The Creative Spirit

When you think of an artist, what do you see? A bearded chap with a beret, perhaps? Or does a graceful dancer prance across your mind? We tend to think of art in categories like visual and performing, but in fact, art spans the spectrum. Consider a chef who combines ingredients to produce inspiring new flavors. Or an engineer who calculates precise measurements to create a towering bridge that arches across a river.

Art is in the eye of the beholder, you might say.

I’ve always envied artists: those talented folks among us who embody the creative spirit. With very little effort, it seems, gifted artists produce amazing canons—whether it’s Mozart’s symphonies or Monet’s masterpieces. Seeing such talent can make the ordinary among us feel like we’ve been left out of the gene pool. The truth is creating art can be an agonizing process—just ask any artist. Often, the creative spirit is nowhere to be found, just when you need her the most!

Still artists muddle through, finding redemption in those bursts of inspiration that lead to wonderment. In the process, if they’re lucky, they lose themselves in the act of creating, a feeling of being in the moment that’s like no other. The women who appear in this month’s cover story about the sewing arts describe being transported as they focus on the task at hand.

As Kathleen Fogarty points out in this article, a meditative state often accompanies the act of sewing or knitting. Time slows down, and you sink into the moment, leaving the world to take care of itself for awhile. This mindfulness is also one of the reasons yoga is becoming so popular. In this age of multi-tasking, our brains crave peaceful pursuits, I think. Making art of any kind—including artful yoga poses—rejuvenates our spirits.

I’m sure you’ve heard how arts funding in our schools has fallen dramatically in recent years. It’s sad because art is an important antithesis to our high-tech, information-laden society. Inside this issue you’ll find an article called “Raising Art-Smart Kids,” which explains why including art in our schools’ curricula ensures our children will develop the skills needed to lead us into the 22nd century—and beyond. Creating art, whether as an individual or a group, requires problem-solving skills, adaptability, and collaboration, for example. Encouraging projects that reinforce these abilities and allowing for creative freedom are, to me, essential components of our children’s education.

Change is hard, though. Many educators have been brought up with the “bank system” style of learning. In other words, the teacher deposits his knowledge into the students. In the 60s and 70s, the paradigm shifted, and students began seeking their own versions of truth. Now experts are discovering that the most effective way to learn, especially when it comes to solving problems, is through collaboration. Hopefully, as people collaborate to find solutions to the challenges of the modern world, they will learn to get along with each other better.

My column this month has followed an odd trajectory, starting with a definition of artistry and ending with a solution for curing the world’s ills. Perhaps the arts are the answer. Take some time this fall to immerse yourself in some form of creative arts. Attend a play, hear a symphony, visit a museum, knit a scarf—and let your soul be soothed by the creative spirit.

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Transforming Your Anxiety

Anxious people may not believe it, but they have an abundance of energy. They may not believe it because they spend much of their time in a state of exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed. It feels to them that the world and its demands are too much for them, making them crave a simpler life where they can get away from things and just catch a breath.

The reason they feel so tired and overwhelmed is because of the amount of brain activity they endure every day. They think things out ten different ways, nervously anticipating outcomes, predicting other people’s feelings, and trying like crazy not to make mistakes. Someone once told me that people who do work using their brains are burning as much glucose as a construction worker every day. I don’t know where he got his research, but it has a ring of truth to it. Mental fatigue is a real experience, and nothing is more fatiguing than worry.

I like to think of it as an energy issue. We only have so much energy. We can use it for activity, creativity, libido, or worry. If we overdraw our energy account, everything must stop until we can build up more. But why would someone end up spending most of his or her energy on worry?

The answer lies in understanding where our energy comes from and how we naturally increase it over the course of a day. We increase it by seeking things that seem interesting, safe, and pleasurable. We may do that in a shy way or an extroverted way, but what raises energy is embracing good experiences. We are motivated to do so by our core feelings and impulses. Under ordinary circumstances, these core experiences arise naturally and authentically. As we acknowledge and express our feelings and impulses, our energy remains in a balanced, gently fluctuating state of well being. Even if we are in a crisis, our energy can remain good if we stay aware of what we are feeling and what we want.

But energy and initiative turn into anxiety if we repress our feelings so we do not upset someone we love. If this conflict between expressing feelings and pleasing others occurred too regularly in our childhood, there will be a disturbance in the person’s level of energy.

Under these conditions of living with caretakers who are reactive and easily disturbed, the child learns that his or her feelings and needs cause more trouble than they are worth. Anxious people figure out that there are family rules about who gets to express feelings and act freely, and that does not include them. As a result they constrict their natural self-expression, and all that good energy gets tied up in fighting against their own impulses. When the impulses try to sneak out anyway, anxiety ensues. Originally purposeful energy then becomes nonproductive static in the system. Unfortunately, we learn not only to hide our feelings from other people, we learn to hide them from ourselves. Now we are anxious and don’t even know why.

Any system, including the human organism, wears itself out when you tell it to go and stop at the same time. Instead of spontaneous feelings and impulses generating creative enjoyment, you get exhaustion and entropy, a winding down and oversimplification of the personality. Anxious people always have the feeling there is another personality inside them, one much more open and fun loving if only they could let it out.

Recovery from excessive anxiety is helped by techniques like yoga, meditation, and the conscious stopping of catastrophic thinking. Medications are a godsend for both the acutely and chronically anxious person. But when anxiety has gotten into the personality in a more long-lasting way, it is often important to figure out why and how the person learned to stifle his or her true feelings and impulses to such an extent. She needs to figure out who or what made her believe her safety or well being would be threatened by just being herself.

The recovery from a life of anxiety often entails sitting with and exploring the anxiety signal, rather than giving into it and withdrawing. As we learn to tolerate the experience of anxiety and to ask ourselves why this situation feels so dangerous, we can unravel that old learning back to its source. By tuning into the anxiety, we often see how irrational it is and begin to separate the past from the present. We begin to build a beachhead of reason against the irrational onslaught of childhood fear.

All of us can learn to comfort ourselves and not be held back by anxiety. We can go ahead and gently do those things that are good for us and our health, things which might have been squelched in our childhood family. We can learn to use anxiety as a signal that we are suppressing our feelings and thoughts and figure out what it is about this situation that is making us feel like a vulnerable child. We are adults now and have an adult’s mind. We are also lucky enough to live in a culture that supports and defends our right to expression.

Tuning into our feelings and needs is the first step. We don’t have to tell anyone, confront anyone, or take any action. Writing in a journal can be an easy first step toward improved self-awareness and self-acceptance. Once we are comfortable with our own feelings, we can begin in little ways to express ourselves among safe, supportive others. Anxiety transforms into good energy when we listen to ourselves and claim our right to have our own feelings and needs. 

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach.

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Good for Your Soul

I had to smile when I read my horoscope this morning: “Save the internet and other distractions for after you do your work. Otherwise your thoughts and energy will spin out in all kinds of directions.” I think I need to tape this message to my computer and make it my mantra. Yes, I am guilty of serious procrastination when it comes to getting my work done. Case in point: it’s deadline day and I am frantically writing my column at the last minute.

It’s so easy to get lost on the internet. Often it’s an email promising an alluring foreign destination that grabs my attention. Hmmm, let me check the airfares. And I’m off on a wild ride to distant corners of the globe. After twenty minutes I shake myself out of my trance and say, “Back to work.” A little while later I might have a question about something, and off I go into the ether chasing rainbows and little factoids to satisfy my curiosity.

My son said recently, “We could look that up online.” Years ago, I told him, we found information from books. Imagine that. Baby boomers like me remember the days when encyclopedia sets adorned every home’s bookshelves, and we had to go to the library to research reports. Not any more. Now everything we want to know, it seems, is a few keystrokes away. The question is are we better off?

I’m not so sure. A recent newspaper article said computer usage is changing the way we remember things. Our brains don’t seem to hold onto information like they used to. Experts say keeping our brains fit becomes more important as we age, yet computers seem to encourage the opposite. What’s a person to do?

Disconnecting from electronic distractions would be the obvious choice, but it’s hard when your profession requires you to be in touch. I haven’t found it necessary to get a Blackberry or iPhone yet and, while they have their allure, I just don’t want to be connected during every waking hour. Friends who own them tell me they like being able to keep up with their email, but to me these devices are just another distraction. In fact, it seems people are sometimes more tuned into their iPhones than they are to the people around them.

Texting is another pet peeve of mine. I know everyone does it, but I don’t understand its appeal. I’m not good at texting so calling people always seems a more efficient choice. Besides I want to hear people’s voices, engage in a little small talk, and connect on a personal level. Texting seems so impersonal, and words alone don’t convey feelings very well.

It seems we are moving more and more into less personal contact with one another. Meeting people face to face is a rarity nowadays, yet that’s where the best communication takes place. Remember body language? Smiling at people, being attentive, laughing, listening, eye contact—all those things are missing when you send words through the air. Somehow LOL doesn’t mean the same as the sound of a good, hearty laugh, especially when combined with happy eyes, crinkled at the corners.

I’m on a mission these days to connect personally (i.e., face to face) with as many of my friends as possible—old and new, close and far away. You might recall that my husband and I visited an old friend of mine in California last summer. He died unexpectedly in December at age 55. His death was a reminder that life’s short and full of surprises. I believe we need to pull together as people in these trying times, not distance ourselves from each other using impersonal electronic devices to communicate.

Call someone today and make a plan to meet—for coffee, a hike in the woods, a tasty cocktail, or a beach outing. Leave your iPhone at home and enjoy some old-fashioned face time. It’s good for your soul.

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Feel Good about Feeling Good

Nothing grows without delight. Green-thumbed gardeners know this, and so do child-friendly parents. Showing delight in someone’s growth gives the person fuel to keep trying. Good bosses do it, the best spouses do it, and we should do it, too. Enthusiasm for our progress is the most powerful motivator we have.

Praise from others can be as big as a whoop of joy, or it can be as subtle as a softening of the eyes. But whatever form it takes, the person being praised feels proud she did it right. In childhood, praise guides the way, like a light along the path. There is no mystery to it; we just follow the smiles. Later on we learn to give ourselves that good feeling by feeling proud of ourselves. Pride is the natural feeling of delight in growth.

But all too often, healthy pride gets confused with narcissism. If we are proud of ourselves, some of us fear we will be disliked or taken down a notch. As a result, some people superstitiously deny themselves pleasure in their accomplishments in order to ward off a comeuppance. Pride has even been labeled a sin, and acting conceited is a definite no-no.

Another practice that has given healthy pride a bad name is effusive praise for the smallest childhood success, from earning tokens in the classroom to the trophy glut at Little League. Many self-respecting adults are turned off by this over-praise, sensing that the children are being done no favor. In fact, research has shown that many children over-praised for success end up becoming more cautious and less motivated than the kids who were praised only for their amount of effort, successful or not.

However, if you as an adult are trying to make positive changes in your life, then you must notice and take time to feel good about even your smallest successes. To do so is just as important as figuring out what you wanted to change in the first place. We have to teach our brains that it is good to grow, and we do this by allowing ourselves to take pleasure in our changes. The pleasure we feel tells the brain to keep laying down these new tracks of changed behavior.

Unfortunately, we often discount our success moments, not pausing to enjoy or analyze our success. Yet without focusing on what we did, it makes it nearly impossible to repeat it. There are plenty of times when we spontaneously experience a positive shift or do something differently with good results. We might feel a lifting of depression or an absence of anxiety. We might interrupt a self-critical thought or speak up for ourselves. But instead of noticing and celebrating our positive changes, we might tell ourselves not to get a swelled head. Even worse, we may tell ourselves that because we feel so good, we are sure to have something bad happen soon, just to even things out. The brain then learns to stop construction on that new outlook or improved self-concept because it is causing anxiety, not pleasure.

We downplay our best moments when we should be enjoying and learning from them. Instead of dashing past our best moments when things are changing for the better, we ought to be asking ourselves how we did it. If we don’t analyze and take pride in what we did right, we will not know how to get there again nor will we have the enthusiasm to keep trying. We would be like those artist elephants in the zoo who wave paintbrushes over paper, creating beauty that they have no way to ever replicate. We like it, but we don’t know how we did it. Analyzing why we feel better makes it more than a happy accident; it makes it a conscious skill we can hone further.

Deliberately pausing to feel delight over our changed behavior encourages more growth. But many people find it hard to feel proud of themselves for very long. They squirm and resist, minimizing the fact that their changes had a huge impact for the better on their emotional state. Many times people do not think it is possible to really change, and they ignore the evidence of it as soon as they do it. Phobic about praising themselves, they undo their delight and accomplishment, insisting they are the same old people. What a way to guarantee they will stay the same old people.

If you want to keep having good feelings and a better life, learn to analyze what you are doing right and make a point to feel good about each improvement. You are not being prideful or vain. You are simply learning to feel proud of yourself for well-earned success. That warm glow in your chest and that broadened sense of possibility are the natural, organic results of feeling what you are supposed to feel when you are getting it right. If you make a point to stop a moment and enjoy it, you can fan that spark into a sustaining fire of motivation. If you close it down too quickly out of false modesty, you extinguish not just the good feeling of the moment, but your energy for the future.

Take every chance you can to feel good about feeling good. Build up your tolerance for enjoying the feeling of pride; it is what successful people have always done to keep their motivation strong. You won’t be an egoist; you will be an enthusiast. Then you can pass it along to others.

 

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.

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Spenders and Savers

Dear Readers,

I returned home recently from a week away to discover my husband had purchased some new items for the household: a windmill mole eradicator, which broke the first time it spun around and now awaits repair; a humidity monitor, which also tells the real-feel temperature in the house; and new pots and pans (“They were only $20!”). My husband loves to spend money. Luckily, he rarely buys expensive items—just little odds and ends that strike his fancy.

I, on the other hand, love not spending money. On my recent trip to a friend’s wedding in the Caribbean, my companions were all about shopping: jewelry, tropical dresses, and souvenirs to bring home. Me? I love looking at the colorful array of tempting baubles, but when I see the prices, it’s easy to talk myself out of buying anything. Thankfully, I’m not responsible for getting the economy back on its feet because I am definitely not a spender. Accumulating a lot of stuff has never been high on my list of priorities. In fact, I prefer getting rid of things. They can weigh you down.

Research shows that in most relationships, one partner likes to spend money and the other one likes to save it. I fall in the latter category, though I must admit saving money has been a challenge in recent years. Paying the mortgage, for most of us, tops the priority list these days followed by other necessities, like electricity, groceries, cable, and cell phones. Sometimes I long for the old days when mortgages were under a $1000 and you could feed a family of five easily for $10 a day.

I grew up with extremely thrifty parents, who instilled in me the belief that good things are worth waiting for. I remember when I was 12 and wanted a 10-speed bike. My dad showed me how to keep an allowance book, in which I kept track of my simple expenditures, slowly saving up enough money to buy the bike with my own money. What a feeling of accomplishment it was the day I rode my shiny bike down the street, knowing I had scrimped and saved to make what seemed then a monumental purchase.

Today’s kids are all about instant gratification, and technology makes instant gratification so easy. My middle son, Jasper, found a terrific online deal for a pair of board shorts. He needed some, so I agreed to get them. When it came to the shipping, I chose ground, which was almost $2 cheaper. Of course, Jasper wanted them sent priority, but accepted my decision with only a little grumbling. Two dollars doesn’t seem like much these days, but according to me, every dollar adds up, and how you spend them matters.

Sometimes thrifty folks like me find it challenging to embrace the buy local movement, especially when you can save money by buying from big-box stores. With summer in full swing, connecting with local merchants at farmers’ markets is a great way to invest in the local community. I love strolling through a market, chatting with the growers. You get a sense for the passion these people have for their vocations: growing healthy food to bring pleasure and vitality to the community.

And even though I’m a thrifty consumer, spending money on food is easier for me—because it’s not about the food. It’s about the experience the food brings. It’s about the smiles around the dinner table, the “Thanks for a nice dinner!” compliments from my sons as they leave the table, the pleasurable feeling you get after a nice meal.

Take some time this summer to go the farmers’ market or stop at a produce stand and enjoy the sensual experience of shopping for and then cooking your family or friends a nice healthy meal. Their smiles are worth far more than bright baubles or windmill mole eradicators—at least in my book.

 Love,

 

Peggy

Coming Next Month: TW’s semi-annual CAREER & EDUCATION GUIDE!  Advertising deadline: July 15. Call 757-204-4688 for advertising information.

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What Makes a Good Friend?

My friend’s grandmother used to say: “To make a friend, close one eye; to keep a friend, close both eyes.” I like that advice. It keeps me sensible and centered when I am tempted to get critical. Plus, I like the idea that someone might do me a similar kindness when I am at my worst.

When we have been petty or low-down, we cringe looking back on our behavior. We hope against hope that no one noticed. You didn’t see that, did you? You know a true friend will say: Not a thing, my eyes were closed. The good friend does this because he or she knows that a bad moment does not a character make.

But what about friends who don’t cringe when they act badly, who hardly notice that their behavior has hurt us? What if they do that frequently? How many times should we close our eyes then?

Note that my friend’s grandmother never said anything about blinding yourself. She advocated refraining from needless criticism, but that is not the same thing as refusing to see what is going on. Grandmother would say the person has to be worth closing your eyes for.

There are two reasons why we might put up with bad friend behavior. They both involve making excuses when the friend lets us down or uses us. The first excuse comes up when the friend seems to have a corner on the hardship market. There is always something more urgent going on in her life that eclipses your own puny problems. The excuse is that she would be a better friend if only she could, but she is so overwhelmed with The Biggest Problem Ever that she needs you to support her first.

The second reason why we put up with being let down is that we tell ourselves the friend is not intending to be hurtful. She just forgot, or something else came up. The friend is not a mean person. She just got waylaid by circumstances.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of people who have huge problems, and yet they still manage to show that you are important to them. They may not be able to give you all the attention you desire, but you can tell they would like to. They will even apologize that they sound like a broken record or that they know it is hard to keep hearing about their problems. In other words, they retain a sense of you, even as their own problems are going on. You get the feeling they wish they could give you more or simply repay you for what you have done for them. They are grateful for your attention. Their appreciation gives you a genuine sense of reciprocity.

Problems and illness make all of us more self-focused and decrease our sensitivity toward others. But that is a different kettle of fish from being chronically oblivious to how others are feeling.

The other excuse—that the person is not intending to be mean—simply does not hold water. What difference does it make if she is intending to hurt you or not? Is it a valid excuse to say, “I didn’t mean to upset you”? I don’t think so. It is only a valid excuse if the friend goes on to show empathy by saying that she understands why you were upset and then apologizes sincerely. Once you are past the egocentric teen years, you can’t claim faux innocence about your motives and leave it at that. “I didn’t mean it” is legit for kids only.

Cutting someone a break because her intentions were not malicious sidesteps the real issue. If you are being repeatedly let down by someone, it means that person is not thinking about you while considering the next move. She is thinking about herself. Anybody can make a mistake or forget, but when there is a pattern of overlooking your needs, it means, to that person, you are a convenience, not a commitment.

It takes psychological work to be empathic and to remember that others have needs, too. To be a good friend means you exert energy toward thinking about your friend and how she might be feeling. This effort toward understanding the inner experience of the other person is the unavoidable work of a good relationship. It is not enough to deny negative intentions.

So why do we put up with the friend who lets us down repeatedly? Perhaps we feel embarrassed to ask for anything back. We may feel that it is not okay for us to be the squeaky wheel.

Our hurt stays a secret when we do not tell the friend about the effects of her behavior. We silently hope for something better from her in the future. But if she is already overlooking our inner experience, she probably will not suddenly realize how we feel unless we tell her.

According to Paul Ekman, the recognized expert in reading facial expressions, an empathic person is capable of three things: 1) noticing our feelings, 2) resonating with our feelings, and 3) feeling the urge to make us feel better. If a friend forgets one of these three steps, we can remind her how we need to be treated in the friendship. If the person is good friend material—one of those for whom we should close an eye at times—she will appreciate our feedback and make a point to be more aware. But the friend who is not interested in relationship reciprocity may find that you are not so much fun anymore. She may drift away. And you, with your eyes wide open, may let her go. 

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.

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Finding Your Dreams

I barely have time to read for pleasure anymore, it seems, but I recently picked up a slew of books at bargain prices and vowed I would make time to read. I have missed the escape, the sense of adventure reading brings and lament that new generations tend to think words are only about instant communication. There are exceptions, I know, but most youth and young adults are consumed by technology: the bright colors, whirring graphics, and immediate gratification that modern communication offers.

Sitting in a still place with a book full of thousands of words probably seems a huge waste of time, not to mention a laborious task, to the unititated. What they haven’t discovered is how rewarding reading can be, how much you can learn about yourself and the world around you by sitting quietly and savoring delicious sentences and paragraphs.

One book I read (finally) was Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. It’s been out for 15 years, and I’m embarrassed to admit that only now have I gotten around to reading it. It’s a fabulous memoir, perfect for enjoying as you sit outside on your deck or in your yard, listening to the sounds of nature and feeling the summer breeze tickle your skin. As you read, you will want to stop and look around and appreciate the moment—a major theme that emerges in the book.

It’s no surprise that this memoir would resonate with me. My husband is European, and we’ve traveled a lot throughout Europe, including Italy, which has its own special charm. I remember being lost in the Italian countryside—this was in the days before GPS. Peter and I stopped to ask two men walking down the road for directions. They were happy to help and started giving directions in rapid-fire Italian while pointing their fingers this way and that. I could tell Peter was barely following their instructions, but he politely thanked them for their help. Before we drove off, one man peeked in the window of the Suburban, saw Scott, Jasper, and Ross sitting there, smiled widely, and said, “Bella familia!” It’s a favorite memory and reveals the Italians’ love of family.

The author of Under the Tuscan Sun is an English professor who decided, together with her husband, to renovate an old villa in Tuscany. The book chronicles their journey through the ups and downs of renovation, as well as the immense pleasure they discover in the foods and culture of Italy. I admire Frances Mayes not only for her beautiful writing but also for having a dream and following it through. So many of us have dreams that wither and die like unplucked fruit.

Maybe now’s a good time to examine your dreams and consider ways to take steps to bring them to fruition. Of course, thanks to this stagnant economy, many of us have had to put our dreams on hold. As we bide our time, waiting for the economy to turn around, we can take advantage of this lull to create new goals that will bring fulfillment in smaller ways—like reading more books, throwing a dinner party for friends, taking a long walk in nature, or pursuing a hobby you’ve always wanted to try. This month’s cover story is about women who fish both competitively and for fun. I’m sure if you think about it, you can come up with some new goals that will enrich your life even if you have had to put your long-term goals on hold.

Take some time this month to think about what you really want to do but never seem to get around to doing. Then carve out some time to make it happen. Hopefully, among your goals, you’ll include getting more active. This month’s TW offers articles designed to encourage you and your loved ones to get out and exercise. Whether it’s throwing a Frisbee, bowling, or frolicking in the surf, physical activity not only makes you healthier, it also makes you feel better inside.

Whether it’s reading, fishing, or exercising, we all find fulfillment in different ways. It’s really about caring enough about yourself to schedule time for your own edification. You’re worth it, so start today!

Love, Peggy

P.S. Talk back! Share your comments on tidewaterwomen.com. Just add your thoughts after each article.

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The Truth about Children

Grown-up parents are clear-eyed about having children. They know it is not a mutually respectful relationship, nor are the conditions fair. The parenting contract is more along the lines of I-give-to-you-without-ceasing, and you-give-when-you-feel-like-it. We can have expectations and socialize children, but it takes a long time for them to develop real concern for other people. Ultimately, if children get enough real empathy and respect for who they are, they tend to give back the same. By the time they are twenty-five, I mean.

The truth about children is that they are here to meet their needs, not ours. Kids balk at a deal in which you get everything you want, and they don’t. Many times parents think that out of love and respect, children should be willing to act directly against their self-interest, give up what they want the most, and do what the parent asks. When the child reacts like any self-respecting person would, by refusing or sneaking around the rules, parents often feel betrayed. By being so disobedient, it seems their child does not really love them. But this is not about love; it is about the power differential that causes anybody in a subordinate position to nod affirmatively to a boss figure, while plotting a way around it. Children are just as full of human nature as we are.

You never know what you are going to get in the kid lottery, but it is for sure that children are going to test every bit of your resolve to be a good person. Those little guys push every button and are so staggeringly egocentric it can take your breath away. The developmental high points for selfish behavior are especially vivid in the six-year-old, the thirteen-year-old, and the college freshman. You would think their agenda is to expect full support while simultaneously demanding we pretend we don’t exist. That can be hard to take for a parent. But it is especially hard on parents who have not had their emotional needs met in childhood.

Parents who have been emotionally neglected can equate their children’s attitude with that of their disinterested parent. People who have been over-controlled or even abused might see their children’s normal limit-testing as disrespect or even malevolent intention. Instead of understanding that a kid will naturally try to get what he or she wants, it is seen as a rebellion to overthrow the parent’s government.

No healthy child wants to overthrow his or her parent. Where would he be then? But if the child is a normal human being with normal human self-interest, he is never going to take a hit to his pleasure without protest. The parent who has not been too mishandled in her own childhood can see the child’s reaction as such, instead of a challenge to authority.

Parents always have the strategic advantage over a kid. Children just are not complicated. They are lousy at long-range strategy. They react very predictably. They have simple buttons you can push and pretty much get what you want. But you have to be smart about it and use what works. Good parenting books tell you all the juicy, manipulative ways you can work with a child’s simplicity and ultimately get their cooperation. I say ultimately, because nothing is instant in child-rearing. It is all about repetition, repetition, repetition.

When a parent tries to get instant capitulation from a child, whether through coercion or guilting (another form of coercion), they will get blowback instead. Sometimes the child will not fight back overtly, but will slide into passive-aggressive disengagement where the parent has no power at all. If parents expect a child to have the sensitivity and frustration tolerance of an adult, they will create rage or withdrawal instead of compliance.

Children want the same positive relationship with their parents that is found in a good marriage. If they get that, they ultimately (there’s that word again) turn into nice people who can see our point occasionally. Children just need a few things. They need their parents to be prepared to wait forever to see some sign of good judgment and responsibility in them. They need their parents to have the unconditional love of a bodhisattva and zero needs for affirmation or validation from their child. They need their parents to wait forever for them to grow up and show some initiative. And finally, they need their parents to expect so many mistakes and selfish behavior it would make you swoon.

Somehow, out of that witches’ brew of parental frustration and incessant disappointments, kids develop real self-esteem, and they even start showing concern for other people. I don’t know who designed it so that they have to start out so maddeningly egocentric and oblivious, but there it is.

Maybe kids arrive to stir up our old childhood issues for one last look-see. When our child is ignoring our wishes or challenging our authority, maybe it is our chance to heal what we went through with a disengaged parent or an over-controlling one. If our problem with our child has to do with feeling disrespected, maybe it is a big pointy arrow showing how much we may have suffered as children from not being treated with consideration. Instead of demonizing the little devils, we can wonder if we are subconsciously expecting our kids to be the caring, attentive supporters we wish we had had a long time ago.

The truth about children is that they bring our own childhood back. When they push our buttons, they are always hitting replay. Our child’s necessary egocentrism will trigger the places where we felt devalued by our parent’s self-absorption. Then we have a chance to finally mourn it and make it a part of our history, not an ongoing part of our present. Maybe those buttons they are pushing have been the right ones all along. 

 Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Worry Warriors

My worry list seems to be growing exponentially lately. Besides the normal stuff—kids, my mom, bills, gas prices, my business, my husband’s business, wars, my old dog who’s becoming blind and deaf —every day new things come along to worry me. Bam! It’s like I am under a deep snowdrift, flailing around, trying to get to the surface, trying to breathe.

That’s one of the reasons I love to travel. Somehow when I take off on a plane or hop in the car and head out of town, my worries stay behind. It’s like there’s a magic switch that shuts off when I hit the road. Of course, while I’m gone, the occasional worrying thought creeps into my mind, but it leaves just as quickly, replaced instead by a new experience or impression. In other words, travel always enables me to live so much more in the moment.

Unfortunately, as soon as my plane touches down or I take the familiar exit off the interstate toward home, the worries return. I sit in my office, trying to work, and these pesky creatures swarm around me, shouting, “Worry about me!” “No, me! I matter more.” “It’s my turn. Worry about me now!”

“Form a line,” I say. “One at a time, please.” I try to worry in an orderly fashion. Sometimes it works. Other times like the middle of the night, I will become fixated on something and lie awake for hours, turning this issue over and over in my mind, growing angry, then bitter, then self-recriminating, then totally irritated at myself at not being able to let things go. Those sleepless nights are the worst.

OK, I admit it. I am a control freak. I’d really like it if everything in my life would go just the way I want it to. It rarely does, however. I’m beginning to think it’s because I spend too much time complaining and not enough time doing something about what’s bugging me. Yes, some of the things I worry about, I can control. My business, for example. Instead of being bummed out about ad sales going down, I need to find positive, pro-active ways to generate new leads and reach out to different business sectors. Yep, taking action steps is what I need to do.

I wrote last month about the teacher appearing when the student is ready. This month’s issue of TW contains gems of advice from many teachers, advice that might just lead us toward a better future. For example, Debi Wacker shares how writing can be used as a tool to jumpstart creativity as well as resolve troubling issues. Hmmm. I think I’ll try writing the next time the worry warriors invade my office.

I also like Lee Milteer’s recipe for a great life. One tip about letting go of worrisome thoughts really resonated with me. Lee suggests framing every so-called disaster with these words: “In five years, will this matter?”

Wow. Instantly, I can prioritize the things in my life that deserve my attention, the things that matter most. Try it yourself, and send those worry warriors packing!

Love,

Peggy

 

 

P.S. Talk back! Share your comments on tidewaterwomen.com. No need to register, just add your thoughts after each article.

 

 

P.P.S. Pick up the June issue of Virginia Living, which hits the streets this month, for my interview with Virginia Beach developer Bruce Thompson.

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Magical Thinking

I am an experimentalist. I think we should use the scientific method to put ideas to the test and see if they enrich our lives. This experimental approach could be the best way of discovering which beliefs are good for us.

Recently I came across a new belief to test, thanks to Sonia Choquette’s book, Ask Your Guides. Her conviction that there are guiding spirits and guardian angels is about the most hopeful, benign idea I can think of. Imagine having an invisible companion—or as Sonia claims, many companions—whose only interest is your well being. She says that you can respectfully ask a type of guide called runners to smooth a path toward whatever goal you want. She described other guides, guardians, and whatnot, but the runners struck me as the best ones on which to use the scientific method. Asking for something specific to happen, a real goal, seemed eminently testable. Why not call on them and see if it worked?

Why was I doing this? As a psychologist, shouldn’t I be embarrassed to confess I am checking out spirit runners? Is not the rational and reasonable the gold standard of mental health? Actually, no. The provable should be the gold standard of psychological well being. There’s that scientific method bias of mine. If you can prove to me that your mindset brings you peace with other people and happiness within yourself, maybe it doesn’t matter which dimension it comes from. But as a scientist, I have to know why it works. And for that I do use modern psychology.

I don’t think we have to be so persnickety that we throw out the mysterious because it cannot be proven in a laboratory. If it works in the private environment of our psyche, we can use it. Plus, if runners and spirit guides do exist, I am sure they would not mind a bit if we gave them a psychological explanation as well. As far as I can tell, they are a tolerant bunch.

I don’t have to know if something is ultimately true to use it as a starting point for my experiments in living. I don’t have to reject out of hand anything magical and mysterious, like my friend who pulls back at the first mention of the supernatural as though she might catch something. I like magic. I like mystery. And I like science. I don’t see why we can’t be like the astrophysicists who are super comfortable with black holes and the Big Bang, which are just about the most magical, far-out concepts I’ve ever heard of. If they can write papers based on those ideas, I can certainly ask my runners for a parking spot.

On the day I conducted my test on runners, I was in the store looking for cooking sherry in the staggeringly overstocked wine section. As soon as I asked my runner to pave a way to the sherry, voila! Now I tried it in the card section, knowing how impossible it is to find a good card when you most need one. Sure enough, my runner led me straight to it. Two for two. By the time I successfully tried it on a parking space at my next stop in the shopping center, I was a believer.

The scientist in me had a problem with that, however. It told me that while I thought I was calling on a spirit runner, I was really tuning up a part of my brain called the reticular activating system which devoted its entire neuronal capital to finding that sherry, card, and parking spot. In other words, my scientist mind sniffed, there’s nothing supernatural about the same part of the brain that mice use to find cheese. It is why when we are considering buying a certain kind of car, we start noticing them all over the place. Reticular activating system versus runners: both equally appealing, but which do I choose?

As a psychologist, I have to go with the runners. It is a more useful psychological theory. Suppose I really need help with something. Maybe it is an important meeting coming up, or a big problem that needs a solution fast. Would I be better prepared to deal with it if I imagined 1) gooey, gray brain tissue firing electrical impulses, or 2) a super–effective spirit guide who will do its best to make sure everything turns out well? Hands down, I know I will feel better with my runner on the case. This is empirical research, after all. What works, works.

Actually, the scientists in infant attachment research have the best explanation of all, one which is almost as supernaturally divine as the idea of spirit guides. It is the idea that if we were lucky enough to have a modicum of bonding to our early caretakers, we are forever imprinted on experiencing the world as part of a dyad. We do best when we imagine we are not alone. Emotional security and mental calmness rely heavily on the sensation that we are forever in the center of someone’s emotional attention. The fact that this internal experience of being part of a twosome calms us and increases our perceptivity, is astounding in its magic. How we are able to take in that early love and turn it into a secure sense of confidence about life is a mystery on par with Big Bangs and black holes.

Now the spirit runners make sense. They are other-worldly emissaries of primary maternal love. As such, I am well within science when I lay claim to them. Feeling loved and cared about will always bring out the best in me. It is a scientific fact.

So should you really believe in runners?  How badly do you want that parking space?

Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.

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