One of my responsibilities as a writer is to keep up with the various books that are topping the self-help list. The past few years, they have tended to fall into two categories:
1. Get It Together! or 2. Embrace Your Imperfection!
Both of these messages can be true and important, but they reflect a tension that exists in mainstream culture. We’re supposed to be okay with being exactly where we are, but we also must be constantly moving forward. These messages also focus solely on the individual, missing an important point: to be human is to be in relationship with others.
I once had a client who, like most of us, exemplified the tension between these two competing messages. Cassandra grew up in rural Georgia and was the oldest of four children. She described her parents as blue collar workers who were often anxious about money. Like many oldest children, Cassandra was achievement-focused. She worked hard in school, got good grades, and loved to debate her peers.
When I first talk with potential therapy clients, I have two favorite questions that I like to ask:
How would you know that things were getting better?
How would you be functioning differently than you are right now?
Most people can do a pretty good job at listing their complaints, discomforts, and symptoms. Describing a higher level of mature functioning, however, takes some thinking. In a few weeks I’m giving a presentation about how I’ve worked on my overall functioning. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how I have measured my own progress as I work on myself. I’ve asked myself those two questions—how do I see things improving, and how have changes in my functioning contributed to this?
Denise came to counseling after her father had died of a heart attack at the age of 84. She had been on a cruise to Alaska when he died, and she felt guilty for leaving her 76-year-old mother and younger sister to plan the funeral. A few months later, Denise was flying back every other weekend to Denver to clean out her father’s belongings and check in on her mother. She complained that her sister rarely stopped by to help, even though she only lived half an hour from their childhood home.
Denise always thought her mother would be the first to go in the family. She had diabetes and had experienced a heart attack several years before. Her father had been in great shape and was a regular at the gym. He was actively involved in a local church and was president of the local American Legion. He also took on most of the household responsibilities—he loved to cook and paid all the bills. Denise was surprised to learn how little her mother knew about their finances—she couldn’t even tell them where to locate important papers in the house. “She can barely make scrambled eggs. She eats TV dinners and I can’t get her to leave the house more than once a week.”
“Brain architect” sounds like a profession from science fiction, but in the book Mindsight, psychiatrist Dan Siegel argues that we have the ability to fashion our own brains. When we pay attention to our mind and the minds of others, we develop a sort of superhero seventh sense, which Siegel terms “mindsight.” Though Agent Phil Coulson might not be calling you up, this remarkable ability allows us to physically change the structure of the brain itself, long after we leave childhood.
How do you fashion a healthy brain? Mindfulness practices are essential to observing and rerouting our mind’s circuits. When we’re mindful, we slowly learn how to gain control over our reactions rather than smashing that bright red panic button. Mindfulness can look like meditation, but it also can be accomplished through small but significant changes in a daily routine. Here are some of Siegel’s suggestions.
Did you know that when a work project is past due, or a massive truck veers in front of you on the highway, your body flips on the same physiological responses as if a lion was chasing you? Our physiology kept us alive as a species when we had to escape predators on the savannah, but now this chronic triggering takes its toll on the human body.
While thirty lions might not chase you every day, you might have thirty worries that send the stress-response system into overdrive. The fact that we can anticipate catastrophe before it even occurs is one of the best and worst things about being human. Thinking ahead keeps us alive, but it also keeps us up at night, with worries tipping over like dominoes in our anxious heads. Read the rest here.