Man Cleaning Glasses

Through a Glass Darkly

Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely.  — P. J. O’Rourke

I was in my freshman or sophomore year of college — it is all just a blur, now — when I got my first pair of eyeglasses.  I had been sitting in a large, lecture-style class when I noticed that I could not make out the words that the professor was writing on the chalkboard in the front of the room.  My peers were not having the same difficulty.  I tried sitting in a number of different seats, hoping that a change in lighting or in my distance from the front of the room would help, but nothing made much of a difference.  The course was one in music history and appreciation, and for a couple of weeks, I was playing my own game of musical chairs!   When it was clear that moving around the room, developing a French-Stewart squint, wasn’t helping me decipher the writing on the chalkboard, off I went to see an optometrist.

Because I knew that both of my parents had gotten glasses as children, I was not surprised by the idea that it might finally be “my time”; truthfully, however, I had been hoping that I had escaped any genetic predisposition to need corrective eyewear, and had even managed to pride myself on getting through my childhood and teenage-years without the slightest indication of trouble with my vision (as if I had something to do with it!).  As much as getting glasses was a blow to my pride, though, wearing them was a greater blow to my vanity; I did not see myself as one of those people so easily able to pull off the look that we would later call “geeky chic.”  Worst of all, perhaps, was that I had not yet matured out of exceptionally oily adolescent skin, and I was always navigating the world, then,  through lenses that were covered with smudges.

Given my own experience with eyeglasses, I have often found the image of eyeglasses helpful in explaining the idea that, as human beings, each of us views our world through a specific set of lenses.  These lenses are comprised of thoughts and beliefs that we have developed over time out of our individual experiences, and in the context of constructing meanings of those experiences in our conversations and relationships with other people.  I think of everyone as wearing a pair of invisible eyeglasses (glasses of perception) all of the time.  Some of the lenses in these invisible glasses (such as the lenses I had in college, covered with smudges) limit our vision, restrict what we’re able to see, and so reduce the range of ways in which we’re able to show up in our lives; other lenses (think of those that are clean and clear) augment or otherwise expand our vision, help us to see more of what is possible, and support our focus on whatever we decide matters most to us in our lives — by opening up options of conscious emotional and behavioral response to situations that we encounter.  Please understand that I am not proposing the notion that we can have direct, unmediated (godlike?) access to the “reality” of things (which could be one interpretation of having glasses of perception with crystal clear lenses), or even that we judge the “dirty” set of lenses as “bad” and the “clean” set as “good.”  I am suggesting that the clear or unsmudged set of lenses (having thoughts and beliefs that help us rather than hold us back) offers us increased opportunities to perceive a wider range of possibilities for feeling and responding in any given circumstance, and so the freedom to pick which feelings and behavior we think will work best, or how we want to show up as we move in the direction that we want to go.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are seated in a crowded cafe and think that you may see a friend at a table across the room.  You are wearing a pair of eyeglasses with smudged lenses (or regular sunglasses with smudged lenses, perhaps, if you do not wear prescription eyewear).  You can’t see very clearly with dirty lenses, and feel less certain, less confident, as a result.  You mutter under your breath, a bit perplexed and disgruntled, “Now, is that Susie over there?”  You respond tentatively, even anxiously — finally deciding that because you can’t really tell if that woman is Susie or not, you are not going to approach her, call out, or wave (the cafe is pretty casual!).

If, on the other hand, you are wearing a pair of glasses with clean lenses, you will likely feel less anxious in this same situation, saying to yourself, “Hey, that’s my friend, Susie, across the room there!”  You will move with greater confidence, deciding to get up from your own table to pay her a visit, perhaps, or to call out to her — waving, and smiling widely — “‘Hey, Susie!  Over here!’”

Now, most of us, I venture, prefer the vision of clear, confident energy in the second of these two responses (we can call this energy “anabolic” since we so often experience variations of it as “building us up”); however, if we have gotten accustomed over the course of time to looking through dirty lenses in our invisible glasses, we might not even realize how profoundly these lenses — the often unconscious thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, those people around us, others, and the world — are dimming our view, and so our experience of our life, with a very different energy (i.e., “catabolic” — contracting, and draining since it “breaks us down”)!  In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider talks about examples of what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as falling into four main categories: limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions, and “gremlins” (with “gremlin” being one way to reference what we also often call our inner critic).

Sometimes, as happens in the story that Schneider tells, it helps to examine our lenses with the support of someone who wants us to be able to see all the possibilities for thought, feeling, and action that are available to us, so that we can pick which among these will help us move in the direction that we want to go — with a sense of calm and confidence.  In the weeks that follow, I’ll be addressing each of these four obstacles to our experience of anabolic energy one at a time as topics for this blog.  I’ll be offering further definitions and examples, explaining the ways in which I find these ideas relating to the kinds of anxious thinking identified in cognitive-behavioral approaches to therapy, and exploring ideas for how we can respond when we notice ourselves feeling out-of-focus, have the sense that the vision we want for ourselves is blurred — not on account of myopia or astigmatism — but because of smudges of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs on the lenses of our perceptions.

To your calm and confidence!

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.

Woman in Field of Grass

The “Wild and Precious” Present

I’m currently participating in a writing group that meets on a monthly basis. Between each of our meetings, one of the facilitators sends out a topic on which all of us in the group are invited to reflect and write for our next session together. Today, as my post for this blog, I would like to share the inspiration for the group’s most recent topic — an excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver — and what came to my mind related to anxiety as I thought about it.

Here in Indianapolis, Indiana, we have had snow and ice on the ground in the neighborhood where I live since the day after Christmas (as I write these words, it is January 8). Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t mind snow, at least initially. I don’t even mind ice — well, for a few days, anyway. After almost two weeks, though, as beautiful as I may find the snow and ice at first, I am past ready for the stuff to melt. Then, I’m okay if it starts all over again — really. I just want a break! Actually, to be absolutely honest, I want an opportunity to walk to the mailbox at the end of the work day without ice skating in my slick-soled dress shoes — to not have a break (of an arm or a leg, that is!). If I were on a reality TV show during any given winter, I would be the cast member (in)famous for wacky arms-waving, yelling-out-loud (and cursing under my breath!) incidents of nearly losing my footing every time I walked out the front door. Yeah, I’m that guy. I’m sure sometimes that my real-life neighbors get together, snickering behind the curtains of the window with the best vantage point, just to watch.

Given this winter context, the topic for the writing group — a couple of lines from a poem called “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver (House of Light, 1990) — strikes me as especially ironic, and welcome. After so many days of snow and ice on the ground, I’m ready for a bit of summer — however I can get it! In the poem, the narrator contemplates creation, the company of a grasshopper that eats sugar out of her hand, and she enjoys herself — just being — in fields of grass on a summer day. The lines that the group facilitator asks us to reflect on for our writing this month come from the very end of the poem, when the narrator turns to the audience with a question. In my own head, I hear the question as the narrator’s response to an imagined reprimand for spending the day in what some people would surely interpret as an indolent, even self-indulgent fashion:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What comes up for me when I read these last lines of Oliver’s poem is what I heard the narrator just describe doing with her own “wild and precious” life during a summer day that she spends in fields of grass — attending to the moment, to her experience in the moment. I hear the narrator’s question, then, as a call to live in the present — a practice that, in my own experience, is so often a challenge when I am feeling anxious. Anxiety has a knack for pulling me out of the present moment, whatever may be happening, whether I’m judging the experience that I’m having as a positive or negative one, and setting my mind racing along the lines of “What if … ” and “Then what … ?” If I’m in the middle of an unpleasant experience, the anxiety does not help — I feel only more miserable, in fact. If I’m in the middle of a pleasant experience, the anxiety cheats me out of enjoying it. Either way, anxiety gets me worrying about things that may never happen, at the expense of being present to whatever is happening in the here-and-now, and being able to make conscious choices about how I want to think and feel about those things, and how I want to respond behaviorally. What is it that I plan to do with my one “wild and precious” life? My own answer to Oliver’s narrator is that I plan to be as present as I can manage to be. Like everyone else with a similar goal (I know that you’re out there!), I am always learning how to do so.

When I feel anxious, I’m aware that I have begun to focus my thinking on fears and doubts. I get caught up in my head this way, with side effects that I notice in my body: an upset stomach, palpitating heart, sweating, and restlessness. When I feel anxious, I am plagued by restlessness of my mind as well, in the form of poor concentration — on everything except what I’m feeling anxious about! What helps me when I’m feeling anxious is to bring myself back into the present moment; I am often able to do this by getting out of my head, centering and grounding myself in the sensory experiences of my body. I may take a few slow, deep breaths, concentrating on my experience of those breaths (the sensation of air filling my lungs, my abdomen expanding, and then the reverse) instead of the anxious thoughts that are spinning in my head. I may take a few sips of cold water, noticing the temperature of the water in my mouth, against my tongue, and down my throat as I swallow. At this point, I may then remind myself of what is going well in my life, a few reasons for feeling grateful, giving thanks, in the present. If I have more time, I may decide to take a walk (if there is not snow and ice on the ground!) or go to the gym, listen to music that comforts and soothes me, or meditate. I may use the idea of “Worry Time,” postponing my worry until a certain period later in the day; when that time comes, then, I usually find myself bored by my anxiety before my allotted “Worry Time” is over.

Now, if your experiences of anxiety are anything like mine, they may feel a bit like losing your footing on the ice — out of control, scary, potentially embarrassing if someone is around to see, tending to induce anxiety about having another such experience in the future (which means, then, a sense of anxiety about anxiety … ack!). Clearly, being able to be present to the moment in the midst of such experiences can be a challenge. As corny as this may sound, I often say to myself, “Wow! I’m feeling really anxious right now! How do I want to handle this experience of anxiety in a way that is going to feel helpful to me?” I remind myself that what I’m going through is only temporary, and won’t kill me. Though I would much rather be experiencing myself as “idle and blessed” in fields of grass on a summer day than seized with a sense of anxiety, whatever the context, I do my best to practice the kind of radical attention to the “wild and precious” present moment of life that I find exemplified by the narrator in Oliver’s poem. I think of the present as “wild” because, even with all of my anxious “What if … ?” and “Then what … ?” thinking, I know that I can’t actually control the outcome of events with that thinking (though anxiety constantly tries to convince me otherwise!). I think of the present as “precious” because, when I’m able to make conscious decisions in the moment about how I’m thinking about things, feeling, and how I want to respond behaviorally, the benefits to increasing my sense of calm and confidence are invaluable.

Here’s to your own increasing sense of calm and confidence!

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.

Sour Face

A Lemon for Your Thoughts?

Several years ago, I had a friend who was in the market for a new car. In the process of car shopping with this friend, I decided that I would sell the car that I was driving and get a new car for myself as well. I got my new car, which was actually just new to me, and for a while everything with the car went smoothly. Once the warranty on the car expired, however, I began to have problem after problem; some months, the car seemed to be in the repair shop as often as it was in on the road! One day, while my car was in the shop for the umpteenth time, a coworker (who had given me many rides to work) challenged me to consider that my car could be called a “lemon.” The car had seemed fine at first; in fact, it had worked fine — for a while! The car wasn’t working the way I wanted any longer, though; it wasn’t going to be able to take me where I wanted to go.

As we begin 2013, many of us will be thinking about where we want to go this year — figuratively, at least, in terms of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives. If we aren’t happy with our weight, for example, we may be planning a new gym routine, or to change our eating habits. If we are tired of losing track of when bills are due, or where we have left our keys, we may be considering ways in which we can improve our organization at home. So often, whatever it is that we want to be different in the new year, we frame a related resolution in terms of something that we “need” or “have” to do. We think, “I need to lose 10 pounds — no more excuses!” or “I’m so sick of not being able to find anything — I just have to get organized!” And why wouldn’t we have these kinds of pressured thoughts, given the sense of anxious urgency that we sometimes experience to make these changes in our lives? Unfortunately, as helpful as such thoughts would seem to be in motivating us to take action, and supporting us to maintain what we start, I don’t know that they work very well for many of us; in fact, I would argue that these kinds of thoughts — “I need to …” and “I have to …” — can actually get in our way of creating the differences that we want for ourselves, in our lives. Just as we can talk about some cars as “lemons,” we can talk about certain thoughts as “lemons,” too; they end up being more trouble than they are worth, and sooner or later we realize that they just aren’t able to take us where we want to go.

What makes these kinds of thoughts “lemons”? What’s wrong with saying to ourselves, “I need to …” or “I have to …”? Let me clarify. From my perspective, the issue is not one of right or wrong, but what works best or most often for us, and what does not. In my own experience, when I am thinking in terms of “I need to …” or “I have to …” I notice an internal grimace, an energetic “sour face,” so to speak (think about the expression on someone’s face when that person tastes the tartness of a lemon). For me, “I need to …” and “I have to …” create a sense of motivational “drag” rather than enthusiasm or excitement. I even start to feel a bit anxious about what it is that I have resolved to do. “I really need to get to the gym today!” “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening!” I have come to associate the tense response that I experience with the idea that these thoughts come from a fearful or an already anxious frame of mind. “I really need to get to the gym today because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening; it will be awful if I don’t get it published on Monday morning like I told myself I would!” Do you hear the anxious all-or-nothing thinking in “I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” and the catastrophic thinking in “it will be awful [if I don't finish this blog post by Sunday evening] …”? How about the possibility of selective attention and memory in the second of these examples if I told you that one time, I had trouble getting a post done by Sunday evening, but was able to work on it on Monday, and just published it Monday evening, then, instead of Monday morning? The world did not end.

So what’s the alternative? For me, what works better — and feels better, frankly — is to think in terms of “I want to …” or “I can …” (desire and opportunity) rather than “I need to …” or “I have to …” (desperation and obligation). Now, I can almost hear the objections that I have made to this notion in the past, which are perhaps yours as well: “But I really do need to lose this extra weight because …” For some of us, the reasons for thinking in terms of “need” in this situation may range from controlling diabetes to keeping up with young children to fitting into our pants (“New clothes cost money, and we’re saving for a trip to Florida. Oh, no … what will I look like in a bathing suit?”). However, there is also a “want” that goes along with each of these scenarios that we can apply to our resolution to get to the gym. “I want to get to the gym because I want to keep up with my kids. Plus, it will feel so good to have gone to the gym, to be able to say that I went, that I did it!” For many of us, “I want to keep up with my kids!” will create a very different feeling than “I really need to get to the gym because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” We can talk about this different feeling as having a different kind of energy — anabolic, versus catabolic (terms that Bruce D. Schneider, author of Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), has borrowed from the vocabulary of biology and physiology in relation to the processes of metabolism). Anabolic energy builds us up, supports us, while catabolic energy drains us, tears us down, and fuels our experiences of anxiety. While the sense of pressure that we get from catabolic energy can have short-term benefits — think of a cheetah on the plains of Africa that bursts into high-speed to catch its prey — this kind of energy ends up wearing us and others out if we keep it up for too long (even the cheetah can’t keep up these extreme speeds indefinitely!). For many of us, the catabolic energy of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts just can’t take us as far as (so, ultimately, where) we want to go, and can actually get in our way, then, of creating the positive, sustained experiences of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.

Whenever this time of year rolls around, and I find myself reflecting on what I want to be different for myself, in my life, in the coming new year, I think back to the car that I bought several years ago, and how — for a time, in the context of getting back and forth to work, around town to run errands, etc. — it served me well. When I began to have problems with the car on a regular basis, I had the opportunity to re-evaluate its value to me, and determined that it was adding to my sense of stress and anxiety; I could no longer count on it to take me where I wanted to go. The same has been true for me of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts, and the same may be true for you as well. These thoughts are not special to the end of any given year, of course, but tend to surface in our practice of making New Year’s resolutions. As we begin 2013, I want to think more often in terms of “I want to …” and “I can …” so that I can experience the anabolic energy that will help me reach my other goals. I want to improve my organization at home so that I can spend less time trying to find my keys, or worrying about which bills have yet to be paid, and more time working on my blog!

Where do you want to go?

Best wishes for a wonderful 2013!

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.

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