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Posts from August 2012

The Fine Art of Misery Series: Introduction

Frustration Woman With Head in Hands
This series is being brought to you as a public service. I have recently observed an alarming number of Americans smiling, walking with long confident strides with heads held high, greeting total strangers with kindness, remaining optimistic in the face of disappointments, and perhaps most alarming, exhibiting generosity while searching for parking spaces.

 

Now, to the casual observer, these might appear to be positive behaviors. No! Don't be fooled! Look around you. It is not normal to be happy and carefree. If you are well adjusted, physically healthy, and you enjoy a satisfying relationship, you are a social outcast. You are in a minority that enjoys no legal protections.  You are hopelessly doomed to a life of being misunderstood, judged, and socially shunned. The normal person won't be drawn to you. You will never be able to relate to Wednesday Afternoon TV Specials or Lifetime Channel movies. With no excuses for poor performance, people will expect quality outcomes from you. The pressure will be too much. Think about it. The vast majority of Americans are depressed and overweight. The divorce rate is over 50%. Drug abuse is on the rise and even the planet is taking a nose dive. Do you want to risk social alienation at such a time of misery solidarity? There is a reason for that saying about "safety in numbers." Rejoin our ranks and relax in the safe and strong arms of mediocrity and melancholy.

 

I am here to help you. Follow this series to learn a step-by-step guide to the joys of misery. We will be covering all the major topics that are designed to create self-perpetuating life-long drama. Each topic skillfully builds on the last one, illustrating a common sense progression of skill development and attitude changes leading to a lifetime of pervasive misery. Here is the list of topics we will be covering:

  1.  Stinking Thinking: The Sweet Smell of Successful Misery
  2. Low Self-Esteem: How Low Can You Go?
  3. Depression: Prozac is for Sissies
  4. Anxiety: How to Work Yourself Into a Panic in the Absence of Any Real Threats
  5. Finding True Love: Trample Over Those Pesky Red Flags
  6. Fair Fighting? Nice Guys Finish Last
  7. Create a Toxic Workplace: Take This Job and Shove It!
  8. Using Misery to Destroy Your Body
  9. Create a Lasting Legacy: Parenting to Create Crazy Kids
  10. Your Deathbed Reflection: A Life Lived Badly

 

I bring several years of tried and true experience to this column. I have personally tested all of the techniques described in these articles. My affiliation as a Provider within the managed health care system taught me how to masterfully keep my clients stuck in their dysfunctional living patterns while being limited to their six maximum-alloted sessions. Stay tuned for these titles coming soon!

On a serious note: Please know that this series is intended to be a spoof, a lighthearted invitation to look at how we create our own misery. It is by no means meant to be disrespectful or minimizing of many people's true pain, particularly around depression and anxiety.

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Recovering Catholics: A Success Story

Catholic Rosary on Bible

It was the summer of 1989 and I was conducting a weekend retreat workshop for Adult Children of Alcoholics at the Dominican Retreat Center in Albuquerque, NM. As the participants were checking in on Friday afternoon, I struck up an animated conversation with Sister Margaret Mary. Her pronounced east coast accent caught my ear as I tried to distinguish, was that Baltimore or Philadelphia? Indeed, she was a Catholic nun from Philadelphia, so we just had to compare notes about our lives there in the 1960s.

I had attended Catholic grade school from 3rd to 7th grade in Swedesburg, PA, a small suburb of Philadelphia. Sister Margaret Mary had grown up in Philadelphia and was several years older than me, so she was familiar with the Catholic school culture that I described.


I wanted to share with her all of my funny stories about the nuns, the ancient and kind parish priest, masses conducted in Latin, Polish, and English, memorizing the questions and answers in the Baltimore Catechism book, corporal punishment, May Processions, mid-morning snacks of soft pretzels and milk, $1.25 due every Monday morning to pay for the five 25 cent lunches per week, jumping rope every day at recess because we were not allowed to run on the asphalt playground, and making up sins for confession that weren't so serious as to warrant much more than the standard penance of three Our Fathers, four Hail Marys and one Glory Be thrown in for good measure.

Catholic Virgin Mary

Sister Margaret Mary laughed knowingly as she smiled with recognition at our many commonalities. It felt so good to find a kindred spirit. That is what we were to each other. Through the years, whenever I would meet someone new at a party or social event and find out that they, too, had attended Catholic grade school, there was an instant and mutual connection - particularly if we were of about the same age, and attended school before the rumored reforms of the 1980s. We would immediately sit together, knee to knee, and excitedly compare war stories. Yes, there were funny stories. And, as I was beginning to realize with Sister Margaret Mary, there was a dimension of "impromptu support group" to those kindred spirit connections.


Later that night, as I laid in bed recalling my conversation with Sister, I was barely able to recognize that there was a bitter tinge to the "funny" stories I was sharing.  I realized, to my innocent surprise, that there was an angry edge to the telling of some of my Catholic school experiences. I got quiet with myself and looked deeper inside and sure enough, I found anger there. And that anger was tangled up in hurt. There was in me a composite 10 year old little girl who was full of sadness and having a harder and harder time denying her forbidden anger.  Kris in 3rd Grade
Off and on throughout the next day, while conducting my workshop, I realized that this hurt and anger was real and that I needed to address it. I knew that I didn't want that resentment any more.

Sister Margaret Mary was busy running the conference center. I found Sister Janie. Sister Janie was a young noviciate - a nun in training, if you will. She was kind and helpful and I just knew she would understand. During a break, I explained what I was realizing and asked if she might be available to meet with me on Sunday afternoon after the workshop was over. I believed her when she said she was happy to help me in any way.


We met at the appointed time and we walked out into the hot arid desert to find a shaded bench. I told her that I wanted to inventory every single Catholic resentment that I had been carrying all these years. I didn't want this toxic anger any more. She listened. I talked. And talked. And talked.

  • the time Sister Camilla hit me over the head with the hard bound Geography book
  • the time Sister Gabriel stood me in front of the class as an example of a ratty school uniform because the tear in the front had only been patched from underneath... I was humiliated...
  • the many times the nuns said that the Roush girls would go to hell if their parents pulled them out of Catholic school and enrolled them in the public school
  • being told to never "touch yourself in an impure place;" the human body was dirty
  • being told weekly stories of children who had sinned during the day and then died in their sleep that very same night
  • being called "white trash" and my very tanned best friend, Joey being called "black monkey" by the nuns... I didn't understand what "white trash" meant until I got to high school years later
  • being made to memorize the meaningless answers to the Baltimore Catechism book questions
  • no exposure to the Bible, just my Catholic Missal
  • the incessant warnings about God's wrath and eternal punishment in a burning hell
  • the constant implied teachings that I was bad to the core and had to be diligent on a daily basis to resist my sinful nature
  • and perhaps most painful, finding out in high school, through Young Life (a Christian outreach for high schoolers) that God really did know me and love me all along and that my Catholic school had brainwashed me into self hatred and a terrified fear of a vengeful God.                              Catholic Nun

This and much more poured out of me and I will be forever grateful to Sister Janie. Through my tears, I could see her face. Her look of anguish as she slowly shook her head in sorrow, healed my pain. She didn't speak words. She spoke heartfelt compassion with her face. She believed me. She never defensively tried to explain away or excuse the nuns, the church, the doctrine, none of it. And after it had all come out, my pain, the betrayal, the lies, my resentments about it all.... when there was nothing left to say... I dared to ask.


I don't know where it came from. I was just as surprised to hear it myself. A small and tentative voice inside of me asked Sister Janie, "I don't know if I can ask this or not, but,... could you apologize to me on behalf of the Catholic Church?" I couldn't believe the selfish audacity of my request. Before I could recover from the shock of my own question, Sister Janie quickly answered, "Of course! I am so sorry all of that happened to you. It did happen; I have heard similar stories from other people. I am so sorry and  as an official representative of the Catholic Church, I do apologize to you and I ask for your forgiveness." Well, I burst into tears again as we held each other and sat on that bench together, - two women who had only met the day before.  Finally.  God was good.


I told Sister Janie of my intention to leave it all there, there in the South Valley desert. I had released all that anger and would not pick it up again. And now, I can honestly say that when I tell my Catholic school stories, that tinge of anger is gone. I smile a little smile for Sister Margaret Mary and for Sister Janie, and yes, even for Sister Camilla and Sister Gabriel and all those misdirected and wounded nuns who are indeed now, my sisters.


You know, I share this story as one example of how to recognize, address, and release toxic emotions that might have been living just beneath the surface for many years. It is important to know, though, that forgiveness is not an event; it is a process. I started a process that day. I did not snap my fingers and see that it was all gone. I declared an intention that day, which I followed up with conscious choices to not pick it up again in the form of re-living and ruminating. I disallowed myself the luxury of basking in my hurt and indignation. That is the only way to truly move on into the future, unencumbered by past baggage. One of these days, I will get back to work on the book I am writing about this very process. Until then, I hope you will share with me your experiences with letting go of old hurts and then enjoying the freedom of their release.

  Sunset

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The Tetris Effect: Two Simple Steps to Train Your Brain for Happiness

Tetris Video Game
'Remember the video game, Tetris?  It is a relatively simple game in which falling sets of four squares drop to the bottom of the screen, and the player must rotate and move them so that they fit into the available matching spaces. Apparently, people get addicted to this game, playing for hours at a time. I wouldn't know. My video gaming experience began and ended with Pong.

 


After playing Tetris for awhile, many people report thinking about ways that different shapes fit into matching spaces in the real world, like cereal boxes on a shelf at the grocery store. They start "seeing" these four-square shapes in everyday objects and then naturally search for a place where they will "fit."  Tetris Pieces Falling
This after-imaging can occur after just about any prolonged visual task like weeding, playing chess, performing math calculations, or looking at slides under a microscope. Later, when people close their eyes, they often see the object of the prolonged task. This automatic and intrusive image seems to insert itself as the brain's way of saying, "Hey, this must be important since you spent so much time on it, so here it is for you again."

An Oxford study (Holmes, E., et al, 2009) found that when victims played Tetris shortly after experiencing their traumatic event, the frequency, intensity, and accuracy of traumatic memories were decreased. The preoccupation with the Tetris shapes interfered with traumatic memory encoding. How fascinating is that?

I remember an experience I had which I now recognize as The Tetris Effect. I starting being on the lookout around town for cardboard boxes because I was going to be moving soon.  Cardboard Boxes
For several days,  I drove around noticing dumpsters, loading areas behind liquor stores, trash cans set out by the curb, anywhere I might find discarded cardboard boxes. I picked them up and eventually had enough. My task was completed. Well, apparently, my brain didn't get the memo, because I continued to compulsively look for boxes even though I didn't need them anymore. It took a few days to convince my brain that that mental activity was no longer needed and it was eventually extinguished.


Happy Face in Sand

What Does This Have to Do With Happiness?

If The Tetris Effect is a phenomenon that occurs naturally, why not use it intentionally for a desired outcome? Try this popular technique. At the end of every day, for the next 30 days, jot down two short lists. Write a list of three things that you are grateful for and write a list of three good things that happened to you that day. That's it. You will find, well before the 30 days are up, that you will start 1) noticing and 2) actively looking for things that you are grateful for and good things that happen to you. Gratitude and the natural awareness of positive events will become second nature to you. You will not only recognize positive events; you will start to actively interpret neutral events as positive. Tetris will be everywhere!  Your brain will learn, "Hey, this gratitude/happiness event must be important since you spent so much time on it, so here it is for you again."

I gave the Two-List assignment to one of my Psychology classes as an extra credit opportunity. Just to get you started and with their permission, here a few items that they listed.


Spirituality Blessings Rock

Three Things That I Am Grateful For

  • That I didn't give up on going back to college after a 38 year absence.
  • I have a roof over my head.
  • I got thrown in jail for being a nuisance, which changed my life for the better.
  • I am grateful for being here in America and getting a better education.
  • The calm after the storm. Today was that day - the day that comes after the really awful day, so I am grateful for the peace that is restored when you have nowhere to go but up.
  • I am grateful for Louis Daguerre, who invented the first photographic device! Without him, there would be no camera and I would not be able to express myself through photography.
  • Finally learning that making good choices and doing nice things for others makes me a much happier person.
  • I can smell the recent rain on the still warm asphalt.
  • That God's plan was very different from mine; and it was a a better plan.
  • I am grateful for Habitat for Humanity who built my family and me a beautiful house.

Three Good Things That Happened To Me

  • My English teacher asked to use another assignment of mine as an example for future classes. That just never gets old!
  • I got a warning instead of a speeding ticket.
  • I found $5.00 in my dirty clothes.
  • There was finally some progress in the bureaucratic BS of getting financial aid.
  • I worked on my old car with my dad.
  • My new landlord finished painting our linen closet.
  • I received some useful advice for encouraging a better relationship with my son.

Notice that happiness can be found in the most unexpected places - your dirty laundry! And gratitude can be expressed for the simplest of things that we normally take for granted - your sense of smell! So start training that brain of yours to be more aware of the lovely things in life, and to be not so sensitive to every little bump in the road. I would bet that if we could train our brains this way, more four square pieces will start naturally falling into their rightful places in our lives, and the delight of synchronicity will become the norm.

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