Last week I got some news that really let loose a stress reaction in me. The news wasn’t life or death, but it represented an enormous amount of pressure to me. I felt my body stepping up into response-mixed-with-despair mode. I was getting emotionally swirly and weepy and starting to cave in while simultaneously becoming an irritable, defensive, crazy lady. I know, I’m a woman of many talents.

So, I paused. I remembered something about getting good at stress, from The Upside of Stress. “When oxytocin is released as part of the stress response, it’s encouraging you to connect with your support network……Scientists refer to this as the tend-and-befriend response.” (p. 52-53) I realized I needed to harness the oxytocin that is released during a stress response and reach out rather than isolate.

Here’s what I did in the five minutes that followed:

  • I texted a couple of good friends to let them know what had happened.
  • I emailed two people who I knew sometimes dealt with the same situation and asked them to pray for me that day.
  • I vented via email to my mother and sister.

I tended-and-befriended! And nearly immediately, the email assurances and empathy texts came back to me, lifting me up…..helping me know that I’m not alone.

Then I went to work. I drafted the necessary emails, thought through my action plan, and started the work that my stress response was empowering me to do. “…the tend-and-befriend response is a biological state engineered to reduce fear and increase hope….a tend-and-befriend response makes you social, brave, and smart. It provides both the courage and hope we need to propel us into action and the awareness to act skillfully.” (p. 138-9)

To tend-and-befriend like I did in this moment, I had to overcome a really strong tendency to cave in to this horrible, alone feeling. It was really vulnerable to reach out and let people know I was struggling. But I’m really glad I did it!

What are 3 things you could do to tend-and-befriend when a challenge hits?

Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress is a great read. Click on the link to purchase.

Finding Milk in a Hardware Store

One of the most difficult things in relationship is when others fail to give us the love that we want or need. I see so much pain when parents aren’t sympathetic, when siblings aren’t thoughtful, when spouses aren’t affirming, or when bosses aren’t responsive. For myself and several of my clients, the following analogy has been very helpful;

           What would happen if you went looking for milk in a hardware store?

            That would be pretty frustrating.

            What if you tried really, really hard to find milk in the hardware store?

            I’d get even more frustrated.  

            What if you went to the manager and requested milk?

            The manager would tell me that it wasn’t going to happen.

            And what if you insisted?

            The manager would tell me to go down the street to the grocery store where they carry milk and stop trying to get it at the hardware store.

The analogy forces an uncomfortable grappling to take place. Are we trying to get milk in a hardware store when we try to get affirmation from a spouse who is not capable of giving it? Are we attempting to get a type of love that our loved one just does not carry? Some people may not be capable of the kind of love that we desire—perhaps their own wounding has blocked their capacity for it, either permanently or temporarily. Others may be consciously or unconsciously withholding the type of love we want out of their own hurt or defensiveness.

Some of the most poignant and productive tears I have witnessed in my office are when my clients really face their futile attempts to get certain responses from people who are not delivering them. The grieving process can begin in a new way when this level of acceptance takes place. And then something profound can happen; people can start to see what love their loved ones are capable of sharing. (After all, light fixtures and lumber have their place in our lives too.) And they also take a new responsibility for getting the milk they need from sources that actually provide it. Grief and radical acceptance unleash a new adult maturity that can be surprisingly freeing.

There is nothing wrong with wanting or even needing love and it is legitimately painful when it doesn’t come from our beloveds. But we can cause ourselves untold suffering when we try to get love from sources that we think ought to provide it but who just don’t. This is where our own relational and spiritual resources come in. Who are the milk providers in your life? Do you have access to God in a way that allows you to receive what you most need directly?

Post-Election Spirituality

What will we do with ourselves now? There’s no more elections outcome to dread or hope for, there are no propositions or questions to debate with neighbors, and we’ll have to go back to car and antiperspirant ads on TV.  With as much build-up and rallying of fear and desperation as we’ve all been courted into, I fear for us in the aftermath. Can we get our brains out of the fear and paranoia pathway and into….I don’t know, something else?

Part of the fear for people of faith building up to this election seemed to be around the idea that if the wrong president was chosen, that God either could not or would not work with the resulting system. In the Bible, there is evidence that God works through whichever systems that we humans choose. The nation of Israel complained that they wanted a king to lead them against God’s advise. So eventually, God said OK and gave them a long series of kings. There were periods of blessing and periods of disaster, but God hung in there with them throughout even though the system was not the original hope for Israel. In the context of having kings, characters in the Bible were both on and off course and often mixed up all together! I wonder if there is something to be learned from this story in our current context. A wee bit over half the nation thinks we’ve signed up for a period of blessing and a wee bit under half the nation thinks we’ve signed up for a period of disaster. But I wonder if we could rather just assume a couple of things:

1—We are a mixture of off course and on course all at the same time.

2—God is working with us in the system of our choosing (I mean this in a broader sense that this election, per se).

If we can hold these assumptions, we might be able to approach life as the context of God’s current redemption rather than the colossal mistake from which there is no redemption. If we can’t figure out some kind of reframing, I fear that cooperation and growth in our world’s critical problems will be continue to be stymied. Half the country will just be waiting for the next election to repair the damage and the other will be frustrated by the naysayers. If we can learn from the past, it seems clear that solving our nation’s problems requires more than an election. We need a serious reframing.

What will be best for you to keep in mind for your own post-election spirituality?

Check out this NY Times article on what is needed now, post-election. Be sure to read to the end.

The Best Sex You’ve Never Had

A lot of couples that wind up in counseling complain of sexual desire problems. This is frequently experienced as an uneven desire for sexual intimacy—there is a low desire partner and a high desire partner, and the difference in desire is interpreted all kinds of ways. For many, the desire problems as the most distressing symptom they are experiencing in their marriage. In fact, many come to therapy wondering if waning sexual interest is a signal to move out of their marriage or long-term relationship.

It is not surprising that folks interpret sexual desire problems in this way. We are living in a culture a wee bit obsessed with sexual satisfaction. I did a training with 35 bright, motivated college students this weekend and they shared some of the pressure they feel around sexuality; to look, perform, and experience themselves and their partner as a virtual sexual gods/goddesses. Many of us marry expecting that we will experience the great, American sexual dream for the rest of our lives.  All those stories about waning sexual interest won’t apply to me, that’s the story of those fuddy-duddy people who never cared about sex. Sadly, when sexual desire problems emerge, far too many people give up, interpreting the problem as a terminal disease, a cancer that cannot be treated. The fact that sexual desire problems are very common and can be treated is not discussed very readily.

What if sexual desire problems were interpreted as an invitation to deeper, more mature connection from which a new type of sexual desire can emerge? My learning around treating couples with sexual desire problems led me to Dr. David Schnarch. He says, “(Sexual) desire problems can be useful to people and relationships. They push us to become more solid within ourselves. Sexual desire problems aren’t a problem in your marriage. Sexual desire problems are part of the normal, healthy processes of marriage.” (p.18) So, can there be satisfying sex on the other side of sexual desire problems in marriage? Absolutely. But that is the sex that far too many people never have. It’s the sex that comes after sexual desire problems have been carefully and sensitively worked through. It is the sex that comes when we say yes to the invitation into a deeper personal and relational process. And you may be surprised how you get there.

The quotes are from Dr. David Schnarch’s book, Intimacy and Desire. For the month of October, I’ll continue writing on this topic. I invite your comments and questions. Click here to read my review of the book.

The view from here…

After approximately 24 hours on planes (4 different flights) over the course of 2 and a half days, we have finally arrived in U-town, China. I would say that most of us in my travel group (including children) are experiencing the adrenaline rush of being in a completely unfamiliar place for the first time. The experience can be likened to the bonding that can take place between mother and child in the first hours after birth. It is a unique time when hormones are surging in just the right way. Even with jetlag we are all feeling something like this. We see this place like we never will again, with totally fresh eyes. And the view is amazing.

I have traveled in China before, but never to this region of the country, which is far, far west of Beijing. Here, we are steeped in You culture. The You are an ancient people and an unintentional minority here in China. And now we can see with our eyes, ears, and mouths the uniqueness of this culture. Everything looks bright and different, every new flavor is strong on the tongue. We are open and receptive in this particular window of time as every sensation is experienced and processed as different than anything we’ve seen, heard, smelled, or tasted before. In even just a few days, we will grow accustomed to parts of this place and our senses will quiet.

All the things that delight and disappoint us are things we couldn’t have predicted; a hot cup of tea when it’s 85 degrees, a successful transaction with a street vendor, a smile on my kids’ faces when eating a new treat–like lamb dumplings, deep-fried bread, or vegetables for breakfast. Even the disappointments feel like they have an upside; our windowless hotel room felt like a gift after I heard the story our local friend told of his attempts to find us housing.

Windows of time like this are worth noticing, because you don’t have to go to the other side of the globe to have them. In college student work, we have noticed that the first days of freshman year are something like this. I’ve already mentioned the time after a baby is born, and what about other transitions? Times when we see with sharper eye and more sensitive ears are a gift. Let’s notice them.

I look forward to hearing about your view.

Me and My Cruddy Attitude

I’m leaving soon for 5 weeks in China and the process of departure has been interesting to say the least. Storms blew through last weekend and knocked out electricity in the area, so all of our last minute preparations were done with a high level of inconvenience. It is the second time in a year we have lost power for 5 days, the last time being after Hurricane Irene hit.

One would think that as I am preparing to be highly inconvenienced in China that the experience stateside might be welcomed as extra preparation. But that is hardly the case. What I’m prepared to welcome in Kashgar I am NOT prepared to welcome here.

  • Uncomfortable heat with no fan or a/c.
  • Lack of Internet access.
  • Very limited cell phone use.
  • Inability to store food I want where I live.
  • Grumpy children.

Last fall when this happened, if felt like an adventure, as if it were my chance to be supermom. The board games by candlelight came with ease, the creative meals made of non-perishables flew out of my imagination! But this time around just had an edge. It was much hotter, I had more pressing need to get things done that required internet and phone, and the kids did not have the thrill of missing school like they did last time. This time, it was just a big old bummer. And it was all about the attitude. I see it in the contrast between the last outage and this one. And I see it in my ability to welcome all these inconveniences for the sake of experiencing another part of the world and my inability to welcome it here. It’s all about posture one takes towards the situations.

Part of our preparation for being in Kashgar includes learning a good entry posture for new situations. In other words, coming in to a new situation with curiosity, adaptability and openness rather than skepticism or superiority. My experience in the last week throws in my face how immensely helpful it is to have one’s entry posture in mind in ALL situations, not just the big cross-cultural ones. If I could stay on top of my attitude posture (see link) during experiences like this power outage, I’d be a much more peaceful person. Not only that, I believe that our willingness to have a good entry posture reflects something of God’s posture towards us. And I sure do benefit from that.

What’s your experience of choosing a good entry posture? Or of failing to do so?

(Click here for a link to the Entry Posture Diagram)


Before You Die….

…read this. A nurse who works with dying patients took some time to record the final wishes of those facing the end of their life.

Top 5 Regrets Of The Dying:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

What strikes me most about this list is how unlike most of our “bucket lists” it is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for more traditional bucket lists. Figuring out adventures/challenges that we’d like to do is wonderful. It gets us outside our every day life and stretches us. I like that. So go ahead with jumping out of planes, drinking wine on the French Riviera, running a marathon, and shaking hands with Michael Phelps.

But these regrets…we ought to listen to them. If we can let those facing death teach us about living, then we are wise individuals. If you contemplate this list and really let yourself sit with it, what stands out?  You see, the things on this list don’t translate all that clearly to a bucket list, but they do have the potential to inform our day-to-day choices if we let them. Are you willing to ask yourself how you are doing in these areas? What do you see when you do?

Let’s start a dialogue so we can learn from each other. What practices help you live your life now in a way that will keep you at peace in the area of one of these top five regrets of the dying? Post your comments today and resolve to reading others’ practices.

Here’s the link to the article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/01/top-five-regrets-of-the-dying

Can You Hear Me Now?

Recently a businesswomen’s group considered me as a speaker on anxiety. I heard from my contact that they had decided not to invite me after checking out my website because at least one woman was offended by my faith. I had a tangle of reactions upon hearing this. Disappointment: I love speaking. I’m probably a better speaker than I am a therapist! Indignation: What? I’m not a qualified speaker on anxiety because of my religious views? What worldview would be acceptable? Anger: What are they thinking rejecting me! Resignation: I am who I am and I’ve made that pretty public. Sort of a sad world in which we live.

People like me don’t win the contest of persecution or personal prejudices—I don’t want to start that dialogue. What I do want to open up is a question that this situation raised in me. Who am I unwilling to listen to? This group that didn’t want me speaking on anxiety….maybe they thought I’d turn a lecture on anxiety into an opportunity for a “Come to Jesus” meeting. I can see it now, so you’re avoiding flying in airplanes because of your anxiety?….how about avoiding HELL???? Maybe that’s exactly what has happened to them in the past. I remember being invited to a seminar on rock music in high school that was actually a play-the-music-backwards-and-it-says-worship-satan infomercial. It was a bait and switch and I was burned by it! Or how about those half-hour buy-a-condo pitches that wind up sucking half your day while you’re on vacation? We’ve all had experiences like this and, truth be told, it isn’t easy to recover! And if I’m honest, am I willing to listen to members of a certain political party, professional affiliation, ethnicity, or religion talk about social justice, anxiety treatment, privilege, or equality? Who have I disqualified to teach me and on what subjects?

I’ve had lots of surprises in my life that merit remembering:

  • I learned a lot about sex from an author who is a celibate priest.
  • I learned about what it means to deeply contemplate uncertainty from someone with OCD.
  • I learned about how I want to honor my clients from my teacher who comes from an entirely different faith background than me.

In my counseling practice, some of my clients have no idea of my faith, while others specifically seek me out because of it. I hope to honor them by resisting disqualification in my own heart. What does it look like to live well in a world where we are all impacted by predispositions and attitudes that bother us? How do we bring our expertise into situations with our whole selves and our whole stories while respecting the autonomy of others? These are questions not easily answered but the only true starting place I see is with each individual.

How do we become people who are willing to look closely at the temptation to disqualify folks? What surprises do you remember that can help us stave off the temptation?

Going Beyond Self-Esteem

When I was in graduate school, every treatment plan that my colleagues and I wrote seemed to include a plan to increase self-esteem in our clients. The thinking was that folks just needed to feel better about themselves and the way to do it was to build up their self-esteem. But here’s something interesting about self-esteem. Low self-esteem is evidenced in people having negative, and often distorted thoughts about themselves. You can probably identify those internal messages in yourself: I’m so fat, this person probably thinks I’m boring, I’m stupid, I’m such a fraud…..any of these sound familiar? It is very difficult to stop thoughts like this from coming. And all too often, people simply try to get high self-esteem by replacing thoughts like these with positive thoughts. I’m thin! I’m an interesting person, I’m brilliant, I deserve this honor…..Ah, if only we were so easily fooled! The problem with this type of internal work is that all it does is replace a distorted negative thought with a distorted positive one! The truth is often somewhere in the middle.

Listen to this interesting quote regarding self-esteem; “in one influential review of the self-esteem literature, it was concluded that high self-esteem actually did not improve academic achievement or job performance or leadership skills or prevent children from smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and engaging in early sex. If anything, high self-esteem appears to be the consequence rather than the cause of healthy behaviors” (p.137, Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff, PhD). In other words, high self-esteem can come as a result of success in life, but is not required to attempt the activities that may facilitate it.

Instead of working towards high self-esteem, I’ve started talking with clients about developing self-compassion. Self-compassion is the ability to have compassion for yourself just like you have compassion for a friend. Developing the ability to recognize your own suffering connects us to the human experience as a bunch of sometimes wonderful, sometimes average, and sometimes decidedly unimpressive individuals. You are no exception! As Neff says, “you can let go of those unrealistic expectations of perfection that make you so dissatisfied, and open the door to real and lasting satisfaction. All by giving yourself the compassion you need in the moment” (p.12).

What do you think? How easy does self-compassion come to you?

Click here for a link to Kristin Neff’s website and information about her book.

Parenting by Southwest Airlines

The Best Parenting Advice I ever got was from Southwest Airlines Magazine. On a trip down to Durham, I read a one-page piece in SW Airlines Magazine that gave this simple advice: endeavor to have 7 connection points with each of your children at any given time. The connection could be anything that the two of you can do together, talk about, or simply mutually appreciate. You may like the same reality TV show, or obsess over the same professional sports team, or admire the same actress, or read the same book. But less obvious connections count too: both having smelly feet, or avoiding cheddar cheese, or being into penguins.

There’s a brilliance to this. I remember hearing another counselor recount advising a father to just sit near his son when he’s doing whatever he’s doing. I was reminded of the SW magazine article; just find something you can have in common, even if you have to work at it. The SW tip has fueled many hours of television I never would have watched and inspired my commitment to read Young Adult Literature for a year. The SW tip made me brush up on throwing a football and gave me more patience for a certain annoying orange (see Youtube). The SW tip helped me value going to movies I never would have been inclined to see and eat very greasy burgers when I preferred sushi. So what if my interest isn’t a natural inclination if my interest in connecting with my kids is genuine?

Having the challenge of 7 connection points has been good for me. When I have trouble counting 7, I feel pushed to watch my kids more closely, looking for another opportunity to jump in. In this process I notice more. I’m more attuned to what bugs them, when they are intrigued, or when I’m just not getting them. It draws me back to the basics. What can we do/appreciate together and what has gotten in the way of my doing that? Sometimes I have to admit I’ve lost sight of being intentional about forging the connection points.

My college roommate, Susie, is a great inspiration in this area. She and her daughter love goofing off and dancing, so they decided to learn the Thriller dance. Then they decided to host a Thriller event in their town (this was the year Michael Jackson died and groups of folks all over the world performed Thriller at the same time). This led to lots of miniature projects to organize the thing, which turned out to be a total blast and ended in photos in the paper and memories that will last a lifetime! It didn’t start with a community-wide event, it started with mutual goofiness and a love of amateur dancing. Very rarely, a connection will grow into something memorable. Overall, the impact is much more subtle. Your kids may not remember that you played dominoes for 178 hours, but those are 178 hours that your kid had your attention and you showed interest in their interest. You can’t measure that impact.

What connection points do you share with your kids? Or kids, with your parents? What gets in the way of pressing for 7?

If you like this idea, you’ll really be challenged by  my RESOURCE OF THE MONTH, It’s a book called Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers.

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