Have you ever looked in the mirror and wondered who the person staring back is? The feeling of not knowing who you really are as a person separate from the roles that you find yourself cast in. How often do we define ourselves generically by descriptors of those roles rather than by our character traits? A mother, a wife, a father, a son, a daughter, a coworker, etc. These terms describe our relationships, but there is more to us than simply who we are to other people. Is that really how we want to be seen by those around us? Flat, non-dimensional characters in the play called life? Where we are content taking a supporting cast role rather than starring in our own lives? Sadly, often that is exactly what happens for many of us. We become so busy that we forget to truly live and are left wondering where the time went and who we are.
Recently, my just-graduated from college daughter was having an “existential” crisis in our kitchen. Like so many of us, she’s struggling with how to identify herself. She’s technically no longer a student, though graduate school applications are in process, and she isn’t yet working in her field of study. She has described as “feeling adrift.” There is no longer a label that she can slap on to describe herself succinctly that feels adequate. What’s a 22-year-old to do? Or a 32-year-old? Or a 50-year-old? Or a 103-year-old? See, this isn’t a question of age or experience, but a question of perspective. How do we see ourselves? How do we want to be seen? How do others perceive us? Do all these different perspectives align?
I’ve noticed when I pose these questions that people (clients, friends, family) are often taken aback when they contemplate their answers. Often, they find that how their loved ones, coworkers, or acquaintances would describe them is similar to how they would like to be perceived but, not surprisingly, their self -perception is much more negative. Why is that? Why are we so quick to look outward for a measure of worthiness but so harshly judge ourselves, and our contributions, as inadequate? I wonder what would happen if, as a society, we spoke more kindly to ourselves and left self-recrimination out of our personal narratives? Would we be happier? Less anxious? Less depressed?
Positivity, gratefulness, and mindfulness are all ways that we can choose to treat ourselves with more care. These practices can help ground us and keep us focused on the good in our lives and ourselves to help us better weather the storms that life hurls our way. So, take a minute, look in the mirror, and tell the stranger you see there all the things that you want, hope, and desire for them. Treat that stranger as you would your best friend, coworker, sibling, or child that needs a little boost. Encourage that stranger to find their inner passion and foster it. Tell that stranger how much they are loved, and one day, you just might believe it.
Boy, has dating changed in the last 25 years! As a happily married person, I never paid attention to the struggles of my single contemporaries. However, as a widow of 3 years, I recently ventured back into the realm of dating and into online dating. Wow! That’s some culture shock for the uninformed. Now, I’m sure that there are people reading this that are wondering what my starting to date has to do with therapy? Well, since I am in the business of relationships, personal interactions, and self-concept, this is a very relevant topic as dating in this highly technological, swiping app, game of numbers age morphs these concepts into something much less personal…at least at first. How does someone that is unfamiliar with the “new” rules of dating venture in? I think it’s important to have a plan, not a set-in stone rigid plan, but a basic idea of what you want to gain from the experience.
What should this plan look like? What is your expectation? Are you wanting to meet friends? Date a lot of people casually? Get into a relationship? There are apps, groups, and websites devoted to all these scenarios plus any other variation that you can imagine. I’d suggest evaluating what your needs and wants are. Have you ever dated using the technological environment of today? Setting realistic expectations is important. Although you have access to many more single people than what you would likely have otherwise, there is still the need to weed out people that you feel would not be compatible with you or your lifestyle. For example, dating an atheist if you are very religious and seeking someone with the same quality. It would be unrealistic to expect someone to change their spirituality to such a degree…it’s an unrealistic expectation. Yet, it happens repeatedly in various forms, people often think that they will “change” a person.
What about the amount of time that you are going to dedicate to your dating endeavor? If you download the apps, you can be instantly and constantly connected to any potential “matches.” However, is this healthy? For me it wasn’t, I felt tethered and “on-call” all the time. A possible solution is to look at the website or app only from a computer or dedicate a set amount of time per day to dedicate to the search. Boundary setting early on can help alleviate the anxiety and stress that can accompany the online dating platforms and help you not feel so tied to an app.
What about when you do match with someone? Have you formulated a plan and appropriate boundaries within yourself to deal with inappropriate questions, comments, and expectations from strangers? What are you comfortable sharing with a virtual stranger? What information do you need to protect? What about meeting for the first time, do you have a plan in place to make sure that it’s a safe encounter? These are all things to be considered before any of those scenarios happen. Personally, I think that best advice I received concerning first meet-ups was to keep them short, make sure they are in very public places, and go in with no expectation other than talking to someone new for a few minutes.
You’ve made it to the first meet, and you are feeling self-conscious…yep, it’s almost like junior high all over again. How can you deal with the potential feelings of failure and rejection? Acknowledge them. I’d be amazed if anyone that has done an online dating meet or has been on a blind date hasn’t experienced these exact feelings; it’s natural to be nervous. Likely, the person you are meeting with is having these same emotions to some degree, why not just put it out there? This is a genuine and open expression of what is happening for you in the moment; be yourself, that is the person you want them to like.
Dating can be a scary and anxiety ridden experience. However, it can also be a fun “re-do” for something some of us haven’t done since we were teens. Setting reasonable expectations, having a good set of personal boundaries, and being self-aware can all help in making it a good experience rather than the nightmares you read about. Now, go be your best self, and get to dating!
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same. Nor would you want to!” – Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler from “On Grief and Grieving”
We live in a society that is uncomfortable with death and grieving; we just want people to “get over it” and be done. It makes us feel better if they are back to “normal” and are “okay”, then we can return to our lives without guilt. However, grief is complicated, messy, and full of emotions that we don’t want to acknowledge, let alone feel. So, what happens when we lose, or someone that we are close to, loses a person in their life? A spouse, child, parent, or friend. How can we help them, or ourselves, with this messy grief business? Honestly, the answer is so simple yet so complicated at the same time; grief is as unique and individual for each person as their fingerprint. There is no “right” way to do it. As a widow myself, there are a few things that I found, and continue to find, as being helpful and healing in my grief journey.
Grieving is a lonely, isolating business. Sure, there is the initial influx of mourners that surround the family in the days and weeks immediately following the loss, but what about after that? Can you be that person that shows up, texts, or calls just to chat, go for a walk, or grab a cup of coffee and give the grief stricken a sense of normalcy while chaos reigns elsewhere in their life? It’s often said, “Let me know what I can do to help.” Often however, in the midst of grief people aren’t even aware of what they need, nor do they want to impose on family or friends and ask for help, but they crave human interaction and connection. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but just knowing that someone is there and cares can make all the difference during those really difficult moments.
Listening to the Tale
Just as each person has their own grief journey they each have their own tale of grief, how they came to the painful spot where they dwell. While those on the periphery may have witnessed and been part of that journey, it may be surprising how the mourner interprets their experience. For some, telling the tale is cathartic and allows them to release what they’ve held within themselves: guilt, shame, anger, fear, relief. While for others it gives them space to voice the confusion of trying to process a surreal experience.
My experience with losing my husband landed me squarely in the “trying to process the surreal experience” camp. Trying to wrap my head around him being here one minute and gone the next was really difficult for me to wrap my head around. My friends and family were all present in witnessing, but I needed to express what it was like for me. I felt almost desperate, at times, to have someone understand and validate me. I didn’t need anyone to “fix” it for me, they couldn’t, but to have them say, “Yep, that sucked!”, meant the world to me.
The “Right” Way Doesn’t Exist
As a society we have constructed this movie image of what grief should look like, the bereaved go into a deep mourning for a while, but then they pull themselves together, “move on” with their lives, and the grief is finished. In reality, grief presents itself in a multitude of variations. For some there is the anticipatory grief that accompanies a long illness. For others there is the acute, shocking grief from a sudden death. Yet still for others there is the guilt-ridden survivors’ grief that can accompany trauma and suicide. With such differences in experiences how can we really expect for people to process grief in the same way? Within the same timeline? And with the same reactions? We can’t; it’s a preposterous assertion.
Need help or know someone that needs help processing the grief related to losing a loved one? Wasatch Family Therapy has a team of therapists that can help you wade through the sea of emotions that accompany the grief journey, we would be honored to stand witness to your tale and help you find the “new” you that evolves from the death experience.
Have you ever had a conversation where you just needed to vent? You just needed to get out all the pent-up frustration, anger, disappointment (whatever emotion that you were feeling at the time out), and the person that you were talking to immediately started telling you how to “fix” the problem? How were you feeling in that moment? Heard? Validated? Or the opposite?
Recently, my 17-year-old came in grumbling and lamenting about the struggles of high school existence. I listened for a bit, commiserated on how terrible small-town living is (sarcasm), and offered really “helpful” suggestions. Cue the eye-roll! Yep, I fell into the “fix-it” pattern; it’s ingrained. We are a society of “fixers.” We want to listen to an issue, come up with a few reasonable alternatives and fix the issue. But what happens if there isn’t a solution? Or, really a problem to be fixed?
The “fix it” trap is a very common style of miscommunication within couples and families. Wait…miscommunication? They’re talking about an issue and the other person is trying to help them with it, how is that miscommunication? The miscommunication happens when the intent of the speaker and the intent of the listener don’t match up. You might be asking yourself, “How am I supposed to know what my spouse/child/friend wants or needs out of a conversation? I’m not a mind reader!” My response is simple, yet really difficult for many of us because it’s something completely different from our typical pattern…ask. You read that right, just ask the person what they want or need from the conversation.
During the exchange with my child, after seeing the eye-roll and hearing the frustrated huffing and puffing, I knew that I had not given them what they needed from me. However, I didn’t want to make an incorrect assumption, again, so I simply apologized and asked, “I’m sorry, how can I help you right now? Is this something you need to talk about or something that you need help figuring out?” Now, I know that people are going to read this and say to themselves, “I try asking my child/spouse/ friend what they need and they just get mad!” Yep! The pattern is ingrained in the other direction as well. Sometimes the speaker may not even realize that they aren’t seeking a solution, but an opportunity to talk. What are you supposed to do then? Listen.
Take the time to really listen to what the person is saying, validating his/ her experience (even if you don’t agree), ask some questions to clarify to make sure that you are truly understanding, and empathize with what’s happening. Giving the person your undivided attention will give you (and the other person) the opportunity the truly ascertain what’s needed from the conversation. Go talk!
Life seems to have a way of getting crazy just when we don’t have time. There’s your child’s homework assignment that they forgot was due…tomorrow. An impending deadline at work that can’t be delayed any longer. What about the band concerts, dance lessons, or basketball games for your kids? School, church, and family obligations and responsibilities that we “have” to do. How do we balance all the demands on our time and energy?
Recently, I came to the point of realization that it wasn’t physically possible for me to accomplish and meet all my obligations the way that I had envisioned in my head. It was possible (though difficult) to meet the responsibilities on my list, but not in the way that I wanted them completed. Having realistic expectations of what I can and need to accomplish within the parameters of my life was a hard realization for me. I don’t just want to complete a task; I want to excel at that task. However, my overly high expectations of myself were leading to feelings of stress, anxiety, and negative self- worth. How do we combat these dueling feelings of inadequacy and the need for perfection?
Sounds simple enough right? However, how often do we sit down and write out all the demands on our time and energy for a day and then rank them? Try taking just 5 minutes and jotting down all the things that you need (or think you need) to accomplish for that day. Is it reasonable? How do you feel when you look at the list? Is it empowering and motivating? Or, do you feel the stress and anxiety like I did when I looked at mine? If your list is motivating, then you might have a good balance. However, if you react like I did, that’s a good indication that you are over-extended and need to pare it down a bit. How can I cut out something I “need” to do?
For those of us that suffer with perfectionistic tendencies, it’s hard to accept that less than perfect is good enough. Do we really need to be on every PTO committee at our children’s schools? Or, is being on one “good enough”? Are there things on your list where you can give yourself permission to be average? Adjusting the expectations that we set for ourselves can be a difficult thing to do, but I’ve found that being more flexible about what is and isn’t acceptable leads to a lot less stress.
After completing the first two steps, I realized there were several areas of my life where I’d created exceedingly high expectations. I had scheduled myself into a corner that didn’t allow for any deviation. Allowing for some flexibility in my schedule is very freeing; I don’t have to be doing something all the time. When something unexpected does pop up, I’ve left enough leeway to adjust accordingly.
I’ve learned that being able to look objectively at various aspects of my life and see where I can make improvements by doing less, either physically or mentally, is necessary at this stage. I simply can’t be or do all the things that I tried to tell myself that I had to. However, by carefully evaluating and choosing to prioritize the things most important to me, accepting that sometimes less than “perfect” is good enough, and allowing flexibility be my new mantra; I have a sense of strength, empowerment, and resiliency that was previously lacking.
The cooler fall air is the first indicator that the season of thankfulness and gratitude is upon us, but what if you don’t feel that you have anything to be grateful for this year? Perhaps your life has been plagued by chaos and uncertainty. Grief, job loss, depression, problematic relationships, and isolation are just a few of the things that can lead to feelings of apathy towards life and general ungratefulness. How can we combat this discontent and find gratitude and joy again?
Start as You Mean to Go
This is a phrase that I use often for a number of situations, but I think that it is particularly applicable when talking about gratitude. Simply begin your day as you want it to go for the remainder. Make the choice of gratitude as soon as you wake in the morning. Before you climb out of bed to begin your day, take a moment and find one thing, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential it may be, for which you are thankful. This choice to start with a grateful heart will set the tone for the day.
Stop and Smell the Roses
An overly used cliché, I know, but it’s true. It’s hard to be truly grateful if we are so busy living that we don’t take the time to appreciate the little things that make life worth living. Be mindful of what is happening around you, and take the time to truly experience and appreciate the small blessings, victories, and learning opportunities that life has to offer.
Look Outside Yourself
What better way to forget about our problems than to look around and see the problems that other people are dealing with? This isn’t to say that we should take joy in others’ pain and suffering, but to use it to put our problems into perspective. Stepping outside of ourselves and helping those that are less fortunate enables us to really appreciate the good in our lives, as meager as it may be, and also to recognize that there is always someone that has less.
Find a Purpose
Find a purpose in life that gives your life meaning. Maybe this means volunteering your time to a cause that is close to your heart, finding fulfillment in your family or career, or deciding to go back to school. The possibilities are endless. Whatever your direction, find something which you are passionate and excited about and share it.
Have an Attitude of Gratitude
Gratitude is a choice. Choose a life of gratitude by having an attitude of gratitude that starts as soon as you wake in the morning. Find the things that you appreciate about your life and celebrate them, no matter the size. Slow down and take the time to seek out and appreciate the lessons that life has to offer, even the hard ones. Life is hard, and there are plenty of opportunities to get down, but look to others to gain insight and perspective of your challenges. Lastly, find your purpose. We aren’t all going to find a cure for cancer or negotiate world peace, but we all have the chance to leave this world better than we found it.