authenticy

Perfectionism and Blogging

Perfectionism and Blogging

by Frank Theus, LPC

In my line of work as a therapist writing a blog or contributing to one is considered part and parcel of the profession; in fact, I know many fellow therapists who attest to how much they enjoy writing informally via a forum that invites conversation. Perfectionism has stood in my way before now.

“Every time I write a [blog], I have to remind myself that all I have to worry about is the next paragraph.” – Donald Miller

However, what does a therapist-blogger do when the writing becomes de rigueur du jour and try as best they can simply can’t lift a pen, or type out the next word much less “…the next paragraph” (Miller)?

Ignore the panic attacks? Obfuscate, deny, and delay regarding the topic and proposed deadlines? Stop writing? Quit the job? Does any of this seem extreme to you? Well, hello, I’m that guy who has been there, done that, and has those t-shirts.

You see, I hate to write. Duh!

Writing’s a powerful medium that can expose the author’s heart-life leaving them vulnerable to evaluation and critique – real or imagined – by others; and, my basic survival instinct wants no part of that. Perfectionism won out. Are you able to relate?

You see I’m recovering from perfectionism, triggered by the thought of writing, grammar, punctuation, and (reasonable) expectations of me around this topic. For a variety of reasons I failed to learn the basics in secondary school and later in my undergraduate years. In Abba’s infinite and providential sense of humor I was thrust into leadership roles within professions that required me to write for the sake of other’s careers. No pressure there. Right?!

But writing didn’t get easier for me then or by the time I went through graduate school as a 50-something reinventing retiree, or afterward here at Avenues Counseling. Finally, I shared my angst with my boss and we agreed I’d take a mini-sabbatical from writing. I wish I could say I used this holiday to constructively reflect, engage in intense psychotherapy to get at the root causes of my graphophobia, become a modern day contemplative Reformed-Benedictine, to journal (God forbid) but I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I more often than not simply disengaged from any thought of ever writing again. I was good with that.

But here I am. Writing. Haltingly so. Imperfectly, and [relatively] free. What happened? I’m not sure; and, I don’t know that I have to have it all figured out.

Whatever the “it” is in your life that keeps you stuck or otherwise diminishes your quality of life maybe the first step is to be kind and gentle with yourself and to simply acknowledge it aloud.

But don’t stop there. Risk, yes, risk being vulnerable enough to tell someone that’s trustworthy what the “it” is. Ask for help, learn, grow, heal, and re-engage with enjoying the whole of your life. L’chaim!

Does Validation Matter?

Validation: Why it matters.

 

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

We have all experienced a situation where we have not validated a person’s beliefs or behaviors as we interact with them.  We also know what it feels like for someone to ignore our feelings, minimize our experiences, or change the subject of a conversation when the topic really matters. Validating our own feelings and those of other people is an important skill to have and to hone.    

What is validation?  Validation means “acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable”.  

To validate someone means we are looking for the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them.

Why is it important?  Well, it shows that we are listening to the other person and that we are trying to understand them.  It helps to strengthen our relationships because we can avoid a power struggle over who is right by validating the other person.  When we don’t validate others, it hurts.

How do we do it?  Pay attention to what the other person is saying.  Actively listen and reflect back to them what they are saying, without judging them!  We have to use our observation skills and we have to be pay attention to the conversation.  It is important to notice the little things, how is the person standing, are their arms crossed, is their face red, do they look like they are getting ready to cry?  All of these clues help us in conversation.  

We need to notice how a person is acting, listen to what a person says, and respond according to what we see and hear to help create and improve connection in relationships.

What’s the impact?  Like I said, validation helps to create connection. Validation challenges us to be present in conversation. We have to be listen to what the other person is saying in order to respond in a way that helps a person to feel understood. Validation can de-escalate a situation because you’ve avoided the fight and acknowledged the other person’s experience.  

Give it a shot!  

 

 

 

 

Information adapted from DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, Rathus, Jill H., and Alec L. Miller. “Validation.” DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. New York: Guilford, 2015. Print.

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

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“Can’t is a four-letter word.”  “Can’t never could.” “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Did you grow up hearing any of these phrases (or something similar)?  Encouragements from parents and caregivers to help you face a new challenge that you currently weren’t able to conquer.  An acknowledgement that negative thinking or giving up too easily with “I can’t” will hold you back from growing and learning to do new things. Instilling and maintaining a “can do” attitude is important – to push through the fear of inability and courageously take a risk, believing that you can do something and acting out of that hopeful and determined belief.  If you don’t try, you won’t grow and learn.

But somewhere along the way, after pushing through our fear or inexperience to get beyond “I can’t” when we are young, we can develop a belief that we can (and should) be able to do everything. And be everyone to everyone.  And never disappoint anyone.  We forget that we are human, and with that reality comes certain limitations – limitations of having finite time, emotional capacity, energy, and abilities.

For some of us, “I can’t” still comes too easy and holds us back from trying something new or risking…and if that is you, I encourage you to consider what makes “I can’t” roll off your tongue. Is it protecting you from the risk of failure? Does it feel safer to remain in the comfortable place of what you know?

But for some of us, embracing “I can’t” can be a path towards freedom.  A way to embrace our humanity and draw healthy boundaries around what we were made to be and do. Some versions of “I can’t” change with seasons of life while others remain true our entire lives.  “I can’t be a mom, work full time, be President of the PTA and have a perfectly kept household.” “I can’t have a chronic disease and do everything the way I used to.”  “I can’t be responsible for your emotions.” “I can’t obtain everyone’s approval.” “I can’t be perfect.”

Saying “I can’t” isn’t always about fear or failure, sometimes it’s the healthiest acknowledgement of our humanity that puts us on a path towards freedom.  Where might it be helpful for you to say “I can’t” today?

-Melinda Seley, PLPC

Does your past matter?

Does your past really matter?

by:  Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

shutterstock_155509727How often to you pick up a novel or biography you have not previously read, flip to a random page in the middle of the book, and start reading from there? Have you ever tried to sit down in the middle of a movie and pick up the storyline? Our lives are stories full of experiences that connect and impact what comes next. So when we say that the past doesn’t matter or our childhood has no significance when it comes to what’s going on in our lives today, it seems to me more like it’s wishful thinking than what is actually true.

I think there are different reasons why we want to downplay the significance of our past, specifically our early years. Sometimes it seems to stem from a desire to believe we’ve moved past it all, grown too strong and mature for any of those vulnerable years to still have the power to impact us today. For others the motivation to downplay prior experiences comes from an avoidance of the pain which accompanies them.

The reality, however, is that our lives are a whole intricate story.

Think about it this way: what’s the first thing a doctor asks about? Your medical history. What do you want to know about a car before buying it? Accident history and mileage. Similarly, when you are getting know someone new, whether a friend, co-worker, or date, conversation will surely be filled with facts about the present, but part of getting to know them is also understanding their past and where they come from, both literally and figuratively.

Neglecting the importance of our past, especially our early impressionable and very vulnerable years, is a misstep that hinders our growth and depth in the present.

History is a mandatory subject in school for a reason. We can become students of our own histories and discover how and why we got to where we are, potential pitfalls and blindspots we operate with, and relational patterns and styles that may contribute to our present relational struggles.

The Healing Presence of Brutal Reality

The Healing Presence of Brutal Reality

by: Jason Pogue, PLPC

Do you know that uncomfortable tension when you realize you are trying to be somebody or something you are not?

I’m not sure what it feels like for you. For me, it is as if my mind begins to separate itself from my heart, trying to press ahead and leave my knotted stomach and racing heart behind. If I just do these things I can pull it off and no one will know. Often my mind is so good at this that it can be in this place for weeks before I start to recognize my body aching from carrying all the tension – my tight shoulders and aching legs like clues to the mystery of where I actually am. And, no wonder it sometimes takes weeks! Prior to beginning my own counseling journey my mind was in this place for years unaware – racing ahead to avoid the deep fears of being “found out” as an imposter or discovered as someone broken beyond hope. Perhaps my mind was racing ahead at light-speed to avoid the deep pain that I didn’t know how to experience yet, unaware that this pain collects interest over time.

Recently I sat down with some colleagues to discuss an interview with a prolific psychiatrist and author, Irvin Yalom. Irvin recounted early in his career a moment when he sat in the therapy room with “a red-headed, freckled woman, a few years older than” him. In the first session, this woman shared with Irvin that she was a lesbian. Irv writes, “That was not a good start because I didn’t know what a lesbian was. I had never heard the term before.” I about burst out laughing when I first read that. This is the prolific therapist Irv Yalom! Yet even Irv has moments where he must make a choice. Am I going to try to be someone I’m not, or be real in this moment with this person?

Irv, being the gifted therapist he is, made the split-second decision that “the only way [he] could really relate to her was to be honest and to tell her [he] didn’t know what a lesbian was.” And so, he invited her to enlighten him in the coming weeks about her experience and they developed a great relationship in their work together.

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The truth that this little story reveals to me is that what we all need most is genuine and honest connection. If that exists, we can learn from each other and enjoy each other even in our differences, failures, finitude, and confusion. However, this connection is impossible when my mind is racing ahead of my heart – when I’m living in a world designed to protect me from the present, rather than risking being honest about the reality of what is happening right now.

Unfortunately the world we live in continues to tell our minds to run ahead…to forget about the moment because you have a million other things to do, too many things to worry about…or to forget about the moment because what if the moment is unbearable? And yet, it is only when we risk acknowledging the present reality of the now – when we don’t shy away from our fears, inadequacies, wounds, guilt, powerlessness – that we can ever truly enjoy the beauty in and around us and the joys of living in this world.

If you’re tired of trying to be someone you are not, what is stopping you from being who you are? What is stopping you from stopping, and entering into the reality of now?

(The interview with Irvin Yalom can be found at: https://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/irvin-yalom)

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part III

What does “holding out for healthy” look like, anyway?

By Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

This blog presumes you’ve read the previous two in the series.  If you haven’t, Click HERE to be taken to the first entry.

Now that you’ve recognized that your family member is not the person that their job description calls for, you’re beginning to take some steps.  You’ve come to understand that, for example, Dad is not in the “Parents and Siblings” ring of intimacy.  He is more an “Acquaintance”, based on the way that the relationship feels and works.  You’ve started to give yourself permission NOT to call every week because you don’t call your other acquaintances that often.  You’re arguing with the guilt that arises from being a “bad child”, and with the healthy compassion that comes from seeing him struggle with loneliness.  You’re resisting the impulse to go in and rescue him.Levels of Intimacy

And you feel like you’re being mean, cold-blooded, and harsh.  You’re being told, “You’ve changed, and not for the better.”  Other family members are calling you to convince you to “seek reconciliation”, or to chew you out for your “bad attitude”.  The pressure becomes enormous, and you sometimes forget what you are fighting for.

“Holding out for Healthy” is hard.  It means defying everything the relationship in question has taught you all your life.  It means holding on to the desire for real intimacy, even if your hope that the desire will be fulfilled looks too remote to be realistic.  A very old aphorism says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”.  It means clinging tight to the idea that a healthier relationship with your father is worth the loss of the false intimacy you’ve been used to all your life.

Because what you’ve been used to all your life was not real.  It was a counterfeit of relationship and, when you tried to use it as currency, you discovered you’d been cheated.  Which would you rather have: A fist full of play money, or nothing?  It’s a trick question.  You’ve got nothing either way.

The hard truth is that when you start operating according to the way that the relationship actually exists, you are not changing anything about it.  You’re merely speaking the truth about it for once.  You’re finally allowing the natural outcome of Dad’s way of being to actually touch him for once, rather than protecting him from it.

The reason the relationship persists the way it does is likely due in part to the fact that nobody has dared to tell him what it’s like.  Nobody has named the fact that the Emperor has no clothes.  Naming it to him hurts, but it also offers him the chance to see that what he’s doing is hurtful, and provides him with an opportunity to grow.

“Holding out for Healthy” invites the other person into a better place themselves.  It calls them to be a better human being, to seek healing for their own wounds, and to acknowledge the wounding they have done themselves.  They will either be able to do this, or they won’t.  Even if you can step into one ring closer with them, you have more than you’ve ever had before, and that is wealth indeed.

“Holding out for Healthy” also leads you to healing of your own.  This relationship loses its power to define you because you are actively defining the relationship.

What does Holding out for Healthy look like?  It’s a mess.  It’s painful and it rocks the boats of a lot of people.  You’re not going to do it well.  But doing it at all represents a change that has real value on your own life, and — potentially —  in the lives of those you love.  It’s worth the risk.

 

 

Say Goodbye to Life-Sucking Fears

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

Learning to acknowledge the fears we have within ourselves and with others is the first step to becoming free from them.

Perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt was onto something when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Having a fear of something isn’t bad.  In fact, sometimes our responses to fear can save our lives.  We sense danger, so we run.  We are swimming and running out of breath, so we get to shore.  Fear itself isn’t the problem.  It is what becomes of our fear that matters.  Once our fears begin to control us – limit our life, change our thoughts/beliefs about ourselves, irrational behavior surfaces – this is when a fear becomes problematic.
A fear not dealt with has the potential to overcome us to the point of robbing our joy in life.
Anything can become a fear.  Nothing is too far from its reach.
Oftentimes I find people hating what they fear yet, unwilling to change.  I can’t say that I blame them.  After all, even though they hate what they fear and want so badly for it to change, it is also known to them.  Theoretically, they have already lived with their fear for a number of years, and have become accustomed to how it limits their life and restricts their happiness.  Asking someone to take the risk learning to let go of their fear, is one of the scariest risks I ask of people to try in my job.  Asking people to give up the known for the unknown requires much trust, courage, and vulnerability on their part.  Asking them to believe change is possible is the first step.
What are you fearing?
-Not being good enough?
-Letting people down?
-Being abandoned or rejected by those you love?
-Being a bad parent?
-Not having enough money to pay your bills?
-Not being liked?
-Loosing your spouse?
-Never being happy?
-Something bad that happened in your past?  
-(insert your fear here….)
Are your fears limiting your life?  Are they altering your beliefs about yourself?  Are they causing you to act in ways you normally wouldn’t?  
If you answered yes to any of the above questions then seeking help is your next step.

What do we do when ours fears begin altering how we live our lives?

1.  Acknowledge your fear is controlling or altering the way your think and live.
2.  Seek help.  Ask friends for support. Find a trusted counselor to help you.
3.  Believe change is possible.
These steps may sound trite, but believe me they are not!  These initial steps are hard and require courage and vulnerability.  You are choosing to step out into the unknown and say, “I want something better than what I currently have.  I want to take back control of my life!”  This is no easy task to begin engaging in.
Some of the common fears I see people struggling with actually have nothing to do with something outside of themselves.  Usually, I find people most fear something having to do who they are, how they perform and how they perceive the need to measure up to others, or being good enough or perfect enough to be loved.   If I just described you, know you are not alone in your struggle.  I hope you will reach out for help because freedom from your fears is possible!

Our Identity and the Call of the Mall

Our Identity and the Call of the Mall

by: Jonathan Hart, LPC
It has been quite some time since I have had cause to wander around in a shopping mall for more than a few minutes.  I usually have a focused plan of attack: one or two things I want to grab, in and out and done.  Today, I have a couple of hours to kill.  As I stroll the balconies I find myself fascinated and somewhat saddened.
I am fascinated by the allure of “the Next Greatest Thing”: whether it is the image created by what we wear or the latest advancements in gear and technology.  I am saddened at the fact that, in order to get us to notice, desire, and above all else, *purchase* that Next Greatest Thing, the marketing machine must cause the adequate things we already have to seem inadequate.  To quote Billy Joel, “Can’t you see that you’re out of touch?”

This is true of our possessions, of our clothing, of our very identities.  We begin to believe the lie that we ourselves are inadequate, and we ask Stuff to make us better.  We shape and define our identities by what we wear and by what we look like rather than by what we actually *are* to the point that we forget our original identity, or at least to the point that we believe that our original selves can never be what anyone wants to see.  It’s exhausting to keep up an acceptable, presentable image.

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Here at the Mall, I see purveyors of identity, cultivators of First World privilege, technological bathhouses. Here you can acquire all that is necessary to become hip-hop or hipster, outdoorsman or urban chic. Here you can locate a dozen technological solutions to all of the problems you never realized you had. Here is the lair of the next good thing that makes the thing you have look shabby and old. Here luxury and convenience become necessity.
Store after store along these sunlit and stylish halls. They thrive on the cult of appearance. Each vending hall itself bears the image it purveys. As I walk by, the walls abruptly shift from the clean modern lines of the trendy clothier to the blank whiteness of the computer clean-room, to the ragged edges and coarse textures of “Manliness”, to the frills and exposure of sexy, elegant, or beautiful.  Glass, steel, wood, stone, plastic, each takes over from the previous, greedily and garishly staking their claim on my eye and attention.
Every ad, every image, every paneled line, from ceiling to floor, intended to convey a unique message of sameness and acceptability.
The open spaces and hard surfaces of the walkways and balconies reflect and muddle the noises of humanity into a background cacophony of recorded music, indistinct voices, shouts of children, and the splash of a waterfall. The liveness and persistence of the din conspire to drive me into a doorway, any doorway, passing through which the noise fades and my attention focuses.
The doorways magically defeat the polyphonic sea-sound “out there” and a different music takes over; a single, sculpted voice, indigenous to the visual style that meets my eye.  I think to myself, “Was I looking for something? Maybe it’s in here.”
I absently wonder about the poor kiosketeers, whose stores do not have this benefit of restricted air space. My shoulders relax and I realize that was tense. That’s passed now. It’s nice in here. What was it that I was looking for again?
“Can I help you find something?”
“No thanks, I’m just looking.”
But in this place there is no such thing as “just” looking.  This place evokes a potent hunger. There are a thousand and one “Things I Need” here.
Because this place, outside and in, is a temple of Want, the holy place of Dissatisfaction and Dearth, filled with the promise of plenty and blessing when you pass your plastic offering through the altar slot.
Here there are no average sizes. You are skinny or plus-sized. Short or tall. When did they expunge “medium” from the tag-writer’s lexicon? I am suddenly looking for the thing that fits me, but not only in size. I’m looking for my style, too. I realize that I didn’t know I had a style to be looking for, but I suddenly know that what I’m wearing is not quite up to snuff. I don’t have anything that looks like *that*, and that mannequin looks pretty sharp.
The stubbled stud in the photo ad behind looks even better.
It occurs to me that I am supposed to use the mannequin as a mirror. I’m to imagine my head where it has none and envision my body as the same in appearance as the plastic and canvas simulacrum before me. There is the unspoken promise that my face will look like the stud’s face when I wear this shirt, because damn he looks good.
I suddenly sense the inherent lie of the promise, that it is impossible to keep, and now I want to flee. Deep down I know that my face will never look like that. I know that the quest for that face would lead me to too many plastic surgeries, to the pity of the other mall-walkers when they see my overstretched, too-modified, ultimately mannequin features.
No, my altar is the altar of things. The awesome tech, the powerful devices, the clever items that no one else has (yet). The stuff that, if I pause for a moment, I know I will use three times before it loses the packaged charm that it now possesses.
But I am not in a mood to pause. The Stuff-Call is upon me.
My only choice is back out into the noise. I pass the magic barrier and the atmosphere of need is all around me again, pressing at my ears.
Now I AM looking for something. Something shiny and smart. That manly razor shop, for instance. I like the look and feel of the place, the “old school” razors and shaving gear. The smell of leather and soap.  Maybe there. Yes.
Then I remember that for the last 10 years, I’ve worn a beard.  Did I actually forget that?  The Stuff-Call is strong here.
I do the counter-intuitive thing. I stop and sit. The benches were not made for comfort. THEY don’t want me to stay out here, looking into the windows of a single store, not for long, any way. (There are no seats facing a blank wall, after all. I looked.)
The pleasant looking but inadequately padded bench (I wonder if I could find one like this for my living room?) says, “Rest your feet for a bit, traveler, but this is not a destination. It is a way-station to help you on your journey to the temple of your choice-god.”
I defy the subliminal pressure of the Call.  Instead, I record my thoughts on a very useful, very smart, very out-of-date device which I already have (but which is not yet paid for) and which will likely last me quite some time yet.
Perhaps I will share these thoughts with you someday. I will have to refine them and make them presentable first, though, because… Well, appearances matter, and they have to be presentable, after all.

Your Kids Don’t Need A Perfect Parent

Your Kids Don’t Need A Perfect Parent

I have good news: your kids don’t need a perfect parent.

You are not alone if you think parenting is hard.  It is.  It is a job that requires all of who I am, around the clock.  I can love my kids well and serve them well for a few hours or even a few days in a row.  I can be attentive to their needs, present, and engaged.  I think there are even times I am good at it.  But then there are days when caring for them feels like a cheese grater on my skin. It doesn’t come naturally and I have little desire to sacrifice on their behalf.

When you live with people, especially people dependent upon you for their every need, it is hard to hide the darker facets of your heart.  This part of parenting creates a lot of fear and anxiety for many parents (myself included).  When my kids get an angered response from me, or I thoughtlessly dismiss them, I can see the sadness on their face and sense confusion about why mommy is suddenly being unkind or impatient.  In this moment— this moment we all face— we have a choice.

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We can sail past it, pretending it didn’t happen.

We can grow defensive and justify our selfishness.

Or we can turn toward our child and ask forgiveness.

When we fail (which we all do!) the temptation to hide our imperfections, deny them, or simply disengage from our children grows stronger in our hearts.  When facing the upsetting truth of our imperfection, we feel vulnerable.  And that is scary.

I have found that owning my imperfections and asking for forgiveness–like the third option above–restores and enhances the relationship with my children.  The pressure to be perfect dissipates for both of us and the freedom to be authentic is more defining of our relationship.

In a world filled with pressure to look good, where appearances are everything and self-sufficiency is glorified, we have the power to give our kids the tools to engage honestly and find their identity in something beyond appearing perfect.  We can model and promote love and acceptance through being authentic amidst vulnerability, rather than doing everything “perfectly.”

So good news!  Your kids don’t need a perfect parent. They need a courageous parent, humble enough to to risk vulnerability after messing up. How you honestly handle your imperfection matters more than your imperfections themselves.

By: Kim Hammans, PLPC

Increasing our Ability to Love and be Loved

Increasing our ability to love and be loved –

Whew…I literally just finished reading this article (below) by Brene’ Brown, who happens to be one of my fav’s when it comes to teaching me how to live and love.  I thought I would share of few of parts of the article that were highlights for me.  This article is so good.  So, so, good!

“To say no (to something or someone), we have to understand why we’re saying yes.”  This is so true and needs no further words – if we don’t understand why we are doing something it just won’t last.

This next highlight I have never considered before, but I sure am now!  Here it is, “I had to push myself to rediscover my own artistic side.  Unused creativity is not benign.  It clumps inside us, turning into judgement, grief, anger, and shame.”

“None of us get calmer by telling ourselves to calm down.  we get it by understanding what calm is: being able to see clearly because we are not overreacting to a situation.  We’re listening and understanding.  We are letting ourselves feel the vulnerability of the moment (the call from the doctor, the meeting with the angry boss) and then managing that feeling.”  To feel is to allow yourself to be vulnerable – what a great reminder for me!

Here’s my last highlight to share before sharing the article in its entirety.  “We become what we do.” Yep, simple and true.  The more I practice at growing a garden (my current hobby) the better I will become.  Similarly, the more I practice loving who I am and not hating myself the easier it will become.

So those are the specific items Brene’ shared that impacted me.  I wonder how it will impact you….

-Lianne

“5 (Doable) Ways to Increase the Love in Your Life

Can we increase our ability to love and to be loved? Brené Brown, PhD, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, on what wholeheartedness means—and how you can take a few practical steps to cultivate it.

Avenues Counseling

Of all the thousands of people I’ve interviewed and studied over the years—looking for patterns in the data—only about 15 to 20 percent were folks living with their whole hearts, folks who were really all in when it came to their relationships. So I decided I wanted to find out why. What quality did these people have that made them so capable of both receiving and giving love?

When I examined my research, I discovered that these were people who deeply believed that they were worthy of love and belonging. These folks believed this regardless of the circumstances, unlike the majority of us who think: “Okay, I’m worthy of love and belonging a little bit, but I’ll be superworthy if I get promoted. Or I’ll be superworthy if I lose 20 pounds.” These folks believed that they were loveable and that they had a place in the world, and those beliefs translated into specific choices they made every day. They were aware. They recognized shame, and they knew how to deal with it. They recognized vulnerability, and they were willing to feel it—rather than ignore or numb it.

What I wondered was, How do the rest of us cultivate these same qualities? It’s not like we can just decide to be vulnerable or say, “Hey, I’m worthy,” after which—poof—this instantly comes true. But there are practical changes you can make in your life which encourage these beliefs. Here are five basic everyday actions that can help you develop a deeper, more loving sense of wholeheartedness, both for others and for yourself.

Letting Go of Exhaustion

Everybody in the world says that you need to work less in order to live a fuller, more connected life. But so few of us address what prevents us from doing it. The reasons are simple: (1) exhaustion is a status symbol in our culture, and (2) self-worth has become net worth. We live doing so much and with so little time that anything unrelated to the to-do list—taking a nap, say, or reading a novel—actually creates stress.

Wholehearted people, on the other hand, know when to stop and rest. Personally, I had to learn this. I’m still learning this. I screw it up every now and then, but five years ago I made some huge changes in my personal and private life. I went from full time to part time at the university, and my husband, who is a pediatrician, cut his hours to four days a week. As it stands now, we never get less than eight hours of sleep.

What did this require? A constellation of choices. For example, one of the things I have to do to cultivate more rest is to say no. Last year, I turned down 85 percent of the invitations I got to speak. Because I have a commitment to be at the family table four nights a week.

To say no, we have to understand why we’re saying yes. One of the reasons is scarcity. I, like many of us, was so afraid that maybe all these opportunities would just go away, that maybe next year people wouldn’t ask for me to come speak, and maybe my work wouldn’t get the attention it needed, and that if I didn’t have my work, who would I be? So I thought I had to say yes, yes, yes. The only reason I can now say no is because I work on my shame “gremlins.” Gremlins are the tricksters who whisper all of those terrible things in our ears that keep us afraid and small. When the gremlins say “you better say yes, or they won’t like you” or “they’ll think you’re lazy,” I whisper back: “Not this time. I get to say no. I get to love myself, stay home and drive soccer carpool.”

Painting a Gourd

All of us were made to make things. During my studies, I found out a surprising piece of data: There is no such thing as a creative or noncreative person. Every single human being is creative. Every research participant could recall a time in his or her life when creativity brought him or her great joy. It was usually childhood, and the creative expressions ranged from coloring or finger-painting to dancing, singing or building. What was most fascinating was that the participants never talked about learning how to be creative—they just were.

As adults, what keeps us from being creative—from painting, cooking, scrapbooking, doodling, knitting, rebuilding an engine or writing—is what I call the comparison gremlin (a close cousin of the shame gremlin). People say, “I’m not good enough,” or “Why am I the only one with dangling modifiers?” or “I’m not a real sculptor…I’m a total poser.” In other words, we shame ourselves into stopping. While we may have all started creative, between ages 8 and 14, at least 60 percent of the participants remember learning that they were not creative. They began to compare their creations, they started getting graded for their art, and many heard from a teacher or a parent that “art wasn’t their thing.” So we don’t have to teach people to find joy in creating; we have to make sure not to teach them that there’s only one acceptable way to be creative.

I had to push myself to rediscover my own artistic side. Unused creativity is not benign. It clumps inside us, turning into judgment, grief, anger and shame. Before I turned my life around, I used to dismiss people who spent time creating. When a friend would invite me to go to an art class or something, I’d respond: “How cute. You go do your A-R-T; I’m busy with a real J-O-B.” Now I realize that was my fear and my own frustrated need to create.

To kick things off, I went to a gourd-painting class with my mom and my then-9-year-old daughter, Ellen. It was one of the best days of my life. I’m not kidding. I still paint, and now I’m having a serious love affair with photography. But start with something easy. Why not start with a gourd? Put a silly face on it. Make it smile.

Practicing Calm

None of us get calmer by telling ourselves to calm down. We get it by understanding what calm is: being able to see clearly because we are not overreacting to a situation. We’re listening and understanding. We are letting ourselves feel the vulnerability of the moment (the call from the doctor, the meeting with the angry boss) and then managing that feeling.

Calm participants in my studies all have a few things in common. They breathe when they’re feeling vulnerable. They ask questions before they weigh in, including the three most important questions—ones that changed my own life. The first is, Do I have enough information to freak out? (Ninety percent of the time, the answer is no.) The second is, Where did you hear the upsetting news? (Down the hall? From a trusted source?) The third is, If I do have enough reliable information to freak out, and if I do that, will it be helpful?

When my daughter, Ellen, comes home and says, “Oh my God, Mom, the school moved my locker, and now I can’t reach it!” I stop. I remember what I used to say: “Oh that’s it! I’m furious! I’m going off to school tomorrow, and you’re going to get your locker back!” Now I say, “Tell me more about it.” And 15 minutes later, I find out that the guy she likes has a locker down at the other end of the hall; what she really wants is to have a locker nearer to him.

This is real change. Four or five years ago, I was the least calm person you have ever met. And when people describe me today—people like my co-workers, friends and family—they say, “You’re the calmest person I know.” Well, it’s because I practice it, the same way you practice the violin. We become what we do.

Fooling Around

One of the things I noticed in my research was that wholehearted people tended to fool around a lot. This was how I described their behavior, “fooling around,” because I didn’t know what this behavior was. It was such a foreign concept to me that I couldn’t even name it correctly until I happened to be sitting in the backyard watching my kids jump on the trampoline. All of a sudden, I went: “Holy crap. Those grown-ups in my studies are playing! They are piddling and playing! They are total slackers!”

Then I found some research by Dr. Stuart Brown. He said that play is something you did “that caused you to lose track of time.” Which I called work. He called play “time spent without purpose.” Which I called an anxiety attack.

Clearly, I had a problem. So I sat down and made a list of nonwork-related things that I love to do where I lost track of time, I lost my sense of self-consciousness, I didn’t want them to end, and they didn’t serve any purpose except that I enjoyed them. Then I had my husband do the same thing. Then we did it with our two kids, and I made a Venn diagram to understand the data (sorry, I’m a researcher).

Our family-play Venn diagram showed us what kind of play we share in common, and we realized there were only three kinds that we all enjoyed. Because sitting on the floor playing Candy Land? I’m not losing track of time. I’ve been on the floor for 30 minutes; I could shoot myself. But swimming? Hiking? Going to the movies? All of us enjoy that.

So now, we totally build our family vacations around being outside. Because it’s play for all of us. It’s battery-charging for all of us. But that doesn’t just happen. We draw diagrams. We plan. And then…we goof off.

Doing the Scarecrow

What keeps most of us from dancing—at any age—is usually the desire to be cool, and being cool, even for grown-ups, is a refusal to be vulnerable. Cool starts early. Some of the latest research shows that rather than being an adolescent issue, our kindergartners and first graders are starting to feel anxiety over being cool and belonging. Imagine being 5 years old and deciding that it’s not so good to let others see how we feel.

When it comes to dancing, we’re afraid that we’re bad dancers or that others will laugh at us, so we don’t do it enough. About eight years ago, my daughter and I were at Nordstrom. She was in fourth grade, and there were these beautiful, put-together mothers in the shoe department with us. I was in my Jabba the Hutt sweatsuit; I looked horrible. And I was doing the whole shame routine…down to telling myself: “Argh. You’re a disaster. You don’t belong in this nice store with these fancy, put-together people.”

The kids’ department started playing a song. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some movement. Then I saw three of the beautiful, put-together mothers and two of the daughters look past me, gasping. When I looked over, it was Ellen. Everyone was looking at Ellen. She had put her shoes down, and she was full-on doing the robot to the music—popping and locking. Without a care in the world. And you could tell these daughters were getting ready to laugh, and the moms were like, “Oh my God, girls, shield your eyes.”

At that moment, I had a choice. Previously, shame would have taken over, and I would have looked at Ellen and just said: “Pull yourself together, Ellen. Come on. Jesus. Stop being so…weird.” But I just heard this voice, the voice from my research and the voice from what I was trying to change in my own life, and that voice said: “Don’t betray her. Be on her side. Be on her side.” So I looked over and said, “Awesome robot.” And she said, “Hey, Mom. Show me the scarecrow again.”

The scarecrow is when you swing your hands like they’re not connected to your elbows. I did not want to do the scarecrow in Nordstrom. Inside me there is a seventh grader with sweaty palms who doesn’t have anywhere to sit in the cafeteria. But I did it. My daughter and I danced. Maybe I was faking it at little, but actions are far more important than anything we tell children. We have to show them love and self-worth, just as we have to show ourselves love and self-worth. We can’t just overlay these ideas on our lives. We have to change the way we live—and, fortunately, there isn’t just one way to do it.”