Jan 23, 2009 - 4:30 pm
July 10, 2008
HEALTHY TIPS TO LIVE BY:
By Roger, MSW/LCSW
Throughout my years of working as a psychotherapist, social worker, counselor, case manager, residential care worker, mental health supervisor, and student I have learned that many of my ideas, beliefs, practices, perceptions, and expectations were not only counterproductive, erroneous, self-defeating, but outright foolish. I thought that I knew what was good (if not best) for myself and others, and if people would only follow my directions (or at least not impede my efforts to satisfy my quests), then all would be happier. Not surprisingly I was miserable much of my younger life. Ignorance and grandiosity truly are foundations of unhappiness!
What I have learned is that to be happy one must be:
HUMILITY is very difficult for many of us. We tend to think of ourselves, our needs and our pain as bigger than anyone else’s, as more important, more excruciating, and more valid than others. Partly this is inherent in the need to put ourselves first for self-preservation, but too often this is represented in ways that have nothing to do with survival or self preservation. It seems our country and culture is founded on the idea that competition and winning is the crux of happiness. Only by winning at sports, academic competitions, job promotions, bigger salaries, more beautiful and desirous mates, etc, will we be able to prove to others that we are important, valid and “successful.” The idea that we could play sports to have fun or work to provide a sufficient income to meet our needs (rather than our wants) is spurned. Embracing a career that we feel good about, or doing something that might possibly help others is secondary to the goal of winning. After all, the winner gets a trophy, ribbons, awards, rewards and accolades. The loser gets well: ignored, shunned, rebuffed and ridiculed! Those who pursue careers of helping others (e.g. health care, emergency services, teaching, etc.) have to make excuses for what they do or try to justify their career choices to others who pursue more lucrative careers because our social importance is often based on the salary we earn. Nevertheless, those who are humble and giving are typically the happier.
Inclusive in Humility is the ability to realize and accept that we do not know everything, that we are not the smartest, wisest, most ingenuous, and best tactician or strategist, not only in guiding our own lives, but with those around us. Too often people will admit they have problems in their lives, but the idea of taking guidance, suggestions and/or directions from another is repulsive. Granted we may not have the answer, but that merely means the answer does not exist. The idea that another could have the solution to my problems is absurd. If I can’t figure it out, then obviously a solution does not exist. The ability to seek out guidance and direction, and then to actually use these suggestions is a fundamental quality of humility. Alcoholics Anonymous (and the plethora of other twelve step programs that have formed from these principles) requires that the “addict” needs too make a decision to turn their will and lives over to the care of God as they understand him. Many recovering addicts balk at this step because they do not have a religious belief, but more importantly they are not ready to “turn their will and lives over.” When I was working with recovering substance abusers I used to explain that what they needed to do was to accept and acknowledge that they were not the wisest person in the world in managing their life (otherwise they would not be in this situation.) They needed to acknowledge that there were others (be it deities or humans) that knew how to make better life choices and decisions about their lives than they did. They needed to allow people who were better at making choices to teach them how to make better choices so that they could make better choices later. I also helped them realize that asking for help shows wisdom, not ignorance. Asking a master mechanic to demonstrate and teach you how to rebuild the transmission in a ’57 T-Bird, and then doing it yourself, insures that the pieces will fit together and run smoothly. Trying to do it on your own, with no training or experience only insures the gears will grind, and nothing will work right. Once you learn how to make healthy choices you can move on to make more and better choices for yourself. If you never allow yourself to learn how to make healthy choices, you are destined to keep making the same dysfunctional and problematic decisions.
Inclusive in the concept of humility is the idea that we neither can nor need to be “Perfect.” We frequently think that we need to excel at some aspect, quality or endeavor, and anything less than perfection is by its definition failure. It is important for people (and parents in particular) to understand that the goal in life is to be “good enough” rather than “perfect.” “Good Enough” is a quality that we all can achieve, and that is all that is expected or required of us. If we achieve this standard than everyone wins, if we strive for perfection (something we will inevitably never achieve) then everyone fails. The person striving for this and all those around them suffer. Once we begin to think of ourselves as “failures” (unable to meet perfection) then we get frustrated, angry, depressed, hopeless, and often give up. We tend to either stop trying or we get angry and disappointed with ourselves which impacts not only our self esteem and worth, but it spills out onto those around us, often the same people we were trying to be perfect for (please and make happy) in the first place. In essence, the quest for perfection tends to have the exact opposite result. This quest for perfection often is rooted in our inability to praise ourselves. We tend to look at ourselves in terms of comparisons rather than solidarity. We seldom look at what we have accomplished and praise ourselves for what we did. We tend to look towards others to validate and reward us with praise because only through external validation can we feel pride. Unless others tell use we “DONE GOOD”, we don’t truly believe it.
Learning to be Humble requires us to stop seeing our needs and wants as superior to those of others. The idea that we are the center of the universe tends to show up frequently with adolescents and often with adults too. It is very easy for many of us to look at the world and see the obstacles, limitations, hindrances, and restrictions placed on us by others, and the immediate thought is “If they would just quit holding me back, I could….!” We look at the world as our playground and everyone else needs to forego their wants, wishes and desires so that we can achieve ours. What I ask my clients to do is give an estimate of all the people they have met in their life: neighbors, in school, their family, church, etc. Whatever that number is I double it too make the number seem even bigger. Then I ask how many of these people love them, and would do anything for them. Figure maybe 10% of that number. (Example: a thousand, doubled to two thousand, then ten percent of that is 200.) Whatever the number is write it out for them to see. Then ask what they believe is the total current population of the world (estimates are 6.5 billion or more.) I write this number out. Then I subtract both numbers from this. 6,500,000,000 – 2000, and also 6,500,000,000 – 200. I then show them how 6,499,998,000 have never met them, and 6,499,999,800 don’t really have strong feelings towards them. I them ask the client if nearly 6.5 billion people have never met them, or strongly care about them, why do they believe all these people are ready, willing, and eager to sacrifice their wants, hopes, wishes, desires and needs to benefit them.
Sometimes just seeing numbers written out in big numerals is more effective than vague expressions like: “You’re not the center of the universe.” Another example is to ask them how sad and hurt they are that a person named “whatever their first name is” died today. If their name is fairly common you can even say in that person’s state because likely somebody with their name did died that day. When they respond they did not know this person so they don’t really feel too bad, validate this lack of concern. But reflect how other people are just as disinterested in their life, well-being, and happiness since they don’t know this client either. Help the person see that their goal in life is not to change the world to fit and meet their wishes and desires, but to help them find a way to carve out some pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction by working within the system and situations that they find themselves. Yes, we can make small and incremental changes in our environment, but for the most part we cannot (nor should we expect to) change the larger picture and those around us. We need to find ways to extract joy and satisfaction from the opportunities afforded us.
Being RESPONSIBLE is another core aspect of being happy. Often people hear the word “responsibility” and interpret this as “Work.” They think to be responsible you have to hold down a job or two, provide for your family, take care of your home, complete tasks and chores, excel in school, and keep your word (even when it would be easier to conveniently forget what you promised.) They think finding ways to cir***vent and avoid the onerous duties that inevitably accompany the term “responsibility” as preferable. Although much of this is true, being responsible does involve work, effort, follow through with your commitments and obligations, taking care of your home and family, striving to excel in the goals and quests you set for yourself. This does not mean that you cannot derive any enjoyment or benefit from your efforts. Too often people, particularly immature ones, think or believe work is futile, wasteful, unrewarding, if not outright painful. They see chores and tasks as something you “HAVE TO DO”, rather than something you would want to do or even enjoy doing. They see hobbies, games, sports, recreational and relaxation activities, as clearly pleasant and rewarding, but work by its very nature cannot be. Attempts to explain that “work” whether to enrich yourself, your mind, and/or your spirit, to provide for those you love, to confirm your reliability to your commitments, and/or to challenge yourself, can be just as rewarding and enjoyable as any hobby or recreational activity. If you see the endeavor as merely work, then you will see it as drudgery and toil. If you see it as a way to challenge and excel yourself and to give back to those you care about it, it becomes a labor of love and something to enjoy.
I don’t know when the term “Chores” became a four letter work in our society. I have spoken with hundreds of parents and when I ask what chores their children are responsible for, they often report: “going to school and homework, and some other things….” Either they have few chores assigned to the children or the chores are not pressed so when the child refuses the parents accede to their children’s demands (refusals.) I strongly encourage the parents I have worked with clinically to require their children to perform a minimal of one hour of household chores each school day and at least two hours per non-school day. If the child is over three years old, then there are chores they can do (obviously adjusted to the child’s age, developmental abilities, and level of maturity.) When the child and parents question whether there is enough time in the day to do so, I ask how much time each day does the child spend watching TV, playing on the computer, socializing with peers, talking on the phone, or otherwise engaging in recreational activities. Seldom have children been literally too busy to carve out time for their chores. When the parents question if there is enough to do around the house to fill an hour each day I ask how much the parents are doing. Between cleaning, shopping, errands, laundry, cooking, taxi service, etc. the parents can usually find tasks that their children can do to relieve them of those responsibilities, and thereby making their lives easier.
Requiring a child to perform household chores is neither cruel nor exploitative. Requiring a child to help with the running of the home and the family teaches the child two hugely important concepts: 1) developing responsibility and the understanding that we benefit from what we work for, rather than expecting to be provided all that we want (there seldom is a “free lunch”); and, 2) it develops a sense of belonging to the family and home rather than being a guest under the same roof. I prefer to describe it as being A PART of the family instead of being apart from the family! When children grow up thinking they are entitled to (fill in the blank) rather than thinking they have a duty and responsibility to the family, they tend to have lower self esteem, worth, and confidence. Children who see themselves as core pieces (members) of the family tend to have higher self worth, image, and respect. Helping the child learn that we give because it makes us feel good about ourselves and sharing with our loved ones makes us better family members and better human beings is a gift more precious than any thing you can get them at the mall! Cooperation, unity, teamwork, and sharing are the real benefits of doing daily chores. If the child does not learn how to work for what they have and want as a child, when will they learn it?
HONESTY AND TRUSTWORTHINESS are qualities that are hard to earn and easy to lose. When I talk about HONESTY I do not mean that complete truthfulness is essential at all times. Too many people use the concept of “Honesty” as a way of hurting others. When asked how a hairdo or dress looks or a speech sounds, they respond with brutal “honesty” and criticism. Not “Constructive Criticism”, but cruel criticism. “That dress is probably the ugliest and most hideous design I have ever seen, the color is atrocious and it makes you look like a hideous cow.” And then they respond to glares with “But what, I was just being ‘HONEST!’” I suggest that Honesty is the best policy when the goal and motivation is positive and benevolent. One needs to look at the motives behind their response. Honesty is typically the best policy because it supports openness, sincerity, responsibility, and truthfulness. If the goal is to insult or hurt another or intentionally get someone into trouble with no legitimate value or purpose then it is probably wrong. If a “lie” is posited to protect someone’s feelings from being hurt, and will likely cause no significant long term damage, then being less than honest may be the best policy. (Not mentioning a significant clothing faux pas when the person is in route to a job interview or a court hearing could be situations where feigned honesty could hurt the person in the long run.) Look at what your motivation is. If it is to avoid getting yourself in trouble or is used to simply curry favor in some political machination then it is not the best policy. If the goal is simply to avoid hurting another’s feelings then dishonesty may be the best policy. These are decisions we have to make at the time, and trying to live by one absolute doctrine is counterproductive and impractical.
The mathematical equation I use is: Honesty + Responsibility + Time = Trust. It takes someone being honest (and not merely when it is convenient) and being responsible (doing what they say they will, when they say they will, without being reminded, without equivocation, or excuses), and accepting fault and blame for their mistakes, errors and blame without trying to displace or project blame and fault elsewhere, and doing this repeatedly over a significant period of time to become trustworthy. Those who earn trust know the value in holding onto it. Those who have lost it often try hard to regain it, but often without proving themselves over a significant period of time. There are some who have never deserved trust, but still want to persuade others to give it to them because they see this as a way of exploiting them. It typically takes someone who has earned trust to be able to successfully give it to another. It is hard for someone who is untrustworthy to help another feel they have developed real trust (unless one of the parties has a personality disorder!) This is why so few children raised by marginally trustworthy parents develop a true sense of trust or ability to demonstrate trustworthy qualities. It is also interesting how people who have been trusted, betrayed this trust and then lost this trust, want desperately to regain the trust back. But as stated above, before they can rebuild trust they need to show HONESTY AND RESPONSIBILITY OVER TIME. Trust is also a core quality in love. It is nearly impossible to love someone you cannot trust.
Being able to LOVE is obviously a core factor in being happy. If we cannot love then we cannot bond, relate, express and accept intimacy, and experience empathy. Freud focused on the two core positive experiences in the human existence: Work and Love (family.) Unfortunately too many of us interpret love as devotion, dependency, duty and sacrifice. The goal of love is to share. In a healthy relationship both parties give and receive. To truly love both parties respect themselves and the other. Both parties show devotion and duty to the other and partake in the sacrifices (as well as the rewards.) This does not mean that every situation is evenly divided with both members giving and getting exactly fifty percent. This does means that we give what we can without sacrificing too much of who we are, so that later we can be the recipient. Too often people with low self worth and esteem see love as something to cling to the way a drowning man clings to a piece of floating flotsam. Those with low self worth and esteem believe they can never love or respect themselves and the only way they will ever feel this is by having someone else provide it to them. They chase after love in the hopes of finding someone who will fill their painful emptiness. The problem is most of the time the people they seek love from are unable to love either themselves or anyone else so the person with low esteem is trying to get metaphorically get “blood from a turnip.” Instead of realizing that the person is unable to show love, they believe it is their failings, and if they simply tried harder they could elicit love from this person. Unfortunately no matter how hard they try, no matter what they say or do, no matter how long they wait, love will never come to them this way.
The adage that one has to love oneself before they can love or be loved is true. If you can find ways to love yourself, respect yourself, appreciate yourself, and take pride in yourself then it is easy to love yourself; moreover, once you start to love yourself you attract others that can and will love you, and you are able to differentiate those who could love you from those who merely want to use, manipulate and/or exploit you. Finding ways to love and respect your self is key. Finding aspects and qualities about yourself you can respect and appreciate can be difficult for some. They look at themselves and see inadequacies, failures, ugliness and nothing else. Helping the person move past the barriers of inadequacies to move forward in the quest to find their attributes and strengths is sometimes quite difficult. For most of us it is easier to see our fallacies than our attributes much of the time. Nevertheless, until we can start focusing on our strengths and attributes we can never be confident and proud, and therefore never be happy.
A significant part of being able to love is the ability to be able to understand and respect BOUNDARIES. Boundaries are the physical, emotional, financial, social, and legal constructs that we all need to feel respected, appreciated, acknowledged, and supported. Boundaries are not rigid, but they are essential. Each individual identifies and sets the boundaries they feel are important, warranted and needed with every other person and situation. These boundaries change based on time, locale and situation. The physical boundaries between two friends in a restaurant are different than between the same two friends consoling each other at a funeral. The boundary between a romantic couple is different at the Mall than in their bedroom. One would not think of discussing their income and expenses with a stranger, but then they walk into an accountant’s office and gladly share every intimate detail. The essential skill that one must develop is learning how to determine what level of intimacy the other person is seeking at the time, place or situation (often without using words.) Do not “assume” that because you would want a shoulder to cry on after hearing bad news that your friend or family member would obviously want the same. Too often we decide for others what level of intimacy they would want or need based on our perception, interpretation, or need. The problem with this is we tend to either overstep our bounds or come across as cold and insensitive (assuming it is no big deal to them because it is no big deal to us.)
Learning to ask and offer support is the key here. Let the person know that you are available (but only if you are, do not offer support and then resent them for accepting and availing themselves of it when you were not sincere about the offer in the first place.) Offer to be there for support, to listen, to provide financial support, or whatever you are willing to offer, and then step back until they make the request. People tend to want to help, but in the process of wanting to help they intrude and place extra burdens upon their friends and loved ones. You see this when a person is struggling with health or financial problems. Friends and family members want to “fix’ the situation, when they need to let the person affected by the situation make the request first. Allowing them to ask affords them maturity and respect. “FIXING” the problem without their request infantilizes, disrespects, and demeans the person. The other concern people need to realize when dealing with someone in emotional (or physical) pain is: Do not tell them you know how they are feeling! You DO NOT! You can hurt for them, you can empathize with them, you know what pain feels like, you know it must hurt them, but you CANNOT know what they are feeling, and to tell them this often enrages them and belittles their pain. Let them know you can see they are in pain (if it is obvious.) Tell them how you hurt (or are sad) over their loss, pain, suffering, etc. But do not assume you know how they are feeling. Pain is not transferable from one person to another.
The ability to FORGIVE is another essential component in being happy. Not just being able to forgive others; although this is important, but being able to forgive one self. Too often we are more willing and able to forgive those who have hurt us, than we are willing to forgive ourselves for the mistakes we have made. We often hold ourselves to a higher standard than we hold others, nay to an unrealistically high standard. I encourage people to look at themselves and acknowledge this simple fact: “To ERR is HUMAN.” I jokingly say “that when I make a mistake, I will be willing to admit it!” But the truth is I (and everyone else) makes mistakes daily, if not hourly. Making mistakes is how we learn and grow. The goal is not to avoid mistakes, but to learn from them and not repeat the same mistakes. By learning from our mistakes we grow as persons and as a species. If we stopped making mistakes we would stop learning, growing, and evolving. The Five Steps I suggest for people to take when they err is: 1) acknowledge the mistake, error, or problems they have made; 2) learn from and genuinely change the behavior that led to their mistake or error; 3) correct the mistake if possible (compensate for damages, replace broken item, etc.), apologize for their mistake if feelings were hurt, and acknowledge that they were wrong (something that is very hard for many of us); 4) forgive them self (since the error was just that: an error, not a malicious intent to do harm); and, 5) MOVE ON!
The steps seem inherently simple, but the truth is they are hard from most of us to do. Firstly, people try to do these steps in any order they prefer or find easier, rather than in the specific sequence laid out. Two, they prefer to do some of these steps, but not all of them. Thirdly, they tend to claim they have “learned” from the mistake and have “changed” the behavior when in reality they are simply looking for an excuse or justification for why they did it, and they intend to repeat the behavior because they do not sincerely want to change their pattern of behavior. Fourthly, they often apologize before changing the behavior which not only negates the apology, but makes it harder for the person to be trusted later on. An example I use is: If I walk over to you and slap you, and then apologize for it, then I slap you again, and then apologize profusely, then slap you a third time, and apologize repeatedly, and then slap you a fourth time, when do the apologies cease to have any value? If you have not genuinely changed the behavior; DO NOT APOLOGIZE! It may seem wrong not to apologize for something you have done wrong, but until you have genuinely changed the behavior, an apology is not only worthless, it impacts your ability to be trusted in the future, and it starts to look like a manipulation or deception rather than an attempt at contrition.
People often ask where does “Being Forgiven” fit into this schema? I explain it does not. The purpose of this procedure is to help you learn and grow. These five steps are steps that anyone can do. You have the power and ability to perform these. You do not need anyone else’s help. If you put forgiveness from others into this, you have shifted this from the doable, to the maybe doable. No one has the power or ability to make someone forgive you. They may, they may not. That is on them. You can admit your mistake. You can change your behavior, atone and apologize, and forgive yourself, but you cannot force them to forgive you. That is giving them power and control over you. If you have honestly and sincerely done steps 1 – 4, then you have done all you can. If the injured party wishes to forgive you; terrific! If not, then you still need to move on. You cannot, or need not get stymied in your development because another chooses to cling to their anger, resentment, grudges, and refuses to forgive you. This is their choice, their decision. Whatever their motivation is, it need not control or dominate your life and future. Certainly we want to be forgiven and it feels good to be forgiven, but we cannot live to seek another’s approval or forgiveness. This is beyond our control and by that very nature, a futile endeavor. Hopefully after you have forgiven yourself, you are able to “MOVE ON.” This is the step where you have reflected upon the first four steps, realized you have done all you realistically can, and are ready to let go of the guilt, shame, remorse and embarrassment. Guilt is a very powerful and overwhelming emotion, and if we allow it to take root and control our lives and emotions, it will. If we allow ourselves to be controlled by guilt we cease to live and grow. Guilt has some value: there is healthy guilt which teaches us the importance of not making the same mistakes over and over, but that is the point of this five step process. If we use these five steps effectively then we need not perpetuate the guilt that arises from making mistakes.
Grudges, Resentments, and Anger are incredible wastes of time and energy. People often say that they do not want to let go of their anger, resentment and grudges because they do not want to let the other person (the injurer) off so easily. They convince themselves that as long as they hold onto their anger and resentments then they are somehow “punishing” the person(s) who has hurt them. They do not want to let go of the hurt and anger because they see this as both a way of punishing the injurer and a way of protecting themselves from future hurt. The former is folly while the latter has some value, but is not as productive as other efforts. The idea that holding onto my anger over some transgression another has done to me is punishing that person presupposes that they are aware they have slighted me, that they remember they did this, that they care what they did was wrong or hurtful, and lastly, that they feel guilt over their actions. In most cases one, two, three, or all four of these presumptions are erroneous. The driver who “cuts me off on the highway and makes me swerve to avoid an accident”, and who I am raging and railing against all the way home from work, all through dinner, all evening long and halfway through the night, is likely the same driver who went home, enjoyed dinner with his family and kids, watched TV, made love to his wife, and slept sound. I can be angry and resentful, but is that really punishing him or me?
I don’t mean to say that I would never get angry or resentful to another who had done a terrible wrong to me or my loved ones. But most of us do not hold anger and grudges over the death of our child, we hold grudges over being cut in front of in line at the Post Office. While leading a group therapy session with adults one of the members shared how angry he was. Harry was a depressed, 38 year old man who had been coming to group therapy for several weeks. As my practice I asked the members how their weekend had been and how they were feeling today. Harry proceeded to berate his brother for taking and wrecking his “bike”, and he continued with his angry report for over ten minutes. His description of this violation of his trust and destruction of his property was made in a highly animated, intense and pressured voice, sweat producing gestures, and clenched fisted tirade until one of the other members asked in a puzzled manner when did this motorcycle stealing event occur: He answered in a clear and sincere manner, “When I was 12!” The jaws of nearly everybody in the group dropped. They realized that his “bike” was in fact a Schwinn bicycle, and what we thought had happened over the weekend had occurred a quarter of a century before. All of us thought this residual rage was unnecessary, unwarranted, and outright ludicrous, but for Harry he remembered it as if it had happened that morning. He was incensed over the actions of his then 10 year old brother, and even though decades had past, it was not “over” for him. This exemplifies how many of us cling to our resentments and grudges even when most would have “moved on.”
When I speak of anger I do not mean to say that anger is by its very nature “BAD” or “WRONG.” Many of us were taught at an early age that anger is a sin, something malevolent, evil, and not to be allowed. “BAD” people get angry. “Good” people do not. Good people have love and joy in their hearts and minds, and if you are angry you must be evil, sinful, or bad. The truth is that anger is a part of the human gamut of emotions. We have anger, fear, hate, love, guilt, shame, embarrassment, and a plethora of other emotions. These are a part of what makes us human; and GOOD! Feeling anger is not wrong. It is a natural response and reaction to events in our lives. Denying that we get angry is unhealthy and counter-productive. All this does is repress the feeling and eventually the emotion will express itself later, usually in an inappropriate and conflictual way. There is a difference between compartmentalizing one’s anger and repressing it. An example of compartmentalizing your anger would be when you get censured by your boss for an error at work realizing that expressing your anger with him/her may be ill advised so sometimes we set aside our anger until we can express it later in a more acceptable setting (e.g. talking it over with your friends after work and complaining about your boss, or taking out your frustrations at the gym.) Repression (and displacement) leads to holding in your anger and dissatisfaction with your supervisor then coming home and yelling at your child for a minor household rule infraction. A situation where the child is left feeling confused and the parent typically is left feeling guilty. The point is to acknowledge you are angry. Accept that “GOOD” people get angry too, the issue is not whether we get angry, but what we do with it and how long we hold onto it. The first is to look at how we express our anger. Clearly verbal and physical aggression to self and others is not acceptable nor is substance abuse, or other addictive behaviors. Talking about your feelings, exercise, relaxation techniques, etc. are the preferred ways of handling your anger. The other aspect is not to embrace your anger and turn it into a long standing resentment which as already stated is harmful, counterproductive and futile. Learning how to manage and handle our anger is the key, convincing ourselves that we NEVER GET ANGRY is the mistake!
Understanding the difference between shame and guilt is another useful tool in feeling better about your self. The two are similar but different in both their origins and presentations. Guilt is typically a response to the person realizing they have erred, transgressed, failed at some quest or duty, and they begin to criticize themselves. Shame is more often a result of our knowing that others are aware of our errors, transgressions, failures, etc, and thus we feel embarrassed that others will think poorly of us. Guilt is our knowing we erred and being disappointed in ourselves, shame and embarrassment are a result of others being aware of our errors and their looking down on us. The examples I use are the child who shoplifts from a store, gets away with it, and just as he starts to eat the candy bar realizes he was wrong and decides to stop stealing and/or makes amends: this is guilt. If the person stole a candy bar and is about to leave the store when the lights and sirens blare and everybody stops and looks at him while security and the police handcuff him is suffering shame and embarrassment (possibly guilt too), but the core difference is the awareness of the public to his crime. Or the adult who has a romantic affair and decides this is wrong and he must stop it because it is a violation of his marriage vows is experiencing guilt. The spouse who ends up with his picture in the newspaper leaving a NO-TELL Motel feels shame and embarrassment as well as possibly guilt. Guilt and shame have their usefulness if they can help the person learn to change their behavior. If the person realizes they do not like feeling guilt or shame and this leads to modifying their behavior so as to help reduce these unpleasant feelings then guilt (and shame) have been productive. If after feeling guilt and/or shame the person continues to make the same poor choices (stealing and adultery), but the only difference is the person now berates them self, then guilt and shame have served no real purpose. Simply hating oneself while continuing to do the same wrong thing is likely to result in significant levels of depression, anxiety, if not some form of emotional or mental illness. The key is to learn for one’s mistake and to change one’s behavior, not to simply continue to err while abasing and abashing one self. These are the purposes and value of guilt and shame.
Fear and discomfort with being and FEELING SAD is a significant problem for many of us. Often sadness and depression are used as synonyms. The fact is the two are very different reactions to often the same event. Sadness is a healthy response to loss. The loss may be of a relationship (friend, family member, loved one), financial situation, ideal, material item(s), status, opportunity, etc. But to feel sad there must be a loss of some type. Sadness usually involves tears or the desire to cry, hurt, pain, anxiety, anger, and/or fear. Sadness is by its very nature temporary and ephemeral. Sadness is healthy as it allows our body and our minds to grasp the pain and loss of (fill in the blank.) We grieve, we hurt, we mourn and then usually we move on. Depression on the other hand may or may not have anything to do with a loss. Depression can arise from a multitude of sources (or have no identifiable source at all.) Depression can last for days, months, years, or a lifetime. Depression is UN-healthy and can lead to physical problems, emotional problems, mental illness and even death (sadness by itself leads to none of these.) Sadness hurts, but it cannot cause the devastating damage that depression can. For many of us after we experience a loss, we begin to feel sad, and then we begin to hurt. This part is natural and healthy. But because many of us do not like the hurt, pain, and misery that accompanies sadness we tend to get irritated, frustrated, disappointed, confused, self abasing (how could I let that person/situation get to me so much), which leads to being angry which leads to feeling DEPRESSED!
The problems are that once we have shifted the pain from sadness to depression we have transferred what was a natural, healthy and productive grieving process to an un-healthy, destructive and unproductive emotional and mental health problem. The pain is just as bad, but now the depression can last for much longer, can cause physical ailments, and what could have been a healthy process is now a potentially insidious and devastating sickness. Sadness can become depression (through the addition of anger), but depression cannot turn into sadness. Obviously if you are depressed and suffer another loss you can compound your depression with a new sadness, but the original loss will not go from sadness to depression back to simple sadness.
FLEXIBILITY is one of those qualities that many of us claim to have, but seldom really practice. Being flexible requires us to be adaptable and to change when the situations(s) demand it. Over the years I have heard people claim that they have no options, no solutions, no choices, and/or no answers to their problematic situations when in truth there were many options, answers and choices, but the person did not like them, or did not want to have to change from a pattern of living they had become comfortable and/or accustomed to. We as a people tend to look at problem solving through myopic lenses. We see the choices and solutions that we have used, that we know, and we have become comfortable with, as the only options and choices. When clients tell me they have no solution, I usually am able to easily give them alternative options because I don’t have the limitations of wanting to do it the “way I always have!” Examples of this were when I had clients lose their driving licenses due to epileptic seizures they would claim they could no longer get to work because they could not legally drive. My suggestions of using Buses, Carpools, bicycles, subways, telecommuting, switching to a location nearer home, moving closer to work, taking a different job closer to home, changing careers altogether were suggestions typically rebuffed because they did not want to CHANGE!
This is not to say that change is easy, convenient, cheap, enjoyable, desirable or preferable; but it is DOABLE! We have to look at our new situations and realize that our life as we have known it is now different, and we have to adapt to the new parameters and limitations of our new situation. Change is seldom enjoyable, but it can be beneficial and it is INEVITABLE! The law of entropy mandates that all things in the universe will change. To resist this or to deny this is futile. Change is an essential part of life. Learning to live and even embrace change simplifies and enriches our lives. Fighting it only adds stress and pain. The best definition of Mental Health I have ever heard is; “Mental Health is the Ability to Adapt to New Situations.” Those of us who cannot adapt to new situations and change become irritable, depressed, frustrated, angry, confused, neurotic, anxious, even suicidal and psychotic. Those of us who (may not like it but) can accept and adapt to change and new situations can not only survive, but blossom.
People find change stressful. This is inherent in having to re-order and rearrange the patterns of our lives. Most of us have a comfort zone where we can handle or manage a certain number of problems or stressors in any given day. Some of us have relatively low thresholds of stress (5 – 10) some of the multi-tasking Type A personalities can handle 50 or more. The number is not important in comparing one’s level of happiness or health. It simply is used to help explain our comfort zone. When the number of stressors in our lives becomes significantly higher than we are comfortable with due to: family illness, financial constraints, starting college, relocating to another city, addition of another member to the family, natural disaster, etc. we get overwhelmed, “stressed out”, and can react by seeking help from others to help alleviate the pressure on ourselves, tabling some of the issues (if possible), taking a break from college, or other coping mechanism in the quest to lower the number of stressors to get us back (or close) to the upper level of our comfort zone.
If the number of stressors in our lives gets too low (e.g. empty nest syndrome, retirement from our career, our daily tasks become so routine as to be described as boring), then we try to find ways to add stress and problems to our lives. As odd as this may sound we actively seek out stressors to raise the number of stressors back to our comfort zone. This is done by returning to work or volunteer work after retirement, going to college or graduate school, taking up a new hobby, going to night school, becoming a mentor, finding ways to fulfill and enrich our lives, but also adding more stress to it so that we return to our previous comfort zone. In these cases we use change to help make our lives easier, better, and more enjoyable. Change is life and to try and avoid it is wasteful and unproductive. I do not mean to say that we should look at change as something inherently positive or rewarding (it seldom FEELS that way), but it is with us, will forever be with us, and learning to accept this and work with it, rather than railing against it, is much more
Appreciating what one has is often connected to the idea of being optimistic versus pessimistic. Many of those identified as “optimists” are simply people who appreciate what they have. I often will draw a glass on the board marked out as an 8 oz. glass. I mark half the glass as having water in it and ask the client whether they see it as half full or half empty. Regardless of what they say, change the next glass to show 2 oz. of water and ask whether it is now ¼ full or ¾ empty. Many will say ¾ empty, but some will say ¼ full because they either believe it or they suspect they know what the clinician wants to hear. Then change the next glass to have 1 ounce of water in it and ask whether this is 1/8 full or 7/8 empty. Very few will say 1/8 full, but if they do then either you have a genuine optimist, or a manipulative client. If you have the latter, then go ahead and show them the next example, but don’t expect them to understand or appreciate it. All we can hope is that they may benefit from this some point in the future. If they are truly an optimist you likely would not be testing them with this example anyway. For the majority who say 7/8 empty, the last step is to erase the frame of the glass above the water so the only thing showing is the one ounce glass that has water in it. Ask them what they now see. Unless they are going to defy you or lie to you, they will say it is “full.” At this point you reflect how the volume of the water did not change, one ounce is still one ounce, but the size of the glass is all that changed. The situation has gone from 7/8 EMPTY to FULL! In other words, it is how we look at what we have rather than looking at what WE DO NOT HAVE! This is an example of appreciation!
Learning to appreciate what we have, rather than focusing on what we want or think we need is possibly the biggest factor in whether we will be happy or frustrated. Self preservation and survival requires that we have core needs met: food, water, air, shelter, medical care, temperate climes or clothing, safety and security. But most of us seek much more than what we need. We seek, nay demand, what we think will make us happy. If I have more, newer, bigger, flashier, more modern, fancier, things, then by definition I will be happy or at least happier. An example of this was when I was working with two brothers; ages 8 and 10 years old. I had spent the session working with the brothers and the parents in family therapy and towards the end of the session wanted to reward the boys for their behavior by asking the parents if I could give them some candy. The parents approved so I gave each boy a Hershey’s Kisses candy in their hand. Immediately both boys smiled and were pleased. Then I gave the younger boy a second piece. The older brother eagerly awaited his second piece. When I told him I was not giving him a second piece he immediately became sour, hurt, annoyed, irritated, disappointed and then angry. I commented on how a moment before he had a piece of candy in his hand and was happy. The candy was still in his hand, but now he was irritable and unhappy. The only thing that had changed was his brother now had two pieces. I helped him see that he could not enjoy the candy he had, or other aspects in his life because he was focused and fixated on having as much (or more) than his brother or others around him. As long as he dwelled on parity or “FAIRNESS” he would never be happy because seldom is life “fair.”
I refer to FAIR as a “four letter F word that I will not allow people to use around me!” I do not allow people to use the word “fair” because inevitably people cannot use fair without digressing into the use of the words “unfair” or “not fair”; moreover, when I ask people to define the word “fair’ they are invariably unable to do so (other than a reference to the “county fair” with pies, cotton candy and pot bellied pigs.) Everybody seems to know what “fair” means, but nobody can explain or define it. Essentially fair is when it meets my needs and desires, and unfair is when it does not. Fairness seems to be the catchword that people use when they cannot justify or explain their displeasure in some situation or decision. If they could explain how or why a choice or decision was detrimental, counter productive, immoral, unjust, or just downright wrong they would. When they cannot they resort to terms like “fair” or “unfair.”
I talk about accepting life on life’s terms because too often we expect life to be what we want it to be rather than what it is. I often ask my clients which of these statements is true: 1) Life is Fair, 2) Life is Unfair. Regardless of their answer the fact is neither is true. Life is Life, and fair has nothing to do with it. As I have said earlier, “Fair” is a mental construct we use to justify and rationalize what we want and why it is right and proper for us to want it. When we are denied something we can justify our disappointment (anger) by decrying “IT IS UNFAIR!” The reality is that life is what it is. When I was told my cancer was terminal and I would be dying in the not too distant future, many of my clients, friends, and family members shared how “UNFAIR” this was. They could not understand how someone who dedicates their life to helping others, who is a kind, gentle, soul (their words, not mine), would be dying when child molesters and criminals get to live out their days in health.
I tried to explain to my clients that life is what it is. Is it “Fair” that a six year old who has never hurt another be abused, tortured, killed, or die of some incurable illness, while a confessed murderer gets released due to insufficient evidence? Is it Fair that a young adult on their way to college, their wedding, the birth of their child gets run over by some driver under the influence? Is it fair a couple who have worked hard all their life to make their farm turn a profit be wiped out by a flood or drought? If you are looking for “fairness” then you will only find disappointment, frustration and anger. Focus less on what you do NOT have and much MORE on what you DO have. I tried to help my clients understand how grateful I am/was for the wonderful years I have been given. I prefer to reflect on the wonderful opportunities, joy, and love I have had. Would I want more: Of Course! Do I appreciate what I have been given: Of Course! The point is to look at what you have and appreciate and be grateful for that, rather than fixate on what more you want or could have had. Anybody could have more, longer, better, but just as easily we could have had less, shorter, worse. Life is not about bemoaning what you COULD HAVE HAD, it is about BEING GRATEFUL AND THANKFUL FOR WHAT YOU DO HAVE! Focus less on complaining and more on being grateful.
In conclusion: People claim that Baseball is the Great American Past Time. I disagree. I propose that “Complaining” is the great American past time. It seems that many of use spend more time complaining that the weather is too hot, then too cold, too wet, but then too dry. Summer can’t come soon enough; then it passes too quickly. We dread the onset of the holiday season; then mourn how quickly it passes. We complain about our children and the burdens they put us through, then lament not having them around as they go away to college or move into their own home. We spend so much time being unhappy we have so little time left to actually enjoy life. If we could change our priorities then maybe we would be happier, more loving, and able to appreciate the time we have, rather than regretting how quickly our lives pass.