Ever felt so stressed about not being how you’re “supposed to be” that you can’t be who you want to be? You’re not alone. Our language is full of suffocating identity labels keeping us in boxes. A “full time mom” won’t return to the work she loves for fear of losing the respect of her friends. A “high powered executive” worries he’ll look lame if he stops attending happy hours to stay sober. A “good couple” worries their separate vacations will sabotage their image.
There is no objective book for how “good kids” “working women” “executives” “successful people,” or “happy couples” behave. But you would think there is, given how restricted we feel in how we behave once we’ve given ourselves, or been given, a label. What’s amazing is that our associations with these words come from early childhood experiences and understanding of language. But we forget that – and rarely re-evaluate the boxes we stick ourselves and others into. Next thing we know, we’re a well-crafted character, but the play is a drag.
Here’s an example: A couple, bound by perceptions of how “married people” should act, neglect to take the separate vacations they crave. Instead they bicker incessantly when travelling and return home weary and distressed. With counseling, they realize they are basing adult relationship decisions on very childish, boxed-in views of how married couples should behave. Their parents travelled together, characters on TV travel together, so they figured they had to travel together. Breaking out of this and doing what worked for them instead of what they thought “should” work for them was freeing and brought them closer to the wonderful marriage they both wanted.
Sound at all familiar? Ask yourself: Am I locked in an identity that is holding me back? Is my self-perception actually limiting the intimacy in my relationships? Am I a character in a play I don’t even like anymore? If so, seek to drop the artificially created definitions that limit you. Come in and talk about it. Let’s find a better script and let you play the character you want!
*Like in all my writing, examples are fictionalized and are not based on specific clients, family members, or friends.
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Meet YIC, short for “your inner critic.” He’s a popular guest for the holidays. He lurks around, whispering sweet nothings. “Your gifts aren’t good enough.” “Your sister’s party is better than yours.” “You kids need better table manners.” “You should do more, be more, accomplish more.” “What? Still single this year? Still not pregnant? Still drinking? Still unhappy in your job? Still overweight?” YIC is relentless, keeping such an insistent negative tape running in our heads that yuletide joy seems downright unattainable. Here’s how to uninvite him from the festivities:
1) Get YIC out of your head. When thoughts are set free from the brain and written down, they may seem less depressing, less overwhelming, or even less accurate. When one client journaled negative thoughts about her low-paying job, she realized she had many reasons she liked it – convenience, flexibility. Once she realized why she held on to that job, her negative tape quit running.
2) Recognize where YIC likes to hang out….and run! Some people always get snippy when looking at perfect smiling holiday cards or listening to their more wealthy friends talk about Lululemon gift sprees. Be aware of your triggers and avoid them. Avoid that big spender like the plague this time of year and perhaps opt to boycott the display of holiday cards.
2) Talk back to YIC. You may still be single but perhaps you did some travelling, met some great people, redecorated? You may still be drinking…but a lot less than last year. Or your kids may need better table manners, but they just got straight A’s. Don’t let YIC have the last word.
3) Separate what YIC thinks you should worry about from what you think you should worry about. Though there may be pressure to change jobs, get married, have a cleaner house, or give more luxurious gifts, these might not actually be your priorities. Don’t own stress that isn’t yours.
4) Give YIC some competition. Challenge YIC Sr (“your inner critic”) with YIC Jr (“your inner cheerleader.”) Be silly. Have fun. If you restrain yourself from spitting in the punch of that gossipy office mate, congratulate yourself! Give yourself a high five when you accomplish half of your to-do list. Sing your praises if you eat four cookies instead of the preferred eleven.
Plagued by an inner critic that just won’t quit? Come in after the holidays and let’s send him packing. Reduced fee visit certificates on sale through 1/5/15.
Think you’re anxious about that test, that meeting, that upcoming high school reunion. Think again. It’s what we tell ourselves about an event, not the event itself, that’s usually to blame for stress. The good news is that when we figure this out, we can reduce anxiety in no time. Here’s how it works.
Think of the acronym “ETC” – as in it’s not the event, it’s the “etcetera” of the event that causes anxiety to rise. Event. Thoughts. Consequences
E. The Big Event. “I’m invited for dinner with friends.”
T. Thoughts. “I’ll say the wrong thing. People will notice I’ve gained weight. I’ll be dressed differently than everyone. I’ll make the event awkward.”
C. Consequences. Stress increases. Self-consciousness increases. “I’ll make an excuse to not show up at all.”
This hypothetical young lady tells herself that going out makes her anxious. But going out isn’t the problem. It’s her thoughts, the “etcetera,” that make her anxious.
Without stepping foot in the restaurant, she’s made four different assumptions, all negative, about what will happen. Without exchanging a word, she’s given herself reason to worry about everything from her clothes to her waistline. She’s coronated herself “Queen of the Awkwards” without so much as a conversation.
However, let’s say Nervous Nelly gets herself to a Therapist and begins to recognize that her unfounded predictions and tendency to assume the worst are what results in her ongoing anxiety about social situations. She focuses on her thoughts, not the event, as the root of the problem. She starts to challenge these thoughts, testing and exploring them ever so gently. When she gets the guts to go out, she finds that her friends say nothing about her weight and that conversation flows without the awkward silences she imagined.
If our heroine had continued to focus on going out as the root of the problem, she would have refused more and more offers and found herself living the self fulfilling prophecy of feeling socially isolated and awkward.
Focusing on the actual, not perceived, root of our stress allows us to make changes and get results. Just a few sessions with a trained professional can help you identify the “etcetera” in your brain holding you back from the life you want. Make an appointment today!
If you’re new to Saint Louis—meaning you’ve arrived in the last thirty years—the holidays can be tough. Suddenly you find yourself seemingly alone amidst people engaging in the same holiday traditions, with the same people they’ve celebrated with, for decades.
It’s not you. It’s Saint Louis.
In a town where “what high school did you go to” is asked, straight-faced, to fifty-year- olds, living here without family is no picnic.
Saint Louisans are friendly. They just may not need new friends. They’re shopping with sisters. They’re lunching with friends from elementary school. They’re out Saturday night with high school buddies and brunching Sunday with Grandma. Their plates are full.
Don’t get me wrong. Locals enjoy people from other cities. But locals don’t need these people. Who’s helping with carpool? Who’s coming to “Special Persons Day” at school? Where are we eating the holiday meal? They’ve got it covered: family. No worries.
It’s the needing of friends, not just the liking of them, that changes them from Saturday night buddies to people at the holiday table. NEED is what pulls friends closer and makes them family.
In Chapel Hill, where we lived for eight years, we’d have celebrated every holiday alone if we hadn’t made close friends. Most folks in Chapel Hill are transplants. Transplants need each other. They need each other to show up and cheer at their kids play; help drive when Mom and Dad have the flu; listen to their tot brag about their soccer participation trophy; stay with the toddler when the new baby is born. Without friends, transplants are alone.
Now we ‘re the ones with family in town (if in-laws count for my West Coast husband). Our ER support group is in order. We have back up drivers and Grandparents at the school play. We know where we’re going for Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s the holiday season. It looks charming but it can get really lonely. The non-locals in our midst 1) really need a place at the holiday table and 2) might contribute heartily to our lives if we pull them in.
We locals should call someone who doesn’t have family here. Invite them for a holiday meal. Move grandma down one chair. We might end up making a great new friend, even if we don’t really need to.
When’s the last time you were stressed doing something you love? Stress thrives in the void between our values and our actions. So when we’re doing things that reflect our values, stress is squeezed out. But as the space between our values and our actions grows, stress happily fills in. Stress is natural outcome of disconnect between how we live (our actions) and what we believe (our values); so the closer the two come, the less opportunity for stress.
Viewing stress through this lens provides us a road map to reduce it. When I noticed my stress level rising, I looked at my daily schedule for the source. Though I value exercise, I hadn’t worked out in a week. Value/action disconnect. When a friend noticed herself losing her cool, she found that though she treasured quiet time with her spouse, they hadn’t been out alone in over three weeks. Value/action disconnect. And when a super-anxious client with a strong Catholic upbringing mentioned she hadn’t been to church in years, she realized the value/action disconnect could be responsible.
Stress thrives in other places, too. Our values and actions can be perfectly aligned and we can feel stress from illness, conflict, powerlessness, pain. But stress in the value/behavior disconnect is more within our control to relieve. It’s not about a perfect alignment every day. We can all tolerate periods of stress, but when it becomes too intense or too chronic, it’s time to recalibrate.
So how can we limit value/disconnect stress? Think about your values and what’s important to you. Check that this is reflected in your day-to-day. How closely your values and your actions are aligned? Then start at the areas with the highest disconnect and make a plan to take one step towards closing the gap. The client above decided to go to Church once a month. The reconnection to the religious community and habits she valued relieved stress tremendously. The tighter the connection between beliefs and behavior, the less space for stress to live.
Struggling to make a change? Goal coaching helps. Whether it's to help you reduce stress, improve life balance, take a step towards the dream job, quit those bad habits, work less or exercise more, partnering with a coach can make your goal the reality.
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Suffering from inertia? Understanding yourself can help.
Human desire is like a glacier. Our stated wishes are out in the open, motivating us to change and move forward. But larger and stronger, though less conscious, desires lurk under the surface, anchoring us right where we’ve always been. Welcome to the land of inertia. For every bit of “I want to change” there is an equal or greater part of us screaming, “Stay how we are.” The fix is in understanding the underbelly of our glacier. What motivations, unstated and sometimes even embarrassing, conflict with our stated goals? What’s keeping us right where we’ve always been?
My friend Laurie, a recovered stress addict, is a perfect example. Laurie spoke constantly of her very reasonable, top-of-the-glacier kind of goal, which was to reduce stress. But every time she was asked to take on another project, she said, “Sure!” Her stress level skyrocketed. What? Why couldn’t she “just say no"? Because she hadn’t paid attention to what lurked underneath – an overwhelming desire to be the “supermom” she'd never had herself. This desire, though less conscious, overpowered her stated goal and sabotaged her efforts to achieve it. For years!
But she changed. She began to acknowledge, slowly and a bit painfully, the supermom goal. She recognized it was doing more harm than good for both her and her family. Once she understood the supermom desire and where it came from, she was able to let it go and make conscious choices to reduce her stress. She had to be willing to give up the unconscious goal to achieve the conscious one.
So ask yourself: What’s at the base of my glacier? What less conscious factors are making my goals harder to achieve? Don’t get frustrated with yourself for not changing. Attend first to the reasons you have for wanting to stay the same.
Want to explore the underbelly of your glacier so you can create the changes you want in life? Book an appointment and come on in!
If you are a Parkway parent, join us at "Communicating with Your Teen" this Tuesday, September 9th at 7pm
Debbie Granick is a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner and a Therapist in Raleigh providing both counseling and medication to reduce anxiety and depression and improve mental health. She is available to speak about wellness to groups of all sizes.