December 12, 2014

No Feeling is Final

When we're depressed, anxious, or otherwise feeling bad, it's often compounded by the belief that our mood is stable or permanent. Even if we remember that we felt differently yesterday, and logically conclude that we'll probably differently again tomorrow, it doesn't seem that way in the moment. 

I'm reading a book on mindfulness and psychotherapy (see sidebar), and a sentence that addresses the fear of enduring emotion jumped out at me: “No feeling is final.” I love it! It’s from a Rainer Maria Rilke poem (copied below) and it made my day. I happened to be feeling sad at that moment, and was pleased and relieved to be reminded that emotions are transient by nature.

Emotions trick us with their pain and intensity. We can feel so angry, so depressed, and so scared that it seems implausible that we'll ever feel differently. "No feeling is final" reminds us that emotions will move through and move on if we let them, easing the unnecessary secondary emotion (e.g., fear about anxiety; anxiety about anger). That doesn’t mean that the intense anxiety you feel during breakfast won’t return at lunchtime--or even as you do the breakfast dishes--but it does mean that the world has other emotions in store for you: sadness, happiness, envy, exhilaration, less intense or more intense anxiety, and a whole host of other feelings. The current emotion is not your new life

The next time you're displeased with your current emotional state, remember: no feeling is final.


God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

June 10, 2014

Qu'est-ce qui t'appartient?

Recently I told one of my clients that his feeling of being manipulated by his partner didn’t mean that his partner was being manipulative. Within the same week, my sister informed me that my irritation with her didn’t mean that she was doing or saying anything irritating.

The assumption that your emotions accurately reflect reality is a cognitive distortion referred to as emotional reasoning. Examples include assumptions like “Because I dislike her, she must be a jerk” or “Because I feel intimidated by him, he must be trying to intimidate me.” Emotional reasoning is a backwards and often unhelpful method of interpretation; in interpersonal situations, it usually involves assigning responsibility for your emotions to the other person.

One of the best tools for disengaging from emotional reasoning is something I learned from doing therapy in French: the phrase “Qu’est-ce qui t’appartient?" which translates literally to what belongs to you. The idea is to consider the roles that your mood, history, and experience could be playing in the situation.

Keeping this concept in mind, my client and explored other possible explanations for his feeling of being manipulated (e.g., he has a hard time saying no; his previous partner was manipulative) and for his partner’s behaviour (e.g., she wanted to please him; she was trying to help). We concluded that his feeling of being manipulated was generated by his own history and context, rather than by anything that his partner did. In my own case, I was able to identify that my irritation was borne of my own fatigue that day and lingering hurt over a comment someone else had made the day before. Similarly to my client's situation, my emotional reaction had nothing to do with my sister.

When due to his history and experiences, my client feels manipulated by his partner who isn’t doing anything particularly manipulative, ca l’appartient.  When due to my history or context, I get irritated with my sister who isn’t doing anything inherently irritating, ca m’appartient. When, for example, due to your history and experiences, you experience recurrent jealousy in a relationship where there is no objective cause for jealousy, ca t’appartient.

Recognizing that part (or all) of your reaction belongs to you rather than being caused by someone else is a great first step in not being a jerk to others and in avoiding unhelpful automatic responses. 

The next time you’re upset, ask yourself qu’est-ce qui t’appartient? What happens?

May 25, 2014

Rest in the Not-Knowing

One of my clients is going through a period of uncertainty in several areas of his life. He's trying to determine whether or not to sell his business; he and his partner are trying to decide whether or not to try to adopt a child; and they are considering moving to another city. None of the issues are near resolution, and my client finds the uncertainty difficult to tolerate.

During our session this week, I suggested that he try to "rest in the not-knowing and see what happens." My comment startled me a bit because I don't usually say things like that. Rather, I'm likely to help clients weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each option, or to guide them in exploring the thoughts and feelings associated with each possibility. This time, I surprised myself even further by following up with "When we make space for not-knowing--rather than frantically trying to allevaiate our discomfort by settling matters immediately--possibilities that might not otherwise present themselves can bubble up to the surface."

As different as this is from some of my other therapy interventions, I'm confident that it's true. Last week I attended a six-day silent retreat, during which there was nothing to do but meditate. During this exceptional week, my mind and body were free from their usual tasks of working, socializing, shopping, cooking, exercising, organizing, planning, and scheduling. Thus liberated, my mind came up with a collection of new and helpful ideas and insights, none of which had surfaced over the course of prior months and years of stressful contemplation and rumination.

When I shared this experience with my client, he remembered that during his three-week vacation over Christmas, he had made a deliberate effort to limit his rumination over a work problem that had been causing him grief for months. He reported that the spaciousness of mind created by that decision had resulted in significant insights that allowed him to consider the situation with greater clarity, and to perceive options that hadn't been mentally available to him before. He concluded our session by assigning himself the therapy homework of tolerating not-knowing, rather than one of our usual CBT assignments like recording thoughts or making a list of pros and cons.

We can't go on a meditation retreat or take a four-week vacation every time we're facing a big decision, so how is the idea of tolerating not-knowing applicable in everyday life? The answer is that even without a retreat or a vacation, we can create mental spaciousness by sometimes choosing to put aside our lists of pros and cons and our step-by-step plans for arriving at a resolution. This choice protects the mental real estate that, given the chance, could house an insight or a creative solution.

The next time you notice that your mind is caught in endless or unhelpful speculation and deliberation, see if you can instead create some mental space for yourself by tolerating not-knowing. What happens? 

May 19, 2014

Something Will Happen

Take a second to think of the last time you were stressed out and plagued by what ifs? "What if I miss my flight?" "What if I hit 'reply all' instead of 'reply' on that last email?" "What if no one likes the dessert I made for the party?" "What if I made the wrong decision to end my relationship?"

Now think about what ended up happened on an occasion when your what if came true--when you did miss your flight, you did hit reply all, your dessert wasn't good, and you did break up with your partner too hastily? What happened?

You probably either caught a different flight or stayed overnight; your email overshare was probably problematic, embarrassing, or not a big deal; people probably ate your dessert or you went to the corner store to pick up ice cream instead; and you probably either got back together or got over it eventually. That is, something happened. 

In her book "Real Happiness at Work," American Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes that when her mind sets off a cascade of anxiety about a hypothetical scenario, she uses the phrase "something will happen" to regain her calm. I love this because it's true 100% of the time! Something always happens.

I wish I had known about something will happen last Christmas: I was taking a long trip with a connecting flight halfway across the continent and there was a blizzard on the eve of my departure. My mind frantically reiterated "What if my flight is cancelled what if my flight is cancelled what if my flight is cancelled??" As always, the answer was that, if the flight was cancelled, something would happen: I'd get a later flight, I'd fly the next day, I'd cancel the trip altogether, but no matter what, something would happen. And it did.

Something will happen also works for bigger issues. One of my friends has trying to get pregnant for a year with no luck so far. She frequently topples into the rabbit hole of "What if I don't get pregnant this month? What if I never get pregnant? What if two or three or five years from now, I still haven't gotten pregnant!" The answer is that something will happen. It might be eventual pregnancy. It might be a decision to consider adoption. It might be a change in how important pregnancy is to her. But no matter what: something will definitely happen.

Something will happen is the answer to any what if question. Next time you're fretting about being late, making a mistake, or any other what if scenario, answer your own question.

Does it help?

March 23, 2014

Impulsive Generosity

What if every time you had a generous impulse you followed it?

For many of us, generous impulses come up relatively frequently (“They said not to bring anything, but I’ll pick up a bottle of wine,” “I wonder if my mom’s still sick, I’ll call to see how she’s doing” “I could pick up the tab for both of us”). However, our generous thoughts are often immediately followed by reasons to not follow through, such as “I don’t have time” or “I can’t afford it” and sometimes by stingy reasons like “Well, what has she done for me lately?”

Last week I went to a talk by American Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein. One of his topics was the impact of generosity on personal happiness and quality of life. He told us that about a year ago, he decided on a new policy: every time he had a generous impulse followed by a non-generous reaction, he would simply watch the non-generous         thought--without judging the thought or himself--and then return to the original impulse and follow through. He said that, without question, this practice had substantially increased the joy and happiness in his life (and probably, the joy and happiness of others).

What would it be like to try this? 

In the past month, I had several generous impulses that I didn't follow through: “I should bring a baptism gift for my niece” followed by “She's two months old, she won't know the difference” and “I should offer to babysit for my friend's birthday so he can go out with his wife" followed by “If they need babysitter, they'll ask me.” When I look back at these instances, my reasons for not following through seem silly, untrue, or workable, and I regret my decision. 

In contrast, I can think of several instances when I did follow through on generous impulses: “I'll email my colleague to see how her PhD defence went" and "I could get my friend a copy of that book we were talking about” and it felt great. The urge to not follow through still came up ("I'm busy right now" "He'll probably order it online himself") but I did it anyway.

Think of the last time you had a generous impulse and followed through. How did it feel? What was the impact on the recipient of your generosity--and on you?

March 05, 2014

Unconditional Positive Regard

Unconditional positive regard is a term coined by influential American psychologist Carl Rogers. If you have unconditional positive regard (UPR) for someone, you support and accept that person regardless of his or her behaviour. It means that even when you don't respect or approve of what someone says or does, you maintain an overall attitude of acceptance and positive regard for him or her.

Rogers named UPR as one of three necessary and sufficient conditions for successful psychotherapy, along with therapist genuineness and accurate empathy. He believed that therapists who demonstrated UPR for their clients created a positive therapy environment conducive to client growth and development. According to Rogers, the demonstration of UPR allows clients to freely express thoughts, feelings, and actions without fear of offending or alienating the therapist. Therapists may still question clients' behaviour, but without condemning the client as a person.

What about outside therapy, though?

Unconditional positive regard can exist in parent-child or other family relationships, in close friendships, and in romantic relationships or marriages. It can't be assumed to be present but, if we're lucky, we have UPR in at least one of our relationships. Social psychologist David G. Myers referred to UPR in relationships as "an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even when knowing our failings." He added "It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worse feelings, and discover that we are still accepted... we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of the others' esteem."

My experience is that that's exactly what it feels like. I can think of a handful of people who seem to have UPR for me, and the word relief accurately describes how it feels to spend time with them. I've told these UPR-extending individuals what I believe to be the most shameful and appalling truths about myself, and it didn't seem to change how they feel about me. I don't worry about my pride around them and even when I'm my worst self, it doesn't threaten the relationship.

I can also think of a handful of people for whom I have UPR. It's hard to imagine something they could say or do that would make me turn away from them permanently, or make me not try to understand their motivation. I love and/or respect them even when I dislike them.

Unconditional positive regard is lovely when it happens, but I think it's the exception rather than the rule. That is, I'd venture that most of our friends, and even many of our family members, could lose our esteem. There are usually only a select few loved ones for whom we really feel unconditional positive regard. It may be spontaneous or may develop over time.  

For whom do you have unconditional positive regard? Who has it for you? What does it      feel like?

January 08, 2014

Discretionary Burdens

The other day I read a magazine article about the concept of discretionary burdens. We've all heard of discretionary spending, i.e., elective spending on non-essentials, but what's a discretionary burden (DB)?

A DB is an optional task that we peg as an obligation, burdening ourselves unnecessarily. Picture this: It's Friday and a friend or colleague is describing her to-do list for the weekend and complaining about how tired and overburdened she feels: "I have to take my mom shopping and I have to make the cake for my friend's birthday dinner and I have to get in a couple hours at the office and I have to go to yoga and I have to put away the Christmas decorations..." You're exhausted just listening to her list, but you're also skeptical: Does she actually have to make a cake? Can't she just buy one? Does she have to go to yoga? What will happen if she doesn't go?

The good news about discretionary burdens is that, because they're discretionary, we can just as easily unburden ourselves! The hard part is that we don't always recognize the discretionary nature of our burdens. While it's obvious to us that our friend or colleague could easily buy a cake or skip yoga, it's difficult to recognize our own burdens as discretionary. Therefore, the best strategy for unburdening ourselves is to read our to-do list to an impartial friend and let him or her point out the DBs.

The next time you find yourself complaining (to yourself or out loud) about how this weekend, you have to take the kids to visit your parents, attend your cousin's bachelor party, pick out paint colours for the bathroom reno, hit the gym, and read a couple articles for work, ask a friend to help point out the DBs. If you're not comfortable doing so, imagine that your list belonged to a friend. From an outside perspective, which tasks would you identify as discretionary? Can the paint colours wait? Will your cousin care if you don't make it to the party? Do you actually have to work on the weekend?

Let me know how this works!