Seven Smatterings to Enjoying the Holidays

Unplug.  As much as we all love our screens, the holidays are meant to be a time for faces. Bright eyes, rosy cheeks, Grandma’s yucky lipstick mark, delight written all over.  We joke about the modern idea of family togetherness – everyone sitting in the living room, all looking at some separate device, all connecting with someone else, anyone else as long as they are not in the room.  Turn them off.  See what happens.  You might have to talk, touch, connect, dust off the board games.  It certainly will be different and maybe even memorable.
Give to Someone That Has Less Than You Do.  The kids and I were on a budget last year.  Our Christmas was going to have to be slimmed down.  And yet, we found an extra $100 and the name of a family who has less than we do.  We Targeted, wrapped, baked and drove to see this family.  My kids had never ventured to “that part of town.”   As we put Christmas under this family’s empty tree, the eyes of the mother filled with tears.  She now had a Christmas to give her children.  What she might not have known was that the real gift given that day was the one she gave to me and my kids. 
Live with Your Limits.  Somehow the “to-do” list is endless during this time of year.  Indeed, if our physical, emotional and financial resoures were bottomless, then we could take on the additional demands and expectations with ease.  But the reality is, we are human beings, not super-heroes.  We have bounds and limits.  Make choices, say “no” without guilt, go with the “good enough” celebration and save perfection for the glossy magazines.  Better to enjoy the mess than to stress over the impossible.  Let it go. 
Establish Limits with Others.  Who says you have to do what you have done for years?  Who says that a visit to the in-laws has to last four days when two days will suffice?  Who says that Aunt Susie has the right to tell you how to parent?  Know the company you keep and arrange to make it work for you.  Going into these yearly interactions well-informed and well-bounded can make the difference between an eye-roll with a clogged artery and a good laugh later.  Boundaries are healthy for everyone.  Be a grown-up and get some. 
Rediscover Your Senses.   I can think of no better time of the year where all of our senses are stimulated.  — The smells of hot cocoa and mulled spice, pine needles, orange rind and turkey in the oven.  The sounds to music and songs we have heralded since childhood.  The warmth of a fire.  The color of lights sparkling.  The taste of recipes pulled out this time each year.   – – The awakening of our senses forces us to contact our most primitive self – to connect with our selves in a deep, corporeal way.  Pay attention, take it all in and enjoy.   
Reflect.  If nothing else, the holidays offer a halt in our routine.  They act as the marker of one year ending and another year beginning.  They act as a memory container when we think about our past and relive what we had, as well as what we wish we had.  Often these reflections are feeling-laden, packed with emotions that lie dormant throughout the rest of the year.  Challenge yourself to allow this flow of process.  It will do you good as well as your relationships.     
Say Thanks for the Moments.  That is all we have really.  The moments.  The ones that catch us off guard.  The ones that surprise us.  The ones that remind us of life’s sweetness.  The imperfect, human, Santa-really-does-not-exist moments.  Look for them.  They are there.  And they make the journey worthwhile.


Emotional Literacy

As a psychotherapist, I often see myself as a doctor of the human heart.  One of my missions as I sit in my office is to assist folks in becoming more alive to themselves, others and the world around them.  One significant component in this process is teaching patients to become emotionally literate.  Just as we learned to read and write as the foundational building blocks to our young lives, we also need the necessary life skill of learning to listen and express the inner workings of our deepest self.  Most of us never had that lesson.  In fact, most of us learned the opposite – to ignore completely what we are feeling. 

How does one become emotionally connected, effective and literate?  No doubt, there is a process to this difficult task of opening to one’s emotional life.  Through the repetitive practice of intentional awareness over time, we awaken our self to our self.  That being said, a few tips for us beginners can be helpful:  

1. Bodies and feelings are interconnected.  Every feeling has a physiological response. If you want to know what you are feeling, use your head to ask your body.  The body is the wiser one.  It houses our feelings and lets us know – sometimes gently, sometimes harshly  – that we are ignoring the vital energy of our emotional life.  

2. Feelings aren’t good or bad – they just are.  I get that we all want to be happy.  So, I always end the party when I inform patients that happiness is really over-rated. We aren’t designed to just be happy.  We get to have and enjoy all our feelings.  Like paints on a palette, the full range of color adds depth to life’s canvas.  Learn to respect and embrace all your feelings – they have a meaning and serve a purpose. 

3. We either have the capacity to feel all our feelings or to feel none at all.  Emotional repression is not discriminatory. Like a water faucet, either the valves of our heart are open and emotions are flowing freely or they are blocked causing emotional numbness. In other words, if we want to feel the pleasant feelings, we have to be willing to feel the unpleasant ones.    
4. We cannot control what we feel – only how we respond to our feelings.  Much to our dismay, feelings just are.  We can’t make ourselves feel anything or not feel anything.  Once we accept that fact, then respecting our feelings and deciding what to do about them becomes the focus, rather than avoiding the feeling or shaming ourselves for having it in the first place. 

5. Nobody can make us feel anything.  Don’t give your power away to someone else. You pilot your own airplane.  Your feelings are your feelings and thus, your responsibility to respond to with both self-care and care for your relationships. 
7. We can have more than one feeling at the same time.  Have you ever felt happy for a friend’s success while feeling jealous that it was not yours?  Perfectly normal.  At any given moment, we have at least two feelings – a self feeling and an object feeling.  The self feeling is what I am feeling about me.  The object feeling is what I am feeling toward you.  Until we can grasp this nuance, then we miss the complexity  – and sometimes the contradiction – of our emotional life.  You are multi-layered and complicated.  Get to know all parts of you. 

8. Feeling your feelings won’t kill us.  Not feeling them might.  Remember principle #1 above – the one about bodies and feelings being interconnected?  Repressed emotions show up in our body … and not in a good way.  You don’t want that.  It is hard enough to stay healthy these days – what with the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup and the fact that we all text while driving. Emotional pain is just pain.  It won’t kill you.  I know you feel like you are going to die, but you really won’t. 
So that is my tutorial on emotional education.  Assuming you are like the rest of us, you got some catching up to do in this department.  Your health, your partner, your co-workers and your kids are counting on you.  So get busy.

What’s Love Got to do With It?

I was talking with my friend the other day after one of his long days at work.  He was telling me about the hustle and bustle he endured and the resulting pain in his feet.  I expressed to him a tinge of guilt and then went on to admit that all I do all day is sip coffee and talk to people.   He laughed – half out of ironic pleasure and half out of jealousy. 

I guess I am indeed one of the fortunate few.  I love my job.  (Can I even call it a job?)  I  sit all day, mostly with my feet up, and drink way too much coffee.  (We all get to have a few vices, right?)  But mostly, I am honored with a front row seat as many a courageous person trusts me with the nitty-gritty, past-and-present details of their lives.  Sometimes, I feel a little voyeuristic … I mean how did I earn access to such intimate detail?  I get the behind-the-scene version.  The pre and post make-up.  The real self hiding under the mask of the public one.

After 17 years in private practice, I have yet to lose my awe and appreciation for being in this deep underbelly of everything it means to be human.  I often get asked by patients if I get bored listening to folks drown on and on all day.   And then of course, in the moments when the affectionate emotions that have grown between the patient and myself have been vocalized, I undoubtedly get … “but I pay you to listen to me” or “you can’t really care about me – I pay you.”

What patients don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – is that they are not paying me for the love.  They are paying me for my time and my skills.  The love is the free part.  An added bonus.   Inevitably, if a patient stays with me long enough, I do grow to love them.  What is not to love?  They sit with me hour after hour, week after week.  And with moxie and faith, they take the leap of full emotional exposure.  The necessary plunge into the unknown of their interior worlds – complete with its story, its heartbreaking ramifications and the ever desire to be whole and free. 

I once heard a mentor of mine define psychotherapy in this just way.  A symptomatic patient enters therapy and in so doing, he or she brings to your consulting room all their unlikeable parts.  This is their “edge” – the well-worn defenses that have kept them from getting what they want out of life.   As the physician been assigned to the job, it is my task to make their unlikeable parts likeable, to mollify that edge.  In that process,  I am not some robot in a factory but rather I am fully engaged  – both as a trained clinician and a human being.  I have my own thoughts and feelings on this side of the room.   And over time, the predominance of these feelings is in the realm of love, warmth and respect  – all going in the direction of the person sitting across from me. 

I know that life is indeed complex and it takes much more than love to cure emotional pain.  But when life offers you genuine affection and benevolence as a sidebar, by damn, enjoy it.    Meanwhile, I am going to keep drinking my coffee, hearing your stories (that are really not much different from my own) and falling in love over and over and over again.   I do love my job.