I hit that magical 60th birthday in July this year and, since my family tends to stay active until their 80s and 90s, figure I have at least 25 years of productive living in front of me. That recognition has birthed a couple questions that seem to run through my head a lot—“If not now, when?” and, with apologies to Mary Oliver, “What else do you want to do with this one wild and precious life?”
Those questions have led me to thinking about the obstacles I continue to stumble over in my life. These are the personality traits and well-entrenched behavioral tendencies that ride herd on my dreams and plans, slowing them down, often to a standstill. For me they are self-doubt, fear, perfectionism, and an obdurate* tendency to want to tell the Universe how to run things.
While I can claim some genetic predisposition to this last trait (family members, you know who you are) I think it has more to do with a fear that if I don’t stay on top of what is going on around me, bad stuff will happen.
Those of you who know a bit about my life (if you don’t, and want to, click here) know that this is both illogical and a bit comical. Given what has happened in my last decade alone, apparently I’m really bad at running things, the Universe isn’t listening, or the Universe dances to a much more complex set of variables than I am capable of understanding or orchestrating. I’m inclined to believe the latter.
I also used to believe that playing Universe Hall Monitor would make me more love-worthy. Preventing potential crises seemed like a great way to prove my value. As it turns out, having “the” answers for people’s lives isn’t nearly as appreciated as one might think. Some people can even get a tad irritated by it.
This brings me to what I’m working on right now—trusting in the flow of life and seeing myself as lovable and perfect, even when what I do isn’t. It means giving up the idea that I can win lovability points or prevent the scary stuff by what I do. It’s a difficult process for me and often involves prying my grasping hands off of the reins of my life or someone else’s. I still catch myself in mid-sentence giving unsolicited advice more frequently than I would like to admit.
What makes it possible for me to consider retiring from my role as She Who Can Fix Things? Well, I’ve come to deeply believe three things about this human existence:
- We were born perfect and lovable. All you have to do is look at babies to know that. What child is unworthy of love? And if our parents and other important people in our lives didn’t reflect our perfect lovability back to us as children, it was about their own fears and doubts–not our worthiness or perfection. What we do or fail to do will not and cannot alter that core lovability.
- We are loved beyond measure by the Universe/God/Howard.** You figure out what that means to you, but to me “a love beyond measure” looks like the love I have for my son, immense and incalculable, and then multiplying that times Infinity. I figure when Someone loves you that much, They have your back–even if it doesn’t always look like it at the time.
- If I let the Universe handle the creative details, S/He will delight me. My boyfriend is a sterling example of this principle in action. I had no idea that it was possible to find a smart, loving and nurturing man in Dallas Texas who is a liberal, cooks beautifully and doesn’t like sports. Who knew? Apparently, the Universe did.
So, bottom line–I don’t have to be in charge to 1) win love or 2) prevent disasters. Don’t get me wrong. Bad stuff will happen though I really, really, really wish it wouldn’t. Normal, human safety precautions aside, the truly crappy events or situations seem to show up in everyone’s life at some time. At least, that’s been my experience and that of everyone I know and love.
But….numbers one through three (above) still are true, even when the scary, out of control, heart wrenching events of our lives come barreling through.
Lean on those ideas and consider, just for today, loosening the reins just a little bit, ok? I’m right there with you.
*obdurate–love that word—it means, among other things, pigheaded. Sometimes an apt description of my unwillingness to let go.
**The Universe/God/Howard–as in “Howard be thy name”–thank you Anne Lamott!
Finding the center of strength within ourselves is in the long run the best contribution we can make to our fellow men.
Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself
A few years ago, I began the process of interviewing senior business leaders who had experienced cancer for a book I am now writing. Generously, leaders from business, government, non-profits, and the judiciary met with me to talk about their dances with cancer and the wisdom they had learned on that journey. As I began to look back over my notes, one of the themes that emerged was the deftness with which they made use of their natural strengths as leaders. The capabilities they brought to their cancer fight were, in a large part, the competencies that had made them successful leaders—focus, discipline, delegation, communication, and other important leadership skills. It was if, in the moments following their diagnosis, they instinctively knew the assets within them that they could rely on in this crisis.
What are strengths? Marcus Buckingham, in “Go Put your Strengths to Work,” suggests that strengths have three components: talents you are born with, skills you have learned, and knowledge acquired through education, training or experience. In order to leverage your strengths in a crisis, you first have to figure out what they are. Once identified, you can begin to see how those strengths might help you in this current crisis. Here are some ways to start the process:
Check your “life-skills” pantry. Our strengths don’t disappear in a crisis. The talent, skills, and abilities that have helped you be successful in your life up until now can be a platform to help you stay sane and functional during a crisis. As you take stock of your strengths, think about times in which you’ve had to get through a difficult task in your life.
- Get someone who knows you well to think through your strengths with you. Determine how those strengths can be used in this crisis to accomplish what needs to be done and maintain your own energy and spirit.
- How did you cope? What did you do? What worked and what didn’t? Even though this crisis may be a more intense or scary situation than those, some of the same actions can work.
- Take a StrengthsFinder, or similar, online test. (www.strengthsfinder.com) It is Buckingham’s contention that you can identify a strength by recognizing those things that you 1) do successfully, 2) instinctively, 3) enjoy doing, and 4) you feel fulfilled by having done it. Using this, or similar personality inventories, can be one way to identify yours. Decide if what emerges can be utilized now.
Claim your strengths. Write them down or say them out loud. Share your strengths with others, or make it into an affirmation or mantra. With all the demands you are facing, it’s easy to forget that you are a person with skills and abilities. One of my coaching clients was brilliant at attacking an issue with all of his intelligence, skills and personal will. When he was going through cancer, his mantra was “hit it hard.”
Be honest about your weaknesses. No one is good at everything. There will be skills and abilities you will need that you currently don’t have. Knowing what they are gives you a chance to plan.
- What doesn’t come naturally or easily to you? Talking to authority figures? Remembering appointments? Thinking on your feet?
- Ask your friend to help you identify where you will need additional help or resources to get through the challenges ahead.
Take a periodic inventory. Check in with yourself, the situation, and your trusted advisors. Are you overusing your strengths or are there some areas that have emerged where you need some help. Often we find that the strengths we needed at the beginning of a crisis are no longer necessary as it wanes.
Knowing and leveraging your strengths while working thoughtfully with the areas where you need help allows you regain another measure of control in a situation that might feel like a free fall. You are talented and brilliant—don’t let a crisis convince you otherwise
If you don’t think your anxiety, depression, sadness and stress impact your physical health, think again. All of these emotions trigger chemical reactions in your body, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system. Learn how to cope, sweet friend. There will always be dark days.
Crises—personal, medical, financial, or spiritual—can be breeding grounds for anxious and scary thoughts. We are flooded with new information and potentially devastating scenarios, challenged to operate way out of our comfort zone, and generally put into a rough spot. No surprise, then, that our systems can react with anxiety. After all, our old brain is primed to respond to any potential threats—real or imagined.
For the normally calm among us, anxiety feels like strange, new territory. Awakening at night, full of swirling thoughts, being unable to eat or stop eating, nervousness, or a rapidly beating heart–it can almost seem like you’ve become someone very different from your usual self. For those of us for whom anxiety is something that we have lived with for awhile, a crisis can take those symptoms to a whole new level that can feel almost impossible to manage.
What are some of the classic symptoms of anxiety?
The Mayo Clinic lists the following:
- Feeling nervous
- Feeling powerless
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
What can you do?
In order to slow down or stop the spiral into anxiety when those fears and negative thoughts threaten to take over your life, try some of these ideas:
- Slow diaphragmatic breathing: Put your hand on your stomach and take a long, s-l-o-w, deep breath, letting it fill your abdomen. Hold the breath for a few seconds and then release it through your mouth. This signals your amygdala, the part of your old brain that is currently running the “fight-flight-freeze” show in your body1, that things are no longer as scary as before when it kicked into action. Repeat this for a few minutes until your heart beat slows down and the butterflies in your stomach get calmer. Extra points if you can relax your jaws and let your shoulders drop away from your ears where they are likely hanging out.
- Distraction: One of my favorite ways of decreasing my anxious thoughts during a crisis is to jump into an interesting book, article, movie, or TV show. The subject matter has to be compelling enough to pry my attention away from whatever topic I am currently obsessed with but when it is, this strategy works beautifully.
- Exercise: Yoga, running, racquetball, spin class—anything form of movement that requires your attention is a great way to create a little distance from those anxious thoughts. At the end of your workout, you are likely to be able to perceive it more objectively and logically.
Next time: more ideas on how to manage your anxiety in a crisis. Please feel free to send any questions, comments and ideas my way. I love hearing from you!
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue is what counts.”
Resilience has, I think, a bit of a Pollyanna rap. For those of you who didn’t grow up with either the book or Disney movie version, Pollyanna was a young girl who was irrepressibly optimistic. Yet in a crisis or traumatic situation, always looking on the bright side-as Pollyanna found out-can feel unbearably hard. Sometimes, before you move on or bounce back, you might just need to throw a pity party first.
I don’t believe that resilience means you never have a bad day or that you accept everything that comes your way with a blithe smile and a song on your lips. During the three year stretch that my family went through one life threatening illness after another, I hosted a few pity parties – some of them fairly spectacular. At the time, the extra glasses of wine or spirals into dark thoughts seemed a logical outcome, given the fact that two of the men I loved most in life both had cancer.
The real question is, after you’ve had your pity party, then what? Do you stay stuck in victim thinking? It can be pretty cozy, snuggled up in the cold comfort of feeling mistreated by the world. But for me, staying in that gloomy spot didn’t seem to get me anywhere. And, frankly, I didn’t like my own company that much when I was dining on negative thoughts and crooning over my hurts.
That’s when I would find just enough energy to rummage around in my heart and remembered my goal – who I wanted to be—even when things were lousy, even when I felt just a little bit neglected by the Divine, and even when part of me wanted to crawl back under my comforter stuffed with victimhood and whine a while longer.
I had decided, when my son was first diagnosed with lymphoma, that the only way for me to keep it together, and be who he needed me to be, was to have a plan. Since I couldn’t control the outcome of his diagnosis, I decided to focus on who I wanted to be during that journey. My answer had been that I wanted to trust in the Divine, believe that growth, even blessings come from hard times, choose generosity of spirit over pettiness, and stay positive. With those intentions as my anchors, I always found the next step, the one that took me back towards courage.
Having a goal, and taking those actions-however small-is one of the ways I believe resilience is built. Making one small movement towards your goals or intentions – even if it is only washing your face or taking a walk around the block-is a step away from feeling overwhelmed or impossibly discouraged.
To get back on track with your goals or to find just a bit of courage to keep going, ask yourself:
- Who does my best self want to be right now? What are the qualities and characteristics I want to demonstrate in my life—even if I don’t feel like it right now?
- What is one small step I can take that will get me moving in that direction again?
Good luck and don’t forget to clean up the mess from the pity party!
Where did this come from? I pointed to a note someone had left in my husband Vito’s ICU unit where he was lying paralyzed. A serious case of Guillain-Barré, a neurological disease that attacks the myelin sheath around nerves, had rendered his body’s nerves useless. I had gone out to grab a quick lunch only to come back to find a yellow post-it note with some words scrawled on it.
Who left this? I asked as I re-read the quote, beginning to tear up. The words landed squarely in a well of vulnerability and need that I hadn’t yet named. Despite my outward facade of having it all handled, I really needed to hear those words. That quote meant someone believed in our family’s ability to handle this latest gut punch, even if I was feeling kind of shaky.
The ICU nurse smiled and said that Dr. Jason Litten-our son Nick’s oncologist-had dropped by. He only had a short break from his own duties, but wanted to see Vito and spend some time with him.
Jason was especially important to our family. He had been the lead on Nick’s oncology team from the moment that Nick was diagnosed at age sixteen and had seen us through some really hard times.
It was precisely that knowledge of who we were as a family and what we had gone through that made his words so powerful. He believed in us and in our ability to get through this. But even more than that – Jason held up a mirror so that we could see it ourselves – our own resilience. He came by to remind us that we had, even if we might have temporarily forgotten them, inner stores of courage, persistence, and wisdom.
What do we know about resilience?
Webster’s dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” For me, it means being able to get back up after a gut punch and keep moving forward, even when the way isn’t yet clear and the footsteps are still bit wobbly.
Resilience has been a research topic for many years, focusing on both children who survive traumatic childhoods and adult victims of serious crises—for example, hurricanes, cancer, bombings, and earthquakes. Researchers have puzzled over why some children and adults go on, even after the most horrific of circumstances, to lead successful, productive lives and others don’t. What makes the difference?
What creates or fosters resilience?
Jason personified one of the most important factors we’ve come to understand in creating or fostering resilience—family, caregivers, friends who surround and support us in hard times. Other factors, according to research, include a belief in one’s ability to solve problems, take action, and personal temperament. (For more on this topic, check out The Road to Resilience)
So how do you develop your own resilience or foster it in someone you love? Over the next several blogs, I’ll share some practical strategies taken from the research and my own experience. I hope you will try them out, keep the ones that work for you, and share them with others. For now, here’s the first two:
Create a community of support: I’ve written about this previously (see the blog archive) but it bears repeating. Having a team of people who guide, advise, handle logistics, or just listen is critical, not only when you are trying to survive the initial shock of a crisis. They can also help us find our inner resources and ability to endure during the crisis and afterwards, when the process of recovery begins.
Talk back to the mind monkeys: Your mind, when faced with a crisis, will do what thousands of years has evolved it to do—look for the most dangerous outcomes and respond with the thoughts and emotions those scenarios will evoke. Part of enhancing your resilience is to see the crisis as potentially solvable—maybe not all of it, but parts of it. Like the old adage goes, “How do you eat an elephant? A piece at a time.” Chew on the pieces you can solve now, rather than focusing on how huge the problem seems.
Next time-more strategies and ideas of how to build resilience in yourself or foster it in someone you love.
“The human capacity for burden is like bamboo- far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.”
― Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
Focus on the positive. It’s hard to believe that a serious life crisis and the word “blessing” would come in the same sentence. When my son and husband had cancer, idea of looking for something positive in our family’s experiences probably seemed hyper-religious or Pollyanaish in the extreme to some people. Spiritually, I viewed it as a form of radical surrender to an organizing framework of my life; practically, it kept me sane.
Tune down the victim thinking. Leaving behind the “poor me” mentality meant walking away from the norm. After all, my family was going through hell. Didn’t I deserve to throw myself a pity party and invite a few friends? Yet, as comforting as it seemed initially to wrap myself up in the cold comfort of victim thinking or anxiety, or as easy as it was to allow the fears take over my day, I always came away from those internal, negative conversations wearier than before. And I couldn’t afford to add to my exhaustion.
So, logically, anything I could do to grow the positive in my life made more sense to me than focusing on the negative. I needed all the infusions of energy I could get and I found that looking for and counting my blessings filled me up. Gratitude turned out to be the best antidote I could find for fatigue, anxiety, self-doubt and dread.
Cultivate gratitude. Research bears the importance of gratitude. The Greater Good Science Center, citing the research of more than 30 scientists and graduate students, has found that gratitude impacts not only our emotions with increased happiness, joy, optimism, compassion, and generosity, it can also lower blood pressure and improve the immune system. Robert Emmons, a leading expert on gratitude, suggests a few ways to increase the time we spend being grateful:
- Using a visual cue (such as a picture or even Post-it note) to remember to take the time to be grateful.
- Keeping a gratitude journal—what happened today that filled you with a sense of appreciation?
- Learning prayers of gratitude as ways to incorporate more gratitude into your life.
Hang on to the good a bit longer. The author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson, suggests “taking in the good” as a way to counter the brain’s natural tendency to hang on to the negative thoughts and too quickly let go of the positive ones. Whenever something good happens, he suggests that you first fully experience it. Notice that the sky is bright blue after a week of clouds or the delightful smell of fresh baked cookies in the bakery that you’ve just passed.
Once you’ve noticed, focus your mind fully on the experience. Second, keep your attention on that positive experience. If your mind tries to shift away, bring it back to the deliciousness of what you are thinking, feeling, sensing, seeing or touching. Finally, visualize those lovely thoughts, sensations and emotions flowing into your entire body. See them and feel them filling you up until you are full to the brim with all that this experience has to offer.
Next week. More ways to cultivate resilience and make your crisis just a bit better.
Gratitude bestows reverence..changing forever how we experience life and the world.
“Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.”
What? My crisis has an upside ?? What kind of do-gooder, Pollyanna optimism is that?
Don’t get me wrong. Every single crisis I have ever been through was heart wrenching, scary, and kept me awake on numerous nights when I desperately needed sleep.
I don’t like crises. In fact, I coined a little acronym for them that explains just how much I would like to avoid them. I call them AFGOs, which stands for Another Frickin’ Growth Opportunity.
And yet…..I grew. From every single one of them. Sometimes the growth was exponential—like finally seeing just how strong I was when my son and husband both had cancer within the space of three years. Other times, it was only in retrospect that I saw the impact of the crisis—the ability to buckle down and study in order to graduate with my MBA (something that was in doubt after the first two semesters in grad school.)
So, what are some gifts that come from crisis? Researchers in post traumatic growth have found five areas where many people report a positive change in their lives, in the aftermath of a disaster or crisis:
1) Greater appreciation of self. While I owned, finally, the strength and resilience that others had always seen in me, my clients have had similar realizations. Angela (name changed) discovered just how good her business instincts and decisions were when her husband was incarcerated. She handed over the creative side of the business to others and began handling the day to day running of the company. In the years that he was in jail, she not only held their fledgling company together but grew into a well known and respected business.
2) A different perspective on life and purpose. Crises put things into perspective. Suddenly, when a disaster happens, the fight with your spouse or the aggravations of work no longer seem as important as they did before. Researchers report that often people carry that shift of perspective or new view of what is truly important into their lives even after the crisis has passed. Or, as my son, Nick, and I like to say, “If it’s not cancer and no one is dying, it’s not that big of a deal.”
3) Greater appreciation of life, compassion, and empathy. In addition to gaining a different perspective on life, many of my clients report that the small things in life are more likely to get their attention—bird song, the smile of a grandchild, a sunny day, or a good night’s sleep. When a crisis threatens our lives, our families, our homes, our health, and anything else we may see as integral to our happiness, we tend to value it more. Many of my clients who have gone through health challenges tell me that they are significantly more patient with other’s mistakes or foibles than they were before their crisis.
4) Enhanced relationships. Crises are petri dishes for growth—especially within a relationship. When our lives are disrupted by the shock waves of a financial, personal, or professional crisis, the masks that we live behind are often dropped. It can take too much energy to keep up a facade when your life is crumbling. The people who remain with us, support us, and love us through those crises see us at our most vulnerable. And, like Brené Brown so eloquently says, “what has been seen can not be unseen.” Our relationships will likely never be the same—and that is usually a good thing.
5) Spiritual development. Religious or spiritual beliefs can be buttressed or buffeted by crises. One client lost all faith in God when cancer ruined her health and her finances believing that if God existed, he wouldn’t let these bad things happen to her and others. Robert, sole caregiver when his spouse was disabled from multiple medical events, found solace in the spiritual traditions of his youth. For those who use the crisis as a catalyst for examining our lives and our beliefs, the crisis can be the beginning of a deeper faith or confidence in their spirituality.
Questions for you to consider if you’ve recently gone through a crisis:
- Do I see life differently in any way, prior to this crisis? In what ways has life become more precious to me? Are there things or people that I appreciate more than in the past?
- Do I find myelf taking certain events or issues less seriously than before? More seriously?
- Do I find it easier to talk about my emotions, feelings, or struggles than before the crisis? Do I reach out to others more readily than before?
- How have the priorities in my life changed?
- How have my beliefs in God/The Universe/The Divine different than they were pre-crisis? How so?
I would love to hear from you with how your crises changed you. Please leave a comment below!
You’ve just been gob-smacked and your world is spinning. You can’t think clearly, want to throw up, are looking for a place to hide or trying to wake up the nightmare that your world has just become. Most people, when faced with a life changing event like a cancer diagnosis, death of a loved one, sudden loss of an important relationship or job, feel it in their bodies. It becomes hard to breathe, our stomachs roil, we become light headed and nothing seems real. My memory of those first days after my sixteen year old son was diagnosed with precursor B cell lymphoma is hazy, I was disoriented, terrified, and numb—sometimes all at the same time.
So, what is going on, inside this skin that may feel like it no longer belongs to us? Our bodies, relying on the primitive (and successful) evolutionary design of the limbic system responds quickly and completely to stress or distress that we perceive to be severe. Our neurochemistry kicks into action, flooding the brain and the body with massive amounts of neurochemicals and hormones (adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, and epinephrine) to read
y us to fight or flee. Physiologically, our blood pressure goes up, our pupils dilate, and our senses become hyper-vigilant to any changes around us.
Given all this and more that is happening inside of our bodies, it’s not surprising that we have trouble thinking straight. If we are going to move from shock to effective action, the first and most important action we can take is to move back into our bodies. In addition to the obvious techniques of eating well (protein and good complex carbohydrates rather than sugary fixes), getting adequate sleep, and maintaining some kind of exercise program, try some of the following suggestions to get back into your body so that you can do what needs to be done:
Take your shoes off. Rub your feet back and forth on the carpet. The sensation will make you aware of your body. Then stand, and with your feet spread about shoulder-width apart, push as if you are on a rug and trying to split it in two with your feet. Hold that pose for at least one minute. The sensation of your legs pushing will also bring you back into the lower part of your body, centering you.
Stamp your feet. Standing comfortably, alternating feet, lift each foot and place it firmly back down, feeling the impact of the ground in your legs. Do it for at least 30 seconds.
Jog in place. The repeated impact of your feet on the ground brings blood into your legs and increases your energy flow. Try it for 30 seconds to a minute at a time. This is especially good if you don’t have time to exercise as it can be done even in a hospital hallway while waiting. (Of course, they will look at you a bit oddly!)
Aromatherapy—Smell is a powerful sense and can impact our bodies tremendously, calming them and grounding them. Consider investing in some high quality essential oils such as sandalwood, lemongrass or white rose (particularly for grief). Put a dab on your body or rub it between your hands, close your eyes, and breathe it into your body. (This can be especially effective combined with deep, slow breathing.)
Yoga— If you can, consider dropping in on a local yoga class to see if that helps you handle the stress of the crisis. Hatha yoga, in particular, has several postures that support grounding.
Get a massage—Massage helps you be present in your body and it can provide some nurturing that you may be needing, especially now. Concentrate on any feelings that arise while you’re on the massage table. Let them come up and just flow out of you as your muscles relax. Pay attention to the parts of you that are holding onto the tension so that you can release those muscles more consciously.
In a crisis, we can’t move forward effectively unless we can push off from a position of stability. There will likely be many decisions to be made, emotions to be handled, and challenges to meet. Being centered and grounded allows you to meet each day fully present. And, in a crisis, how you show up may be one of the only things that you CAN control.
Have more questions about how to get through those first few days and hours? Check out the Resources section for an ever evolving list of books, articles, and links that may be helpful. Also, you may want to read Five Ways to Cope When A Crisis First Happens.