In early December, the guy at the desk at my gym commented on how busy things will be early in January, and then laughed wryly and said, “Well, you can always just wait until February when things get back to normal.” People embrace big changes at the beginning of the new year, as if that particular moment in time is especially potent for change-making.
I have participated in this ritual for many years, setting intentions and identifying things I want to move toward. Today, though, I wonder about it a bit. Change is a constant. Change is always happening, and often we resist and regret change. So why do we want to embrace personal change on January first?
I am thinking it is all (ALL) about control or at least the illusion of control. If I decide what kind of change I want, and how I want to accomplish that change, then I am not at the mercy of the random-feeling sorts of changes that happen without my permission and without even notification. This isn’t true, of course, but it is a way that we can comfort ourselves into feeling safe. Yes, I can go to the gym every day and eat nothing but lettuce leaves, and that will keep me safe from really big painful changes. Maybe it will just numb me to other changes, or keep me so preoccupied with trying to stay on track that I don’t have to acknowledge that somebody had died, that my job isn’t satisfying, that my children are struggling and that I don’t know how to help them.
So that’s a theory for today. But even cursory notice makes it clear that it is an illusion. We actually live in a world where we have little control. In the realm of our personal behaviour we do experience ourselves as being able to make choices and manage our responses, but that’s often because we don’t realize the degree to which we have been limited and programmed by our previous experiences or deeply entrenched beliefs.
There is a terrible mythology operating among sensible, educated, intelligent women, and the result of this mythology is a whole host of trouble: increasing stress levels, anxious thinking, moodiness, roller-coastering emotions and self-esteem. This is the myth of the perfect mother, who, with no apparent effort, has perfect children. She is totally self-sacrificing, perpetually loving, has boundless energy to give to her children, and her life, because she has sacrificed everything, is perfect. Her children lead charmed lives, as well, because she is a perfect mother.
Do you believe this? I know that in your intellectual mind, you understand that it is an impossibility, unachievable. We all “know” that nobody is perfect. But deep in your heart of hearts, do you believe that if only you are perfect you can protect your baby and child from harm? That you can support her development to the degree that she can become something wonderful and special? That if you breastfeed longer, play the right music, keep her away from screens, anticipate her every need, that you can protect her from anything that might befall her?
Many moms seem to have this belief underlying their everyday behaviour. There is a terrible fear of being less than perfect and thus putting your baby at risk. And maybe the worst part is this “perfect” is a moving target! Today it is about co-sleeping. Tomorrow it is about enforcing a schedule. Avoid peanut butter. No, no, offer it early, prevent allergies! When you are in the middle of this, it is impossible to see the whole context…. which is that the “right” way to raise baby is going to be different next week….and in five years, you’ll look back and say, oh, I can’t believe we thought that was right….
A mom got really angry with me once for suggesting that she could maybe try to be a “good-enough” mom. This concept is time-honoured, and I’ll get to the background in a minute. The mom who got angry thought that she would be short-changing her children if she only was “good enough.” She needed to be more than that, more than even what is possible, in order to justify her having these children in her life. She couldn’t relax into the idea of being “good enough” because that would mean she didn’t actually deserve to have children. What a painful, limiting way to think….and she wasn’t completely aware of it until it came out in therapy. When those ideas get some light and air in therapy, then we have the ability to think about them, and decide if we want to believe them. We develop the capacity for making choices in how we will mother.
So what about the “good-enough” idea? Well, it got its start with Donald Winnicott, a very important psychiatrist from the U.K. in the last century. He suggested that children have very particular needs in order to develop to their highest capacity. Most mothers supply these needs without a lot of outside intervention. And once those needs are met, then adding more doesn’t do anything to support development. It is actually energy spent that could be doing something else, like maybe taking care of yourself, or working at your career, or doing something you love.
How can you switch to being a good enough mommy when you have been programmed since forever to aim for perfection? You have to reprogram your inner world and then restructure your outer world.
Check your default thinking. When you interact with your child and you hear self-critical thoughts come up in your mind, see if you can think “that was probably good enough.” If that’s impossible, see if you can think “I wonder what good enough would be like?”
If you tend to catastrophic thinking (i.e. if I give my baby a bottle all these terrible outcomes could happen), do a reality check. Specifically, how likely are those outcomes? If one happened, would you manage it? Another approach to that worst-case thinking is to just notice that you are doing that kind of thinking again. If it is a pattern for you, you might be able to notice that you are in your pattern. Once you can see the pattern, you have some traction for fact-checking. “Oh, this is my scary thought pattern. I don’t have to believe these thoughts; this is just my pattern.”
Practice thinking about what is constitutes “good enough.” Do I have to read three books at bedtime or is one book enough? Does the baby need to nurse five times a night at six months or is less going to be enough? Don’t expect to know what enough is…. but at least when you are asking the question you can notice when you are giving too much.
Destress your life as much as possible, and focus on enjoying the time with your baby or children. More about that later.
Check your context. Are you inundated with other peoples’ views on perfect parenting? Do you spend time on social media listening to women judge other peoples’ parenting? Or do you spend time in social groups trying to improve your parenting? See if the context supports your sense of being okay or if it contributes to a sense that you are not okay at this mothering thing. It probably won’t be all or nothing: there may be parts that feel good and supportive, and parts that feel judgy and uncomfortable. See if you can extricate yourself from judgement. That includes offering judgment as well as being the recipient.
Ask for what you want. In an effort to change the context to support you in being “good enough” instead of perfect, you can ask for support. Ask for support for your parenting and tell them what that will look like. For example, “Mom, I’d really like you to tell me that I am doing a great job, and that you know it is sometimes hard, and that you think I’m a good mom.” You can’t control whether she will do it, but you will have made your preference very clear.
Destress your life as much as possible. Yes, you did just read that in the list above, but it is essential for both inner peace and an outer serenity. More about this later.
Getting out from under the burden of perfectionism in motherhood is not easy, but it can be liberating. You know what your child needs, and you know how you want your family life to be. You and your spouse get to make those decisions for your family. It can just like the folks next door, or people on Pinterest, but it probably won’t be. And just as perfect mothering cannot protect your child from real life, it cannot keep you from struggling with the complicated feelings that arise as our children grow, change, and face their lives. Liberating yourself from the myth of the perfect mommy offers the possibility of deeply enjoying the process of raising children.
Photo credit: Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours for the lovely hands on mug picture.
I have clients in my practice who have suffered through traumatizing situations, people who struggle with PTSD, the real deal. Sometimes they have seen so much that it can be hard to hold any idea of the world other than the one that is framed by that experience.
If you have been a helper in this world, one who sees the suffering enacted on humans by other humans, one who tries without success to bring order into chaos, one who wants desperately to reach out a hand to help but knows that a hand isn’t enough, the world can look like a terrible place, where people do unconscionable things to each other, where behaviour lies outside of our capacity to understand, and where compassion seems to have dried up and blown away.
I know, though, that we have an inherent capacity to tolerate trauma. Our nervous systems are wired up to experience it, work through it, and work it out. PTSD happens when that natural system is disrupted. Instead of feeling our feelings, watching our memories, noticing our body sensations, we are trained to avoid all of that, pretend we are okay when we are not, and smile….at all costs, to smile. When we are good at avoidance, we can sometimes pretend that we didn’t have those experiences. At least we can pretend to others, but it is harder to pretend to ourselves, especially at night.
But because I know we are self-healing, I know that people can and do recover from trauma and from PTSD. What can be hard though is when the darkness from the worldview starts to invade your heart and mind. You can get to a place where you wonder if the world is really all dark, if people really cannot be trusted, and if there is no self-righting tendency in anything. That can be the edge of despair: not a place we especially like to visit. And if you haven’t been there before, it can feel like there is no way out.
Despair. Despair: if you’ve been there, you know it. Despair is the last protest of hopelessness, the energy that powers our movement back toward the light. It is the NO that shifts gears from ever increasing darkness. When the dark forces gather, we resist and try to push the feelings away. But letting go into the experience of the body allows for the cry of despair….and that is our protest. The cry is both the indicator of the depth of feeling and the movement out of that feeling.
Our literature and beliefs are rife with examples and expressions of despair. It is a very human experience, and we try like crazy to avoid it. But it is what comes when things are overwhelming, sorrows abound, fear and sadness and loss are activated to a high level. We see the world and ourselves as without redemption. But making the protest, crying out despair, especially with your therapist, your lover, or your friend, can open a door to recovery.
A platform for therapists, lovers and friends…..holding space for another person (a bit of direction)
When you cry out that there is nothing, no one, that you are unutterably alone, I can hear that. When you cry out and I witness your despair, you experience something different. You are not alone. You are not carrying this burden by yourself. You are not unsupported, unloved, unseen. I will not give you up to a world that is all darkness. Even when you cannot imagine that there is anything else, I can hold the space so you can feel into your despair. When you feel like you have to give up, because you just cannot go on any more, I have strength and room for you. When you cannot believe in a future, I can believe in it, and I can believe in you. Even if you cannot see the light, I will hold it for you until you have sunk into your despair and made that cry that moves you away from it.
Where I live in the Canadian Maritimes, late fall can look a lot like winter elsewhere.
This is the time of year that leads people to (frantic?) celebration, lighting up houses and trees, sprinkling glitter in unusual places, more parties, more drinking, more attempts to push back the darkness in any way we can. But the darkness deepens. Hours of daylight are few: the sun is barely visible over the horizon at the beginning of the workday, and by the time supper is taking shape in my mind, much less on the stove, the darkness is encroaching again. So we dance, and sing, and light our homes and maybe get half lit ourselves. What are we celebrating?
With the growing darkness two things come up in us: first, there is a primal fear that the darkness is all. That there is really only darkness and any suggestion of light is just self-deception or ignorance. The world growing dark merely demonstrates the darkness of the human heart. There is a lot of darkness in the world right now. Our hearts and minds grow dark, and we focus on the violence, the poverty, the problems both public and personal. We fear that we will be overtaken by dark, there will be no more warmth, no more growing season, no sunlight toward which we turn our faces to soak in the energy of our star.
But there is also something else in us, sometimes a very small something but it is there. There is also a spark, of faith, or belief, perhaps, but something that reminds us to keep on going. Even when the days are long and dark, when the nights seem to last forever, there is something in our human spirit that keeps us plugging along. I don’t think it is hope. Hope is too intellectual, too cognitive a concept. It is something more like life itself. Within us there is the fear of the ultimate darkness but more important, there is a push toward the light, toward life, a movement within us that says, “Yes” when all the world looks so much like “no.”
So maybe I need to re-frame my picture of our end-of-fall holiday mania. Maybe it isn’t really about desperate pushing away of the darkness. Maybe, instead, it is about our own small lights within reaching out to join with other lights, to band together until the light comes back into the world.
May you join your spark with many others to help bring light to the world. Now more than ever, your life is needed to bring light into the darkness.
I could be happy if only…….if only this, and this, and this……what would have to happen to allow me to be happy?
We are victims of a perfection-image mentality. That is, it seems as if we cannot be happy unless everything is perfect. That means all of our circumstances, all of our relationships, all of our surroundings and – heaven help us – we, ourselves, have to be perfect.
Wow! What a burden.
If we are really operating that way, we’ve pretty much put the limit on ever being happy. If happiness requires that circumstances, other people and we ourselves have to be perfect, well, we might as well resign ourselves right now that happiness is unattainable.
What do you think of that? Insert sad face emoticon. Yeah. It stinks, right?
I think that perfection is unattainable, by definition. And I also think it is a poor use of time and energy to keep on striving for something that is both unattainable and probably not even very useful if you could attain it. (What good would it be to me to be perfect for one day or one minute? The next minute I’d be back to striving…..ugh. Too tiring to think about). It makes sense to me to be OPEN to the possibility that happiness could happen regardless of your circumstances. It could happen regardless of whether your relationships are in right order or whether you are feeling perfect or utterly imperfect.
In fact, happiness often arrives when we are quite outside of ourselves, out of self-consciouness and awareness of our limitations and deep in self-criticism. Happiness arrives, like a spring day, and blesses us with a lifting of the spirit, a lightening of the body, an easing of tensions.
It is not a gift or reward for a perfectly clean house, perfectly made-up face, or perfect parenting. It comes like grace, like a breeze, like a zephyr…and it goes that way, too.
Let go, let down, let it be. And then see what happens. It would be a shame to miss moments of happiness because you were striving so hard to do more, be more. And when it comes, soak in the moment, relax in the sensations and deeply enjoy….and then let it go. Happiness is like that. You can cultivate it but you can’t make it stay.
If I am unwilling or unable to feel my emotions as they are happening, then I have to do something to keep them from being in my consciousness. So I tense my musculature, tighten and constrict so that nothing gets through.
Okay, so today is only Day Three, and maybe that’s a little early to be making any statements about this new practice of mine. I am trying to commit to a 28 day practice of engaging in the sequence of bioenergetic exercises that David Bercelli has pulled together and labeled “Trauma Releasing Exercises.” Click here to go to his website: trauma prevention
I’m not sure I entirely accept all of the claims made by the proponents of the method but I do know that the first part of the series is profoundly grounding and the second part opens up the opportunity for the body to discharge a lot of energy in the form of movement. I also know that when I work through a stress-release, stress-release sequence of movements, I usually can feel a lot more and mostly I feel better.
The FEELING more is what counts for me. I am pretty good at shutting things down in my organism, i.e., my body. I look quite contained and relaxed, and situations and events do not visibly distress me. I also have chronic tension in my neck and shoulders (my physiotherapist would just shake her head at this point) and sometimes stomach upsets and sometimes trouble with sleeping. If I am unwilling or unable to feel my emotions as they are happening, then I have to do something to keep them from being in my consciousness. So I tense my musculature, tighten and constrict so that nothing gets through. Not feelings, not energy, and if I am particularly tight, I can even limit the flow of fluids through my tissues. And I am not alone in this: many people are expert at this sort of shutting down. So opening up is a good thing!
On the weekend, I was delighted to have a group of bioenergetic therapists and trainees visiting me in my home and office. We shared a lot of good ideas and some of our particular interests. Margaret Bernard of PEI led our group through the TRE and that was a great reminder for me that daily bodywork is really a must for me to stay connected to myself. I can readily connect with my thinking parts but find connecting with the feeling parts takes more attention. TRE helps me to bring that attention and also to let go of the holding and constriction.
So in only three days, I’m noticing that my feet are connecting to the ground differently. I have increased flexibility in my toes, which is a bigger deal that you think. Toes are a critical connector to the ground, and thus when we have good movement in our toes, they can hold on better. Really! Take off your shoes and try it. Squinch up your toes and try to walk around. Yes, really do it. Do it until your feet have some intensity of feeling in them, say, a seven out of ten. (Intensity, also known as PAIN!!!) Then mindfully spread out your toes on the floor, feeling everything (relief?) and try walking with all of them active and engaged. Aahhh……thank you, toes.
So toes. That’s good. I also notice that when the vibrations get going,, I can let them move quite readily up my body but that things get hung up at my diaphragm and throat. This is not new news to me; I know that I have blocks there, pretty typical ones from childhood. But when I allow myself to make a sound with those vibrations, the blocks ease up a bit. And when the sound starts to soar, almost like it isn’t part of me, then my body opens up to laughing and sobbing and all sorts of spontaneous movement. It is very cool.
I stay aware in this process, too, because I know that these kinds of unusual movements often permit the free flow of thoughts, memories, images, and sensations in the body-mind. This is access to my unconscious, and I don’t want to miss a thing! What I have found is that after I am finished (and how to decide to be “finished?”), I sit to write in my journal and the ideas are also flowing….ideas about so many things, not just the constricted content of my usual thoughts. Who knew that bioenergetic exercise would also open up my thinking self?
I’ll keep doing my daily practice and let you know how it proceeds. In the meantime, you can do TRE also…there are books and videos available from that website and also therapists and bodyworkers who are trained to help you learn the sequence. You can find a practitioner on the website. You can also just follow your body into movement and charge and discharge, but I know that can be harder to do than it sounds. Let me know how you do! Below is a video about TRE.
I wonder how often I attribute my choices to my mood? “I wasn’t in the mood to do the dishes,” for example. Or, “I’d exercise more, but I’m just not in the mood.” When I think this way, it is almost as if my mood is something outside of me, or something that comes over me without my awareness, knowledge, or permission. And then I give it the power to decide whether I’ll do the dishes or exercise.
Or maybe (MAYBE) I let my mood dictate my behaviors because I don’t want to take responsibility for my choices. Somehow it would not be as okay to claim the choice to sit on my couch and not do something.
We often feel like we are subject to the whims of our internal lives, as if our moods and emotions rule us. I don’t think we were constructed that way: I think that moods and emotions are information for us but they are not masters and we their slaves. But when we just react our way through our days without even really noticing our inner life, then it may feel like our feelings are running US.
How do we get out of that? How do we get to take charge of our own lives?
We first have to have awareness of our thoughts, our feelings, and our body sensations. We need to be able to notice our vitality affects, for example (energy level), and notice sensations of prickling, tightness, openness or lightness, whateer sensations are present. We need to be attuned to our own selves as well as to the world around us, and that means that sometimes we have to turn down the stimulation and just check inside ourselves.
Pay attention to the shift in your emotion, no matter how small. When you notice yourself getting more upset or distressed, ask yourself, “What am I telling myself right now?” or “What is making me feel upset?” It is likely a thought which has occurred to you. But how might you feel if that thought had not occurred to you?
In other words, how would you feel if you didn’t believe that thought?
Ah….maybe I’d feel just fine, thank you very much.
Conversely, the body can give us messages that we interpret to mean something. The other day, I felt fabulous…had just finished a long walk with a little running, was working a positive inner dialogue about my progress, was able to notice the trees, the air, the birds…all those things that contribute to my personal sense of well-being (your list will be different). Suddenly I found myself irritated at some minor frustration, very irritated. Wait! How did I get from feeling fabulous to feeling irritated? I checked in on my thoughts, my experiences, and by body sensations and yes, there it was…the tiniest little bit of aching in my groin from running. The endorphin flow had slowed, I could start to feel the work that my joints had done, it was painful though only slightly….and suddenly I was easily irritated. And probably underlying that body ache was some automatic thought…”Oh, this again,” or “Ugh, I hurt,” or “I don’t feel so good,” and so irritation happened.
Mood is a number of things but whether we let our moods dictate our lives is a personal choice. If I only did things when I felt like it, well, I’d have some pretty severe limits on my life! So I choose to watch my thoughts and remember that thoughts, mood, and feelings are all part of my body, and they all are fluid and shifting…so I might as well live my life and let my mood catch up with me.
Dr. Scott Baum, in his paper “When Love Avails Not” has written about anhedonia in the person whose mistreatment at the hands of others has resulted in the death (and dearth) of love. That is, in people who have been so badly abused that all love, all capacity for experiencing the general goodness of the world, has been drained or squeezed or ripped out of them.
“People use the word pleasure to cover a broad spectrum of feelings. We could break it down into many categories: relief, gratification, satisfaction, enjoyment, joy, fulfillment—and surely there are more. Not all these meanings are tied to goodness—for example, sadistic revenge can be gratifying, and we ignore that fact at our peril. However, I choose to use “pleasure” as I think Reich and Lowen intended—meaning the capacity to feel connected to the benevolence in the universe. Surely this is related to love….Pleasure’s opposite, anhedonia, is a complicated psychosomatic phenomenon. … One aspect of anhedonia is that the person’s capacity for love — to feel the cushioning, warming envelopment of the energetic field, which I am quite sure exists on some physical level—is destroyed. This can, of course, be a temporary state. In grief, for example, or in the aftermath of a catastrophic event, a person may lose the capacity for pleasure or hopefulness. This loss may be intermittent or persistent, but it is a transient state, and eventually the person’s underlying capabilities to experience pleasure are reinvigorated. This can happen with the passage of time or because of more direct intervention, such as psychotherapy, where this restoration of function is a directly intended outcome.”
Fortunately, most people experience anhedonia as a temporary situation, one in which the capacity for pleasure has become limited. Focusing on the body’s language helps people to notice both their lack of enjoyment (pleasure, gratification, joy) and also the tiny light that appears as one begins to regain that capacity for feeling. Often, there is an obstacle that lies in the way of pleasure. For many of us, it can be our practice of avoidance. That is, we may believe we have a need to avoid our unpleasant thoughts, memories, images…any of the mental content that generates big unpleasant feelings. It seems paradoxical: in order to get back our capacity for enjoyment, we need to dive right into what many people consider the opposite: our rage, our terror, our horror, our despair.
In simple terms, when you work to shut down emotional experience in one realm, you effectively shut it down across the affective area in general. Specifically, suppose I was terrified as a child, spent my very early childhood fearful of parental anger, and subsequent years trying my hardest to keep my parent happy, or at least avoid getting him or her angry. In order to get out in the world and survive, for example, in order to manage school, I had to figure out a way to function without being frozen, so I learned to numb out that fear. I also avoided ever feeling angry, because that would trigger my angry parent. I probably didn’t feel much in the way of sadness, either, and happiness was a very light surface skim of a feeling, mostly relief because it went with avoiding punishment.
As an adolescent, I might have found places to go where there was a bit more safety, or I might have just assumed that all places were as unsafe as my home. As an adult, I might actually begin to look at my childhood and realize that everyone didn’t have terrifying parents, and that maybe there are lovely people in my life and I could perhaps learn to be a little trusting. But feeling good….well, that might not actually be possible. It might be far to frighterning to feel good….and I certainly don’t want to go into feeling that terror from childhood. I grew up so I didn’t have to feel that, right?
Unfortunately, that model isn’t reflective of how people actually work….If I want to feel the joy that I think is probably available to me, then I need to let my body feel that terror, that rage, that despair that are all stuck in me somewhere. Saying yes to pleasure means I have to say yes to all of my feelings, not just the ones I think I’d like to experience.
Mark Nepo, in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, says “…there are small pressure points of residual feelings that live in our bodies, small pockets of trauma that hold the sediment of the stories that have shaped us. We carry these residual feelings like emotional time capsules……” and sometimes those time capsules open right up. We try out best to shut them down, to close them up, and we do it using our bodies. We tighten, we cut off our breathing, clench the jaw, tense the shoulders, do whatever we can to not feel. But then we miss out. Nepo goes on to say about those emotional time capsules “… whose small doses of healing are released when we bump into life unexpectedly. It is natural to recoil from the rupture of those potent feelings but it’s the meaning carried in them over the years that begins to heal us…” And once we have allowed those feelings, actually felt them, allowed the body to open up, expand and integrate the feelings and the meanings we make of our experience, then, THEN, pleasure can become available again.
We can start the process of feeling pleasure by tuning into sensations. Notice the warmth of your coffee cup on your hands. Notice the way that the warmth moves into your hands and begins to move up your arms.
Notice where you are blocked, and where you are holding on tightly, so that you cannot feel. Allow warmth and softening to enter those tight places and notice what else is present to you at this moment. Notice any sensations of movement within your body, or desire or intention to move in some way. Notice whatever sensations and feelings arise for you without judging or turning away from what you experience. Let your experience happen; let your life flow bringing whatever emotions are present for you. Feel whatever it is and let it flow. The path to pleasure can be circuitous, especially if you have cut off the pathways for many years. But getting back there is so worth the effort.
I am pretty excited to be able to tell you about a two-workshop series I am offering this spring. It is for people who work with postpartum moms, or who want to work with that population. The first day, on Friday 17 April, we’ll focus on the background information needed to effectively work with women who’ve experienced reproductive trauma. The second workshop is more specifically focused around clinical skills used within therapy sessions, and I hope you’ll bring your experiences to share.
For more information you can click HERE to go to the page on this blog. There you can download the flyer, and get the registration information. If you have questions about the content, let me know! Looking forward to seeing you in Fredericton this spring.