March is notorious for being a month of unpredictable weather. We’re never quite sure if we will have winter or spring. Some early spring flowers pop right through the snow, determined to have their season regardless of the temperature or conditions. March represents a real dialect – the promise of longer days and warmer temps and the reminder that the cold and dampness of winter is not yet behind us.
This time of year requires a certain flexibility and openness to change that we don’t have to have quite so much of other times of the year. We are forced to accept that two things that appear to be opposite are both true and can co-exist – two seasons at the same time. How do we survive March without going crazy? Our wardrobes are in a constant state of flux – one day short sleeves and open toes and the next back to turtlenecks and boots. Do we haul our spring wardrobe out and freeze on colder days or do we just wear the winter stuff and sweat a little more?
Like any dialect this one can be resolved by allowing two opposites to co-exist and accept that both are true. It is neither completely winter nor is it completely spring. We need both our winter clothes and our spring clothes. Essentially, we need to be flexible and move with the changing conditions back and forth, and in and out.
If we fight it and will only accept one or the other – all or nothing – we suffer. Because the one thing that remains true in life is that there is no absolute truth. Things just aren’t black and white. So March may or may not come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. It may be both on and off throughout the month. And the more we can allow this “both, and” instead of “either, or” approach to life in general, the greater our capacity for peace in our lives.
For some the holiday season is busy and overwhelming. For others it’s lonely and sad. Regardless of what the holidays bring for you, here is a list of things to try that may help you stay present, regulate your emotions (whatever they are), and perhaps have a moment of joy here and there. Just remember to let go of holiday multi-tasking and try doing these activities one mindfully…
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Living in the present moment with acceptance and attention to what is might be described as living mindfully. Mindfulness is often misunderstood. Many believe it to be a meditation practice when actually, meditation is the practice of mindfulness. Meditation is simply a way to cultivate mindfulness in our lives, the true essence of which is a way of living – awake, aware, and available to what is, to the possibilities of NOW. It is the willingness to live in the present and to accept it without judgment.
If we are unhappy with the state of our self, our life, and our circumstances, why would anyone suggest that NOW is the place to bring our attention? First off, the ability to be in the present with acceptance will allow us to see our circumstances with clarity and to solve problems effectively. If we can’t see things for what they are, then it is unlikely that we will be able to create the life we truly want.
And secondly, the present is where the richness of life lies. Being human means feeling; and feeling requires showing up for our experiences. If we are willing to experience being human we will likely have our share of sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and envy. But it is through our willingness to be truly human –and experience the full continuum of emotion – that we will also be available for the possibility of joy in our life. If we show up for the present and allow it to be what it is, we will be there when the potential for a positive experience makes itself available to us.
If you are someone who has spent most of your time ruminating about the past or worried about the future, then the present is not a place you are used to being. So how do you get there? A meditation practice can help but let’s face it, telling someone to start meditating so they can live a mindful life is like telling someone to start exercising so they can run a marathon.
Cultivating mindfulness in our life can start out slow and simple. Notice the smell of coffee in the morning, how the sun feels when it touches your skin, observe the beauty of nature. Pet your dog, brush your hair, or hug someone. Stay with the experience, even if just for a moment, letting go of worry and judgment. Through the repetition of this practice in one’s life mindfulness begins to unfold. And through this unfolding a life truly worth living becomes possible.
Open Enrollment has begun for individuals who have completed the DBT Skills Training. The Graduate Group, led by Lona Stranieri, LCSW meets the last Wednesday of every month between 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm. Please call 609-921-0020 to schedule or to learn more about this group.
The experience of intense negative emotions is probably the number one reason one would seek out mental health services. That, and the subsequent problematic behaviors they tend to elicit – anything from not getting out of bed for weeks on end, to substance abuse, and myriad other self destructive tendencies. No doubt negative emotions are painful and can seriously disrupt our life. And, if we happen to be an individual whose emotional experience is intense and unpredictable we can be particularly bowled over by the unpleasant ones.
So why in the world would DBT suggest that we should love our emotions – all of them including the not so nice ones? How could one possibly love something that causes so much trouble?
There are numerous theories developed to explain emotional experience in humans – how and why they occur and the order of thought, body response, and behavior. However, these theories are of little consolation when we are suffering. What can be comforting in the midst of painful reactions is to understand that emotions are simply the body’s way to protect and preserve us. They are like an alarm system that helps us get our basic human needs met, protect us from danger, and might even save our life. When our emotional alarm system is working optimally it motivates us to act, organizes our behavior, and communicates to others and ourselves vital information about the situation. Sounds great, right?
However, we’ve all had that experience of a faulty alarm system, or one that is activated unnecessarily. Who hasn’t experienced the annoyance of a screeching car alarm that got triggered accidentally while the owner is nowhere in sight (or a very heavy sleeper). I recall many a college night spent standing outside my dormitory in the cold waiting to be let back into my room because the fire alarm had gone off for no apparent reason (or more likely been set off as a prank). The alarm was there to protect us but on those nights created inconvenience, disruption, and discomfort for no good reason.
Learning to regulate emotions is like learning to live with an imperfect alarm system. Instead of reverting to a state of panic and confusion at the sign of every negative emotion, we learn to step back, observe, and check the facts of our situation. We learn to tweak the alarm system so false alarms are less frequent and intense; and to shut it off and get back to living more quickly even when it does go off unnecessarily. We learn to accept our system’s imperfections and work with it, all the while knowing that it’s at least trying to be helpful. And maybe at some point, we even learn to love it!
Contributed by the Princeton Center for DBT and Counseling Skills Training group:
These are suggestions for practicing Mindfulness and building positive experiences throughout the spring season:
The groundhog did see his shadow today promising us a delayed spring! Do we deserve this, after what we’ve experienced up to this point of the season? After this winter prediction I got to thinking that maybe the bears are onto something. Why don’t we all just go to bed after the holidays and wake up when it’s warm, weighing half as much? Then we wouldn’t need to make those New Year’s resolutions we never keep anyway. Or maybe the geese have it right. Hibernation might not be realistic but migration could work. If it weren’t for these jobs and other responsibilities we can’t leave behind all winter. Ok, so maybe we could just up and move to a warmer climate? Relocate all together. Now that’s more realistic than hibernation or migration. This one we could actually make work…….who says you can’t fight Mother Nature? Maybe we just haven’t tried hard enough!
Does this sound like what your mind has been doing lately? Trying to escape the reality of this brutal winter, or a delayed spring? Or maybe you’re too despondent to even give it that much thought – caught in the grips of a seasonal depression. This is a tough time of year for most people and when the weather or seasonal trends adds insult to injury it can feel like more than we can bear. So what can we do to tolerate the long winter months without hibernating or migrating?
Try doing the exact opposite of what you’re inclined to do. Most of us want to sleep more, eat more, be sedentary, and isolate to avoid the cold. Instead, balanced sleep (not too much or too little), increased activity, and social interaction are far more likely to help our seasonal blues. Maybe you don’t ski or ice skate but most of us are capable of bundling up and going for a brisk walk in the cold. Fresh air and sunshine (when you can find some) can do you wonders! Also, find the silver lining. Maybe delayed school openings have made for less rushed and hectic mornings? Maybe you’ve had a few days off from work due to treacherous road conditions? You don’t have to weed the garden? (ok maybe that one’s a stretch). But you get the point…every season has its benefits. So find the benefits of this one and appreciate them before it’s too late. Before you know it we’ll be fanning ourselves and longing for cool weather again!
In DBT we teach the skill of Radical Acceptance. It is perhaps one of the most difficult skills to teach as acceptance is a subjective and personal experience. It won’t be exactly the same for any two people. This makes it difficult to teach as we can’t provide others with a trajectory for their individual process of acceptance. We all have to be on our own path, turning our minds and experiencing the shifts as they occur.
One thing is consistent however and that is that the most powerful change within us and our lives comes out of acceptance of what is. We have to begin the process of change by, not resigning ourselves to, but rather embracing the reality of ourselves and our lives. This can be a difficult and painful endeavor but a necessary one if we are to transcend suffering.
Maybe we don’t look the way we wish we looked or we weren’t treated the way we would have hoped to be treated. Maybe we haven’t accomplished what reflects our true potential or we’ve lost everything we’ve worked for. Maybe we’ve lost someone we love. Or maybe we are just miserable and can’t attach it to any life circumstance but know that we carry within us a deep and pervasive pain.
Acceptance of these realities is the first step in creating the life we want. Acceptance is the greatest end we can achieve and the beginning of the journey. Great things are possible if we can accept and acceptance is a great thing in and of itself.
When we moved into our current home there was a pine tree in the front that had become too tall for the height of the roof’s overhang. The tip of the tree bent at the top and it looked awkward and overgrown for the space. I wanted my husband to pull it out and plant something more size appropriate for the space since clipping the tips of some pines can kill them. My husband suggested we start by clipping it to make the tree fit the space and see if it survives. So he did and the tree survived.
In early spring we found a Blue Jay nest in the pine tree. As the tree is only about 7 feet the nest was within our reach and sight. We knew it was Blue Jays by the appearance of the eggs and by the daily Blue Jay sightings in and around the tree. The nest was meticulously crafted, something I would be proud to put in my home as a decorative piece. Inside the nest were four beautiful speckled, perfectly shaped, pale blue jewels that mama Blue Jay watched over vigilantly.
My entire family got caught up in the excitement of this miracle of nature happening before our eyes. I was nervous that mama Blue Jay would attack us as we peered into the tree and reveled at her mastery. However, she never did but would simply watch us from afar. My husband was convinced that she knew the sound of our voices and that we were friend not foe. We never touched the nest or the eggs, just peered in and took an occasional photo or movie with the I-phone to share with friends and family.
Then one day we saw four tiny, bald, open-beaked heads trying to hold themselves upright long enough to get food. They had all hatched and survived. We watched them in awe over the next several days. Then when the weather got hot and swimming became more exciting than bird watching we forgot about them for a while. Then a week or so later I saw my son over at the nest. “The babies got big” he declared. And when I went over to look I could not believe my eyes. There were four plump feathered Blue Jays sitting side by side with no room to spare in what was now a nest barely large enough to house all four of them. They sat quietly and seemed unafraid when we approached. “Hi babies!” I said. My son said “I think they know our voices.”
As we stood and peered into the nest I felt so grateful that we had left the pine for these beautiful creatures. This tree has brought us so much joy and appreciation for the world around us and our connection to it. I guess you never know what potential something has if you don’t give it a second chance.
So it’s that time of year again. Have you ever seen so many commercials for weight loss and exercise plans? Time to quit smoking, keep a cleaner house, save money perhaps? None of these are unreasonable goals, and most are with our best interest in mind. The problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they are focused on changing things about ourselves without adequate consideration for who we are.
What might be possible if we were to make a New Year’s resolution that focused on understanding who we are, accepting who we are, and working with who we are instead of against it as we do in most cases? What if our New Year’s resolution was to recognize what we do well and continue it, maybe build on it?
The truth is most people do not carry out their New Year’s resolutions and why is this? Are we really a society of weak individuals lacking willpower and discipline? Or are we simply a society that looks outside ourselves for happiness? We believe if we change enough, if we become that thing or achieve that goal it will fulfill us.
This year why not try some self compassion and understanding as a way to start the new year? Why not be resolved to understand who we are first and make goals for change within the context of self acceptance and love? Maybe that would be one change really worth making.
September always feels like a great time to make a fresh start. That back-to-school mentality gets ingrained in us and, even though we may be long past school age, we tend to feel that this time of year brings opportunity for the start of something new. It’s a chance to get to a project we’ve been putting off; take steps to achieve some important goal; or continue with something we’ve put on hold.
This time of year can hold great hope for many of us. We may be optimistic that we can accomplish what we set out to do, right past wrongs, or finally get back on track after languishing the summer away. We may just be grateful for the change– cool weather, fall foliage and all of the activities that come with the season.
Regardless of what we’re seeking, there seems to be something about a fresh start or a new beginning that is tremendously important to our psyche. Humans are imperfect by nature; and along with our imperfection comes the desire to strive to be better, or to get closer to the life we want.
The question is, how can we do this in a way that is healthy and balanced and promotes positive change in ourselves and our lives? How can we avoid that vicious cycle of perpetual startups with no completion of anything meaningful? How can we prevent eventually giving up on new beginnings because our goals never seem to come to fruition?
One way would be to make goals achievable. Instead of setting out to become someone we will never be, we can notice our tendency to set our expectations unrealistically high and reign ourselves in. Break goals down into sub-goals if necessary. Accomplish smaller things that contribute to a larger goal. We also need to recognize when our vision involves changing things that are out of our control and focus on what is within our control. All goals need to begin with a heavy dose of commitment. Tell someone about your goal, write it down and post it somewhere, or sign your own contract. Whatever you do, make a conscious, deliberate choice to work on it. Let’s not forget the importance of accountability! Plan how you will be held accountable. Will it be by another person? How will you track your progress and decide if you are on course? And finally – reinforcement of your accomplishments is critical. You must find ways to reward yourself or to be mindful of the intrinsic rewards that come with your achievements. Otherwise you are unlikely to want to continue, or to set new goals in the future. It’s human nature – there must be a payoff!
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, is to embrace our imperfection as we strive to achieve new goals. We are fallible and, regardless of how committed we are, we will not be perfect. The ability to accept this fact and not throw in the towel will surely get us closer to our life worth living!
Have you ever been really down and someone told you to “count your blessings” or “look at the bright side”? Was that helpful? Many of us can relate to feeling really bad about something only to be invalidated by the “encouragement” of well intentioned loved ones who just want us to see how lucky we really are.
Most of us have a hard time counting our blessings from time to time no matter how good we actually have it. At times we take for granted what we have and overlook the positive. We forget to look at the bright side or simply can’t see it no matter how hard we try. It’s kind of human nature to do this. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t need to dedicate an entire holiday to giving thanks, would we?
Feeling as though we should count our blessings can feel invalidating, as though we shouldn’t feel disappointment or sadness or frustration. And yet most of us know, or have at least heard, that practicing gratitude can greatly improve our outlook on life and our overall mood – that being grateful is good for our mental health. So how do we practice gratitude?
If we take time to be present and aware, we will likely notice things in our life that are positive, which can often lead to moments when we connect to, and perhaps are overwhelmed by, a feeling of gratitude for what we have. It can be fleeting, but nonetheless powerful, and an important reminder of what we often forget – that life is so worth living even with pain.
So it’s really important not to force ourselves into a mindset of gratitude, never acknowledging our disappointment or dismay. Rather, we allow gratitude to show itself to us by practicing awareness and acceptance of what is.
Moments of gratitude are like precious jewels, rare and beautiful, something to be treasured. So don’t force yourself to half heartedly count your blessings if you don’t feel grateful. Forcing gratitude on yourself is like trying to convince yourself you can fly. Rather, be still and notice what’s around you, observe your world without judgment and be open to the possibility that just maybe gratitude will show up and stay, even if for a moment.
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