Do You Need “Amazing” Experiences to Feel Alive?

Experience is the new it thing. We’re experience junkies, chasing experiences like storm chasers chase tornados. Walk into any shop and it’s all about the experience—free water, espresso, salespeople that like you, home-baked cookies, in-store entertainment, shoulder rubs, and the list goes on. On social media, it’s all about posting photos of ourselves having amazing and of course one of a kind experiences: swimming in a pool of foam balls, navigating an ice palace before it melts, escaping an escape room, diving inside a real-life snow globe, scaling a mountain of jelly beans or a modern Mr. potato head, imagining your way out of an Alice in Wonderland maze. And not to be forgotten, the stand-alone experiences to enhance our well-being: sound baths, mindfulness sessions, impromptu (not) sing-alongs, nap packages, chanting, stretching sessions, love parties (not to be confused with other kinds of love parties), workout jams, isolation tanks, and the like. We’re officially addicted to experience.

I’ve purchased and participated in a lot of these types of experiences and the feeling I almost always walk away with is one of emptiness and a low-level despair. There’s a depressing quality to the whole experience of experience-chasing. These cool, unique, manufactured experiences feel inauthentic and disconnected and I’m left with a deep feeling of meaninglessness and alienation. I’m supposed to feel like I’m participating in the experience, part of what’s happening, but I actually feel like I’m a witness, and specifically, a witness to the end of the world. The experience itself feels isolated and disconnected and that’s exactly how I feel, no matter how loud the music’s pumping or yummy the snacks taste. So too, I walk away with an awareness of relentless chasing, of getting caught yet again searching for something outside myself to make my life complete. I’m left with a deep sense of the tragedy of the human condition. The emotional residue from these “amazing” experiences is a sense of disappointment, not just for the event, but in myself—that I bit the hook yet again, buying into the dream, the illusion, that my well-being or even happiness could be found in yet another unique experience, which like everything of this sort, will disappear even quicker than the pop-up shop it’s housed in.

We’ve turned experience itself into a product. No longer “in” life or part of the stream of life, we consume our experiences like we would any other object. As a result, we’re cut off, alienated from our direct experience, like fish trapped inside a baggie floating in the ocean—eternally thirsty. We crave the flow experience—full immersion in an activity, with no separation from experience, no separate “I” who’s living it. And yet, the more we crave immersion, the real experience of living, the more we’re compelled to create and consume these “amazing” representations of life, which only intensify our alienation from life.

So too, social media has convinced us that we’re supposed to be living a spectacular life without interruption. “Amazing” should be the norm. Extraordinary should be our ordinary. Why shouldn’t it?  Everyone else seems to be living an “amazing” life. We’re inundated with photos of those hanging off catamarans in Ibiza, clinking champagne glasses in Bali, dining on lobster at the coolest rooftop bar ever created, zip lining through a rain forest canopy, or just floating in the infinity pool of a lifetime. Why not?  It’s up to us to go and get it.

That said, we’re constantly searching for that fabulous experience that will make our life fabulous, and perhaps most importantly, make us fabulous. We’re always trying to keep up with the competition, to not end up the loser in the virtual war of comparison. There’s enormous pressure, all the time, to be doing something uber interesting, different, that no one else has ever done; we’re in search of that great experience that makes it sound like we’re someone who really “has” a life.

The effect of all these “amazing” experiences on us, paradoxically, is to drain the “amazingness” out of our lives. If we’re not experiencing something unique and extraordinary, we feel our lives to be boring, empty, and even meaningless. And yet, so often when we consume these manufactured experiences, we’re left back where we started: bored, empty and without a sense of meaning. Our pursuit of fun and the never-before experienced causes us to stop noticing and appreciating the mundane and routine, which is most of life. We’re putting all our eggs in the “amazing” experience basket and turning away, ignoring the vast majority of what makes up a life.

In the endless search to create aliveness, we deaden our appreciation for our inherent aliveness, the profundity of just being. Here, no matter where we are, disappears in our relentless quest for the next “amazing” there.

The more we chase experiences, the more convinced we become that meaning lies outside of us, in the next experience, the next hashtag.  And, if we could just find the right foam-pit/champagne-bubble/zip-line/haiku combination, we’d be okay. There would be a place we want to be, a place where we can finally be satisfied.

Furthermore, these one-off experiences are not connected to us, not integrated into our lives.  They don’t arise organically out of who we are. And perhaps more importantly even, we haven’t put any time or effort into creating them. We are just the disconnected consumers, ready with our Smartphones to record the sparkly emptiness. Real enjoyment happens, most often, when the experience is connected to us in some way and we have some skin in the game. While interesting in the moment, sometimes, the taste we’re left with is of our own craving and failure to create connection and meaning. But because the message is so strong that we can find what we need outside ourselves, the more we fail, the more desperately we search.

It’s important to ask ourselves what we’re looking for, really looking for, when we chase after experiences. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing interesting and fun things, being entertained or even distracted, but we seek experiences, often, with deeper ulterior motives, sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious. We chase unique and amazing experiences to complete us, create an interesting life, believe or prove that we are somebody, satisfy our longing for meaning, and many other reasons. All experiences are impermanent; they will end, and as such, cannot be fully satisfying.

We’re confusing new experiences with life, believing that life is something we have to go out and find, schedule, buy, and usually, post. We’ve forgotten that life is already happening with or without our effort; it’s already here, and the fact that this moment is happening is already “amazing.” We want to remember this and pay attention to what’s here in between the bubble pools and escape rooms. In truth, experience is happening without our needing to do or buy anything.

Where are your feet right now? Can you turn your attention here? What’s happening here? What’s to be learned from here? And maybe even, what’s already amazing about here?

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Mindful Speech: Using Your Words to Help Not Harm

When we want our kids to express themselves in ways other than tantrumming or throwing peas at the dog, we say “Use your words.”  But I often wonder, do adults really know how to use our words skillfully, in ways that help and don’t harm?

This morning I was on a train listening to a mother talking to her young son. The mother’s words were unkind and deliberately hurtful, in a way that demonstrated their damage instantaneously.  Yesterday I worked with a couple who came to see me to learn how to communicate better. For an hour, I listened to both of them using their words to criticize and humiliate each other.  Last week I said something to a friend that was not helpful for our relationship and not skillful in terms of expressing myself in a way that she could hear.  Add to all that, I just received an unsupportive email from a family member telling me all the reasons why I was wrong (and he was right) about something we had discussed.

It’s been a week of thinking about words, those spoken as well as those left unspoken. We’ve all had the experience of saying something and wishing we hadn’t.  And, we all know that once we do say something out loud to someone, we can never really take it back.  In Buddhism, there’s an important practice called “Right Speech.”  Right speech is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, the fundamental, eight-part instruction manual for  ending our suffering.  According to the Buddha, our own wellbeing is built upon the practice of not lying, not slandering, not using unkind or abusive language, and not gossiping.  In order to end our own suffering, we’re taught to speak truthfully and use words to promote harmony and understanding, reduce anger, and most of all, be helpful.

Sometimes I read the Buddha’s words on words and think about how radically different our world would be if more people practiced his version of right speech, as a path to happiness.  We’re living in a time when communication is constant and words are cheap; we throw our words around on social media and the like as if they hold no consequences and are without any real or lasting impact on those who receive them, and our world. Because we don’t have to witness or hear the impact of our words online or via text, we’ve forgotten (or are purposing ignoring) the effects of the words we choose to put into our world.

As we age, our relationship with words and speech changes.  When we’re young we tend to believe that what we have to say is extraordinary, original, and right in some overarching, universal way.  We have a strong need to be known and recognized, to establish who we are.  It feels important thus to have our words heard and to use our words to correct any wrongs we encounter.  Our words are representations of our self; without them, we don’t feel we exist.

But as we evolve and hopefully a bit of humility sets in, we often realize how little we actually know, how much less we have to say than we thought.  And, how much has already been said by those before us.  So too, we recognize how many versions of “right” actually exist—in addition to our own. If we’re lucky, we start to lose the sense of awe we have for our own words.  Furthermore, we come to understand how powerful our words actually are, how deeply the words we choose impact our relationships and our own wellbeing.  If we’re paying attention, we assume a greater sense of responsibility for the words we put into the world.

In my own life, I’ve been actively paying attention to and practicing (or doing my best to practice) right speech for some time now.  I do this in many ways but three in particular stand out.

First, I consciously try to use my words to provide support and encouragement.  Before speaking, I think about how my words can point the other person towards something positive in themselves, something they do well or that might feel helpful.  I see my words as having the potential and purpose to remind another person of their own goodness and possibility.

Second, I choose to relieve my words of the burden of having to perfectly and completely capture my actual experience.  Words are powerful and at the same time layers of experience exist that are not conveyable or formulate-able with words. And so, rather than demanding that my words be absolute representations of my experience, and furthermore that I be understood by others, completely, through my words, I now accept that some of what we live internally is simply is not language-able…and that’s okay.  It has to be okay because it is.

Finally, I used to believe that when my partner said something I disagreed with, it was my responsibility to explain why he was wrong.  I felt I had to engage with and correct the wrongs I perceived.

Right or mindful speech, blessedly, has taught me how to say less not more.  I now practice restraint of pen, tongue and thumb.  Not speaking, writing or texting when I feel bothered or perceive a wrong, has in fact been most significant in my practice because of how directly and deeply I feel its results, both in myself and in my relationships.  It turns out that silence, particularly at the times when I most want to use a lot of words, is in fact more powerful than anything I could say.  Saying nothing says a lot.

Practicing right speech, I see that when my partner says something I don’t agree with, remarkably, I don’t have to say anything at all.  I can leave anything and everything just as it is.  I don’t need to change anyone else’s ideas to own my own ideas; my truth does not depend on adjusting anyone else’s truth.  My partner and everyone else can have their experience and I can have my own, simultaneously.  If it’s something that we need to find consensus on, perhaps something about the kids, I can also choose to press the pause button when I hear something that feels very wrong.  I can say nothing in the moment and take time to think about what I want to say, if anything, and how to say it in a way that can be helpful to the situation and that the other person can hear.  I have learned, in fact, that I have all sorts of choices in how to employ the power of speech.

I have discovered that relationships run far more smoothly when I take the path of saying less not more, and even nothing at all sometimes.  And, that the peace I’m trying to create through words, the peace that is always my end goal, is paradoxically maintained through the absence of words.  It feels miraculous every time I say nothing and simply let go without a response or reaction, other than silence.  This, for me, is emotional freedom.  Many moons ago, Mahatma Ghandi beautifully used his words to say this: “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.”  And I would add, before using our words, we can ask, will these words help or harm?

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How Thoughts Get in the Way of Being Present

If just one word were to go in a time capsule to represent our society right now, the word would have to be “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is in every book title, workshop, conversation, idea, and everything else we now encounter.  We’re a society obsessed with mindfulness.  So what is this thing we’re all talking about and presumably trying to create? And how do we do it—be mindful?

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment, according to Jon Kabat Zinn, a leader and teacher in the mindfulness movement. While we can easily define it, it seems that being it is not so easy. Despite all our talk of mindfulness, studies indicate that most people are only here, paying attention in the present moment, 50% of the time.  That said we miss out on half our life, with our attention somewhere other than where we are.

Rather than take the usual, culturally-accepted model and suggest another thing to go out and become, get, do, study, buy, or otherwise accomplish in order to attain mindfulness, perhaps it’s wiser to turn our attention into ourselves and investigate what gets in the way of our being present.  What are the obstacles to being here now?

The first and most obvious obstacle to being present is distraction. We’re in a constant state of motion, busyness, and getting to somewhere else—using our devices, substances, entertainment, chatter, and anything else we can find to avoid here, now.  Doing is our first line of defense against being present.

The most treacherous impediment to mindful attention however, even more than busyness and activity, is thought. The mind, maker of thoughts, is forever chattering, distracting us, telling us stories, beckoning us to not be where we are, but rather get involved in the tickertape of plot twists it’s creating.

When it comes to avoiding the present moment, we tend to employ a handful of habitual thinking patterns.  First, we keep ourselves safe from now by narrating our experience as it’s happening. We follow ourselves around, perpetually commenting on our own experience.  “Oh look, I’m having a good time here, this is going well, they seem to like me” and so it goes, the voice over of now—soundtrack to our life.  All day and night we tell ourselves the story of ourselves, story of our life.  Sadly, we live the voice over but not the life itself.

So too, we disappear from the now by continually packaging our experience as it’s happening, preparing the story that will later tell the tale of our current experience.  As our present moment is unfolding we’re preoccupied with transcribing the now into a summary or narrative, ever-readying the now for some future explanation or presentation for others or perhaps just ourselves.

And then come the big three: the thought patterns that are always running in the background of mind, subtly or actively pulling our attention away from here.

How Thoughts Block Us From Being Fully Present

Boots on the ground mindfulness: removing the obstacles to being here now.

Posted Aug 11, 2018

Val Toch/Unsplash
Source: Val Toch/Unsplash

If just one word were to go in a time capsule to represent our society right now, the word would have to be “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is in every book title, workshop, conversation, idea, and everything else we now encounter.  We’re a society obsessed with mindfulness.  So what is this thing we’re all talking about and presumably trying to create? And how do we do it—become mindful?

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment, according to Jon Kabat Zinn, a leader and teacher in the mindfulness movement. While we can easily define it, it seems that being it is not so easy. Despite all our talk of mindfulness, studies indicate that most people are only here, paying attention in the present moment, 50% of the time.  That said we miss out on half our life, with our attention somewhere other than where we are.

Rather than take the usual, culturally-accepted model and suggest another thing to go out and become, get, do, study, buy, or otherwise accomplish in order to attain mindfulness, perhaps it’s wiser to turn our attention into ourselves and investigate what gets in the way of our being present.  What are the obstacles to being here now?

The first and most obvious obstacle to being present is distraction. We’re in a constant state of motion, busyness, and getting to somewhere else—using our devices, substances, entertainment, chatter, and anything else we can find to avoid here, now.  Doing is our first line of defense against being present.

The most treacherous impediment to mindful attention however, even more than busyness and activity, is thought. The mind, maker of thoughts, is forever chattering, distracting us, telling us stories, beckoning us to not be where we are, but rather get involved in the tickertape of plot twists it’s creating.

When it comes to avoiding the present moment, we tend to employ a handful of habitual thinking patterns.  First, we keep ourselves safe from now by narrating our experience as it’s happening. We follow ourselves around, perpetually commenting on our own experience.  “Oh look, I’m having a good time here, this is going well, they seem to like me” and so it goes, the voice over of now—soundtrack to our life.  All day and night we tell ourselves the story of ourselves, story of our life.  Sadly, we live the voice over but not the life itself.

So too, we disappear from the now by continually packaging our experience as it’s happening, preparing the story that will later tell the tale of our current experience.  As our present moment is unfolding we’re preoccupied with transcribing the now into a summary or narrative, ever-readying the now for some future explanation or presentation for others or perhaps just ourselves.

And then come the big three: the thought patterns that are always running in the background of mind, subtly or actively pulling our attention away from here.

-Why is this present moment happening?

-What does this now say about me and my life?

-What do I need to do about this now?

Our tendency is to experience the present moment through at least one and usually more than one of these thoughts.  Rather than being where we are, we busily attend to the who, what, where, when and why of where we are.

And then there’s fear.  Thoughts are a way the mind tries to manage its fear of and lack of trust in the present moment.  Rather than risk diving into now, into the river of life, we stay on the shore, using our mind to manage, control and make linear sense of our present experience, in the hopes of steering now in a direction we design. The mind doesn’t believe that we can relax into the unknown of the present moment, show up fully where we are, experience now without controlling where it’s headed. It doesn’t trust life to take care of us, but instead imagines that it must make life happen, and direct our path at all times.

In reality, the present moment doesn’t need the mind to make it happen; now is unfolding without the mind’s help.  When we live the present moment without thinking it, the mind is left without a task, without something to do, figure out, or solve.  It has no bone to chew on.  For this reason, the mind vehemently rejects the now, using this moment to generate ideas and issues that will require its own attention and input.

Furthermore, the mind subsists on the past and future; it alternates between turning now into a projection into the future and a narrative on the past. The now, however, is a space poised between the two locations or concepts, past and future. The present moment is a gap between the two.  In truth, it’s always now–now offers a vertical eternity. When we dive fully into the present moment, we step out of the linear timeline altogether. We are liberated from the shackles of time.  In response and rebellion, the mind grabs hold of now, through thought, and places it back into a timeline, thereby re-orienting itself in a way it can understand.

It’s often said that we avoid the present moment to avoid ourselves.  But in fact, when we dive fully into the present moment, are fully engaged in our experience, as in the flow state, what we discover, paradoxically, is that we lose ourselves.  We disappear, and that’s precisely what makes it so delicious and makes us want to return again and again.  In full presence or flow state, we don’t experience ourselves as separate, as the one living the experience; there is only the experience of which we are a part.

We’re always running from the present moment, not to escape ourselves, but to escape the absence of ourselves.  The battle with the present moment is an existential battle for the mind; the flight from now is its fight to exist.

Living the now, without a narrative, requires a death or at least temporary letting go of mind. When the mind stops talking to us, there’s nothing there to remind us of our own existence, we’re left unaware of ourselves, in a state of void.  That said, the mind abhors the present moment just as natureabhors a vacuum.

But in fact, when we have the courage to drop out of mind and into the present moment, what we find is the opposite of a void.  We find wholeness, an experience without an experiencer.  We encounter ourselves as presence inseparable from life, rather than a person who is living, directing, managing, and controlling this thing called life.  In the process, we discover liberation and something as close as I’ve ever found to the end of suffering.

To begin practicing this paradigm shift, start small.  Every now and again, glance around your surroundings and just look, see what’s there without going to thought or language to understand or name what you’re seeing.  Experience your environment without using mind to translate what your senses are taking in.  Simply allow your awareness to be aware without interpretation.  So too, if you ever meditate or spend time focusing on your breath, try paying attention to the spaces between breaths as well. Feel the sensations occurring in the gaps between the inhalation and the exhalation. This simple practice can offer a direct taste of the present moment without the interruption of thought. And finally, every now and again, invite yourself to stop and drop. Deliberately unhook from the storyline going on in your head and shift your attention down below your neck into the silence and presence in your own body.  Experience being as its own place, without thought.

These and other simple pointers can escort us into a radically new experience of living; they can be used as portals to a serenity that the mind, no matter how much it wants to be involved, cannot figure out or create.  When we’re fully present, living now directly rather than the mind’s interpretation of it, a palpable peace unfolds—a peace that surpasses all the mind’s understanding.

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The Invisible Mom: If You Feel Unappreciated as a Mom, You’re Not Alone

Being a mom is perhaps the most all-inclusive and demanding job in the history of “man”kind. It’s impossible to capture what running a family with school-age children entails these days, but here’s a very, very, very short list of Mom’s job…

-Life management: schooling, homework, tutoring, forms, academic, athletic and social schedules, playdates, activities, camps, birthdays, health care, appointments, child and family travel, holidays, vacations, weekend planning, scheduling, grocery shopping (remembering everyone’s faves) cooking, cleaning, laundry, house repair, date night planning (if still applicable).

-Provide primary connection and emotional glue for all members of family: knowing names and details of who’s who in the children’s lives, who’s being mean and nice, the latest crush, who got the lead in the play, when the next math quiz happens, who needs a tube of glitter for tomorrow’s science project, and all the other infinite events that go on in everyone’s day to day life.

-Serve as that person who makes everyone (else) feel appreciated, seen and known.

Oh, and did I forget, in addition to everything just mentioned (and the infinite things not mentioned), moms usually work full or part time jobs outside the universe that is the home (where children believe moms begin and end).

And finally, in their “free” time, most moms are picking up stuff, putting out fires, answering cries for help, and responding to the unending stream of needs that is the essence of modern mom-hood—all set to the soundtrack of  “can you…would you…will you…”.

What’s most remarkable about the mom job however is, ironically, not the enormity of it. What’s most remarkable is the fact that (from my research) most moms feel unappreciated. Moms from all walks of life describe feeling unacknowledged and unseen for what they do and are for their families. Being a mom these days (and maybe always) seems to be a job that’s taken for granted, thankless for the most part.  It also appears to be unique in that it comes with the expectation that appreciation is not and should not be needed or wanted by the one doing the job.  And in fact, to want or need appreciation as a mom would be self-serving, inappropriate and even shameful.

As a psychotherapist, I talk to women all day about their internal experience, the private experience they don’t usually share with others. Again and again, I hear moms express the deep longing for appreciation, the wish for some acknowledgment from their kids and partner, that they might notice what mom does to make everyone else’s life go well and just plain happen.  As a mom myself, I am remarkably aware of how little appreciation is offered for the amount of effort that being a mom requires, how infrequently gratitudeis expressed for all the important details we attend to. I am also aware that it can feel shameful to admit that I might want my family to occasionally notice and express unprompted appreciation for what I do for each of them individually and also for the family as a whole.  It feels self-indulgent because as moms we’re supposed to be selfless, and certainly not need anything as childish and greedy as appreciation, or at least not want it any day besides mother’s day.

To appreciate something is to value it, be grateful for it, and recognize/acknowledge its importance. As human beings, we all long to be appreciated, to have our goodness seen, our positive intentions and efforts recognized.  We want to be known and valued for what we do that’s helpful.  To want and need appreciation is a primal human longing.

At the same time, kids should experience a time in their life when they get to be fully taken care of without having to be aware of or grateful for anything or anyone, when they’re allowed to be oblivious to the fact that someone is providing for them. There needs to be a totally self-centered period in a child’s life.  And, there needs to be a time when the perfunctory, learned but not yet felt “thank you” is enough for appreciation. It’s not a child’s responsibility to be grateful to her parents for doing their job as parents. And yet, there also comes a time in a child’s life when it is important that she recognize that her parents exist as human beings, that they have feelings, are deserving of appreciation, and are working hard on their children’s behalf. This recognition is an important step in the healthy development from childhood into young adulthood.  Encouraging kids (when they’re ready) to feel empathy and gratitude for parents, not because they have to but because they just do, will ultimately help our children live connected and meaningful lives.

Recently, after a day of doing my job and using every spare minute between clients to arrange travel and other fun activities for my teenage daughter’s summer, and also getting my younger daughter’s medical and thousand other forms sent the different camps she’s in this summer, I disappointingly misspoke, asking my teenager how her French quiz went.  Well, apparently, in my exhaustion and bureaucratic stupor, I got the subject of the quiz wrong and received an icy and supremely agitated, “The quiz was in math.”  That was it, conversation over.  I had to laugh, there wasn’t anything else to do.  Failure, it’s the nature of being a mom.

It’s strange really, our society views things as black or white, either or.  We don’t well tolerate black and white, either and or.  As a mom, my children are the most important part of my life. They bring an ineffable joy and there is no thing or experience for which I could ever be so grateful.  Every day, I am astonished that I get to be a mom to two girls I cherish.  And, simultaneously, I dislike many of the tasks that being a mom involves as they are unpleasant and hard.  It’s an and not a but that separates these two concepts.  Because we want to be consciously appreciated for the incredible work we do, both the work we love and the work we don’t, does not contradict the fact that we choose to be moms and love being moms.  It’s all included…both and.

We live in a society where, at a subtle level, women are still taught that they’re not supposed to want or need anything for themselves, and for certain not appreciation or recognition. It’s bizarre really, wanting to be seen for our efforts is shameful for women and yet it’s inherent in every human being.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be thanked and noticed for what we offer, it’s a wholesome wanting in fact, and one that when met, encourages us to keep on doing the good we’re doing.

This past mother’s day, I was happily surprised by my husband and kids with a lovely lunch at the restaurant they enjoy and a thought crossed my mind.  As much as I deeply appreciated this gesture, I would have traded a thousand of these lunches for one genuine “thank you.” Perhaps after returning from a 7 pm parent teacher conference on a cold February evening, or after a long day with patients and walking in to find three people, (2 small, 1 big) all waiting for their dinner to be made, or really any other random moment of standard mom-hood.

While it’s odd, it does seem that the simple act of stopping what we’re doing and offering someone a straight, heartfelt “thank you” or “I appreciate you” can, for some, feel too vulnerable, exposed, unnecessary, or even silly.  And yet, these simple moments of genuine appreciation are profoundly meaningful for the recipient, and also for the giver. The moments when appreciation is shared are the moments of connection that fill our emotional well.

Steps:

When you feel unappreciated or unseen, or notice the longing to be thanked, try these steps:

1.   Reject any self-shaming thoughts. Remind yourself that wanting and needing to be appreciated and recognized is normal and healthy, and you deserve it.

2.  Reach out to another mom.  She’ll get it.  Laugh about the fact that your kid hasn’t asked you how you are for years and yet is very good at asking for the credit card.  It’s a fairly universal first world experience for moms.  Get some support and chuckles from those who can fully identify.

3.  Ask for what you want.  Let your partner know, unapologetically, that it feels good to be seen for all that you do and are, and what you offer the family. When he does show appreciation without your asking, express your appreciation for his appreciation.  Appreciation begets appreciation.  If your kids are old enough, nine or ten and above is usually a good starting place, let them know that even mommies have feelings and sometimes need to be given a gold star in the form of a thank you.  It’s not about guilting or shaming them but rather, letting them in on the secret that mommies need things too.  It will help them down the road to be more empathic and grateful.

4.  Offer appreciation.  Appreciation is a form of love and our longing for it is in part a longing for a very particular kind of love.  When you offer it to someone or name it out loud, you’re not only modeling appreciation for your family, but you’re also giving yourself a small dose of the love you need.  It may feel counter-intuitive to give appreciation in the moments when you’re the one needing it (another giving not receiving). And yet, offering it can be a close cousin to receiving it, as it evokes the same feelings of love and warmth that you crave.

5.  Appreciate yourself.  Put your hand on your own heart and, to yourself, recognize all that you do and are.  Remind yourself how good a mom you are and how much you love your children and feel that love out of which all this wonderful effort is born.  Don’t skip the step that is honoring yourself because at the end of the day, only you really know how much you do and how incredible a job you are providing.  So be the one to also take that moment to acknowledge that truth.

How strange, magical, and deserving of appreciation is life;  just as I was finishing this piece, my 7-year-old daughter came into my office with this, “Hey mom, thanks for making me a playdate today and not making go to afterschool.”  Of course I cried, as I usually do when touched, and then I told her how much I appreciated her saying this, and how I hoped that one day she too would be as lucky as me and get to be a mom…because it’s the best job that ever existed.

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Do You Feel Alone When You’re Together? How to Deepen Your Connection With Your Partner

A lot of couples show up in my office because they don’t feel deeply connected.  Often, one member of the couple feels like she can’t connect with her partner and is lonely in the relationship.  Couples describe intimate relationships that contain a paltry supply of real intimacy.  In light of this, I wanted to offer something I witnessed recently, which was truly beautiful, and which reminded me of the divine ingredients of connection and how simple (but not easy) it can be to get there.

John is a highly educated man and was vigorously expressing a lengthy and well-defended case against the validity of the whole phenomenon that is the Me too movement.  His argument extended to issues of race and gender as well, specifically, how all of the now-prevalent identity politics is overblown, unnecessary, negative and destructive.

When he did pause, just for a moment, I snuck in an observation, namely, that the identity movement seemed to make him feel defensive and angry.  He denied feeling defensive but shared that as a teacher, the new politic did force him to be hyper-vigilant about the words he uses with students, to have to watch everything he does so as not to be wrongly accused.  I empathized with his experience and how hard it must be to be a teacher these days.  He then went back to his well-constructed case for what was faulty about the movement.

As this conversation was going on, I was also keeping an eye on his partner, Nel.  As John went on with his narrative, Nel’s expression glossed over; she had checked out, lost interest in even trying to stay present.  I understood her experience as there was nobody there, really, for her to be present with.  The possibility for connection was gone, lost behind the steel walls of intellectual content.

But I was hopeful as I had seen an opening; a little piece of John had emerged as he talked about the difficulty for teachers just now.  And so I inquired, hoping that I could get a little further than John’s teacherexperience.

“What does it trigger in you personally, having to be in the thick of it, required to participate in this dialogue and all the forms and training sessions you probably have to be part of?”  And for some reason, with that very simple invitation, within the safety of our relationship, John showed up.  In an instant, his entire facial expression shifted as if he had also not been present and now, suddenly, he was there.

John then expressed how toxic the whole thing felt for him, that he was not interested in any of it and yet was being forced to be in a conversation that was not his life, not valuable to him.  He felt terribly put upon and trapped by the whole environment of identity politics, in a constant fight about issues that he didn’t resonate with, having to prove he wasn’t guilty of something that didn’t in any way belong to him. The specifics of what he felt are less important than what happened in the couple as a result of this fresh truth that John was able to share.

Suddenly Nel was there in the room.  It literally felt like a wave of energy had wafted through the space; it was palpable.  Nel had returned, literally reentered the space behind her eyes.  In that moment, for the first time, I could see real empathy for her husband spread across her brow.   They were sharing the same space, perhaps for the first time in a decade.  Nel was looking at John with an entirely different expression, really looking at John.  Tears welled up in Nel’s eyes; connection was happening.  At last, what had been separating them all these years, all her husband’s ideas, were out of the way and she could feel him, be with him, be truly together, in real company.

John had been honing his ideas and intellect his entire life, using his arguments to validate what he was experiencing, but sadly, because of his own psychology, not even knowing or inquiring into what he was experiencing.  He had gotten quite skilled at proving his rightness, but all his ideas came at the cost of connection.  John didn’t get to feel connected to anyone or, for that matter, allow anyone else to feel connected with him.  He was an island in every way, surrounded by an ocean of mind.

Many people remain stuck in the land of contents—with the context underneath the contents rarely (if ever) reached.  Men particularly seem to get locked in their thoughts, information, and ideas, which shuts them out from their own hearts and shuts everyone else out in the process.  The feeling of being with such individuals is that of not being able to touch them, of being trapped in a corridor with no door, no way to be together, held at bay by the thoughts, opinions, and arguments, the armor that protects their hearts from ever being visible, or vulnerable.

As the partner, you are not able to connect deeply, not below the neck, beyond the layer of intellect. Since it’s not possible to join them in their experience, empathy has to happen from a distance, via an idea of what they’re experiencing but without getting to feel it with them.  For the partner of such individuals, being together is an experience of loneliness, separation, hearts that can’t actually touch, a life that can’t actually be profoundly shared.

When John expressed his personal experience, not his narrative around it, not his justification for it, not all that he knew about it, just his truth in its raw, real, and alive form, simply what he was living on the inside, as it was coming freshly in the moment, Nel felt connected to her husband, like she was at last with him.  They were together in the same now.  His intellectual defenses had stepped out of the way for a brief and blessed moment. Nel could then experience the sensation of being in true company—not being alone together. (She later confirmed this to me in an individual session.)

Couples spend decades trapped, like flies in spider webs, inside the arguments of content, and particularly who’s right, who’s justified in feeling the way they feel about the contents. They get caught, sometimes for good, in the ongoing battle for whose experience is deserving of empathy. This happens for many reasons, one of which is that we mistakenly believe that we are our thoughts and opinions.  Proving our rightness is thus a life and death struggle to ensure survival.  But such is a topic for another day.  In the interests of word count here, it’s my intention to simply point out that ideas and opinions, the stuff of mind, the generalized narrative and intellectual defense system, can serve as a non-navigate-able obstacle to connection.

Vladimir Kudinov/ Unsplash
Source: Vladimir Kudinov/ Unsplash

If what I describe resonates, consider offering questions to your partner that contain an intention to reach the heart and uncover the real felt experience–not the story of it.  And, offer yourself the same invitation, to deepen your connection with yourself as well.

Questions that invite feelings:

-What is the experience like, for you, in that situation?

-What does that situation trigger in you?

-What does it feel like when you’re in that situation?

-What’s the worst thing, for you, when you’re in that situation?

What makes it so hard, for you, when you’re in that situation?

And, when describing your own experience, try modeling the communication style you want to receive from your partner.  For example, “For me, when that happens, I feel (such and such)” “What makes it so hard for me is…” Actively model talking about your feelings, your personal experience, rather than your narrative about the situation, maybe even naming that distinction so that your partner can hear the difference, regardless of whether he knows how to do it.  Furthermore, remember that when your partner is able to express his direct and personal experience or a fresh perhaps newly discovered feeling, be sure to offer him (or her) a safe space and supportive response. Don’t correct or dismiss his truth, no matter what it contains.  Each time he moves from the known storyline to the unknown felt experience, he is growing, taking a baby step forward.  When you respond lovingly and with acceptance, you are encouraging more steps in this direction and thus inviting a deeper connection.  True connection happens when we can communicate from our vulnerability, our hearts–not our stories and protective mental layers.  It happens when we dive into life together rather than standing on the shore, safely commenting on it. The most important journey we take in relationship, and life, is from our head to our heart.

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