Thursday, April 3, 2014

Learning to Unlearn...

I'm not a big fan of "self-help" as it is traditionally defined. In the past, the books I've read, the counseling sessions I've attended, the workbooks, journals and seminars I've participated in have all been focused on my past...looking for a cause and effect as if finding the source of my depression or anxiety would miraculously make me less depressed or anxious. There might have been some positive thinking sprinkled in there for good measure but I often felt like my "problems" were my fault because I was too weak (minded or willed) to have dealt with them as they were emerging. So, I have been living in the past for a very, very long time.

Every time a relationship failed I thought about the past...the boys I 'let' mistreat me, the approval I constantly sought from my alcoholic father, the not-so-happy marriage my parents struggled through. And every time I sat on the side lines...a wallflower of sorts...never sticking my neck out for anything (be it a cause or promotion or recognition for work well done) I thought again about the past...the competition I created with my sister who was very outgoing, the girls in my class who were called pretty, the times I felt invisible or was picked last in games and being laughed at or ridiculed when I did fail. For every shortcoming I had I was directed to look at a specific event (or person) to place the blame...leaving me (and many others) sure that if only I could receive a sincere, heartfelt apology I could become whole again...why else would we search so hard for the source?

But by always focusing on past "mistakes" or past "reasons" I was basically inviting the same results in to my present.

Every rejection and break-up solidified my self-worth. Every success was chalked up to sheer luck. The self-help books I was reading at the time felt like weights around my ankles keeping me aware of my short comings (and perhaps creating more) with no real direction to move forward other than writing letters to those who hurt me and thinking positive thoughts or looking at myself in the mirror and saying "you are beautiful" over and over. Those books also tried to make me feel better by saying I wasn't alone...constantly trying to equate my pain with others...or attempting to diminish it by saying some people have it worse.

And while I understand that there are people around the world who do have huge challenges, who are abused, or sold into slavery and starving I also know that these facts do not just take away the pain someone is feeling. We can't 'cure' ourselves by stepping on (or using) those who are also struggling. Comparison can be dangerous...being sad about a pet who died is okay, one doesn't have to "put it into perspective" and try to diminish those emotions because some else, somewhere in the world suffered a "worse" tragedy. All that it does is make us feel selfish and wrong for our feelings of sadness. And now we are back in the cycle of needing to be "fixed" because we've learned our emotions are inappropriate.

I think there is a better way...a way to reflect on our past (not live in it) and use it to change our now (and our future).

I cringe when I hear people say things like "well, nobody's perfect" and "everyone has issues". Not because it isn't true (most likely it is) but because phrases like those are often used as crutches to justify a  kind of giving up, the kind that comes from accepting our condition and allowing our minds to remain in the rut we've created.

What I mean is...when we are always accepting (and expecting) a certain outcome (or emotion) we might be creating a pathway for the same thing to keep happening "to us" over and over again. I used to get panic attacks which were often work related. It got so bad that by Sunday morning (I was off on the weekends) you could find me curled up in a dark room crying because Monday was looming over my shoulder like the Grim Reaper. It wasn't that I had some horrible task to take care of Monday morning that I was was simply that the weekend was ending. Sure I hated my job...but not only was I unhappy at work but now I was unhappy at home because I was constantly thinking about work and evoking those horrible feelings even when things were "okay" in the present moment. Of course, by the time the work week started I would have a miserable time and the days would feel like weeks. Again, there wouldn't necessarily be any horrific 'thing' that happened but my mind created (and recreated every Sunday morning) a disaster of a week. And the week almost always lived up to my expectations.

My weekends were no longer a source of relaxation and fun...they became almost as unbearable as going to work. I would look forward to having two full days off only to then torture myself by counting down the hours until I had to go back to that hell hole. The same thing would happen on vacation. Imagine having a week off, splashing in the pool, drinking a cocktail with an umbrella in it only to break down in tears because you realized that every sunset wasn't beautiful anymore because it was really a dreadful reminder that it was now one day closer to the vacation ending. I became sullen, depressed and inconsolable. A real Debby Downer.

I've recently read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and although it is geared toward the creative process I was moved by the chapter Resistance and Healing. In it, Pressfield writes about the subculture of healing being  the belief that one needs to 'complete' his healing before he is ready to live his dream. He goes on to say:

"Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work."

To me, the work can be anything from painting to writing to composing music...but most importantly it's living. Living in the here and now...not rehashing the hurtful thing some high school kid said to you 25 years ago. Not giving more power to a selfish or addicted parent who was too busy (or drunk) to have taught you about self-worth. And certainly not judging your work ethics by the actions of some asshole who thought it was impressive to fire you on the spot for asking to take a break after leading trail rides for the past 5 hours without stepping out of the saddle. Whew...I guess THAT one still stings a little.

The book I'm currently reading, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One by Joe Dispenza, takes things even further by explaining how we can become addicted to feelings we experience which means we continually seek out more experiences which produce those feelings. For instance, if at some point in our lives we've been called lazy or hot tempered or maybe even labeled as emotionally unstable (I was "diagnosed" as manic back in 1987 at an in-patient hospital but never since) we tend to start identifying with those things which causes us to "claim" those traits which then forms our personality. Over the course of 10 or 20 years we believe we are lazy or introverted or ugly or a binge eater or just not good at sports (regardless if these statements are even true!!) and this emotional state (our way of thinking and feeling) becomes becomes who we are. We even begin to define ourselves as these things..."Oh, I'm just a lazy person, always have been, always will be"..."I have a hot temper and I just cannot control it".

You see, we resign ourselves to be whatever we were told (or told ourselves) in the past. And no amount of "positive thinking" (or medication) can change 20 years of proving them (or us) right. But there is a way to rewire our brain...and part of the process is through meditation.

Now that I am becoming aware I am even more convinced that we turn over far too much of our lives and well-being to other people. We get labeled by friends, school mates, parents, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, etc., and then allow those labels define who we are. We seek out experiences that "prove" those labels are correct. We let our minds wonder with thoughts of the past or even future events that haven't even happened to simulate the feelings that keep us trapped in our current state of being.

Looking back at my earlier story about the awful dread I felt on Sundays I can see now that I was using past experiences (perhaps a particularly bad day at work) and rehashing it in my mind until I felt as bad as I did the day it occurred. I was then projecting that I would continue to have this kind of bad day every day...building up the anxiety. Going to work with that amount of anxiety meant I often missed out on the good parts of work, I was tense and on edge...actually having a physical response to the chemicals my body was releasing due to my anxiety. I couldn't get out of my own way because I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, certain that anything positive was an illusion rather than the scenario I kept creating in my mind and body.

Although I am not quite finished with the book, I feel a weight has lifted off of my shoulders. I'm beginning to question some of the labels I've accepted and/or placed on being an introvert, an over-planner, "mousy-brown", invisible, prone to depression, ad nauseum. I feel like I've been given "permission" to step outside of that box I created and become who I am supposed to be...someone without paralyzing fear and self-doubt...someone who doesn't finish things...someone who is often sad for 'no reason'.

Until then, here's a little video that might peak your interest in this "new" research. I hope you enjoy it.

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