Resisting New Patterns

…What if I become something I don’t like, what if I become one of those people that I never want to be, whatever that might look like… I am willing to take the risk at the thought that maybe it is better than what I am…

~From the video series By the Book. Click here to view.

If we have ever felt the need to make a change, in order to actually accomplish a life realignment, I have news….IT WILL REQUIRE ACTUAL CHANGE. And it turns out that our brains hate change. Our brains love habits and patterns. Habits reduce the energy it needs to produce to do what our body is asking it to accomplish. When I walk, I do not have to think about how to walk. I’ve practiced walking so long that I just do it. Meanwhile, my brain can go smoke a cigar and sit on the porch rocking away in contented abandon to thought or action. My granddaughter is not at the stage where her brain can smoke and rock while she walks. She has to concentrate. She has the tiniest, cutest little feet ever. She isn’t tall either, but the girl is solid. When she walks, she spreads her legs wide to maintain balance. She works so much harder to walk than I do. She takes long naps in response to her walks. I can walk for hours and not grow weary.

When our brains identify a pattern, it rewards us for this identification with a shot of dopamine. This feels good. Is the brain just over-producing dopamine and doing a dopamine dump to rid it of excess? No! It is rewarding us for identifying a pattern, because patterns, once learned, allow the brain to rest. Here is the really interesting fact - the brain does not care if we have correctly identified a pattern. The brain doesn’t care how well I walk, so long as I walk well enough to do so without conscious thought.

Does the brain like change? No! If you do not like the way your life is shaping up, you are going to need to override your brain’s desire to smoke and sit on the porch. You might need more naps. I’m totally serious - change is stressful. But it may be necessary in order for us to live the life that brings us peace. Are you ready and willing?

…I don’t know what is hurting me and what is helping me... I don’t know about any of it, not just the using but all these other things in my life. I’ll just say here’s the whole deal, I’m willing to let all of it be changed by this process…

~From the video series By the Book. Click here to view.

Learning to be fully human

Have you ever felt like you were giving up your right to choose the life you want to live? When I feel this way it is usually because something is standing between me and my preferences. Each morning I have several rituals that I use to center myself and start my day as a person who is in long term recovery with a commitment to being “turned” and placed on a path that leads to life. Not just any life - but a good, decent life. A life where I do not have to sneak or hide or lie or cheat or steal.

If I had a nickel for every time I thought or someone else said to me, “It’s my life! I get to live it MY way!” I would be a wealthy woman. The problem with this kind of thinking is this: When we have this kind of attitude, what we are really doing is constructing a personality, not becoming a full and whole human. This construction project began the instant we were born. We observed how folks responded to us. We listened to what our community valued. We evaluated and compared and competed for attention, affirmation and resources we thought we needed. We have pretended, we have played games, we have turned ourselves inside to get attention, approval or resources to live a life of our own making. This is fantasy living and it is as unsatisfactory for building a decent life as cotton candy is for providing a nourishing meal.

Recovery helps us remember and reconstruct our lives. When we “turn”, we do so knowing full well that we turn to a God who has our best interests at heart, who knew us before we were born, who knows how we are created and what we are created for. He gets us better than we get ourselves.

“If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”

~ Matthew 10:38-39 The Message

Working on yourself is always a good place to start

Participants of long term recovery seem to understand better than most that their problem is one of self. They learn to identify and claim the various ways their selfishness has caused problems and they are clearly working to figure out how to live differently. This is a practical way to talk about our lack of self-awareness and helps us understand better why other people get so agitated with us. Here is a quote from Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions that speaks to how selfishness can complicate our faith journey:

“Like all the remaining Steps, Step Three calls for affirmative action, for it is only by action that we can cut away the self-will which has always blocked the entry of God - or, if you like, a Higher Power - into our lives. Faith, to be sure, is necessary, but faith alone can avail nothing. We can have faith, yet keep God out of our lives. Therefore our problem now becomes just how and by what specific means shall we be able to let Him in? Step Three represents our first attempt to do this. In fact, the effectiveness of the whole A.A. program will rest upon how well and earnestly we have tried to come to ‘a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.’ “ Anonymous

Today, research helps explain WHY we act in ways that are not in our best interest. That knowledge is in danger of turning into an excuse unless we add to that information the awareness that for all intents and purposes, the world sees us as selfish and self-centered. They do not much care WHY, they want to know WHEN we are going to get our act together.

...I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love God, your God, listening obediently to him, firmly embracing him.

~ Deuteronomy 30:19 The Message

The decision before us is one that will begin a lifelong process of surrendering to the will of a God we cannot see. This God has no doubt been misrepresented to us at times; other times we have closed our ears and hearts to him. I particularly appreciate words spoken by a man describing his own recovery experience. “Take all the ideas that you have about spirituality, religion, about God, about a whole bunch of stuff and just put them over here, forget them for a while.” He is asking us to get curious. An impaired brain is not conducive to curiosity, so this is part of what we will trust God to do in and through and with us. This is not easy, but neither is living as a hostage in our own brain.

Challenge Self-Defeating Thoughts

I was really shocked to discover that my thoughts are not always true and my feelings are not always the best gauge of my life situation. I spent decades assuming that my thoughts and feelings were pointing me to my “truth”. I was wrong. Here are some common inaccurate thoughts:

* I cannot cope with ______ unless I use/do/have _________.

* When I ______, I am more creative and productive.

* My friends would not like me if they knew the real me.

* I cannot relax/sleep/function without _____.

* I know that I have missed some family functions but kids are resilient, they will get over it.

* I am not hurting anyone but myself.

* My loved ones just do not understand.

* I can stop ________ whenever I want. I plan on changing when life settles down.

It is possible that our life is unsatisfactory because we are living with unaddressed, inaccurate, and self-defeating thoughts. Compulsive thoughts create heightened anxiety and depression. It is crucial to realize that we are unaware that our thinking is distorted. We will need to look outside our mind palace for answers that are fundamentally beyond our brain’s capacity to grasp without outside intervention.

Don’t assume that you know it all.

Run to God! Run from evil!

Your body will glow with health,

your very bones will vibrate with life!

~ Proverbs 3:7-8, The Message

I like to ask myself the following question on a daily basis: what if I am wrong about _______? As I discover that I am wrong, I find new opportunities to change, seek help, and walk humbly with my God and others! Try it! It is so much easier than having to be right and strong all the time!

Learning to interpret other people

Earlier this year I attended a conference.  The location was lovely and the layout was definitely attender friendly.  As is my practice, I try to move from table to table and meet new people during the course of the event.  I do not prefer this, but I practice this because I think it is a resilient, healthy way to learn at a multi-day event.  I find that sometimes I learn as much from my seat mates as I do from the conference leaders.  


On day two I moved to a new table and one of the ladies at the table took some actions that filled me and my traveling companion (I like sitting with my friend.) instantly with bitter indignation, i.e., resentment.  The upshot was I ended up with no space on the table in front of me, had to back my seat up, crane around her to see, and perch my notebook precariously on my knees to write the copious notes I am habitually wired to take. My friend’s seat was unceremoniously moved and she squeezed in with her back to the speaker. We felt unwelcome.  I thought she was trying to get rid of me and soon realized my friend felt likewise.  I wondered if this gal had friends she preferred to sit with and maybe we were interfering with her plans for hanging with people she knew and enjoyed.


I did not initially recognize resentment as my issue because I was so busy ruminating over all the ways this lady was a poor representation of the work she was there to learn about (she was rude and ungracious).  After the morning break, we changed tables.  Which, come to think about it, I could have actually done as soon as I noticed how uncomfortable I was going to be at this lady’s table.


Instead of getting curious I was cranky.  I took it personally.  I observed her do this to every single person who sat next to her for the remainder of the event.  I eventually came to recognize that this is how she sets herself up to receive information.  Unaware?  Yes.  Intentionally rude?  Ehhh, I dunno.


I recognized in myself something that I hope to change in the future.  I realized that my own lack of self-awareness and my willingness to blame others for my level of comfort - rather than taking responsibility for myself - repressed my creative problem solving capacity.  Sheesh, I could have just moved!!  


I missed out on a morning of lovely table mates and lively conversation - something I found at all the other tables I visited.  I lost out not because of her actions but my own inaction.


Resentment is a distraction.  No wonder resilient people don’t hang onto it for long!

Nonjudgmental self-observation

When we take a position of never admitting to wrongdoing, we look a little silly to others, don’t we?  We all make mistakes, why run from them?  One of my favorite family stories involves a fruit tossing incident that will forever bring me great joy in the remembering.


I was hosting a dinner party and my best friend’s granddaughter (she was two?  three?) wanted to help me prepare the table for serving the feast.  I had laid out a buffet on the dining room table and was in the kitchen frantically preparing the final touches of the meal.  She went into the dining room to “check on” my work.  I didn’t think too much about it when I heard a dining room chair pulled out.  I thought she was getting a good look at the food.


Then I heard her precious little voice saying over and over, “It’s ok, accidents happen!”  When I joined her in the dining room she was “tossing the fruit salad”....all over the dining room table.  It was just so precious!


But she was also quite profound.  Her little arms couldn’t bear the weight of the heavy serving utensils as she dug them into the fruit, and little fruit parts fell here and there all around the large crystal serving bowl.  And what this child knew, taught by wise parents, was that everyone makes mistakes.  Sometimes even with our best efforts at tossing a fruit salad a grape is going to go rogue and make its escape!


Since that day I have often prayed that this child will retain her memory of this truth and that she will lean into her life and live it boldly, fearlessly, and with joy because she knows that accidents happen to all of us.  How about you?  Can you give yourself a break?  Can you let yourself off the hook?  Can you start by admitting that you are human and make mistakes just like the rest of us?  Nonjudgmental observation - try it!

Self-evaluation

Anyone ever swore to themselves that when they grew up they would not be “like them”?  How are you doing with that promise to yourself?


Sometimes we are unconscious of how much we imitate early role models for relationships.  Sarcasm.  Passive-aggressive comments. Abuse in various forms.  These various forms of disrespect may be carried over into our own lives without us noticing.


Suppose we grow up in a family with a history of physical abuse.  We vow to never, ever perpetuate that cycle onto our children.  We follow through.  We imagine that our children are so grateful that we didn’t beat them with a stick or withhold food as punishment.


But what if we tend to shame them with demands for better performance?  What if we are withdrawn and not available for them on a daily basis?  What if we are so needy and insecure that we ask them to think more about our own emotional nurturance than we ever think about theirs?


From our lens, we have improved the model; from their frame of reference, they are still not getting what they need to thrive.


Self-evaluation is tricky; let’s seek help by getting feedback from others (particularly folks who have some wisdom and distance from our family system so they can be both detached and objective).

Love Confusion

What happens if we fail to grasp the work before us?  Relationship problems will be our cue that something is off kilter.  When I try to manufacture love rather than serve as a conduit of God’s love, I will grow reactive and weary.  Some might call this codependency run amok. In my understanding of life, it is only through conscious contact with a power greater than ourselves that we ever receive the power we need to love ourselves and others well.  Conscious contact is a big deal.

 

 

Self-awareness is also a big deal.  I know several things about myself that are prerequisites for me in order to live a wholehearted life.  I’m old, and I’ve figured some of this out but I still relapse and end up in a big mess in one or more arenas of love.  It took years and some help from those I love to begin this journey of self-respectful living.

 

Pete and I had been married nine years when we had a huge fight.  We are not big fighters. We usually live pretty companionably. But at this point in life we had joined a gym and Pete found ways to use it faithfully.  From an adult’s perspective, we would call this good self-care. He also played on a softball team that he loved. He worked hard, was fully present at home for me and the kids, was responsible in all ways that we consider adulting.  

 

But I was ALWAYS resentful of his ball games and his gym time.  I made him pay for his time of self-care with manipulation and pouting.  Finally, he set me down for a talk. It went something like this. “Hey, I love you and all that, but this is unfair to me.  I am not asking for unreasonable time for myself. You need to accept this and stop punishing me for a crime I haven’t committed.”

 

I retorted, “When do I get time for me?”

 

He replied, “Whenever you want it.  We just need to plan for it. I am happy to do whatever it takes for you to have me time too.”  And he meant it. I knew he meant it. It made me mad that this was true. Here’s the deal. I was NOT being responsible for my own self-care. I blamed him for a problem that was mine to solve.   I realized he was speaking the truth in love and that conversation changed my life forever. I took him up on his offer and started hitting the gym myself. I joined a tennis team (short-lived because I discovered I did not enjoy it).  I took responsibility for my self-care. If we had not made this pivot both in our marriage and for me personally, I do not know how our life would look today but I am certain it would not look as joy-filled. Are you taking responsibility for you?  It is one factor that helps improve our relationships in the other two arenas.