Got Angst? Give Thanks!

This month, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving.  We will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives.  We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, will also be aware of feeling anxious.  Our sense of anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that we so often experience as part of the rest of the holiday season.  Lucky for us, Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote — in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember.  Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like.  We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful.  If we are giving a talk and notice that some members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation.  If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went.  We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically.  For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences.  Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal each day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members.  Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence — one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you will find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks when you’re feeling angst, not only in the coming weeks — or on Thanksgiving — but throughout the whole year.  What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude?  What are ways in which you already do?

Featured image credit: petarpaunchev / 123RF Stock Photo

What Do You Choose to See?

"Duck-Rabbit illusion". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see. — Barry Neil Kaufman

What do you see when you look at the featured image for today’s post? A duck? A rabbit? Both? If you see the image as one of these options — a duck, let’s say — are the other ways in which you could see the image — as a rabbit, or as both a duck and rabbit — somehow “not true”? If multiple ways of seeing the imagine are possible, which one of them do you prefer? Which one works better for you, in a manner of speaking?

While these kinds of questions may seem a bit silly when we’re talking about an image (You may be asking yourself, “Do I see a duck, a rabbit, or both … what does it matter?”), I contend that the considerations they represent have significant implications in our day-to-day lives. To quote Barry Neil Kaufman, “The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.” In my own experience, I’ve noticed over and over again that what I choose to see in myself and the world around me, including other people — what they say, and what they do — has a profound influence on the ways in which I’m able to respond and interact. Seeing multiple possibilities for meaning in any given experience gives me a wider range of possible responses; I’m often able to choose one of the more helpful options, then.

Imagine, for instance, that I am standing at the counter in a coffee shop placing my order and paying for my purchase. The cashier doesn’t smile, greet me, inquire how my day is going, or thank me for my business. In this situation, I could see the cashier as “rude” or “disrespectful,” and feel slighted, or succumb to my anxious thinking in the form of self-doubt, and worry that I have done something wrong. With these interpretations as context, I might snap at the cashier for being “rude,” or keep my mouth shut and leave the coffee shop disgruntled, either way muttering under my breath as I stride out the door, vowing never to order from that person again. I might feel embarrassed, thinking that I did something to offend the cashier, and accuse myself yet again of being a “loser” in social situations as I shuffle back to my car, berating myself.

Alternatively, I could see the cashier as not having been as courteous to me as I would have liked. Perhaps the cashier is feeling unusually stressed, or distracted by her own worries. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I just don’t know what is going on for her. Even if I did know the cashier’s story, I wouldn’t know — without asking, anyway — how the cashier would explain her own sense of her behavior in this moment. If I could allow myself to see the cashier’s behavior as something less offensive to me than “disrespectful,” I might be able to wish her well — regardless of my discontent — and decide to address the issue of unsatisfying service the next time that I experience it, if I experience it again.

From my own perspective, one of these ways of seeing this experience at the coffee shop works better for me than the others. If I give myself the opportunity to choose the option of softening my gaze — not looking so harshly, or even looking kindly, on the cashier and myself — I will leave the coffee shop in a better mood, feeling good about myself and how I responded, with a sense of calm and confidence — happier all around! While I will be aware of my disappointment in the cashier’s behavior, in the service that I received from her, I will not be consumed by the gap between this experience and the expectations that I had for the interaction, or by a negative way of seeing the cashier, her behavior, or myself that foments feelings of anger, indignation, resentment, or anxiety.

There is always more than one way to look at things. In any given situation, we can choose to see in the way that works best for us, given the kind of experience that we want to have, how we want to live our lives, the type of person that we want to be, and more.

In your life, who or what are you seeing in ways that aren’t working? What would a different way of seeing be? If you saw differently, what would the benefits be? What would support you in making this shift in perception? Why are you waiting?

Featured image: “Duck-Rabbit illusion”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

“It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”

I have seen a cartoon recently that gives me a chuckle, and prompts reflection, every time I think of it.  In the foreground, the cartoon features a male physician sitting at his desk, looking at an X-ray.  On the other side of the desk, we see the patient whose X-ray the physician has in hand.  Although the cartoon is in Spanish, and the physician addresses his patient as “señor Gustavo,” I can hardly imagine a reader in the U.S. who wouldn’t recognize the patient as one of Jim Henson’s most famous Muppets, Kermit the Frog, who croons the song, “Bein’ Green,” with its well-known line, “It’s not easy bein’ green.”

In the X-ray that the physician is holding, we can see the bones of a human forearm inside the outline of the patient’s body, the wrist at neck level, and the hand occupying the head, thumb beneath the lower jaw and the rest — well, you know how a puppet works.  Loosely translated, the physician is saying to Kermit, who has been known as “la rana Gustavo” — Gustavo the Frog — in Spain, “Have a seat, Mr. Gustavo … what I have to tell you may come as a complete shock.”  There is another version of this cartoon making its way around Facebook, I’ve found, in which the physician’s words to Kermit are rendered, “What I’m about to tell you is gonna change your life forever.  Are you really sure you want to know it?”  To see the cartoon, click here.

When I think about this cartoon, I find myself reflecting on what Kermit hasn’t realized on his own, presumably, and is about to learn from his physician: in spite of any sense of autonomy and independence that Kermit has experienced and thought of himself as having in his life, he has been a puppet — not in nearly as much control of himself as he may have imagined.  For me, this idea parallels a realization that I often experience, contrastingly, whenever I have been feeling especially stymied or “stuck” — so, not free — in my life, either with a sense of being victimized, or angry at and blaming a situation, another person, or other people for my discontent or pain.  In these scenarios — and frequently only when things start to shift, unfortunately — I realize with a groan that I have been a puppet of sorts, subjecting myself to limited ways of thinking and talking about what I have identified as “the problem,” whatever that may be.  I have been a puppet to perspectives that have not been working for me, in other words, and I did not even notice.  Being held, so tightly and unconsciously, in the grip of these particular ways of thinking and talking has been the real issue for me all along!

Take, as just one example, the reaction that I had last fall to the arrival of colder temperatures in the area where I live.  I had been working since mid-July to develop a new, healthy habit of running outside, and I had been excited about my achievements, enjoying the process.  When cold weather came sooner than I was expecting, I began to complain, feeling reluctant to hit the trail in my shorts and a t-shirt, and grumpy about the idea of moving my running inside — to a treadmill at the gym — or investing in warmer running gear.  I found myself oscillating between an emotional state of “Woe is me!” and feeling mad at the weather, an experience that I let grind my routine to a sulky halt for a few days.  In my pouting, I was a puppet to my feelings of disappointment, fear, frustration, and loss.  When I finally acknowledged to myself that, over the past few months, I had actually learned to love running outside, didn’t want to run in the cold, and would really miss running outside when there was snow and ice on the ground, I decided that, as much sense as my sulking made under the circumstances, I wanted to have a different experience.  Approaching the situation from the perspective of asking myself, “What’s the opportunity here?” I identified at least a couple of options that were open to me: I could learn about and purchase warmer workout gear, and tackle the trail in the colder temperatures with this added insulation, and/or I could get a head start on moving my running indoors for the winter, knowing that there would likely be days at a stretch of snow and ice on the ground when I would not want to run outside, even with warmer clothes.  I ended up choosing to take my running indoors earlier than I had anticipated.  I was already looking forward to warmer weather, but in the meantime, I was still running, which is what I really wanted to be doing.

How do you deal with finding yourself a puppet to perspectives that harm or hinder you, rather than help you, or even other people?  If you took to heart the idea that you can choose to think and talk about things in ways that work for you and others, that you don’t have to be a puppet to the less helpful ways, how would this change you — your life — forever?

Featured image credit: alptraum / 123RF Stock Photo