Are Your Thoughts True? Do You Even Believe Them?

I was recently taking a walk with my closest friend, hand in hand, enjoying each other’s company and kidding around as we usually do. My friend, who is a bit of a loner, made a joke that he doesn’t make friends easily, to which I sweetly and playfully replied, “Well you made friends with me, a long time ago.”

His response was, to my ears, a lukewarm, unenthusiastic “yeh” or it might have been an “eh.” Either way, it was upsetting. We had been having a good time and, in an instant, I felt hurt and angry, and, for a moment, I saw no alternative other than to turn around and head home, which I did.

For the few blocks it took me to get home, a tsunami of thoughts was building inside my head, at the center of which was the thought that my best friend had just taken a sweet moment—a moment of real connection—and intentionally thrown it away. My thoughts were also saying that he chose to reject me because he didn’t really think it was such a great thing that we became friends back in high school, and that he would actually rather have other friends than me.

With each tree I passed on the journey home, I was becoming more hurt, more resentful, and more convinced of my storyline. By the time I got the key in the door, my thoughts had convinced me that my story of rejection was the absolute truth.

But then, thankfully, it occurred to me to ask myself the following question: Is this choice I’m making right now—to stick with my story about what just happened (and what it means)—moving me closer to happiness or unhappiness?

The answer was easy; I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I stuck with what I was thinking and kept feeding it with my attention, my evening and maybe even my next day would be prickly, tense, and just plain bad. I wondered, was it really worth it when I could actually, right in this moment, make a different choice and change the whole trajectory of my next 36 hours? I pulled myself out of the micro and considered the macro.

But the question I asked next was the one that snapped me out of my binge-thinking, convinced me to put my thinking fork down if you will, and propelled me to act differently. I asked myself this: Is it true that my friend said what he said for the reasons I’m telling myself right now?  Is the meaning I’m assigning this interaction actually true?

With these questions posed, I could immediately see that I was thinking myself into a lather about something that, when considered deeply, I not only didn’t and couldn’t know was true, but that I deep down believed was untrue! I did not believe that my friend wanted or intended to hurt me and also did not believe that he would rather be friends with others instead.

Realizing that I did not believe in the truth of my own story allowed me to recognize the ridiculousness of hanging onto my storyline and staying looped into such thoughts.

Considering these questions allowed me to feel an entirely different feeling towards my friend. It shifted my emotional weather from resentment to gratitude. In considering how much he did not want to hurt me, it made me appreciate his kindness, his deeper intention to make me happy.

I will also say, however, that through the investigation of what was true, I discovered that indeed I had been feeling a bit under-appreciated by my friend, and maybe even a little hurt. What was true was that I knew he appreciated my friendship deeply, but that lately, I had been needing a little bit more acknowledgment of that appreciation. And so, the inquiry into what was true uncovered my love for my friend and also, the hurt in me that needed a voice.

While in this example, it was clear to me upon asking this question to myself that what I was telling myself actually contradicted what I believed to be true, there are also many times when the answer is not so clear cut, and when it’s not so easy to break free from the thinking pattern.

It’s often the case that we do in fact believe what our thoughts are telling us. We may believe, for example, that another person is intending to hurt us. But here’s the thing: Even when we believe it, we can open up to the possibility that we don’t know for sure what’s true in another person’s inner world. When we can say to ourselves yes, this is true as I see it, but I don’t know what’s true for the other, in their reality, then we’re on our way to freedom.  It’s just that little bit of wiggle room we give ourselves when we say, “I can’t know for sure what’s real for another; not at least until I talk to them about it.”

The mess we get into with our thinking is that we assume our thoughts are telling us the truth, which includes what’s true inside another person’s reality. Asking ourselves, “Is this true?” Or possibly, “Is there anything else that could also be true?” allows some air into our airtight system of thinking.

Once we deeply comprehend that we can’t really know what’s true inside another person’s mind or heart, we are relieved of the suffering that comes from having to believe in the stories we create—for others. We are still free to write our own stories, make meaning or truth for ourselves, but we no longer have to write the motives and intentions, the parts if you will, for all the other characters in our life.​​

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Are Healthy Relationships Possible After Growing Up in Emotional Chaos?

When we grow up in emotionally chaotic households, we face challenges in establishing healthy adult relationships. When chaos is the norm, we get accustomed to living with what feels bad and scary. We learn to silence our experience because it feels too dangerous to speak up for ourselves or call anyone out on their behavior.

As children, we need to belong; to belong is to survive. To express our experience of the family drama would be to risk the love of our caretakers, our belonging, and thus our survival. When a home is emotionally chaotic, it’s not generally filled with adults who are open and interested in the child’s experience; there’s often no safe person for a child to talk to and even less chance for there to be someone who will take responsibility for, or change, what’s happening.

When we grow up in an emotionally unstable and untrustworthy environment, we develop certain defense strategies to maintain our safety and keep ourselves intact. Put simply, we learn to get okay with a lot of stuff that doesn’t feel okay. We become experts at burying anxiety, fearanger, and despair; we walk through the wreckage as if nothing crazy is happening, no matter how bad it feels. And eventually crazy becomes our norm.

Our strategies for survival succeed at keeping us safe as children, on a certain level. But when we carry these same defense strategies into adult relationships, they stop working and we end up feeling trapped, powerless, anxious, and angry. The feelings we buried as children are still there— only now they won’t stay underground.

Those of us who grew up in homes where such behavior was the norm often obsessed about what we wanted to say out loud to a parent, but we didn’t say it because it would have created anger or more chaos, and accomplished nothing in terms of changing our world. Similarly, as adults in relationships, we think incessantly about what the other person is doing to us; we make the case for our grievances silently inside our heads, and rehash what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it. But, again, we stay silent. We think obsessively about the other and our bad situation, but we don’t know how to take steps to make it change: We’re too afraid of the consequences or of our own rage. As a result, we stay stuck in bad situations, feeling powerless to make our relationships change, chronically fearful and overflowing with resentment.

As adults, when we’re confronted with behavior that feels bad, crazy, aggressive, or just not okay, our nervous system goes into a kind of fight, flight, freeze response. Our front brain shuts down in a sense and we enter survival mode. Deep in the recesses of our brain there is an assumption being made—that if we speak up, we’ll pay dire consequences and ultimately be worse off. Our deep-seated fear takes over and before we know it, we’re figuring out a way to make the other’s bad behavior work inside the relationship.

But staying silent doesn’t work in grown-up relationships. It doesn’t allow us to grow, feel known, or develop real intimacy. Furthermore, it doesn’t keep us safe like it did when we were kids. Quite the opposite: The strategy of swallowing our truth and our natural self-protective instinct under the guise of protecting ourselves become the very thing that harms us. We end up consumed with fear, obsessively thinking about what we hate, and carrying overwhelming resentment. We end up enraged at the other and ourselves—for what they’re doing to us and for what we’re allowing.

How do we change when our nervous system naturally responds to bad behavior in a way that keeps us stuck? How do we make what’s happening instinctively into a conscious process so that we have choices? The first step is to start paying attention to what’s happening inside us in the face of conflict—that is, to recognize and acknowledge this pattern, and become aware that we go into reactionary mode when confronted with what feels relationally unsafe. In recognizing and acknowledging this truth, we offer ourselves not just kindness and compassion, but also gratitude for keeping us safe in the only way we knew how. And we remind ourselves that this behavior no longer takes care of us.

Secondly, we stop to ask our fear what it needs to know or hear from a trusted other that would allow it to speak up for itself. Sometimes the frightened part of ourselves wants to know or be reminded that it doesn’t actually need this other person.

If we can realize that we won’t die without this other person, that we’ve projected our childhood dependence onto this relationship, the risk drops and we can find the courage to speak our truth. If we don’t yet genuinely believe that we don’t need the other, we can start taking steps toward the autonomy that can set us free.

On the other hand, the little one inside us may need to know that it doesn’t have to explain why what’s not okay is not okay, or get the other person to understand or agree. Sometimes the fear is about having to defend our case against the other’s anger, blame, and defensiveness that feels most daunting. In truth, we don’t have to get confirmation or validation from the other that their behavior is not okay for us. We can offer ourselves permission to simply say No, this is not okay, period.

There are an infinite number of possible answers to the question, What would I need to believe to speak up in the face of chaos? What’s most important is simply that you ask the frightened part of yourself, with kindness, what it needs to stand up for you, confront the crazy, and speak your truth. Once you know what your system needs to move forward, you can offer yourself that truth, or start on the path to making that answer true.

When we grew up accepting the unacceptable because we had to, and we become grownups afraid to stand up for ourselves, we learn to stuff our anger and keep the peace at all costs, including the cost to ourselves.

But just because we grew up around chaos doesn’t mean we’re condemned to live with it forever. We can change. We can change our reaction to behavior that’s not acceptable, and in the process, change the situation itself. Or we can leave a situation that doesn’t work for us. Once we become conscious of our own behavior, we have choices. We can learn to be the light in the darkness and create our own reality.

Unlike what we believed as children, we do get a say in our own reality and we can move from the problem to the solution.

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Parenting 101: Love Is In the Details

Pam was crying tears of happiness and relief, but also sadness. The man she’d been dating for six months had asked, “How do you feel about what’s happening in the news, given what happened to you in middle school?”

Her boyfriend had remembered a small detail about her, something she had mentioned in the first week of their relationship. Unprompted, he had looked through the lens of Pam’s experience, which he had remembered after just one casual telling. She had shared her experience with him, and he had carried it with him.

It’s a story that presents in all sorts of shapes and colors, but holds at the center the same theme. It’s a story, ultimately, about listening. Again and again, clients tell me about a parent who was unable to remember the details of their life. Whether it was not remembering the names of their friends, if they preferred their sandwich bread toasted or plain, or who their most hated teacher of the moment was, the experience was the same… loneliness frustration, and suffering.

As children, when those who are supposed to love us are unable to hold the details of our life, the small pieces that put together the puzzle that is us, the result is profoundly impactful and long-lasting.

Pam sobbed when her boyfriend remembered that small detail, in part, because she had grown up with a father who didn’t remember the small things about her life. And while she knew in her head that her dad loved her, when she needed to remind him, over and over, about the name of her best friend or favorite flavor of ice cream, she didn’t actually feel loved.

Clients have described the experience in different ways; for one woman, it was the feeling of starting from scratch in each interaction with her parent, choosing details to share, building a new story about herself as if with a stranger. Another woman talked of introducing herself over and over again, reminding her parent who she was and what her life was about. And yet another told me of getting off the camp bus after a summer away and being surprised that her father actually knew which child was his daughter. To be known is to be known, in all its details.

I write this blog today as a cautionary tale for parents, and also, I hope, an encouraging tale. As inconsequential as they may seem, the details of a child’s life are vitally important; it’s difficult to feel truly known if the details of one’s life are not remembered or retained. And, most importantly, we can’t feel loved if we don’t feel known.

It’s common for children to take the blame for a parent who doesn’t listen. The child assumes he isn’t interesting or important enough, doesn’t matter enough to be remembered. The child concludes that he is the one who is broken and lacking. He takes responsibility for the parent’s inattention, in part, because a child’s primary need is to maintain the bond with the parent no matter what, in order to belong and hence survive. Secondly, a child blames himself, because he needs to hold the parent in his mind as something good and trustworthy, to see his parent as reliable, even if to do so causes the child harm. The idea that a parent might be untrustworthy, flawed, or even unkind is too discordant with what the child needs for his own equanimity. For little Jonny, it’s less problematic (paradoxically) if he is responsible for his dad’s inattention, as opposed to his dad himself choosing not to pay attention to him.

So often I meet clients who were not adequately listened to early in life, and the chronic suffering that accompanies such an absence is profound. As adults, such folks frequently continue struggling to be known, seeing every interaction through the lens of being adequately listened to or not, and never really achieving the feeling of being entirely known.

All that said, I offer parents the following advice: Listen to the details of your children’s lives, and don’t just listen, remember them… whether you’re interested or not. Furthermore, ask about those details, show them you know them. Parenting is a boots-on-the-ground endeavor. It’s not that hard to do really, and yet it’s one of the most powerful and generous things we can do for our children.

As a parent, I know how overwhelming it is these days to raise kids. Just the number of tasks we have to perform for our kids is staggering, without the rest of the caretaking. I also know that our children’s friends’ names change weekly, as do all the details. I also know what it’s like to work a full day and come home in the evening, cook dinner, and try to pay attention to the stories that kids tell.

As parents, our goal is not perfection; we’re works-in-progress, never completed. We’re going to mess up, confuse last week’s frenemy with today’s BFF. The point is that we try hard to show up, be present, listen well, and remember what we hear. So much of parenting is challenging and sometimes even impossible, but the act of listening and retaining the details, while it may take some effort, is not that hard. And particularly not when you know that the small details are portals to something infinitely larger.

If a child feels we’re present and experiences us as interested in and paying attention to their life, then even when we make mistakes, miss and forget things, it’s more likely the child will feel known and grow up to be an adult who feels sufficiently seen and heard, and thus not have to keep searching for it for a lifetime. It’s likely that child will also know that they’re important—they matter. There’s a saying: “God is in the details.” I believe love is in the details, and maybe it’s the same thing. Paying attention is love. Remembering that our child likes the crusts off the bread is a small way of saying I love you, I see you, I know you.

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Freedom: Taking Ownership of Your Own Happiness

“Lily doesn’t listen,” had been Shelly’s refrain about her partner for years. She had complained many times to me about this issue, and yet somehow her wife’s behavior didn’t change, and Shelly’s anger and frustration about it also didn’t change.

Lily’s inability to listen had created tremendous conflict in the family. A conversation would happen over dinner, and the next day, Lily would have little or no memory of its content or details. (She was not on any substances.) Their two kids were constantly yelling at their mom for not remembering what they had already told her. Shelly had spent many hours consoling their kids, assuring them that Lily’s inability to pay attention to the details of their lives did not mean she didn’t care (which is how it felt). Although Shelly experienced tremendous resentment and hurt herself when Lily didn’t listen, she did her best to convince the kids that it was their mom’s distraction that was to blame, not them.

Shelly had been talking about this issue for a long time, mostly about how to change her partner and get her to listen better. She had explained to her wife on many occasions how it made her and the kids feel when she didn’t remember what was discussed or the daily goings-on in the family’s life. She had expressed the profound emotional value of remembering the details. Shelly had described in poignant detail how it felt when Lily uttered, “Uh-huh,” at a place in the conversation where clearly no “uh-huh” was called for or appropriate. And how, with that simple, ill-attuned “uh-huh,” Shelly would know instantly that Lily was not present and not listening to what she was sharing. She had talked about the sorrow and loneliness of that moment in great depth and detail.

Shelly had also gone through a stretch of encouraging Lily to get a brain scan, to see if there was legitimately something wrong that made it hard for her to pay attention and land in the present moment. (Lily discovered her brain was fine after a routine cat-scan for an unrelated issue.) In addition, Shelly got Lily into a program of meditation and gave her books on being present and managing distraction. Despite positive changes, when Shelly stopped leading the charge for her wife to meditate, Lily’s behavior eventually reverted back to the way it had been before.

Shelly had also run the gamut in terms of expressing her anger. Again and again, she had begged her wife, “Where are you? Are you ever here where everyone else is, actually listening?” On behalf of herself and their children, she had demanded a change: “Your family is here at the table, we need you here! Where are you?” For Shelly, it felt like an emotional trauma each time it happened.

Shelly had given it the full college try, working at changing her partner for more than a decade. She had lived in a state of waiting—waiting for Lily to change. Some part of her believed that she couldn’t be fully content until her wife became someone else, someone who was not distracted, could pay attention closely, cared about how much it all hurt, and wanted to remember the lives discussed. Shelly had been waiting for her partner to become someone who made her happy.

But as frustrating, enraging, and hurtful as Lily’s behavior legitimately was, the bigger problem as I saw it was Shelly’s belief that her own well-being and freedom depended on someone else changing. Shelly was hostage to a situation she had absolutely no control over (as was abundantly clear by now). Her captor was not actually her wife (as she imagined), but rather her conviction that her wife’s behavior was responsible for her own happiness or to blame for her unhappiness.

Before Shelly could get free from this belief, it was important to offer empathy to the despair and rage that her wife’s behavior triggered, the familial pattern it held, and the emotional abandonment historically tied, for her, to the act of listening. Empathy and compassion for our own experience is a necessary step in letting going of a limiting belief, and in this case, Shelly’s belief that her happiness was tied to someone else’s behavior.

No one, not even our partner, is responsible for our happiness, for providing us with a sense of meaning, or filling up our emptiness. No one is responsible for our well-being—no one except ourselves. (This does not apply to children and their parents.) As adults, it is our responsibility to make ourselves happy—to make choices that are in alignment with our own needs.

This last week, Shelly told me about a recent incident with her wife. In passing, Shelly had mentioned something about an upcoming weekend trip her older child was planning. Lily, per usual, hadn’t been listening when they discussed the trip at dinner (and other times as well) and thus needed Shelly to fill her in yet again on the details, and also to be convinced that she should be allowed to go. In years past, Shelly would have gotten angry, explained what not listening did to everyone in the family, perhaps made an interpretation of her wife’s psychology, and then, finally, done what she always did… repeated the details and explanations so Lily could be included when she was able to pay attention. This time, Shelly felt a sting, but remarkably did not feel inclined to participate in the same way. This time, she calmly told her wife that the conversation and trip had already been discussed, and she was not going to repeat the information again. She then left the house and moved on with her day without anger or resentment. This was, for both of us, a huge victory.

Shelly had done so many things differently in this interaction. For one, she had actualized the serenity prayer. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. She had spent more than enough years trying to get her wife to change, which clearly was not in her control. By continuing to spend her time and energy explaining her anger and repeating the details that had been missed, Shelly had unknowingly been inviting her wife to continue not listening, and also condemning herself to the suffering of the relational pattern, ensuring that nothing would change.

On this occasion, however, she did not do what she had always done, and as a result, did not get what she had always gotten. Following the interaction, she did not live a day full of anger and resentment, did not suffer from high blood pressure and anxiety.  She did not spend the day ruminating and obsessing over how and why the problem had happened again, and of course, what to do about it that she hadn’t already done. Shelly had changed her own behavior, had taken ownership of what she wanted, what she was willing to do and not willing to do, no matter what choices her partner made. This is the most important change we can make in any relationship.

In deciding to stop trying to change her partner and start changing herself in response instead, Shelly discovered that freedom and happiness were already available, now. It’s not to say that Lily’s behavior was suddenly satisfying or delightful; the frustration still arose, but Lily’s behavior did not define Shelly’s emotional state or dictate how Shelly needed to spend her energy or attention. Shelly was not captive to Lily’s choices or limitations. Furthermore, she was not responsible for changing Lily, but she positively was responsible for owning her own wants, needs, and boundaries, and acting accordingly.

In this profound paradigm shift, Shelly realized (as we all need to realize) that it was up to her to decide and also act on what she wanted and what she would participate in. She was no longer waiting for Lily to behave in a way that made her happy but rather taking responsibility for her own happiness—separate from her partner.

When we claim and act according to our own wants and needs; when we get clear about what we’re willing and not willing to do (or do anymore); when we give up trying to change others into people who can make us happy; when we’re willing to take responsibility for our own happiness, then, finally, we’re free. As it turns out, when we are responsible for our own happiness, we get the job done better than anyone else possibly could!

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How to Make Every Day Matter

“Oh! It’s today. My favorite day,” Winnie the Pooh once said.

29,200 days. That’s how many days we’ll get if we’re lucky enough to live to 80.

I think about that a lot, not to be morbid or frighten myself, but to remind myself of the importance of each day I get to be alive. The knowledge of 29,200 doesn’t keep me from occasionally watching too much Netflix or perusing eBay, but it does wake me up to the profundity of a single day, and evoke a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to experience another day of life.

So too, reminding myself of the day count of a human life encourages me to pay attention to this moment, treat this day like it matters, and live this day, the only day I’m certain I’ll get—to the fullest.

So the question then begs, what does it mean to live a day to the fullest to make it matter?’ It’s a question I think all of us should ask ourselves. It may be the most important question we can ask, because it forces us to consider what really matters—what makes a day or a life of days feel meaningful.

The message we often receive in our society is that living each day to the fullest means packing the day full with activities and accomplishments. It means travel, adventure, taking chances, being productive, and of course, success. Our version of living fully usually has a lot to do with what we achieve and/or attain.

There’s nothing wrong with achieving and attaining, but getting, doing, and accomplishing may not be what a well-lived day includes for ourselves. How can we know what makes a day feel meaningful or fulfilling if we never ask ourselves, and never listen for our own answers?

We waste a lot of days just going through the motions of life, doing what we’re supposed to do but never stopping to contemplate the value of a single day. Sleepwalking, in a sense. We fall into the trap of accepting what our society and other people tell us we should do with our days, what we’re supposed to want, what’s supposed to matter. The problem is, it may not be what we want, may not matter to us.

For me, a day fully lived is not necessarily a day packed full with activities. It’s not about what I get, get done, or accomplish. It is, however, about the quality and presence of my attention, how I show up for the individual moments that make up this day. It matters to me that I show up present and with kindness.

What makes a day matter is not what the day contains in terms of its contents, but rather that the day contains me, that I am present, physically, mentally and emotionally, tuned into my senses, noticing what’s actually happening in my physical reality, and my inner and outer environment. To fully live, for me, is to be conscious and grateful for the profound gift and opportunity that this one day is.

Furthermore, contemplating the reality of 29,200 makes me more rigorous about not distracting myself with entertainment, information, technology, or any of the other endless choices we use to escape, ignore, or avoid the day.

It also means not engaging with the narratives and judgments my mind wants to write, not going down the rabbit hole of thinking, not distracting myself by thinking every thought that appears in my mind. 29,200 makes me far less tolerant for negative thinking or excessive rumination, far less willing to let my mind control my attention, take me off on this tangent or that, and thereby kidnap one of my 29,200 days.

As I see it, with only this many days to play with, why would I waste a single moment thinking about what I can’t control, makes me feel bad, has already happened, may never happen, doesn’t help me, or just plain isn’t true?

The finite-ness of our days is a what is not a what if. What does the reality of 29,200 days provoke in you? How does it change the way you choose to live today?

We can all benefit by taking our day count to heart, deeply considering what we want to do with and who we want to be today. Don’t take anyone else’s opinion on what makes a moment or a day or a life meaningful. Only you can answer this question for yourself and only you can create a life that fulfills it, one day at a time, one moment at a time.

Ask yourself, how do you want to show up for today, who do want to be, what is your life in service to, and what, ultimately, do you want? Start today, or even better, now.

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