Yesterday Does Not Define You

istock_000002301808xsmallIn the 8th or 9th grade I wasn’t the best student. At times my grades weren’t all that great and my behavior in school wasn’t either. I was never the type of student that was always in trouble, but I was always struggling to find my place amongst all the other teenagers who were just as lost as I was.

Often times I would find myself trying to do things to try to fit in. Things the popular kids were doing, such as not caring about grades and caring more about being respected and feared over being respected and respectful.

Sometimes I would do things that I didn’t understand, which I am sure many of us can attest too, especially when we were teenagers and our hormones were raging and our still developing brains were still trying to come together.

This would often lead to be being unhappy with myself for one reason or another. I would be unhappy with my grades which often barely straddled C’s and more closely D’s. I would find myself unhappy with the way I dealt with certain situations, rather it was bullying other people or getting bullied. Emotionally I was all over the place. Sometimes depressed, sometimes angry, but never truly happy for long.

It was during this time that I realized that every Monday I had a chance to start over. To almost be, or at least try to be, a totally different person than I was the week before. Maybe last week I got detention, was mean to one kid or allowed another kid to make me afraid to walk down the hall. Maybe the week before I wasn’t the best student, but every Monday gave me an opportunity to try to do better, to start over.

That was always such a relief, such a refreshing feeling, to know that I did not have to be the person that week that I was the week before. That I could start over fresh. And that’s how I started to get better, as a student and as a person, by starting over one week at a time, trying to do better each week and not letting the previous week define me.

It wasn’t until later in high school that I realized I could use that same technique, that same mental reset everyday. I didn’t have to wait until Monday. If I had a bad day today, I could start fresh tomorrow. Eventually, and I think I was a senior in high school or maybe in college when I realized every hour I could start over. If I had a bad morning, that didn’t mean the rest of my day had to go bad. If I had a bad moment even, I didn’t have to dwell on it and let it define my day.

That is one of the great things about life, that we can start over everyday, every moment if we really wanted to and learn from our mistakes. We don’t have to dwell on yesterday. We don’t have to let yesterday or 2 minutes ago define us. We can learn from those mistakes and move on.

By using that technique way back in high school, my grades and behavior improved. I became an overall better person, more in touch with myself and not depending so much on others, or the mistakes of yesterday to define me. I still use that technique today, albeit, sometimes as an adult it is harder to remember and actually do, but when I do it, it is just as refreshing to know that I don’t have to stay stuck in the past.

We are not our past and yesterday does not define us. Too many people get mentally and emotionally stuck because they let their past define who they are and they don’t realize that they can break out of that rut by simply trying to do better, to do something different, to have a different attitude or to try to take on a different perspective.

Sometimes that is easier said than done, but once you learn how to “reset” your life, it’s one of the best gifts you can give yourself, each and every moment.

10 Mindfulness Techniques You Can Start Using Today

IMG_148084419922650Most of us spend a lot of time feeling pain, guilt or regret about our past and anxiety about our future. We can get so wrapped up in this past and future thinking that we don’t even enjoy the present moment we are living in.

Mindfulness is a form of self-awareness that helps brings us back to the present moment. It is taken from mindfulness meditation which is based on Buddhist meditation principles. It the past decade or so it has become very popular, especially as part of dialectical behavior training which has been successful in treating borderline personality disorders.

The basics of mindfulness helps us to pay attention to the present moment and disengage from the mental clutter and chatter that is almost always filling our minds.

How many times have you found yourself at a party, in a meeting, on a date even playing with your kids and yet while you are physically there, mentally you are somewhere else. You are in your head, dwelling on your past, thinking about the future and not living in that very moment. We have so much going on in our lives today that it’s hard to live in the present.

We are with our spouses, but thinking about everything we have to do at work tomorrow so we aren’t really hearing what they are saying or we are doing a task we do regularly, but are just going through the motions and not really paying attention to what we are doing (which is one reason accidents happen).

I have to admit that there have been many times when listening to a client that my mind will wonder. I’ll start thinking about my past, I’ll start thinking about what I have to do later that day and before I realize it, I’ve missed a good portion of what that client was talking about (it’s bad I know, but it happens… therapist are human too). I have to fight with myself sometimes to stay in the present, to not allow the clutter and chatter in my brain to take me anywhere else, but to remain in the here and now which takes practice.

As a matter of fact, during group therapy, being in the present and being mindful are two of my 10 rules. Often times when one group member is talking, some of the others will drift off to their own issues, their own regrets over the past and anxieties about the future to the point that they can’t offer support and encouragement to the group member who was speaking because mentally they weren’t there.

Here I’ve listed 10 ways to help you start being more mindful and to start living in and enjoying the present moment today.

  1. One Minute exercise: sit in front of a clock or look at your watch for exactly one minute and focus all of your attention only on your breathing and nothing else. Sounds simple, but your mind will tend to rebel and try to fill itself with all kinds of past and future thoughts. Resist it, focus simply on your breathing for one minute. Once you have this down pat you can start extending it by another minute up to five minutes or even longer!

  2. Take a shower. Showers can be relaxing and can be a mini vacation away from everything and everyone else. Feel free to use your imagination and picture yourself standing under a tropical waterfall.
  3. Speaking of water, sticking your hand in some warm water and concentrating on the sensation on your skin is not only a great way to bring you back to the present, but it is also helpful for de-stressing because it brings your brain a sense of comfort. If you aren’t near any warm water try rubbing your hands together to get a similar affect.
  4. Listen to music, calming music preferably and music you’re not familiar with is best, but really listen to it, not just the words, but the sounds of the instruments and the rhythm of the beat. Even familiar music can sound new again when you truly are present with it.
  5. Mindful Eating: Most of the time when we eat, we aren’t really paying attention to what we are doing. We are distracted by our mind, the television or anything else. In mindful eating, you sit down with no distractions, paying full attention to every bite you select and put into your mouth being aware of its color, how it smells, how it taste, the different textures, how it feels in your mouth. You may be surprised at how your food actually tastes different once you slow down and focus on it and possibly, how little of it you actually need to fill full. If trying this for an entire meal is too hard, try doing it for the first two bites of each meal.

  6. Mindful Walking: This is similar to mindful eating accept you take a walk and allow yourself to only focus on what is happening right now. How the ground feels beneath your feet, how the wind and/or sun feels on your skin, on how the leaves look and sound on the trees, even observing other people. It’s also good to pay attention to your breathing as you walk to help keep you present and centered.
  7. The acronym R.A.I.N. is used to describe a more advanced technique for when you are feeling unpleasant emotions where “R” stands for recognizing when a strong emotions is present, “A” is to acknowledge the emotion (instead of denying or running from it), “I” is to investigate where the feeling is coming from by checking in with your mind, body and feelings, and “N” is to non-identify with what’s there, meaning to not allow the emotion to define you or control you, but to understand that it is just another passing emotion that doesn’t have to control you. RAIN is about staying with your emotions and then letting them go, not dwelling on them or doing things to try to escape them, but acknowledging them and then allowing them to leave. It can be challenging to stay with your emotions and still let them go which is why this and the next technique are both considered advanced, but once you practice and can use them effectively, they can be life changing.
  8. Most of the time before we know it, our minds are racing, we are thinking about the past, the future, anxious, and just going through the motions of our daily routine. This is when we need to find time to S.T.O.P. which means to Stop what you are doing, if only for a minute, Take a breath and pay attention to your breathing, allowing it to flow in through your nose deeply and out through your mouth fully. You can try imagining breathing in a cloud through your nose and blowing it back out through your mouth. Observe your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Know that you can observe them, but they are just thoughts, feelings and emotions, that doesn’t make them facts they are not permanent. Often times recognizing, observing and letting thoughts, feelings and emotions go will work much faster than any psychotropic medication can in alleviating anxiety and depression. Lasting proceed with something supportive and positive such as talking with a friend or exercising.
  9. Un-tunnel your vision. A lot of times when we are stressed it’s because we are focusing on a single point that eliminates or obscures all other options. Try extending your arms all the way out until you form a “T” and then wiggle your fingers. Slowly bring your arms back in until your fingers are insight and then extend them again. Repeat this. Playing with your peripheral vision can help your brain to remember to expand and to remember that their are other options and possibilities other than that single point it’s currently focusing on that’s causing you stress.
  10. Come up with your own ways to be mindful and in the here and now! There are so many different ways we can practice being in the moment and there is no better way than finding something that works best for you.

A lot of our discomfort comes from worrying about the future and beating ourselves up about the past, but the past is gone and the future has not happened yet. Living happens in the moment we are in right now so taking some time to remember that and appreciate the present will definitely make our entire life experience richer.

Working Around Your Abyss

SONY DSCI’m always amazed at the lengths some people will go through to hide their pain. All of us have pain, disappointments, regrets, wounds, and parts of us we wish we could hide forever, but many times those very issues are the things we need to address in order to move on and live truly fulfilled and happy lives.

The other night I was watching Beyond Scared Straight on A&E and there was a kid on there whose father committed suicide when he was younger and it looked like the kid had never really talked to anyone about it or dealt with it in any sort of healthy way. Instead he turned to drugs, violence and other petty criminal behaviors as a way of acting out and dealing with what I believe must be anger towards his dad coupled with immense depression.

Most people would look at this kid and see a juvenile delinquent, but all I saw was a kid crying out for someone to see past the walls he had erected around his pain and help him navigate his way around it.

This young kid wasn’t unlike many of the high school kids I dealt with that teachers thought were just bad apples, but they were really acting out because of the pain they were holding on to, such as coming from poverty stricken, sometimes violent and unstable broken homes. Especially the boys who would hold on to their pain so tight, not wanting to show any weaknesses, and yet the pain was literally destroying them by causing them to constantly get in their own way by fighting, failing out of school or getting involved in illegal activities that were sure to lead to incarceration.

We all have stuff. We all have issues. That is something I say all the time when people open up to me, no matter if they are clients or friends. I always encourage talking about those pains because I believe that talking about them, even just a little bit, helps ease some of the tension, stigma, shame, and fear people attach to their pain.

While some people try drastic measures to consciously or unconsciously hide from, ignore, deny or cover up their pain (sex, drugs, alcohol, cutting, eating disorders, continued bad relationships, etc.), some people are so absorbed in their pain that can’t even enjoy moments of happiness when they happen. They can’t see anything except for their pain. They live in constant depression, anxiety, suspicion, and pessimism.

It may be something that happened a long time ago, yet they are never living in the moment, they are constantly living in the past and their pain. They are constantly unconsciously telling themselves stories which for the most part are untrue. Stories about themselves, their pain and their lives. Stories that hold them hostage to turmoil and they will hold on to those stories with a death grip even in the face of evidence that their stories are at least partially untrue.

The stories we tell ourselves include things such as, “My dad left because I was a bad kid”, or “My husband cheated because I wasn’t enough for him” and “I fail at everything I try”. The list goes on and on, but you can imagine how someone who is telling themselves these stories will live their lives in the present and future if they continue to believe these stories about themselves.

They will hold on to those stories, sometimes because it is the only story that they know and it’s much easier to believe in the story that you know than to try to create a better story where there may be unexpected surprises even if some of the surprises include very pleasant ones.

One of my favorite books is entitled The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom by Henri Nouwen. It was given to me as a gift several years ago and I have since given it away, brought it again and given it away again no less than eight times.

The first passage in that book is called Work Around Your Abyss and it says:

There is a deep hole in your being, like an abyss. You
will never succeed in filling that hole, because your
needs are inexhaustible. You have to work around it
so that gradually the abyss closes.
Since the hole is so enormous and your anguish
so deep, you will always be tempted to flee from it.
There are two extremes to avoid: being completely
absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so
many things that you stay far away from the wound
you want to heal.

When I first read that passage about six years ago, I almost cried because I felt like it was talking directly to me. I was holding on to a lot of pain and not doing anything about it. Pain about my fathers death, pain about our relationship, pain about the romantic relationship I was in and fear of not being completely loved and fear of failure.

Holding on to and not addressing those pains was leading to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and agitation. It was until I read this passage that I started to address and work around my abyss which slowly, but surely started to close and this passage is probably the #1 reason I have shared this book so many times with people who have shared some of their pain with me.

All of us have issues, or what I like to call “stuff”, but it doesn’t have to define us and we don’t have to wear it like a scarlet letter nor pretend like it’s not there. We define ourselves and our situations, our situations do not define us. Let’s all make a commitment to start working around our abyss so that we can start living fully and completely, the way we were all meant to live.