of what is terrific about people are the individual talents we have as well as our various skills.  We can build up our skills, nurture our talents or just try something new that we are not sure we’ll be good at, never mind create. When you are doing something new it will feel awkward at first, and that can lead to feeling vulnerable  or touch a basic fear.

The grip of our fears can be strong.  Napoleon Hill named six basic fears: fear of poverty, fear of criticism, fear of old age, fear of dying, fear of illness and fear of losing love. They need to be faced head on in order to release the grip they have on you.  What do these have to do with being your own worst critic?

Well people are blessed with incredibility powerful minds. With just a thought we can bring up old memories or project worries about the future with as if they are live action Technicolor 3-D movies happening RIGHT NOW! As a bonus we can ruminate. with our thoughts run away. It is as if a ticker of your negative thoughts or fear runs in a constant loop in your mind.. That is not useful. It stops us from getting out of a rut or reaching a goal.

Are you haunted by the specter of critical thinking? Here are a few simple tips to vanquish the specter.

For even more thoughts on how to stop unproductive critical thinking read this.

Crafting Your Meaningful Life

People, all of us, want lives that are meaningful. We also want to avoid negative thoughts and feelings.  The rub is a meaningful life is going to bring us into situations that will stir up unpleasant thoughts and feelings. It also very likely requires change if you don’t find your life meaningful (enough) now. The act of trying to change can itself stymie the process, even if you have invited making a change with open arms. Well that’s a pickle. So how as people living in the real world where we don’t often, if ever get, to avoid difficult circumstances to you get to have a life that feels whole and meaningful? A life where you make the most of your time and the calling of your heart show up, not just the things on your to-do list?

There are a number of things you could do, but one of the most important is to become profoundly clear and centered. Right well that’s easy when the world is speeding by at 100 miles an hour and your feel like you need to be in two places at once.  Actually it might just be easier than you think. We have a way of making things more complicated than they need to be, believe me, I could have won a gold metal in this at one point (now I get an occasional honorable mention).

What Options Do I Have?

Limit your life by making choices driven by emotional avoidance. This may not be the best option because it’s impossible to completely avoid fear and anxiety.  Also, passing up on things that are important to you is only leads to more unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

Try to live a meaningful life while trying to control all of your thoughts and feelings. This can sometimes work, but total control over your feelings is not possible, and often results in more intense thoughts and emotions.

Make choices consistent with a meaningful life.  Be willing to experience the thoughts and feelings that come up along the way without adding extra resistance into the mix by avoiding or judging them or yourself.  You change your focus from controlling thoughts and feelings to controlling what you do.   Yes, I know, easier said than done; however, mindfulness is a powerful approach to doing this.

So What Is Mindfulness?

A particular kind of awareness, commonly defined as nonjudgmental (or compassionate), present-moment awareness of what is going on inside and around us. Mindfulness can increase  your flexibility in responding to both internal (thoughts and feelings) and external (the rest of the world) events. Mindfulness is process not an end point. It’s a habit that brings us more fully into our lives because we are shying away from the good, bad, ugly or spectacular.

Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of what arises internally or externally in the present moment without becoming snared by judgment or wishing for something different. Originally developed in the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness has become an accepted and scientifically proven approach to develop new types of control and insight in life. It builds our capacity for relaxation, awareness, insight and attention.

Mindfulness is the miracle by which we can call back our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each minute of life.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindfulness helps you to take time to notice what has become the natural order of things in your life and thoughts now; to work with these things, not against them. Forcing change is what sets up and re-enforces resistance. Ever notice when you have tried to change NOW that suddenly all you can think about is what you want to change, how hard it will be, why you will not be successful or some other variation on this theme? That because often we spend our lives thinking about the fretting about past or worrying about the future, instead of focusing on what is right here, right now and applying the Zen Theory of Change.

There are a number of mindfulness activities come in many different forms and can be done at any time. You do not need to be a Zen Buddhist monk, a Tai Chi Master or cloister yourself away for hours or years. My favorite exercise to begin playing with mindfulness takes five minutes and a raisin. Don’t like raisins, try a hard candy or chocolate drop.  First look at the raisin from all angles, go ahead smell it too. Now put the raisin in your mouth, and slowly chewing let the flavors and textures unfold in your mouth.  If your mind wanders off to your checkbook and the bills, report that due next week, or the kids’ sports practice tonight, just bring it back to the raisin. This is the beginners mind. Remember seeing a kid fascinated with one small new thing and all her attention is focus on exploring the blade of grass? You are playing with the same attention when practicing mindfulness. I bet you’ll come back from those five minutes with a calmer mind, more deep breath and a lower pulse.

I have written about mindfulness before, but in preparing for a presentation on Oct. 6, “Mindfulness, Acceptance and Values: Foundations for Quality of Life” at the 5th Mental Health Research Conference, Southern Institute for Mental Health Advocacy, Research, and Training, reminded me of the usefulness to returning to topics.

Deirdre Danahar © 2011, all rights reserved

Hope: The Catalyst For Action

October always seems to me a hopeful month. There are festivals and fairs, celebrating the bounty of autumn’s harvest almost every weekend. There are fundraising walks/runs happening almost every week- groups of people coming together to support making change in the face of difficult circumstances. Some areas of the areas of the country are putting in a second crop of cool of weather vegetables. As piles of leaves begin to grow kids will be whooping and jumping into them. And it is football season, and every team believes this season, this week will be a winning one. In all it seems there is still time to make the most of a fruitful season, to carry forward the momentum of September’s back to business character.

Yes the days grow shorter, but that does not hamper the sense of gathering of hope. There is no real resistance to the innate changes that are part of the seasonal shift. You can practically see the Zen Theory of Change in action.

“I free myself, not by trying to be free,

but by simply noticing how I am imprisoning myself

in the very moment I am imprisoning myself.”

Lao Tzu

Zen Theory of Change  is Hopeful Change. It is at its core about not fighting the reality, rather seeing it for what it is and is not then deciding to do something about it. We see this in nature when the seasons change. Nature does not fight leaves turning colors and falling from trees, and the temperatures dropping, it is simply part of the larger cycle of growth and life. Still there is action taken.  Harvests are brought in and put up in glass jars and freezers filled with fruits and vegetables. Squirrels are busy burying nuts in my flowerbeds.  Both of these acts are underscored by hope. Hope that doing this work will provide enough for future months were less action can be taken.

Hope, it is complex and often misunderstood. Hope is not denial, optimism, or simply wishing. True hope is based in reality. It is not passive in nature and does not only take positive factors into account. Hope is a prerequisite for action. Coaches and social workers (I am proud to be both) know that hopeless people become helpless people. Helplessness is a paralyzing state, inflexible. No sense of self- efficacy, personal agency, or of compassion for one’s self (or anyone else) is present. Pity maybe present but that is rarely useful when you need to refocus, and take action. Enter the pep talk:  the coach’s talk at half time and a sudden turn around in play for a football team or the chat with one’s dance instructor after a less than stellar first performance (something I know a little about). Conversely see a pep talk that keep’s the momentum building and a person grounded when things are going well. Both are designed to inspire action through hope.

Combine the Zen Theory of Change with Hope and you’ll stop fighting, simply beginning to notice more and that is the start to change. You see what is real, and what is not real. You create enough distance between you and the problem, that more than one possibility exists. Most of us get stuck on autopilot that sounds like “there is only one way to do that”, or “I have tried that in the past and it did not work”, or “I don’t know where to start.”  Instead of playing tug of war over a gaping forbidding pit with whatever the problem is you can simply decide to drop the rope (not literally). The problem is still there, but you are not being pulled by it or towards the pit. Now both hands are free to be put to work in a more useful way.  That alone is a change and helps to ease the discomfort that is a natural part of change.

Part of what I love about my work is helping people refocus and restore hope, in service of creating a meaningful life that makes the most your time and capacities within a structure that simultaneously keeps you on track and is flexible adjusting to changing circumstances. Together we line up the dots between where you are now and a lasting solution a pressing issue. Doing so has the added benefit of making bouncing back from life’s inevitable adversity and set backs happen with greater ease, because there is hope. And hope is what gets us moving to Start. Now. 

Deirdre Danahar © 2011, all rights reserved

A Storyteller’s Five Simple Steps to Create Lasting Change

We can be own best enemies, our harshest critics and the most artful self-saboteurs. Words can quite literally create realities and worlds. Take the Declaration of Independence as an example.  You create your life by the stories you tell yourself, in your thoughts and actions.  The stories we tell ourselves profoundly influence our experience of the world. Furthermore you might not fully aware of the stories you tell, especially the self-sabotaging ones because they are automatic and dwell beneath the surface of our daily busyness.

Here are some examples of common self-sabotaging statements or stories:

  • More is better.
  • You will ever be able to _____.
  • Nice girls don’t______.
  • You’ll never measure up.
  • We do not get angry in this family.
  • There’s value in guilt.
  • Less is better.
  • It is better to be feared than liked.
  • You’ll never be a leader.
  • To show fear is weakness or foolish or childish.
  • Big Girls/Boys don’t cry.

Anything ring a bell for you? If not, feel to insert your own, there are endless possibilities because our self-saboteurs are very resourceful and creative. The story may even change based on the circumstance at hand.

Changing your reality also starts with words. Creating change takes time practice and a long frank look in the mirror to simply notice what holds us back and the role that negative self-talk plays in our lives. By shifting your normal and automatic ways of thinking and doing you can create lasting change.  That will take effort, so it is best not to complicate the process with lots of strain. First you notice what is going on, you do not, I repeat do not, need to figure anything out. Instead apply the Zen Theory of Change.

“I free myself, not by trying to be free,

but by simply noticing how I am imprisoning myself

 in the very moment I am imprisoning myself.” ~ Lao Tzu.

In other words, notice what is the natural order of things in your life and thoughts now. Work with these things, not against them. Forcing change is what sets up and re-enforces resistance. Ever notice when you have tried to change NOW that suddenly all you can think about is what you want to change, why you cannot change it, or how hard it will be to change it, or everything will be fine just as soon as this other thing gets done, or what the heck one more cookie will not matter?

Stop. Be still. Breathe deliberately, fully in a way that feels natural to you.  Consider what is getting in your way, what you would like to be and why this is so important to you.  Simply notice what is going on in your mind. What you are thinking. What you are feeling. Thinking and feeling are not the same things. Notice what happens in your body. Are your shoulders jammed up by your ears? Maybe your heart is racing at the thought of making a change?

Already you are addressing the first two steps to retell your story and create lasting change. Step 1:  Acknowledge what causes you concern. ‘My annual review is coming up and I just know that by supervisor is unhappy with me. She’s had a funny look on her face when she saw me at lunch yesterday.”

Step 2:  Examine what story you are telling about these concerns and look for evidence about why your concerns are founded and unfounded.  “Oh my God, what is she fires me? That’s it she’s going to let me go. I will not be able to pay the kids tuition, etc.”  Got yourself all worked up? Yes, perfect, now flip that scenario around and play with other possibilities. “ Really, maybe she was distracted at lunch, or had just eaten something that tasked foul. Could be she was looking at someone else. Maybe she’s worried about her kids, they started a new school.”

Let’s move on to the other three steps.

Step 3: Weigh the consequences you get from your story. If you focus on the bad things might happen you’ll never get to see what good things might happen.  “Well if you focus on what might happen, especially what bad things might happen you’ll never get to see what good things might happen. You had a fine review last year and she always let’s people know when she’s concerned ahead of time not at the 11th hour.”

Step 4: Retell you story in a new more positive, proactive voice.  “This year I have taken on new responsibilities and it’s been a learning process. I can look at the performance goals I set a year ago and see how far I have come. I am ready, willing and able to do even better in the coming year.”

Step 5: Live out your new story and see how your energy changes. “ I am going to be proactive here and do everything I can to do my job well.”

There is no magic formula to change you story. Other people have described various ways to do so. I offer the metaphor of Storyteller for your life because as an adult are the primary author for your life. You can choose to take the same actions, do the same things, think the same way, and use the same excuses, over and over. Or not. Will the narrative you tell and the actions you take always flow beautifully? No, not likely. Will the experience be interesting and beneficial? Yes. So go find your rhythm, listen to the story is offering and tell your best story now as well as you can.

To push past the whisperings of anxieties fed the self-saboteur is worth the effort. The short-term pain of growth is a price worth paying for the long-term gains of personal agency and the profound contentment of knowing you honestly put your whole effort in to something.