Thursday, June 6, 2013

Growth Following Grief: Living After Loss - ROL Blog 9

Have you loved and been loved? Truly loved? If so, you've probably lost as well. The type of loss we're discussing is permanent in the form of the death of a loved one. We all live Life with the certainty of death, but bereavement may at some point touch you or someone you care about, causing painful and debilitating grief.

The intensity and duration of the grief is unique to each of us. It's typically proportionate to the closeness of the relationship we had and the circumstances surrounding our loss (like their age, health, whether death was anticipated, and their level of comfort and/or peace before passing). There may be a cascade of stressful changes and transitions following the death of a loved one. The good news is that grief commonly recedes, eventually permitting a satisfactory -- albeit changed -- life.

My Losses

I grew up with loving parents and all four grandparents, and didn't experience a major loss until college when my maternal grandmother died. She was a wonderful grandmother who personified unconditional love. Mommy Alice was aged and had serious health challenges for a long-while before passing, so her death was expected. I can't say I was bereaved by her loss, but was deeply saddened.

The next major loss -- years later -- was very different. My world as I knew it completely ceased to exist when my father died. Granted, I was a full-grown adult, but I had been a "daddy's girl" my whole life and felt secure with my father's love as a platform upon which to navigate Life. Daddy was my rock, my cheerleader, my biggest fan, and my source of security. I remember the last time I saw him: My sister and I had road-tripped to meet my parents for lunch and shopping. It'd been a couple of months since we'd seen our parents and it was a week before Daddy's 58th birthday. He was exuberant and proud of the "clean bill of health" that his general practitioner had given him the day before (indicating that Daddy had surmounted some recent health challenges). We celebrated and thoroughly enjoyed the reunion. As my sister and I were walking away from my parents, something felt weird, like an odd thing were happening that I couldn't explain. I turned to my sister and said, "Lisa, do you feel funny?" She replied that she also felt an inexplicable sensation. We walked back to our parents and asked them to join us for the weekend. My parents stood hand-in-hand, smiling widely, and declined our invitation by encouraging Lisa and me to spend the time together alone. Lisa and I begrudgingly left them. I turned back for one final glance: My father was waving with a huge, proud grin on his face watching his daughters walk away.

Two days later, my father died.

At first, my mind couldn't process the fact that Daddy was gone. I was in denial. Then I was weak, physically so. Then abject, excruciating emotional pain set in. I lack the words to adequately describe the depths of the pain I felt at losing my father. Anger also came. I remember yelling at God asking Him why He hadn't made Daddy sick so we could've prepared for his death. I then felt lost. The rudder to my life had disappeared. What was Life without Daddy? And poor, devastated Mommy: Her college sweetheart, best friend, and soul mate had left her alone.

Mommy passed five years later, also a week before her birthday. Between Daddy and Mommy's passing, I suffered a miscarriage. These remain the three most traumatic losses of my life.

Living After Loss

Just as each of us experiences death in a unique manner, there is no one recommended method of coping with significant loss. There are a myriad of resources to help one cope. Below are some of my suggestions:

Time. It is terribly cliché, but time tends to ease the intense pain of your loss. The void still exists, but you learn to gradually transition into a different life. Many bereavement interventions recommend respecting the natural course of grieving, which is a unique and often unwelcome journey over days, weeks, and months. When intense grief persists beyond half a year or more, it may be time to seek professional help (see "Awareness" below).

Health. Now that you may have a greater respect for the certainty and proximity of Death, this is the time to improve your own health. Eat well, sleep well (not too much or too little), exercise regularly, and don't just survive: Thrive. Knowing the devastation that death causes to loved ones may be just the motivation you need to take extra good care of yourself to prolong your own healthy years.

Social Support. Hibernation and isolation as a reaction to severe loss are often unhelpful coping strategies. It may be why there are many social customs that involve increased social interactions after someone has died. Strengthen and/or create supportive bonds with people who are constructive and enhance your life. Keep as many of the "normal" healthy patterns and interactions as you can. This is especially important when children are involved. They need to be reassured that they can feel secure, so normal routines and stability are helpful, as are open discussions and positive parenting (such as parental warmth, consistency in routines and discipline, effective communication, including dialogues about death and the person who died).

Believe. The physical absence of your loved one doesn't mean that they've completely gone. They exist in your memories -- something that never can be taken away. They exist through the imprint they made in the world -- what they wrote, created, shaped, influenced. They exist in an after life, should you believe. Explore, develop, or deepen your spiritual and/or religious beliefs. You may find it a source of comfort, strength, and hope.

Honor. What could you do to honor the memory of the person you lost? What did they hope for you that you didn't feel you could accomplish? Accomplish it now. Dedicate your success to their memory. Make Life count in a manner in which they would be proud.

Awareness. Recognize that the loss of a loved one is a major, disruptive life stressor that may reveal or trigger a physical or emotional illness. This was my mother's case. The stress of my father's death unmasked and perhaps accelerated a rare neurodegenerative illness that eventually killed her.

Comfort. Providing "words of comfort" when someone you know has lost a loved one isn't easy. One of the things to try to avoid is "prying" the thin veil of composure off of a grieving person when it isn't the appropriate time or setting. For example, after my mother died and I managed to get back to work, people would say, "How are you doing?" my reply would be something superficial, like "I'm fine, thanks for asking." That was fine. What wasn't fine would be when they would respond with, "No. I mean how are you REALLY doing??" Oh. My. Goodness. It would be so tough because I had merely put myself together with band-aids and just wanted to focus on work for as long as I could withOUT thinking about my Mommy being gone. That same scenario happened after my miscarriage. People even said asinine things, like "You're still young. You can have more children." What they didn't know was that I had been seeing a Reproductive Endocrinologist; getting pregnant was an extraordinarily challenging process in and of itself.

So, what should you say? "I'm sorry for your loss." "Please let me know if there's anything I can do." Give them gift cards to restaurants that deliver food to their home. Offer to take their kids out to lunch or a movie. Send a note with a personal anecdote about what the person meant to you. Attend the funeral or memorial service; the sense of support and comfort your presence provides is invaluable. Check in with them weeks and months later when the flurry of social correspondence "dies" down.

Although most grief recedes to a manageable level within six months after the death of a close loved one, for a small group of people, this doesn't happen. It can become "complicated grief" that is serious and debilitating and may warrant professional intervention.

When is professional help recommended?

There is a small subgroup of people whose grief symptoms are prolonged, intense, and persist for a long period of time without abating. Researchers (M. Katherine Shear and colleagues, 2011) have identified these symptoms to include: frequent thoughts, images, or yearning for the deceased; intense loneliness or emptiness that life without their loved one has little to no purpose or meaning; ruminating thoughts about the circumstances surrounding the death; persistently feeling shock, disbelief, or anger; feeling estranged from other people; excessively avoiding -- or conversely, actively seeking -- reminders about the deceased person; and preoccupation with thoughts of suicide or wanting to "join" the deceased person.

To me, most of those symptoms sound normal in the acute stages of grief. However, researchers suggest that what distinguishes these common symptoms from those that are "clinically" significant are when they clearly impair the person's ability to function normally in school, work, and/or socially and more than six months have passed since the death of their loved one. Problems may also include disturbed sleep (either too much or too little); an increased use of alcohol, tobacco, prescription or illicit drugs; emotional or mental illness, including depression and anxiety; and/or suicidal behavior. If this is the case, strongly consider seeking professional help.

If death is a normal part of life and we each must die, why is loss from death so painful?

Death creates a void. One without physical or emotional access to the person. It brings an end to the possibilities that existed. The relationship you had is frozen in time without the potential to change, enhance, or repair it. Because there's no hope, there is incredible sadness. But feel it all. Feel these new, unwelcome emotions so you can process them and develop a new understanding of your capacity for growth and strength. Slowly, begin thinking of potential opportunities that can exist now that your former way of life is not an option. You can -- over time and with concerted effort -- craft a meaningful life. Although normal as you knew it is gone, create a "new normal;" an honorable one worth living.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Present of Presence - ROL Blog 8

Here’s a scenario that happens way too frequently: You’re dining out at a restaurant and see a family of four already seated. The dad is on his smartphone, the mom is texting on hers, and each of the kids has their own cellphone, iPod touch, or electronic gaming device…complete with earbuds.* None of them is interacting with the other person who is right in front of them. They are physically present but absent in all the ways that matter.

When you're driving, waiting in line, or even having a conversation with someone, are you fully there? There seems to be a shortage of “being where we are.” I'm guilty too. I pull out my iPhone to check email or Facebook when I have to wait in line more than two or three minutes. I don't like feeling like I’m wasting my time. But are boredom or inaction a total waste of time? No. Our minds need to rest…and not just when we are sleeping. Without resting our consciousness, it’s like being in a fitness program that’s all cardio without ever stretching. You minimize the gains and eventually get injured.

Be where you are or beware who you are. If you frequently find it too uncomfortable to sit in the space you are in without responding to distractions like texts or phone calls, reflect on why that is. Is your business pressing on your social time? Is your social time pressing on your family time? Is it difficult being alone with your own thoughts and feelings? Do you have appropriate boundaries? Identify the true cause and work to remedy it. 

People can mentally escape their environment with or without an electronic device as an aid. If you are not the person doing the escaping, it’s often hurtful to be "left" alone while in physical proximity of another human being with whom you’re supposed to be connecting. It feels like they are placing greater importance on the other person or thing over you. The hurt and rejection may be intentional or not, or even recognized or not. If you are not giving your full attention to your social partner, you are denying them a precious gift: Your self.

Listen – really listen -- to the stories of your partner or childrenAsk your family about their day's events and pay attention to their reply, no matter how mundane or repetitive (yes, even you repeat yourself sometimes but you still want to be heard). At our house, we go around the dinner table and ask each person, “What’s your rose and your thorn?” The rose is the highlight of their day and the thorn is the low point. It’s a nice conversation starter that assures that each person is heard.

A middle school counselor once told me that parents frequently complained that their teenagers didn’t talk to them. He said that teens actually talk all the time, but usually about topics that adults think are silly and not worth listening to. But his advice was to listen patiently to the trivial stuff because your children will develop the habit of talking to you. In between the minor stuff, they’ll eventually reveal important stuff. However, if you’re perceived as a person who doesn’t listen, they’ll stop speaking. And put on their earbuds.

Practice focusing in the moment. Try to pursue mindfulness with the same vigor and pride that you practice multitasking. Slow down, for just a few minutes each day. Learn to silence your mind at will. It takes practice, but you’ll get better at it. Try meditation or prayer or yoga (all of my favorites). Start observing mundane things like how the cream dissolves in your coffee; the movement of the wildflowers beside the road while you’re at a stoplight; or the flapping of a bird’s wings as it flies by. Look into the eyes of the cashier who rings up your merchandise. Actually see the people around you. Be more involved -- more cognizant -- in the moments as they pass. You are, in this very moment, the youngest you'll ever be again. Live it to its fullest... which might mean doing it slowly.

Savor the moments that make your life uniquely your own. The more intensity with which you cherish a moment, the more it becomes a true memory. When we are at the end of our days, one of the few things we have to keep us company is our memories. Create as many good ones as you can. They aren't in a smartphone or on an iPad screen. They are in the creases and corners of your loved one's eyes and mouth as they laugh or cry. Be fully present with them because your gift is your presence. After you’re gone, it’s those moments that they’ll remember.

Set up some "Presence Rules." Create "No Electronics" zones and times. For example, we have TV-free dinner time. Unless we’re on a long road trip, my kids aren't allowed to use electronics in the car (and I'm not supposed to either, as much as possible anyway). I completely avoid making telephone calls when driving my kids to school or when I pick them up so I give them my full, undivided attention in these moments of transition. It'll be or it’s been hours since I've seen them and I want them to know that they are the most precious gifts to me. Remember, it is your actions that convey your true feelings, not your words. 

Choose to sit together with loved ones in silence rather than reaching for a method of [electronic] escape. That's the easy way out. And electronics are always available later; that's what the DVR, voicemail, and pause button are for. Your children or your partner or your friends are not always going to be there. Recall the lyrics of -- or better yet, listen to -- the old Cat Stevens song, Cat's in the Cradle: “When you coming home dad? I don't know when, But we'll get together then, You know we'll have a good time then.” Have your family remember how you were there for them when they wanted you... not just in body, but -- as importantly -- in mind and spirit.  

Friday, April 19, 2013

Fighting Fat Over Thirty: DIET or Lifestyle? - Blog 7

Like too many American women, I've been on a diet more days of my adult life than not. That's because -- by nature -- I'm a self-diagnosed "carbaholic." I love potato chips, french fries, pretzels, bread, biscuits, croissants, pizza, pasta, cake, cookies, brownies, biscotti, crepes, and ... (forgive me; I can go on and on about my  favorite foods!). Ahem. Let me correct my last statement: I used to "love" delicious, highly caloric foods, particularly those full of carbohydrates. I've learned that I should only love what has the potential to love me back and that, I'm sad to say, is not food.

Most people who know me would dispute the fact that I have a weight issue because I am physically fit. Admittedly I've learned to control my weight satisfactorily -- although not easily. As a child, I remember my mother walking behind me and telling me to take my hands out of my pockets because my behind was big, or on multiple occasions telling me that I couldn't wear skirts because they hung under my belly. I loved carbs even then. I started baking delicious goodies (cookies, cakes, breads) when I was seven years old. Being a young cook, preferring to be inside the house instead of outside playing and exercising, and having my father's slow metabolism all added up to a mild weight problem. Thankfully, I discovered sports (track and cheerleading) and boys (!) in high school which inspired controlling my weight. But then my first year of college brought the "Freshmen Fifteen" [pounds] that stayed and increased until I graduated college. I've lost and gained lots of weight over the years, with the last of the major weight-roller-coasters ending after my youngest daughter was born. I made a lifestyle change.

This Real Optimal Living Blog 7 is dedicated to sharing some of my tried-and-true tips for Fighting Fat Over Thirty [years of age, that is]. Keep in mind that I'm no professional dieting expert or nutritionist, but my credibility comes from an extensive "dieting resume," including weight loss centers (both online and in-person), cleanses, books, all kinds of continuing education seminars on weight loss and fighting fat, plus good 'ol common sense.

Here are my top 10 sustainable dieting tips:

1. Weigh Every Day. Seriously, weigh yourself every day at the same time with the same clothes (or lack thereof) so you prevent any excuses ("My clothes add a few pounds;" "I weigh more because it's earlier/later in the day than usual). Abandon subjective methods like judging your weight based on how tightly/loosely your pants fit; we all know that jeans stretch! Use the scale as a rudimentary "biofeedback" technique that's a simple, objective way to monitor your weight.

2. Daily Journal. Write down something pertaining to your food and/or weight every day. This recommendation is standard in most weight loss programs and can range from recording every food/beverage you consume, to counting calories, to taking photos of your food/beverages. There are some great apps that help journal your food (and estimated caloric intake). At this point, I only record my daily weight on the family calendar. I've given myself a weight range that is satisfactory. If I get beyond this range, I actively diet to get back in my targeted weight zone.

3. Dieting? Then Chunk. Break your weight loss goals into smaller, more attainable chunks. Don't think of it as 20 pounds that you have to lose, but start with 5 and be proud of yourself for losing them. Then try to not to gain any of those 5 pounds back. After you're able to maintain that initial weight loss, then set a new goal for the next "chunk."

4. Learn a New Food Language. Alter the way you speak to yourself and think about food/beverages. Think about how you think about food. When do you eat? Why? How do you choose the foods you eat? Is it what you feel like you want to eat or what you should eat? If it's the former, then you need to change the way you think about eating. I used to rely on food as comfort (for joy, sadness, boredom, and frustrated feelings). Now I identify why I'm reaching for the refrigerator door handle (if it doesn't involve hunger) and try to address the emotion directly. Another habit I had to break was being vigilant about food. For example, when driving, I used to read all the restaurant signs and make a note of their location and specialty. That had to stop because I was preoccupied with food much more than I should've been. To help me, I developed a few mantras:
  • "Food is not my friend." 
  • "It probably won't taste as good as it looks."
  • "Nothing tastes as good as looking good feels."

5. Which comes first: Diet or Exercise? The diet involves a change in food habits (i.e., calorie reduction) but the exercise increases the amount of calories you burn and helps make you physically fit. I've found that unless I first improved my eating habits, the exercise wasn't very effective in supporting weight loss and body "redesign." So, if you have to choose only one starting place, start with the way you've been eating, although it's best to diet and exercise.

6. Exercise is integral not only to looking good, but most importantly to good health. What good is looking good without being healthy?  Both pleasantly plump and naturally thin people need to exercise to be healthy. A large part of my commitment to physical fitness is because of my parents' deaths in their 50's and 60's, which was far too early in my opinion. Regardless of how you feel about exercise, it's a necessary part of living well. The great news is that there are so many options for exercise that you should try different forms until you discover what you enjoy (or at least what you dislike the least!). I consider myself a cross-trainer (doing cardio classes, resistance training, yoga, pilates, and running) and a gym junkie because I like the social support from bonding with other gym members and instructors, plus the regularity of scheduled classes. I don't necessarily like the exercise itself but "love" the way my body feels after its finished.

7. Mirror, mirror. Take a good look at yourself in a full-length mirror, ideally sans clothing. Don't hide from yourself. What do you like? What do you want to reshape? You can do it! Within reason, I believe we can have the body we want... or at least a close approximation. It takes effort to be the size/shape we are currently, so why not invest a bit more effort in changing our habits to achieve the body we can be proud of... especially when looking in the mirror.

8. Maintain Instead of GainingMaintaining your current weight may be a more manageable goal than "losing _X_ amount of weight." Focusing on not gaining weight in adulthood is important because most adults gain weight slowly over time. If you're adding on a few pounds each year, eventually you're probably going to be dissatisfied with your weight.  I set a couple of milestone dates each year -- one being my birthday -- to make sure that I am at my ideal weight (which I don't forget because its the weight on my driver's license).

9. Here are a bunch of my quick -- although not-so-novel -- weight management tips:

- When dining at home, use a salad plate instead of a dinner plate (the smaller plate helps encourage smaller portions without looking like you're denying yourself).
- Eat slower. At home, I like to eat using chopsticks because it forces me to eat slowly.
- When dining out, order what you'd like (within reason) BUT before you taste it, divide your meal in half. Either share it with someone, have it boxed to go, or make it otherwise inaccessible. That way you've eaten what you wanted but saved yourself 50% of the calories!
- If you're an evening kitchen grazer, give yourself a time to stop eating in the evening. My sister likes 6:30 pm. I prefer 7 pm.
- Eat to satisfaction, not fullness. And don't finish other people's plates. I find this particularly difficult when cleaning my children's dishes (I hate to see good food go to waste) or when putting away the food after a night's dinner (I like to nibble). Tupperware is a big help in these cases, as is having someone else put away the food.
- Purge your house of the empty calorie foods/beverages over which you have little resistance or control. If it's not in your pantry or refrigerator, you'll have to travel to get the food you crave. The lack of convenience may be enough to resist your craving.
- Once you've purged your pantry, if your family complains that there's "nothing" to eat in the house, then they probably needed to change their diets too. Find healthy-ish substitutes for the unhealthy foods you no longer stock in your home. You may even want to have a family discussion about new foods.
- Drink water. I strive to drink at least 64 ounces per day. I have a refillable Liter water bottle and make sure I drink two of them per day. After I've drunk the two Liters for the day, I allow myself to drink other beverages (usually tea). This is a no-brainer: Try to minimize or avoid high calorie beverages. Calculate the calories you're about to ingest before you drink.
- Sleep. Get at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Yes, it is tough to get eight continuous hours of sleep but it is so very healthy. Years ago my mother believed that the two core anti-aging components were 8 hours or more of sleep and drinking 64 ounces of water per day. The more I age, the more I believe this is true (well, combined with regular physical exercise).

10. DIET vs. Lifestyle Change. D-I-E-T is a four-letter word for many reasons. It's best to try to commit to a Lifestyle Change. It suggests that you aren't just following a fad, but want to implement sustainable healthy habits to improve your life and maximize the number of healthy years you have. Care for yourself from the inside out. We do only have one body. We should love it and love to be in it.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Step Into an Improved Relationship - Blog 6

It's Springtime, so for many lucky folks that means love is in the air. We can each remember the fresh, new start of a budding romance: Everything is so easy. But what about the couples who've passed the Honeymoon period? Those folks who've been in a committed, monogamous relationship for over two years. Research shows that after two and a half years with the same partner, both partners start making less of an effort. And less. And less. But why?

If we spring into romance, how do we slide out of it? Do we get to know the "real" person, find their faults, and ignore their strengths? Do we take them for granted and focus our energies on other endeavors that we dare not assume will remain if neglected? Does our partner change and not – in our eyes -- for the better? Do we change?

The answer may be “all of the above." Perhaps more important than why this slippery slope occurs is whether you’d like to live in an improved relationship. I’m not talking about The Perfect Relationship, although it exists and you can achieve it. But striving for perfection can be overwhelming whereas gradual movement toward a better life is attainable. If you'd like a sharper point on Cupid's [rusty?] arrow, keep reading this Real Optimal Living Blog 6 for some suggested steps:

Step One: Take inventory of the good, the bad, and the ugly. What do you like about your partner? What’s good about your relationship? If you have a hard time coming up with positive qualities, you may need to think in smaller and smaller units until you have at least a couple of things you currently like about them. No kidding. Keep looking until you can find something redeeming about him or her.

Conversely, what’s not working in your relationship? What don’t you like about your partner? Is there anything really intolerable about your relationship? If it’s really "ugly" (i.e., unsatisfactory), consider couples counseling. If your partner won’t join you, then go to a counselor on your own. A healthier you will help forge a healthier relationship...even if its a better relationship with yourself.

Step Two: Reflect on what it’s like for your partner to have a relationship with you. Ha! Did you think this was going to be a “Bash Your Partner Blog?” Tsk-tsk. You should know me by now (this is our Sixth ROL Blog). As wonderful as I’m sure you are, take some time to look at yourself through your partner’s eyes. Become an objective observer and gain an appreciation for what Life is like living with you. You might find a thing or two that you’d be willing to change. You don’t even have to say a word to your partner about it. Just make the change(s) and see what happens (and yes, that even includes swapping out your ratty t-shirts for some nice pajamas or lingerie).

Step Three: Be grateful. Express your gratitude for what you appreciate in and from your partner. Let them know what you do like about them. Be explicit, not necessarily with words but through your actions. Your partner will feel the authenticity of what you are communicating. Feeling appreciated motivates a person to make more of an effort. But don't just evaluate the success of your attempt to improve your relationship based on your partner's reactions. Judge for yourself whether you feel an improved quality of relationship.

(Optional) Step Four: Fake it until you make it. Woa! No, I am not talking about faking your "physiological" responses! Let's save that topic for another ROL Blog (perhaps a Blog that we also discuss "spousal roommate relationships," i.e., those in which married couples aren't intimate for months or even years). This fourth step is about modeling some of your actions after someone's behavior whom you admire. For example, I grew up in a very loving home with the security of parents who were college sweethearts and remained happily in love until death-they-did-part. Throughout my life, I've relied on my mother as my role model and hero (although her beautiful Ferragamo shoes remain too big to fill).

Whose relationship do you see as healthy and happy? What elements about their relationship are wonderful that you could try to replicate in your own partnership? You may even try some role-playing. Here's a humorous personal example:

As a wife, I've felt one of my biggest weaknesses is my terrible housekeeping skills (well, cleaning anyway; I’ve always been a great cook). A while ago I decided that -- for a couple of days -- I was going to try to act like June Cleaver from the old Leave It To Beaver show. Yes, I know this is a fictional television program from the 1950's, but I’d seen the show in syndication and "admired" the way the mother character, June, had her home ship-shape, great kids, meals prepared, and she was even well dressed with a huge ever-present smile (and pearl necklace, no less!). Well, I skipped the pearls; I also learned I was no June Cleaver. But my husband and I made changes in our household that have had me smiling ever since.

In summary, if you've slid into a less rewarding relationship, you have to climb out of it a step or two at a time. Maybe you’ll make it to the top step (whatever that is for you). Even if you only get halfway, that’s a 50% improvement over what’s become the status quo. Now put that spring in your step and start your own ascent.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Emotional Spring Cleaning: Forgiveness - Blog 5

It's Spring and time to clean out your closet. Yes! the one with all the shoes, but this Real Optimal Living Blog Number 5 is really talking about your "internal closet:" The closet holding your guilt, anger, and pain. We all know that forgiveness is free, but it comes with a cost that may include humility, reflection, reliving the pain, and developing insight.  It involves the release of powerful -- sometimes crippling -- emotions in favor of peace and serenity... and the ability to move on.

What if you'd like someone to forgive you?

Ask yourself if you are truly remorsefulIf you faced the same circumstances, would you repeat the same behavior for which you now seek forgiveness? If you'd do something different, then perhaps you're ready to genuinely ask to be forgiven. If you're not sure how you'd respond in a similar situation or you think you'd do the same thing, then you're probably not ready to apologize. So don't. An insincere apology is as transparent as Saran Wrap and serves the same function; it maintains the freshness [of the emotional wound]. Instead reflect on the situation. Ask yourself what you are truly sorry for. Is it that you didn't intend to hurt them? That you felt the benefits from your actions were so positive that they outweighed the potential harm? An honest apology goes a long way, even if its not exactly what the other person wants to hear.

What if you'd like to forgive someone?

Becoming a mother taught me a lot about forgiving, especially about doing it quickly. When my eldest daughter was a toddler, I was dumbfounded by the rapid transition she could make from having a temper tantrum to being happy... with all not just forgiven, but forgotten as well. This would occur so fast that I'd still be trying to do deep breathing exercises to remain calm from her emotional outburst (i.e., remaining the "calm psychologist") when she'd already moved on to being my happy little baby girl without a trace of negativity. I can recall joking about whether she had multiple personalities because I couldn't understand how she could transition from anger to joy so quickly. Then I observed other mothers and their kids and saw the same pattern: The kids would "just get over it" and move on. All's forgiven and forgotten. Our challenge as parents was to do the same.

Another reason I'm focused on forgiveness as Real Optimal Living Blog 5's topic is because in the past few days, I took the opportunity to raise an issue with someone that I'm close to. Over a decade ago, I had been devastated by her actions -- which, in all honesty -- were in response to my unsuitable behavior. Blame it perhaps on immaturity, but I had expected unconditional support from this person based on what I believed I would've provided if the circumstances were reversed. On hindsight, that expectation may have been unreasonable. She wasn't me and I should've predicted her response given what I knew about her and the people from whom she took advice and counsel at the time. Over time, I was able to see that she didn't mean to harm me per se, but felt that she had to remain true to her character regardless of its impact. I could -- with maturity -- understand that. Did I still blame her for her actions? Yes. Could I forgive her for being her? Yes. Was I still hurt and angry? Yes, but less and less so.

So why raise the issue with her after so much time had passed? Because I had residual feelings that still wedged the smallest of chasms between us. And because I believed that I had enough distance from my emotions that -- regardless of her response to my confronting her about the issue -- I felt she couldn't hurt me further. I had forgiven her "in abstentia." By having forgiven her first, I could withstand either a remorseless or remorseful response. In reality, our discussion was enlightening (remember, there are always differing perspectives when more than one person experiences the same event), emotional, and beautiful. I couldn't believe it, but we "hugged it out." Literally. Regarding my relationship with her, I now feel an incredible lightness of being.

But what if you cannot have a face-to-face discussion with someone whom you believe has hurt or wronged you? Perhaps they are no longer in your life or are deceased. I still believe that forgiving them in abstentia is cathartic. Process the situation, your role in it, and their hurtful actions. Be sure to examine your own culpability as closely as you examine their's. Perhaps you had absolutely no responsibility in the harm that befell you. Reflect -- objectively -- on what the other person is (or was) capable of at the time. Who are (were) they? It may be helpful to understand the person for who they are (were) rather than who we would have liked them to have been. It does not excuse their behavior, but helps give greater perspective so you may find a little more room in your heart to forgive.

This Spring, clean your internal closet and release some of the emotional baggage you've been harboring. You may feel lighter, stronger, and more peaceful. Who knows? The main person you may need to forgive is yourself.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Contentment: Love Where You Live - Blog 4

How many people do you know who are content? Genuinely happy with their lives overall. Are you? I am, but I had to learn to be. And that's not to say that every aspect of my life is a bowl of cherries, but I distinguish contentment from complacency. The former has to do with being at peace with the circumstances as they exist (although it doesn't mean that there's no room for improvement). The latter involves being pleased with the situation without being aware of its associated defects (implying a lack of insight). Few people can legitimately say that every aspect of their lives is fabulous for any extended period of time, but you should -- at a minimum -- be satisfied with your life and your choices on balance. If you're not, how are other people to be? It's basically cliche to say, "If you don't like it, change it," but we live in an era in which change is easier to implement than in any other time. So stop with the excuses.

You might've guessed that I have a lot to say about contentment, but let's focus this Blog Number 4 on one of the physical aspects: Our homes. Where do you live? Do you love it? If so, yay for you! You can skip the rest of this Blog and take a stroll through your beautiful home with your favorite beverage and an added sense of appreciation. We are happy for you. Truly. But if you have anything less than pride and admiration for your home, keep reading because this Blog is for you.

Firstly, regardless of the "structure" of your home (i.e., apartment, studio, loft, townhouse, tenement, dorm room, shanty, duplex, trailer, house), start off with gratitude for having a place that you may call "home." Secondly, stop comparing your home to other people's. Television and other media outlets have contributed to many folks believing that their home isn't "good" enough, no matter how good it is. I'm so glad that Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous television show is off the air because it made 99.8% of its viewers feel like paupers in comparison. My Mommy would say that there are always people who have more than you and people who have less, so be happy with what you have. How true that is.

My family moved a lot when I was growing up. I still moved a lot as an adult for my studies, career, and relationships. I've lived in a range of different types of homes, from those I was enamored of to those that I was ashamed of. Okay, there was only one home that I was actually ashamed of living in. It was when I was in middle school and it was a huge Victorian home in a historic section of the town we lived in. To give you context, it was built in the 1800's and one of the houses on our same street had been Civil War General Robert E. Lee's home. Doesn't sound so bad, right? Although it looked beautiful on the outside, the inside of our house was in dire need of refurbishment. But we moved in anyway, with my parents thinking that we'd live in half of the house while the other half was being renovated. The first stage of the renovations started right away: Demolition. The second stage (repair and restoration) didn't. As such, we didn't have any guests over. Ever. The whole five years we lived in that Victorian home, I can't remember having anyone other than my grandparents visit (which was rarely). That was a tremendous change from our previous residences when my parents hosted many luncheons, card-, dinner-, and cocktail-parties and we kids felt free to have friends come over to play. I once panicked when a friend asked if she could come to my house after school and wait for her mom to pick her up. I didn't want her to think I was mean, but there was no way I was going to let her see inside our yucky house. I made up some excuse.

I consider those Victorian Home years as wasted opportunities. We missed out on a lot from not inviting others into our home. I'm talking about playing, entertaining, and socializing. People reciprocate when you extend invitations, and don't if you don't. (As one who now frequently entertains, I know this to be true). Upon reflection, our Victorian home wasn't entirely bad. There was one portion in which the renovations had been completed, but I hated the whole house and couldn't objectively see any of the beauty it possessed. What about you? How do you feel about your home? Are you comfortable inviting people over? Why or why not? Can you create one area in which to host friends or colleagues? We're not talking about preparing for a full spread in Architectural Digest, but a card table and folding chairs in one room will do. The focus should be on the fellowship and not on the physical.

Sharing your home with people you care about promotes living your best life. Are you in the habit of entertaining others in your home? When's the last time you had a dinner party? Game night? Holiday meal? Movie night? Play date? We as a society have gotten into the habit of entertaining outside of our homes, but there's something extra special that occurs when you host people inside your home. It is warmer, more intimate. Try it. The third step in developing contentment regarding your home is to refrain from complaining about it. The fourth step in learning to love where you live is to invite people over to your home and socialize with them.

Do you still have excuses as to why you cannot entertain in your home? Can't cook? No money? Want to wait until you fix your home, or get new furniture, or get a bigger house? Or, or, or... You get the picture. Stop trying to "keep up with the Joneses," and be proud of your [imperfect] home the way it is. As long as you clean it before having guests over, it'll be a lovely event and you'll be happy that you took the opportunity to share your space in this world. Love where you live and it'll give the people who care about you a chance to love it -- and you -- too.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Is Fear Really a Choice? Blog 3 - Social Fears

Fear. Another four-letter word. I spent too many years being limited by the fear of something. Should I list them all? I'm "afraid" (get it?) you'll think I'm nuts, but a few include: Being afraid to perform in front of others (although I was a cheerleader -- groups were okay, but not giving a speech or dancing or going to social events solo or dining alone), taking tests, being spoken to harshly, disappointing others, and doing things that had more than a slight risk of injury (like riding a bike with no hands). Okay. You get the picture, so let's limit this Real Optimal Living Blog Number Three to social fears. We'll tackle some other types of fears later.

I used to watch my siblings and peers having such a great time, but I couldn't get past thinking  -- actually worrying -- about what other people would think about me. What if I looked foolish? How could I face them again if I messed up? Well, heck. Eventually, I got tired of missing out on all the fun they seemed to be having. And I got over myself. I realized that other people had too much on their own minds to be preoccupied with what I was doing "improperly." Or at least they should be otherwise occupied. Those few people who were focused on me to the point that they were watching my every move with a hyper-critical eye, waiting to celebrate any minor misstep, were people whose opinions I shouldn't value anyway. People who truly cared about me wouldn't care if I didn't get my knees up high enough when dancing the Running Man, or if I mispronounced a word when reciting poetry, or that I looked like I didn't have any friends because I was eating alone (admittedly, it's still hard for me to dine alone in a restaurant, but equipped with an iPhone and iPad, I can get through it. I project an image of a very busy woman with lots of friends who chooses to dine alone for peace and solitude...or so it's what I tell myself!)

I'll be honest with you: Getting over my social fears wasn't easy. Some people use alcohol or drugs to alleviate their social anxiety. I admit to drinking a beer or two many years ago to help quell my queasy stomach, racing thoughts, and sweaty palms, but self-medicating is very unwise for multiple reasons (e.g., the substance-induced reduced inhibitions may actually lead you to engage in the foolish behavior you're trying to avoid), it can cause dependency, and you tend to miss out on the full experience. So ix-nay the drugs and booze if you're doing it to tolerate some social activity. Ideally, I'd like to tell you fellow social worriers to just "Snap out of it!" a la Cher's character talking to Nicholas Cage's character in the film Moonstruck. Fear in this context really is a choice. There is no true danger.

A soon-to-be released film, After Earth, starring Will Smith and his son, Jaden, features a catch phrase: "Danger is real. Fear is a choice." I think this has merit, particularly regarding socially based fears of embarrassment or humiliation. Don't get me wrong. Feeling embarrassed or humiliated sucks. Big time. I can say that from experience and so can you. But in order to be socially anxious we have to relinquish power from ourselves and give it to other people, conveying that their opinions matter at least as much or more than our own. And we have to miss out on a lot of fun and be consumed by crippling worrisome thoughts and yucky somatic symptoms like sweaty underarms, palms, or foreheads (which creates underarm stains and/or makes your hair frizz -- ugh!), headaches, diarrhea, stomach aches or butterflies, and on and on. Oy vay! It becomes a vicious cycle.

So how do you get off the social anxiety hamster wheel? First, be conscious and aware of what it is -- specifically -- that you are afraid of. What's the worst that can happen? How likely is it that that'll occur? The mental and physical energy you're expending probably isn't worth the cost of missing out on something you'd truly like to do. Time is a thief, and one day -- if you live long enough -- you're probably not going to be able to do what "it" is. Do "it" now. How? Think of someone who is successful at that task and model yourself after them. Maybe take a class to bolster your skills or talk with a therapist if your anxiety is immobilizing. Otherwise start with a baby step in the direction of your goal. If it feels more comfortable, do it alone, or in a place where people don't know you or, conversely, in a place where you're surrounded by friends. If you succeed, then yippee! Try something a bit more challenging the next time. If you fail, then yippee. Be proud of yourself that you tried and withstood the "worst." Whatever the "worst" thing is in reality, it probably isn't as bad as living a life regretting that you never tried it while you had the chance.