Don’t Feel Like That

Last night, the Girl Child had some great lifts and I was so happy for her! New PRs on everything with more in the tank on a random maxout day. She’s been showing up for training and putting in the effort and it shows. This also means she now lifts heavier than I do and I felt inadequate. We say things out loud in the barn and so I confessed this awkward feeling. What do you do with an awkward feeling?

Feelings are complicated, squishy things. There is a “fast” system in the brain, powered by dopamine levels, that helps us predict outcomes and generates feelings. There is a “slow” system in which we think and rationalize. These systems appear to be connected in a small area just behind the eyes, so there is a feedback loop. Classical cognitive theory says thoughts generate feelings and by examining and correcting distorted thoughts we can re-align our feelings. Meditation teaches us it really doesn’t matter because nothing is forever, let it go.

My coach said something to the effect of “don’t feel that, it’s a wrong feeling.” Feeling inadequate in the face of someone else’s achievement does sound twisted and we had stuff to do, so the correct thing is set the feeling aside and sit with it later. By the time I was ready to sit with it, the feeling was nowhere to be found. Meditation and mindfulness +1. Then the Girl Child did it again. This time, prepared to watch for underlying thoughts, I learned the thoughts driving the feeling were something like this “I really need to be ‘better than’.” Cognitive theory +1. Returning to meditation, where the heck was this coming from? Why is this comparison killing me? Time to go sit.

The message I received when I was young, whether intended or not, was “I was so talented, if I wasn’t out-performing my peers, I was not meeting expectations and unacceptable,” which morphed into straight up “If I couldn’t out-perform my peers, I wasn’t enough.” I should be beating everyone. This is fucked up. The good news, this passes and within minutes as mindfulness practices predict because I no longer ruminate on my perceived inadequacy. However, it would be nice if I could let go of this now-ancient conditioning.

Trying to outperform the Girl Child would be counterproductive, reinforcing the maladaptive belief “performance can earn worth.” This belief has led me to strive in unhealthy ways by taking on more projects, increasing effort, or even walking away from something I love. Not today. With practice, time, and awareness the thoughts driving this feeling of never-enough will fade.

Advertisements

New Year, Same Me

Back in October, I started reflecting on 2019. The planner sat empty, except for my name on the page at the front where I promise a reward if someone finds it, until this week. Uncertainty loomed large. Planners seem orthogonal to ambiguity.

Remember the Be/Do/Have questions?

  • I want to be a national-level powerlifter in my age group.
  • I want to be a better clinician for my kiddos.
  • I want to be a grounded partner, mother, and friend.
  • I want to travel at least once this year.
  • I want to spend more time at the beach.
  • I want to bike more, walk more
  • I want to have a peaceful porch
  • I want to have a productive office space
  • I want to have a tidy home

Take a look at my lists. I am very “BE” driven. Each of the “DO” and “HAVE” items feeds at least one “BE”. Let’s re-arrange these slightly by function.

I want to be a national-level powerlifter in my age group. To make this happen, there is a lot of lifting. There is also active recovery and stress management, which means consistent quality time on the bike and in the park. I meditate on my porch and like to do yoga there most of the year, which is easier when the porch is peaceful and thus inviting. Travel to a larger-scale meet with an extra day or two for a vacation would support this goal.

I want to be a better clinician for my kiddos. Becoming a better clinician involves actively seeking supervision, taking time to reflect on my practice, and continuing education. A productive office space, a peaceful porch, and a tidy home can give me the mental and physical spaces to support intellectual and emotional effort. Conferences and trainings away from home are a great way to break out of routine and wake up my beginner’s mind. Conference on the beach? I’m there.

I want to be a grounded partner, mother, and friend. Reflection, meditation, activities like lifting, biking, yoga, swimming, and reading re-fill my cup and make space for everyone else. No one comes to my house for my housekeeping, but having a comfortable space to share with others is important to me.

What goes in the planner? Like most goals, these break down into a mix of one-off to-dos and habits/processes and not everything can go in the planner at once. Lord have mercy, my head would explode and I’d be a sobbing heap of failure by February. Some people can and have done everything, cold turkey. Fix the eating, hit the gym, clean the house, repaint the kids, do it all! However, most of us aren’t like that. The human animal has an enormous drive to return to the familiar and too much change tends to rebound with a nasty bounce.

What’s familiar right now? Lifting four days a week. Meditation three days a week. Eating well 60% of the time. Erratic housekeeping around my erratic “staff” [read teenagers]. Watching Netflix at night with my husband. Reading 70% of the books I mean to read. Tossing and turning at night because I haven’t left work at work. Hot soaks nearly nightly with epsom salts.

Where are my anchors? Lifting is solid. Going to work is solid.

Which existing habits can be a little better? Eating well consistently. This takes at least 90% adherence to be successful and 60% is frustrating. Housekeeping consistently. There are a few things I currently do sometimes, like start laundry and take care of the dishwasher in the morning, that I could do more often and make a big difference in the state of my world. Meditate consistently. More is better, and fifteen minutes daily instead of 15 minutes on three seemingly random days a week might smooth out a bunch of stuff.

There’s January. Three habits. No one-offs. Anything else that happens is bonus and not tracked, like getting to the local yoga studio I tried last week or to the park on a chance warm evening. Let’s see what happens.

The War of Art

It is a little book and it was on the schedule for July. July was a Lost Month in my life, but keeping commitments is still important to me and so today I invested some porch time with Mr. Pressfield.

The book is about the struggle to bring forth whatever is within us. Pressfield describes Resistance as an external force or monster compelling behavior. It shouldn’t have surprised me because this technique is at the center of narrative therapy and Pressfield is a master narrator. The monster has you clean the floors instead of writing a chapter of your book, take another course on creating the perfect Instagram feed instead of creating a good-enough one, or anything, anything except create the thing.

In Motivational Interviewing, we talk of resistance as an expression of ambivalence. Change challenges everything we hold dear and generally there are reasons to undertake a new venture and reasons to leave it be. When working with someone who is ambivalent, we honor indecision and talk it all the way through. Typically, when people feel pushed too hard or too fast, they dig in and push back against the thing they desire most but are afraid to reach for. It has been my practice to talk with clients about unfinished business in several ways.

If I can’t get started on a goal or if I sputter out before it’s done, what is at the root? I first consider if the thing I say I want is really what I want, or if it is a remnant of a long-ago inherited “should”. In contrast, Pressfield asserts the very thing we cannot bring ourselves to start or to finish is at the heart of our purpose and the resistance we feel is a product of fear. Life tasks which loom large should provoke fear. They are beyond our current capacities, mental, physical, and emotional, and they demand we grow or give up. Staring into this kind of abyss could drive a person to clean baseboards. Pressfield’s Resistance is actively working against us in the universe, keeping us from making the world a better place through our work. It is the very nature of the Devil.

How might this be related to perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking? These two cognitive distortions work against progress toward a goal by focusing on outcome goals instead of process. Let’s listen to Brene Brown talk about perfectionism for 3:24.

Perfectionism is a boundary violation, trying to manage others’ feelings in an attempt to protect ourselves. Perfectionism won’t let you send your story off because that third paragraph doesn’t flow quite right, invite friends over for an afternoon because the kitchen is “a mess”, start working with clients because you need one more certification to be of service. All-or-Nothing (AoN) works in Resistance by saying you have to be in the mood to write, or well-rested to work out, or you alternate between being “on diet” and “off diet”. Life seems to be a series of toggle switches with the settings “Always” and “Never”. Perfectionism and AoN thinking protect us from failure by keeping us from making incremental, good-enough, sustainable effort.

What about my friends and family and the support they offer? The War of Art recommends we abandon support because support as defined is unhelpful and a tool of Resistance. There is a difference between the friend who goes with you to a restaurant and agrees it’s been a hard week and you deserve the chili cheese fries and large Coke, and the one who looks at you and asks “Weren’t you working hard on choosing vegetables and lean meats?” The latter is a support, the former is trying to justify her own mozzarella sticks and hot wings. We tend to spend time with people who behave the way we do. We share interests and we share time together. Are the people around you a support or a hindrance? Gary Vaynerchuk recommends you cut one loser friend.

What then? The muses are with us, whispering in our ears and inspiring us to act. They come, says Pressfield, when we are disciplined enough to do the work and push past our fears of exposure, failure and do enough for today, every day. Back to a 6-minute rant from Vaynerchuk about luck and work.

The War of Art is a short book. Pressfield is a master storyteller, outlining what we know about long-term success

  • Achievement is a marathon, not a sprint
  • Focus on process, with an eye to outcome
  • Do the work and then let the results go
  • Show up anyway, ISYMFS
  • Have the courage to stop listening to people who cripple you, obvious critics and “friends”

Let’s end with Des Linden embodying the War of Art

 

 

Power Struggles

We are now through the second meso-cycle, a mini strength cycle that was intended to end in a competition in Charlotte, my weight is down some, body fat is down 7% from the last time we measured, and my strength hasn’t moved. Like most of life, last month’s effort has brought mixed results and mixed emotions. I’m on the road for a week, visiting family and friends before starting a new job, sliding workouts between day-long driving marathons and being with people I don’t see often. In my bag is Yalom’s book, The Gift of Therapy.

Last night I was reading a vignette on pp 58 – 61 in the paperback edition. Yalom describes an interaction with a patient to illustrate how to work with the process of the therapeutic relationship to draw out themes from “back home” relationships and issues. The patient’s frame equated improvement with losing, she would lose and Yalom would win, and being positive about and in the relationship with vulnerability. She was critical and negative as a protective mechanism. Yalom’s curiosity about the roots of the power struggle kill it. Yalom’s text convicted me. In my own past, I’ve used power struggles to assure myself of the other person’s ability to take care of me. What’s the lesson?

July and August have been awful. There has been no training routine and I’m not lifting well in the new gym even though my anxiety has been slowly declining for a couple of weeks. How has that shown up in training? I’m regularly 15 minutes late for appointments, less aggressive with effort, afraid of engaging with soreness and discomfort, generally more negative and a pain in the ass to be around. This is a power struggle and my coach hates power struggles. To cure my struggle, it is essential I be honest with myself about the root of the struggle. If I allow myself to be positive and enthusiastic about this relationship and even about my own improvement, I leave myself vulnerable to a loss. I will lose. Yalom’s patient said she could feel the sharks circling.

According to Merriam-Webster, loss has six definitions. Number 4a is

failure to gain, win, obtain, or utilize – loss of a game

and 2b is

the harm or privation resulting from loss or separation – bore up bravely under the loss of both parents

My natural language is that of a game, of the power struggle, and it would be easy for a coach to stop at this level and attempt to win. He could call me out for being late, reduce or cancel my workout time, push through all my resistance, show me I can do more, call out my complaining, or even let it all go. The subtext is the “harm or privation resulting from loss or separation” and this is where we have to go. I feel vulnerable to the loss of a valuable ally and the uncertainty is affecting my training and our relationship. I am retreating behind a wall of power struggle. This wasn’t an efficient communication strategy when I was four, and it certainly isn’t helping now.

The difficult-difficult task is to say out loud “I am scared, I have been rude,” give him a case of San Pellegrino sparkling water to make amends for breaking social norms, and have a conversation about how I feel and what I need.

 

Habit: On the One Hand…

In this series, we are looking at routine, ritual, and habit. If routine is the mid-point, habit and ritual are the end-points on a continuum. Routine is one or more actions taken as a matter of course, they are fairly automatic and can serve us if chosen purposefully. Today we are looking at habits. For a long-form treatment of habit, the book by Charles Duhigg is an excellent, easy read on how habits work and how you can establish new ones.

What makes a habit different from a routine? Habits live deep in the brainstem and become nearly as automatic as breathing. They are literally mindless. You can acquire habits without conscious thought, the involvement of active learning strategies or even memory structures. A habit has three parts.

  1. Cue. The cue starts the chain of events. Substance misuse counselors will talk about “people, places, and things” for cues for unwanted habits like alcohol use, smoking, or substance misuse. Waking up can be a cue to pick up your phone or to go sit and meditate. A feeling can be a cue. The story in Duhigg’s book everyone appreciates involves his afternoon cookie habit. Duhigg realizes he has put on weight by standing up in the middle of his afternoon at the office and going to the breakroom to eat a cookie every day. Was hunger the cue? Not at all.
  2. Routine. The middle part is the thing you do. Duhigg would stand up, go get a cookie from the breakroom and chat with his colleagues for a few minutes and then return to his desk.
  3. Reward. There are two kinds of “rewards” – positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
    1. A positive reinforcement is a good thing you get as the result of the action or activity in Step 2. This is what we usually think of when we think of rewards – work hard, get a raise or promotion, behave yourself during a meeting, get an ice cream. Do the action, get something good.
    2. The second kind of reward, negative reinforcement, is a bit more subtle and wickedly effective. Put on your seatbelt, make the stupid beeping/pinging/plonking sound stop. Eat a whole pizza, make the hole in your heart stop aching. Give in to your child’s whining about the candy bar, the whining stops. Do the action, make a bad thing stop. The reward is what sends us to the activity again and again, building up strong biological connections between the cue, activity, and reward.

Learning theory tells us habits are never “broken”, the biological connections always exist. Thus the biblical exhortation to “raise a child up in the way he should go“. Early learning theorists, before the age of fMRI and brain scans, estimated replacing an old learning/habit with a new learning/habit would take three times the initial effort to establish the old habit.

Let’s return to Duhigg and his cookie problem. He realizes the afternoon cookie is a problem, and also realizes the cookie is solving some other problem. The $1,000,000 question is – what problem? The cue is easy to identify, mid-afternoon at his desk. He tries substituting healthier snacks like apples or granola bars, but still ends up in the breakroom with a cookie more afternoons than not. Over a period of weeks, he comes to understand he isn’t hungry. What he wants is a break and a chance to chat with people for fifteen minutes, about the time it took to eat the cookie. By replacing the cookie action with something else, he is able to work within the established chain. The cue still sends him to the breakroom to talk with friends, the reward.

For example, my husband and I have very different habitual movement patterns when we first enter the house. This means vehicle keys are either in a “Dad place” or a “Mom place.” Neither place is bad and we don’t feel the need to establish a single place for keys to go, however it does mean when looking for keys you have to know who drove the vehicle last. In college, I knew people who only smoked when they drank beer from a bottle of a particular shape and were baffled by it. There are people who will immediately run through their mental to-do list if they find themselves with a few moments of ease.

If half of your life is by pseudo-choice, there are a series of cues for you and the beings you live with, do those habits serve you, or by solving one problem ineffectively, are those habits creating other problems?

To analyze a habit pattern, look for the three pieces.

  1. What started this?
  2. What action am I taking?
  3. What do I get out of it?

Remember the cookie problem? It isn’t about the cookie.

Here is Duhigg making an entertaining 15-minute presentation.

Habits establish themselves. The cure for maladaptive habits is mindfulness and intention. Next, we will talk about the ritual or supercharged mindfulness and intention.

Routines

I want to start with routines, because routine is the midpoint between habit and ritual.

When we talk about changing the things we do, we have to talk about brain physiology, learning theory, systems thinking, cognitive distortions, and the Heath brothers. As mentioned in the previous post, our lives run on autopilot most of the time simply because actively making decisions every moment of the day would consume the mind. Your brain uses the pre-frontal cortex to make and execute plans and regulate emotions. It was the last brain structure for evolution to construct and the last structure to develop in an adult brain, finishing up around the age of 25. Learning theory describes how we reinforce and extinguish observable behaviors through two sets of direct mechanisms, as well as social learning theory which describes how we reinforce and extinguish observable behavior by watching others. Systems thinking treats an actor as a member of a larger system, which acts and is acted upon, a formal way of saying “No man is an island.” Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that distort observations to fit a pre-conceived narrative and are considered to be maladaptive. The Heath brothers have written wonderful popular books on change and introduced a variety of metaphors into popular culture.

What about routines?

If most of your day is going to be on auto-pilot, it would be nice if the auto-pilot took you where you preferred and not only where you went last week. Take a moment and think about what you do for the first hour after you wake up.  Chances are you have a set of things you do in a general order and those things could include periods of indecision or chaos. Chaos and indecision nest nicely into a routine. If you have ever heard a parent of young children complain about “trying to get out the door” and “every day is a battle” then chaos is a part of their morning routine. Deciding what to do for the rest of the day can also be part of a routine. If you walk into your favorite restaurant and consider the menu before picking the same thing, or never picking the same thing, that’s a routine.

A routine is a behavior or a set of behaviors that execute on semi-conscious cues.

Purposefully built routines have the power to alter our paths. What would change in your day if you began it on purpose? Could you be more calm or more energized? How would you like this day to happen?

You are the expert on you. Without giving any advice about what to do with your morning routine, let’s talk about how to change the routine you have.

  1. What is the result you want? Begin with the end in mind. If you had the perfect start to your day, how would you be and what would be happening?
  2. Notice what you’ve got. For 2 – 3 days, watch yourself go through your morning without judgement. Notice what you do and notice what works and what doesn’t. At this point no one cares why some things happen and some things don’t. The story is irrelevant. Just notice.
  3. Break down the ideal start to the day. This is a loop. Your loop may have you walking all the way back to the night before.
    1. What is the last thing that has to happen?
    2. What conditions or actions have to exist to make it possible?
    3. Repeat with the condition or action from 3.b
  4. What’s already in the routine and working? Does it need to move earlier or later or stay right where it is?Next is the most difficult step.
  5. Change one thing. Just one, for a week or two. Make a change and monitor how it goes. Even if the change seems stupid easy and you are certain you could change the entire morning, don’t. For most people, change is best accomplished in small increments. Be patient. Change one thing. Once that thing is fairly well integrated, which takes a week or two, change the next thing.

Routines are that mid-point between mindfulness and habit. We use the mindfulness technique of notice-and-name to become conscious of patterns, consciously change parts of the pattern, and as they become more automatic, make more changes. The routine may over time become habitual, but for the moment we are still very aware of actively making choices.

In the comments, let me know how it’s going or ask questions! I’m happy to help.

Routine, Ritual, and Habit

The brain is an amazing multi-tasking sensory-processing device. I can walk down the street, taste an ice cream cone, watch children play, hear my companion talk to me and make meaning of the patterns of the sound waves, all while feeling the breeze blow through my hair and remembering the ice cream cone from last week. What I cannot do is attend to all of those things at once. On a normal day, my attention will flit from sense to sense, directed to novel, interesting, or potentially threatening stimuli. If I am “lost in thought,” I may miss part of the conversation or an oncoming car. How many times have you been urged to “pay attention!”?

Most of your behavior is cued by your environment.

What would life be like if you had to attend to everything, all the time? That would mean keep your heart beating, remember to breathe, actively think “little circles” while brushing your teeth, create a mental map and execute a path to get from your bed to the coffeepot in the morning, and so on. Life, which already feels complex, would become unmanageable. Different tasks require different levels of attention and some tasks deserve more attention. Research at Duke University showed students actively made decisions less than half of the day. In reality, most of their behavior was cued by the environment. When you realize you are living on auto-pilot, some behaviors make sense, like eating ice cream while standing in front of your open freezer at the end of a stressful day. How did I get there?

Bowl of chocolate ice cream with silver spoon
https://www.twincities.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/170831puck.jpg

If you have a Facebook or Pinterest feed, you might see references to the importance of routines and rituals and habits. You may see the words used interchangeably. These are three different things. When speaking casually to someone in the grocery check-out line, feel free to say whichever comes to mind. When you are working on your self-awareness, behavior change, or self-care, the differences are important. If we aren’t mindful, routines and habits are accidentally built from mindless repetition and can require enormous energy to change.

e67f5d7f160b43b2bd22abb33e64caaa

b986f6ac085f1a9f677b0a8534c6fe1f

Water kettle on kitchen counter, morning light

 

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness is the art of consciously attending to stimuli, both internal and external. When we are being mindful, we may “notice” and “name” sensations, emotions, behaviors, and thoughts as a way of turning off the auto-pilot and checking in to our experience.

What would be possible if you could change that environment?

In the next few posts, we will engage with what they are, how they work, and how you build routines, rituals, and habits to support how you mean to be.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑