Look for the Blue Marker?

“I see one up ahead. Thank God, we’re not lost. We’re still on the right trail.”

I often use my blue marker metaphor with couples and individuals. You know. Those painted blue lines on random trees that offer relieving reassurance that you are not lost in the middle of the woods. That even though you feel directionless, as if you are walking in circles going nowhere, you indeed are still on the path going forward. Hope remains alive.

Those blue markers can be lifesavers. Particularly, as you walk deeper into the unknown. Whether to create a new marriage, one never ventured, with no specific blueprint. Or, to evolve into a deeper, souped up you. All signs that point to progress and positive change are welcome.

Furthermore, the blue paint might be all we are going to get. Yes, we might wish to be at the end of the journey. Or at least have a guarantee that we will get there in one piece. But, the life we get to live doesn’t offer a known outcome. We are living in the middle of a thick-treed now.

So, give up the end game and keep searching for painted blue signs of momentum and passage. That’s how you will know you are on the right course.

What is Your Trigger?

What is your biggest trigger?

You know. The event, incident, button that when pushed, your insides explode. You lose all sense of rationality. Your grounded adult self flies out the window like a large pink gum wad onto the passing highway. Your regressed inner child takes over the wheel and quickly steers you off the road into a trench. You are hopeless to stay moderated and sane. That train has long left the station.

We all have these triggers. You are normal that way.

Furthermore, these bubbles of ours tend to burst at the most unexpected times. And most often with the folks we are closest to, those we rub elbows with as we pass in the hallway, rushing to beat to the bathroom – our partners and children.

Yes, we all have these triggers because we all have unhealed emotional wells deep within. They are sitting, waiting for your attention. Desperately wanting you to notice so that they can finally be recognized enough to be repaired. So, any opportunity for them to jump out and say, “There. That. Listen to me!” they will. They are pleaded with you toward a better you.

Learn to identify your triggers. It’s the first step in both managing your reactivity and healing your pain. Believe me – your spouse and kids will thank you.

One tip to helping you pinpoint what sets you off: if it’s hysterical, it’s historical. Something leftover from childhood haunts you. Yes, you are pissed that your teenager lives like a zoo animal. And yes, you are sad that your favorite character was killed off on Game of Thrones. But if the feeling is over-the-top. Out of proportion to the situation. Outsized and outweighed. Then you know that something else is going on for you. You have been triggered.

So, listen to yourself with gentle curiosity. No shame, no blame. Just be the wise, safe guide that chooses to grasp every chance you get to be the best you possible.

Definition Day: Shame vs. Toxic Shame

Definition Day:

Guilt: The painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions. I did/did not do something wrong. I shouldn’t have eaten the whole box of cookies. I should have gone to see my grandmother before she died. Guilt motivates me toward action. I will exercise more today. In the future, I will prioritize relationships in my life. Guilt is appropriate and moves us toward positive behavioral change.

Toxic Guilt: Guilt that comes from self-judgments regarding something done wrong when there is no actual wrongdoing. Such guilt is inappropriate and self-induced, often stemming from old messages we internalized from childhood. Toxic guilt is not helpful to anyone – you or someone else. It can move us along the continuum into shame.

Shame: The painful feeling about oneself as a person – I am bad. I am wrong. The central object of negative evaluation is the self, not the thing done. When shame arises, I am motivated to hide. I want to put a bag over my head and escape to the corner. Don’t look at me for I am not worthy. A dose of shame is healthy and necessary. It allows me to stay human. Without it, I am a sociopath – unable to humbly admit fault and feel empathy toward others.

Toxic Shame: Think shame multiplied. I live in a state of perpetual worthlessness. I am flawed, diminished and never measure up. Such an emotional state can ruin your life and relationships. For when I live in this dark place, I am locked in my own self-centered bubble. I cannot see beyond me to acknowledge another person. Like being stuck in quicksand, I am lost in my feelings of depravity. I am enclosed in self-reproach.

Want to know the cure for shame? Air. Yes, when we dare to talk about our feelings of worthlessness and they are met with compassion, we heal. Shame cannot survive in the light. It feeds on darkness.

So, talk. Come out, come out, wherever you are. It’s just me. Another human being. Trying to make it one day at a time, just like you. It’s life’s damnest secret – that at the deepest core, we are all the same – we are all in this together.

Losing My Mama-Mama

I lost my mama this week. Not my mama. But my mama-mama. The woman that raised me. The one that shielded me. The one that fried chicken in Crisco (with milk gravy on the side) and made strawberry cake for my birthday. The one that hugged me every morning, so tightly that I can still smell her love. The one that watched her stories as she ironed my school uniform and sang gospel songs as she hand-crafted our family’s dinner for the day. The one from whom I threw away cigarettes from her purse because I couldn’t afford her to die and leave me without my fried chicken and strawberry cake and life-giving embrace.

Grief is a perverse bastard. She stays faraway unless, of course, you choose to love. Loving requires letting go and that is grief’s opportunity to steal center stage. That bitch grandstands, swooping in and taking over, like an Oklahoma twister that grips your body and soul without rescue.

Yes, love is costly.

But, in the case of my mama-mama, I can’t fathom my childhood without her. Her consistent love, disguised in southern cooking and enthusiastic affection, was beyond price.

Rest in peace, Mrs. Russell. Wherever you are, it’s your time now. Put your tired feet up and let the Universe love on you as you loved on so many of us.

Growing Older While Growing Bigger

I think it was a Wednesday morning. My new, sweet Zen-like alarm app decided I needed to get out of bed. As I turned over to tell it to shut-the-hell-up, my stiffened knee refused to straighten.

“Hmm.” I wondered, refusing to let a small bout of physical pain stop me. “Must have been that jump rope at CrossFit yesterday.”

Then, with my usual full-fledged denial and optimistic will, I put my feet on the floor. Walking – that is without a painful limp – was not going to happen. I hobbled my way into the kitchen, reaching first for the Advil, something I would normally never do ahead of coffee.

“This will make it all better,” I stupidly thought to myself. “How many of these orange candies are within the legal limit?”

Four hours pass. I was still in pain, walking like an old woman. A week passed. Seven days of Google-endorsed cures – ice, heat, rest, an ugly Ace brace, extra attention from my family, more Advil – and still, no change. My damn knee required me to pull out all stops – a bonafide doctor.

“Can you make it brand new, Doc?”

“Unfortunately, no. I can’t make your knee thirty years younger. Too many miles on those legs to turn back now.”

Fucking doctor. He is far too realistic about my growing physical limitations. Tell me I am not the first person that wants some miracle doctor that can keep me young, keep my body from growing old and tiring out. One that can preserve my body as a working machine – doing what I want it to do, when I want it to do it, with little maintenance required.

Not possible, huh? Ugh.

So far, at least, nobody is immune from growing old. Bodies are not designed to last forever. Each day moves us closer to greater physical limitation.

But, compared to Dr.-Bad-News, my line of work provides some good news. You ready for some?

Our inner psyches – our emotional cores – are not limited as we age. In fact, they can expand beyond imagination. Our capacity for vitality never ceases.

Are folks emotionally limited? Sure. They cross our paths each and every day. We smack into their walls and edges. Wives drag them into therapy. They talk incessantly about wanting to be happy yet stay committed to misery. Yes, emotional limitation is pervasive and can dress in a wide-array of costume.

And, it has little to do with age. Mind you, we can go from soup to stew to Jello to concrete. Time does harden internal habit. But, unlike my worn knee, emotional restriction it is not a given. It is a choice. Restoration is possible.

So, join me, will you? I don’t want to be the only wrinkled old lady rocking it out in the wheel chair. My body will fade, but, I will be damned if she’s taking my spirit down too. That shit is precious and will not, dare not, be contained.

Accountability vs. Blame

“Is this the part where we blame the parents?” says one wise-ass patient, always trying – and needing – to predict and control the process.

Yes, it is stereotypical and it is true. The tricky but essential part of healing – where we pass it back to no longer carry it ourselves or pass it forward to the next generation.

Think about it. Babes are innocent. They did not ask to be born. And other than their genetic blueprint – which we’ve come to know is telling in and of itself – children absorb what they see, what they sense emotionally and what they are told. Unprocessed pain in our families of origin soaks into the psyches of young children like yesterday’s dishwater into a new sponge. In other words, shit rolls downhill. Children don’t have the wherewithal to understand what it is happening nor the power to do anything about it. To them, it is their normal. They can’t say, “Ah. Dad is an alcoholic and Mom is unavailable. I’ll just pack my bags and move down the street to Johnny’s house. His parents seem nice.”

Nope, kids are stuck.

Fortunately, most adapt. Doing whatever it is they need to do to survive an imperfect family. One where more or less, their needs don’t get met 100% of the time, 100% of the way they need and want them to.

Then these kids grow up, becoming some form of adult on the outside while carriers of familial pain on the inside. Their unconscious is now scripted to react to what they experienced – by either repeating or countering their history. However, the pain continues. I am now a carrier in the line and will inevitably pass such on to the fresh offspring of my loins.

Unless, I am brave enough to get off the train. To stop this cycle of generational emotional violence. To call the family tree what it is – dysfunctional. To look backwards and say – your shit, not mine. I am responsible for healing the battle scars lying in me, but I did not cause this pain. You did by not doing your work.

Is that blaming? I prefer to call it accountability. This is mine, that is yours. I will no longer bear your pain. Rather, in giving it back to you, I choose healing which not only frees me from the cloak of shame, but releases my need to cast such chains to the next generation.

How do we pass it back? First, we speak the truth – at least to ourselves, a safe third party and maybe or maybe not to our original family. And then we grieve. The catch-all process of allowing space for all our feelings about what we got and what we didn’t get. What should have been and what went missing. The anger, pain, hurt and shame holed up in my body. The damaging impact of growing up in an imperfect system.

Often, while moving through this process, we might meet compassion. We realize that our parents did the best they could from the stories they were forced to survive. We forgive them for their humanity. For thinking – albeit wrongly – that they could raise a child before coming to terms with their internal well of emotional pain. But true compassion cannot skip grief. All in proper order.

So, forget blame. Let’s focus on accountability. That is how generations evolve psychologically. One honest moment after another.

Just Be Willing

Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s Washington DC. But I get many competent professional (and gorgeous) single women in my office trying to navigate and succeed at the dating game. I must say, I am glad to not be in their shoes. It’s a jungle out there.

When asked, or when I can’t keep my mouth shut any longer, I tell them the #1 quality they need look for in a partner – willingness.

Willingness to do what?

A willingness to show up. To own my shit. To work my shit. A willingness to take responsibility for the part I contributed to the failure of my prior relationships. A willingness to “roll up my sleeves” when the relationship gets difficult. A willingness to be generous when being nasty would be more fun and temporarily satisfying. A willingness to not always have things go my way. A willingness to temper my ego and swallow humble pie. A willingness to stretch and grow beyond my comfort zone.

Last night, I witnessed such willingness. On my green couch sat a distressed couple. She tearfully reported yet another incident when her husband failed to show-up for her emotionally. Trying to budge her off her well-weathered victim dime, I questioned if she had asked him for what she needed.

“I no longer consider him to be my go-to person,” she said, understandably protecting herself while justifying her victimhood.

I reminded her that we are working to create a new and different marriage.

I then encouraged her to ask him (admittedly, I was fearful as to how he’d answer) … is he available to be her go-to person?

She bravely took the risk. Right there in my office. Right there on my green couch.

She turned to him and asked, “Are you willing to be my go-to person?”

Without hesitation, he looked at her and said, “I am. I just don’t know how.”

Wow. Silence. A golden moment. It, he, was priceless.

Give me willingness and a secure, sustainable partnership make.

Go find it, ladies … and gentlemen. And more importantly, be it.