Three lessons my pet’s death taught me

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zelda on the computerZelda graced our household for sixteen years, serving as protector, healer, companion, and role model. She was feline, all black, supremely sure of her worth, and had a Sicilian vendetta mentality about assaults on her dignity—especially by veterinarians.

Last week, in the middle of a family crisis, Zelda let me know it was time to release her and let her proceed to the next adventure. I was, of course, out of town.

I had known we were heading this direction for a while—the signs were there and my intuition told me it wouldn’t be long. I just wanted to make sure it all went “right.” You see, I had a plan and I was betting against the cosmic timer that I could ensure her a pain free death while still completing my “get it right” list.

Zelda, true to her nature, listened to no one except herself. I loved that about her but her timing was lousy. I’ve learned, however, that tough times have their own schedule. You can argue with that schedule—as I have done–but it doesn’t do much good.

I’ve also come to understand that life’s difficulties have the ability to bring perspective into our lives. Jolted out of our comfort zones and turned upside down, we can see things we might have missed or ignored before. Zelda’s death made me look at some things that I have a tendency to overlook or ignore.

You can wait too long trying to make sure things go perfectly.

If you read my last blog, “Just Say Yes,” you already know I have a bit of an issue with perfectionism. Zelda’s body had been failing for a couple of weeks but I was too preoccupied with trying to get things right to see the signs that her end was nearer than I wanted to believe. And while I was trying to muscle the Universe into making my plan work, Zelda took matters into her own paws and followed the wisdom of her body. When I don’t listen to my intuition and try to force things to fit with my plans or schedule, it rarely turns out the way I want.

Sometimes a decision can be right and still feel crappy.

I couldn’t get back in time to attend Zelda’s death—I was needed more, elsewhere. I know Zelda understood. I was with her “boy” –the one she helped through cancer—who was recovering from an accident. Being with him took clear precedence. Still, it felt crappy to not be there in person. Talking her through her last moments by phone (held lovingly to her ears by my boyfriend) was the best I could do. I’m perfectly ok with the decision I made. I know it was the right one. It just doesn’t feel good. This is a good thing for me to remember the next time I find myself avoiding an uncomfortable situation or not speaking my truth.

Life is impermanent but love is eternal.

It’s my belief that the Universe/God/Love is with us always, in so many guises, helping us to grow more fully into our Divine and spiritual natures. I’ve had several experiences with spirit after the death of a loved one and so I wasn’t surprised when Zelda sent a few messages through the Divine Guidance cards I had pulled, right after her death. The first one was a cat playing, her left paw in the same position that Zelda’s had been paralyzed in before her death. The second one was even more straightforward—a black cat under a moon. I’m pretty sure the cards meant, “I’m ok” and “I’m still around.” That’s what I’m choosing to believe and it’s what I’m hanging on to right now. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that veterinarian finds a hairball in the middle of her bed sometime soon.

Just Say Yes

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Like Albert Einstein, I believe that the Universe is a friendly place, conspiring to help us at all times. What I struggle with is the difference between what I think the help should look like and what the Divine has in mind. I have the tiniest problem with wanting to give the Divine fairly detailed instructions about how things should go.

You would think I might have overcome this small issue when Nick, my son, got cancer at 16. That certainly wasn’t the outcome I was writing over and over again while waiting for the results. But, as I’ve said before (mostly to myself), I think the Universe dances to a more complex set of variables than I can possibly imagine.

One of the ways that I know I’ve made progress in trusting  God/The Divine/The Universe (insert the word that makes the most sense to you) is when I say “Yes” to the random opportunities that show up in my life–you know, the ones that I hadn’t planned.

I did that several months ago when Vicky Townsend contacted me through Twitter and asked me to do a webinar with her on her program for TheCafeD (an Internet community of support for people going through divorce). Training is something that I’ve done for years, but a webinar? What was the Divine thinking? But, it was just random enough that I suspected that God might be behind the weirdness. So I gulped and said yes.

It turned out just fine–not perfect. I said “yeah” a few too many times and struggled with technology a bit. But, all in all, it was pretty ok, even fun (after I got over all the anxiety I brought to the preparation process). In fact, I might just do another one someday soon. If you are interested, you can click here to watch it.

Yesterday morning, the Universe struck again. I had gone for a walk with my boyfriend and ran into one of his neighbors. She and I connected over some life philosophies in our brief discussion and the next thing you know, I had said yes to attending a meeting with her that morning at a church nearby. I didn’t know much about what to expect. When she asked me if I wanted to go with her, I heard a very clear, “Say Yes”–so I did. Although the service was a bit more churchy than my Unitarian, “I’m spiritual but not necessarily religious” leanings, the speaker was interesting, passionate and authentic in his message.

My neighbor had mentioned that at the end of the meeting, people were often given messages from the Divine by a couple of the regular attendees. That was both intriguing and compelling to me so I was pretty interested in what was going to happen when the prophets came up front. I have to admit, I was hoping to get a message but not really expecting it–it was my first time and I figured Divine messaging might be, well, a membership kind of thing. You know, show up five times and you get spiritual guidance?

You probably have figured out by now where this is going. I received not one, but two messages from the prophets yesterday and they were spot on. One was an answer to a request for assistance that I had made earlier that week and the other was confirmation of a message I had received a variety of times, most recently the day before.

I’ll share the latter one with you because it’s relevant to this blog. The prophet told me that I had, “in previous seasons of my life,” felt like I had to do everything perfectly in order for it to be “good.” Yet the Divine wanted me to know that I was more powerful when I was both authentic and imperfect–speaking from my heart.

As a recovering perfectionist, I struggle with  old habits and stories of “I’ll do it wrong and they’ll be mad” so this was a fairly important message for me to hear. It’s easy for me to talk myself out of saying yes when I’m afraid that I won’t do it just right.

I thought I would share this because I figure I’m not the only one who gets nudged by the Divine and talks herself out of saying yes sometimes. I’m also probably not the only person who is trying to move beyond old stories or perfectionism. We’re all pilgrims on this path of personal and spiritual growth, learning to let our most sacred and beautiful spirits shine forth.

But in the message yesterday from the Divine what I heard was  “Go ahead Susan. Just show up, be yourself, and don’t worry about making mistakes. I like you that way and I’ve got your back.

Say Yes. See where it takes you. Suspect the Divine when random, weird, and slightly scary opportunities come your way. And don’t be surprised when something really cool happens. Remember, in the words of Anne Lamott, “God is such a showoff.”

 

 

3 ways to distinguish the inner critic from your authentic self

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IMG_0397Most of us are well acquainted with our inner critic—that voice that constantly critiques and judges our actions. The root of the negative self talk comes typically from our early childhood years when we believed everything that authority figures—family, teachers, church elders, doctors, even “older and wiser” friends– told us.

In childhood, we had too little knowledge of the world, and were too dependent on love or protection of those powerful figures to discern between what was true and what felt true to them. For example, a teacher who feared she would be judged for a student’s poor academic performance might tell a child that she is “stupid” rather than admit that she has neither the time nor skills to help the child learn more effectively. Or a parent who had experienced many disappointments in his life might teach his son that “you can’t trust anyone.” Neither of the pronouncements were accurate but both might have been adopted as true by the child who did not know better.

Our authentic self however knows us better than the inner critic. That self is connected to our strength, our wisdom, our intuition as well as to our vulnerabilities and fears. Unfortunately, while the inner critic is an early riser, standing (figuratively) beside our bed waiting to get our attention the minute we wake, our authentic self waits for an invitation to speak to us and often requires quieting our mind to hear its voice.

For many of my clients, it can take a lifetime of careful listening to begin to discern critical self-talk, created from early childhood experiences, from the voice of their authentic self. Here then is a quick primer to help you spot both the critic and your authentic self.

Authentic self

The authentic self, or what I like to call the “soul” me, has a different “feel” to it than does the inner critic. Some of the qualities that distinguish it are:

  • Thoughts come as suggestions with a tone that is supportive and gentle or nurturing.
  • Lessons learned from past mistakes are framed in a way that is helpful going forward.
  • There is a sense of calm “rightness” to the actions suggestions that is less dependent on what others will think than how it aligns with your values.

 

Inner critic

The negative self talk that comes from old, outdated beliefs about ourselves is pretty easy to recognize, once you start paying attention. Some ways to catch the inner critic in action:

  • The tone of the voice is harsh, punitive, blaming, or demanding often creating ripples of panic, anxiety, fear, or anger in your body.
  • The voice brings up past mistakes, misdeeds, or failures in a shaming way.
  • The voice predicts incompetence or failure on your part or rejection from others.

For the next couple of days, see if you can catch the often automatic but negative self-talk when it shows up. And, when you do, ask yourself, what would the authentic me want to say instead?

Releasing the Cold Comfort of a Grudge

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blue-balloon-1193182-1280x960One of the traits I’ve worked hardest to release in my life is the tendency to harbor a grudge. Listening to my clients’ stories of wrongs done by childhood friends, mistreatment by bosses, and ancient family wounds that have never been healed, I learned that forgiveness doesn’t come easy to many people. Grudges, in fact, are often one of the first signals I receive from a client that there is psychological territory to be covered. Sticky and smelly, a grudge continues to mark the place of an earlier injury to ensure that it is not forgotten.

The cost of resentment

Lately, I’ve found myself looking at grudges in a different way for several reasons. Dr. Judith Orloff, author of “Positive Energy”, talks about all of the ways that we “pour out our stores of energy.” Her point is that our personal vitality has to be consciously managed or renewed and that anything that saps us of that is ultimately harmful. With less energy to squander now than I had earlier in my life, I find I am no longer willing take the time and energy a grudge seems to require for its maintenance.

“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Malachy McCourt

I was once privileged to work with a torture survivor who, at the age of 21 was imprisoned and tortured for the crime of marrying a man who was the political enemy of the government in charge. Repeatedly raped by some of the prison guards, she lost the baby she was carrying. The day before her slated execution, she escaped, aided by a guard she knew from her village. To save her life, she fled her country, leaving behind everyone she knew and loved. In our work together, she found the courage to forgive the guards who had tortured her. A devout Muslim, she was willing to let go of the hatred that could have kept her imprisoned the rest of her life.

Why Forgive?

Forgiveness is not accepting what the offender did was “ok.” Rather, it means choosing to release that person’s power over you so that your life can go on. As long as you allow resentment of old wounds a place in your life, the offender stays in residence in your psyche. Do you really want him or her there?

Interestingly, research shows that there are not only psychological but physical benefits from forgiveness. Families from Northern Ireland who had lost loved ones to violence and then participated in a forgiveness training program showed significant reductions in stress related symptoms—including headaches and stomachaches as well as lowered blood pressure.

Forgiveness doesn’t just release you, it can create unanticipated and far reaching ripples. When African American family members of the members of Emanuel AME Church chose to forgive the white racist who had shot their loved ones in cold blood, they did not minimize their own pain. But that spectacular act of courage and empathy set into motion reflection and dialogue that has brought down more confederate flags. Or, as my so very eloquent friend Barbara says, “Racism in the face of that grace became intolerable.”

Tips for letting go of a grudge

  1. Examine the impact that the grudge is having on your life. Has it brought you closer to the people that you love or put distance between you? Is it making you stronger or weaker?
  2. Imagine yourself without the grudge. Do you feel lighter? That’s probably a good sign that the grudge is sapping energy from you.
  3. Figure out what exactly the grudge is about. Often at the root of it is a personal fear that we are unlovable or unworthy. Or, it may be a fear that if we let the memory go, we will be in danger of it happening again. It may be time to work through that belief with someone that you trust.
  4. Create a ritual or ceremony for letting go.  I use affirmations, visualizations, letters that I burn rather than send, and prayer. My favorite affirmation comes from Catharine Ponder. “I let you loose and let you go.”
  5. Laugh. Humor always helps get perspective. Comedian Buddy Hackett perhaps said it best. “I’ve had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing.”

 

Love yourself anyway

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The Paradoxical CommandmentsScreen Shot 2015-07-08 at 9.36.26 AM

Kent Keith wrote his paradoxical commandments in 1968 for a group of student leaders. It speaks to the decision that we can make every day to love people despite what they might or might not do. If you’ve never seen the original version, you can check it out here. Mother Theresa’s version of the Paradoxical Commandments, found posted on the wall of her room, is a powerful statement of the intentions that guided her life.

 

Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about the difference our spiritual and personal intentions and the actions we sometimes take. Gail shared the frustration she was feeling about a personal situation.   She had worked hard, really hard, to let a relationship go but still was not at peace with the outcome. Gail saw her struggle as lack of spiritual progress and–as I often do–was beating herself up it.

 

As I listened to her, I was struck with a thought. What if maybe, just maybe, our spiritual growth was less about the amount or speed of progress we made and more about our ability to love ourselves unconditionally—wherever we are on the path? What if the most important intention that we held on to was to love ourselves unconditionally? What if self love was the foundation of our personal and spiritual growth?

 

It seems to be a human paradox that we expect perfection of ourselves while lovingly accepting and forgiving others for mistakes that can far exceed our own. It was so easy to cherish Gail, even while she worked through her challenges. Why was it so hard to have compassion and love for myself when I fall short of my intentions?

 

Psychologically, the research bears out the importance of self-compassion. The ability to mindfully treat ourselves with compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience and higher life satisfaction. It is also shown to be associated with lower incidences of depression, anxiety and stress. Kristin Neff, the first researcher to define and research self-compassion explains it this way:

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding with personal failings—after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” (For more on self-compassion including research and resources, click here.)

 

Inspired by my conversation with Gail and countless conversations with friends and clients (and with apologies to Kent Keith and Mother Theresa), I would offer these as one way to find your way back to self-love and self-compassion:

The Love Yourself Anyway Commandments

From time to time you will be snarky, easily triggered and generally unpleasant to be around.

Love yourself anyway

 From time to time you will act without generosity of spirit toward others.

Love yourself anyway

 From time to time your fears of success, visibility, or abundance will derail you.

Love yourself anyway

 From time to time you will over indulge in food, alcohol, TV, the Internet, trashy romance novels or gossip.

Love yourself anyway

 From time to time you will speak thoughtlessly and hurt someone’s feelings.

Love yourself anyway

 From time to time you will judge others harshly, forgetting that they too are Divine beings.

Love yourself anyway

 From time to time you will blame others for your discomfort instead of looking within for the unhealed hurts that were triggered.

Love yourself anyway

 From time to time you will forget to trust in the Divine Plan and spend the day anxiously trying to control everything.

Love yourself anyway

 Remember, regardless of the missteps you make on your path of spiritual or personal growth, you are an amazing soul full of light and love. You WILL get back on that path, you WILL course correct. So for now—forgive yourself and love yourself anyway.

 

Create your personal Love Yourself Anyway commandments

The above were inspired by the struggles that I hear from my clients and those in my own life. If something above doesn’t resonate with you or your personal growth path, I invite you to create your own LYA Commandments. Write them down, read them out loud and post them somewhere you will see them every day.

 

With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we would give to a good friend.

Kristin Neff