Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

October 8, 2012

Letting Go

Filed under: 2012 Articles,Grief & Loss,Lisa's Articles,Relationships & Intimacy — karunacounseling @ 2:16 pm
by Lisa Anyan Smith, Ph.D.

“If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, it never was.”  This quote, widely attributed to Richard Bach of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” fame, conveys the meaning of a proverb that appears in many cultures and languages.  I remember the quote being reproduced on the inspirational posters of my youth.  It was soon parodied by cynics:  “If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, hunt it down and kill it.”

The cynical version of this quote illustrates (however crudely) the difficulty that many of us have with letting go.  Letting go of unhealthy relationships, of anger, of jealousy, of addictions, of coping mechanisms that no longer serve us well, can be difficult to accomplish.  Why is it so difficult for some of us to “just let it go”?  What can we do to ease the process of letting go?

Letting go can be a challenge because we, as human beings, are creatures of habit.  There is some comfort in the familiar.  Shedding old, destructive patterns or behaviors can leave us feeling as vulnerable as a small child throwing away a tattered and filthy blanket.  Although logically we may reason that we are better off without it, emotionally we can be left feeling bare.  Yet letting go is a process that we all must face at one time or another.  We must let go of the old in order to invite in the new.  Like the child who must say goodbye to the beloved blanket, we must bid farewell to what is holding us back developmentally.  Letting go is growth.  Letting go is akin to rock climbing, in which you must let go of a toehold in order to reach the next height. Reaching, striving – we must let go in order to find our next step.

Yes, you say, I understand that I must let go.  But how?  The following steps can assist you on your journey toward letting go.

Embrace the shadow:

We all possess a dark side, the part of us that we often prefer to remain hidden from the world.  Karl Jung referred to that portion of us that we fail to see or know as the “shadow.” That which we refuse to examine does not disappear; on the contrary it takes on a greater power until it erupts in a harmful way.  For example, repressed anger can result in displaced aggression.  Robert Johnson, in Owning Your Own Shadow, posits that “to refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents” (p. 26).  Through self-examination we can cultivate awareness of the shadow, and through ritual or creativity we can discharge the shadow energy in a healthy manner.

Awareness of the grip that we have on unwelcome thoughts, feelings, or relationships – and the grip that they have on us – is crucial to the process of learning to let them go.  For example, we all experience anger at some time or another.  Holding on to anger can negatively impact our general sense of happiness, relationships with others, and physical health.  Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, likens anger to a howling baby, suffering and crying.  He encourages us to be mindful of the anger, to cradle and embrace the baby. Once we have accepted the anger and acknowledged it as our own, we can work with it. We can realize compassion for the target of our anger and feel better.

Let go of having to control:

Taoism is a manner of living in harmony with Tao, the Way of the Universe.  Lao-tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, urges us to see the value in being humble.  If action seems called for, he asks us to consider nonaction. If we feel that grasping will help us acquire what we need or want, he counsels us to let go and be patient.

A cornerstone of many successful 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, involves letting go of control.  The Serenity Prayer urges those seeking relief to be granted “…the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  This idea can also be expressed in the notion of surrendering to win.  A friend of mine likens letting go to dropping the rope in a tug-of-war contest.  When competitors on both sides are pulling equally on the rope, a stalemate ensues.  When one side drops the rope, movement occurs immediately.  While the side that drops the rope may not “win,” the action still leads to change.

Grieve your losses

Take the time to honor the process of letting go and moving on. It may be helpful to recognize the stages of grieving identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Keep in mind that there is no timetable for grief and that your process will be different from others’. Kubler-Ross herself acknowledged that the stages do not necessarily occur in chronological order. It is common to cycle back through the stages before finally landing upon acceptance. Be patient with yourself.  Have compassion for your journey.  Walk, talk, draw, paint, or find other ways to tap into your thoughts and memories.  Allow painful memories to enter your consciousness – with support if needed.  I am reminded of the mantra in the beloved children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury:  “Can’t go around it, can’t go under it…. Gotta go through it!”

Forgive

In trying to let go of a grudge toward another person, think about apologizing and asking for forgiveness.  Letting go of your past involves allowing yourself to be vulnerable.  Or, it may be forgiveness of yourself that will set you on the path toward letting go. Be honest with yourself and others. If you have made mistakes, admit them. Forgiveness can be freeing. Forgiveness, at least in terms of interpersonal dynamics, appears to have benefits for both individual health and relationships. Research suggests that forgiveness  “may free the wounded person from a prison of hurt and vengeful emotion, yielding both emotional and physical benefits, including reduced stress, less negative emotion, fewer cardiovascular problems, and improved immune system performance.” (Witvliet, et al.)

Move forward to let go of the past

It has been said that time heals all wounds. Trust that letting go will occur if you open yourself to that possibility.  Look outside of yourself. Move outside of your comfort zone. Volunteering to help others in your community will aid in moving forward. Do something different! Taking a class at the local community college, learning a new language, or starting a new hobby will focus your attention on the present and assist in letting go of the past.

Isn’t that what we wanted all along

Freedom like a stone

Maybe we were wrong

But I can say goodbye

Now that the passion’s died

Still it comes so slow

The letting go 

Melissa Etheridge, “The Letting Go”

References and Suggested Reading:

Borysenko, Joan, Inner Peace for Busy Women: Balancing Work, Family, and Your Inner Life (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2003).

 

Hoff, Benjamin, The Tao of Pooh (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1983).

 

Johnson, Robert, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).

 

Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Death and Dying (London: Routledge, 1969).

 

Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching (translation by Stephen Mitchell) New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

 

Thich Nhat Hahn, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001).

 

Witvliet, C.V.O., Ludwig, T. E., & Vander Laan, K. L. (2001). Granting forgiveness of harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12, 117

June 28, 2011

Book review: The Mindful Way Through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life, by Susan M. Orsillo, Ph.D., and Lizabeth Roemer, Ph.D.

Filed under: 2011 Articles,Anxiety,Lisa's Articles,Mind-body-spirit Integration — karunacounseling @ 2:37 pm
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Mindful Way Through Anxiety
A book review by Lisa Anyan Smith

We live in a stressful world.  Anxiety is a part of the human condition.

Many people complain of feelings of anxiousness, ranging from occasional mild worrying to full-blown anxiety disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Social Phobia, or a specific Phobia.

Although anxiety is a normal human emotion, we find feelings of anxiety unpleasant and typically try to avoid experiencing them.  Attempts to avoid  anxious feelings may include overeating, drinking alcohol, watching TV, taking prescription medications, or staying away from situations or people that may trigger anxiety. In their new book, “The Mindful Way Through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life,” Orsillo and Roemer propose that avoiding anxiety or attempting to control it does not ease pain and suffering.  Rather, avoidance brings its own costs.  The authors suggest that to break free from anxiety, instead of avoiding anxious feelings, we practice coping strategies that allow us to turn toward and pay close attention to anxiety.  Turning toward something that we would usually avoid and taking a fresh look at habitual responses are crucial components of mindfulness.

Before exploring how mindfulness can help us break free from the grip of anxiety, let’s look at an example of what anxiety is.

Jody recently moved to New York City from Alabama to start a new job.  Heading into a corporate meeting, she notices that most of her coworkers are already seated and chatting with one another.  She takes a chair between two groups already engaged in conversation and begins shuffling through her papers.  She feels her anxiety rising.  Some of the thoughts that go through her mind include, “I don’t fit in here,” “My clothes are all wrong,” and “They must think I’m an idiot.”  She feels her face flushing, palms sweating, and pulse quickening.  Thinking of the friends she left behind at her former job, she feels a wave of sadness and regret.  She despairs as she thinks about the years ahead of her, just knowing that she will always feel alone.  For the duration of the meeting, she keeps her eyes downcast, contributing nothing to the discussion.

As this story illustrates, components of anxiety include thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviors.  Evolutionarily, humans are hardwired to feel fear.  Fear is actually a helpful warning that alerts us to potentially dangerous situations.  When we perceive a threat, the fight-or-flight response kicks in to ready us to combat or escape from harm.  The physical symptoms we experience when this response occurs (increased heart rate, rapid breathing, adrenaline rush, etc.) are merely side effects of the body getting ready to fight or flee.

Compared to fear, anxiety is a more subtle but chronic state.  Whereas fear is an automatic response to a threat we perceive as immediate, anxiety includes thinking about or imagining some possible threat we may come up against in the future.

Orsillo and Roemer’s research indicates that our struggle with fear and anxiety does not come from any actual harm caused by the physical sensations of these emotions.  Rather, it arises from our reactions to these emotions and the thoughts, sensations, and images that accompany them.  Criticizing ourselves for feeling fear or anxiety is what hurts us, not the fear and anxiety themselves.  This is where the turning inward is helpful.  Mindfulness can help us replace self-criticism with compassion.

Simply put, mindfulness is a specific way of paying attention.  It involves “purposefully expanding your attention to take in both what you are experiencing inside – your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations – and what is happening around you.” (p. 81)  The key concepts of mindfulness include 1) Noticing – becoming fully aware of the thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and images that you experience, as well as the details of your environment; 2) Curiosity – approaching experiences with openness; and 3) Self-Compassion – acknowledging that the reactions we have are part of being human, accepting what cannot be controlled, and treating yourself with kindness and care.

The authors provide a series of exercises progressing from a 5 minute breath exercise through a number of informal and formal techniques to practice mindfulness.  Readers are also encouraged to download audio recordings from the book’s website to listen to while practicing or to record their own scripts.

Shane trembled as she waited her turn to stand behind the podium and deliver her speech.  She had agreed months ago to make a presentation before her colleagues at the real estate convention, even though she was terrified of public speaking.  As the previous speaker was concluding his remarks, Shane felt her stomach churn.  Her neck felt tight and sore, she felt the blood rushing to her face as she blushed, and she began sweating profusely.  “Why, oh why did I ever agree to this?” she thought.  She recalled the incident in high school when she had forgotten her lines in the school play, and now she relived those old feelings of embarrassment.  “It will be just like in high school!”  “These people will think I’m so stupid.”  “No one will ever refer any business to me again, ever!”

Orsillo and Roemer would say that Shane is experiencing “muddy” emotions.  This occurs when we bring in memories of past events – and conjecture about future possibilities – into the current moment.  If Shane were to take a moment to be mindful of the immediate challenge, she would realize that she is muddying her current anxiety by worrying about “what if” rather than focusing on “what is.”

The authors write in a style that is easy to follow and offer many vignettes to provide examples.  They also address the questions that many readers may be asking:

But isn’t mindfulness a Buddhist principle?  Is it a new age fad? What if I have different spiritual beliefs?  

The term mindfulness indeed originated with Buddhism, but the idea has recently been included in research and therapeutic settings.  In fact, mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease anxiety, insomnia, stress, risk of coronary heart disease, substance use, chronic pain, and fibromyalgia, and increase attention, sexual functioning, quality of life, and immune system functioning.  The book does not focus on the religious aspect of mindfulness.

How can I find the time to practice mindfulness?

While research suggests that more practice is associated with greater benefit, the authors offer a variety of techniques including exercises that only take 5 minutes a day.  They also point out activities that you can do mindfully, such as eating, walking, washing dishes, folding laundry, petting your dog, cooking, listening to music, or hugging a friend.

How can mindfulness help with anxiety? 

By this time you may be thinking, “Gee, thanks, but no thanks.  I’m already acutely aware of my anxiety.  Why on earth would I want to focus on it more?”  Yes, it is seemingly counterintuitive, but mindfulness can actually help us notice what we are experiencing and make choices about how we want to respond, rather than automatically reacting in ways that hold us back from fully engaging in our lives.  Let’s look at one more example that illustrates the value of mindfulness:

Sam was on a third date with Chris.  He had been single for a long time and knew that he wanted to develop an intimate relationship.  He was quite fond of Chris, and was getting signals that the feeling was mutual.  As the talk turned more personal, he felt his pulse quicken, his chest tighten, and his mouth get dry.  He felt the urge to change the subject so he wouldn’t risk feeling vulnerable and getting hurt.  He watched Chris for cues, and thought he saw a frown of displeasure when Sam talked about a low point in his life.   What Sam really wanted to do was excuse himself, pretend to go to the bathroom, and run like hell out the back door of the restaurant.  However, he really wanted to build a connection with Chris, so he chose to remain in the situation.

Often the things that really matter to us, like loving people, forming emotional connections, taking on challenging tasks, or caring for those in pain and suffering, bring with them emotional pain.  In these cases, living a fulfilling life means that we notice the pain and allow it, rather than trying to make it go away.  Mindfulness can help us to embrace our entire range of emotional experiences, making it easier to make these choices and enrich our lives.

 

Additional Reading:
Boyce, Barry (Ed.). The Mindfulness Revolution. Shambhala Publications,  Inc., 2011.
Germer, Christopher. The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. Guilford Press,  2009.
Matheny, Kenneth B. & Riordan, Richard J. Stress and Strategies for Lifestyle Management. Georgia State University Press, 1992.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Bantam Books, 1992.
Siegel, Ronald. The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practice for Everyday Problems. Guilford Press, 2010.

April 22, 2010

Transitions

Filed under: 2010 Articles,Career Planning & Life Direction,Lisa's Articles — karunacounseling @ 2:22 pm
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by Lisa Anyan Smith, Ph. D.

“I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same”

~ David Bowie, “Changes”

Change is an inevitable part of life.  Transitions are all around us – births, deaths, graduations, anniversaries, moving to a new residence, marriage, divorce.  Beginnings and endings are occurring constantly.  Some are small and mundane:  the ringing of the alarm clock to signal the start of a new day, or the finishing of a good book.  Some are major and catastrophic:  the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings, or the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

Some changes are initiated by us, while others are imposed upon us by outside forces, or seemingly fall from the sky out of the blue.  Some transitions feel more welcome and comfortable than others.  Some feel downright unpleasant.

What can we learn from change?  Perhaps the answer, in part, lies in chaos theory.  While musing about various changes I have experienced over the past year, I came across a book entitled “Seven Life Lessons of Chaos:  Timeless Wisdom from the Science of Change,” by John Briggs and F. David Peat  (New York:  HarperCollins, 1999).  The scientific term “chaos” refers to an underlying interconnectedness that exists in apparently random events.  Briggs and Peat deftly relate some of the complexities of chaos theory to everyday life, and I would like to share some of their lessons with you.

Lesson One:  Being Creative In each moment, we have the opportunity to let go of prejudices and automatic habits.  This letting go frees us to be open to the power of uncertainty, and thus creativity.

Lesson Two: Using Butterfly Power Chaos theory suggests that each one of us possesses the power of “subtle influence,” much like the idea of a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent that leads to hundreds of thousands of tiny interconnected events that culminate in a hurricane on another continent.

Lesson Three:  Going with the Flow Consensus decision-making models involve much deliberation and discussion before an agreement is reached.  The process can feel chaotic.  However, when a decision is reached, all parties claim ownership and are committed to the decision.

Lesson Four:  Exploring What’s Between Chaos theory holds that life is both simple and complex.  When life seems most complicated, a simple solution may be just around the bend.  Conversely, what appears simple on the surface may be incredibly complicated.

Lesson Five:  Seeing the Art of the World Chaos is as much about art as it is about science.  William Blake urged us to …”see the world in a grain of sand, and an eternity in an hour…”  While observing birds, squirrels, and chipmunks at your backyard feeder, you may notice that although there are repeating patterns, something unexpected and random occurs that keeps you engrossed.

Lesson Six:  Living Within Time Rather than thinking of time as a one-dimensional line running from past to future, chaos theory allows for elasticity in time.  I especially enjoyed the story of monk who stops to listen to the beautiful singing of a bird in the woods.  Upon returning to the monastery, he discovers new faces.  While he was listening, all his friends died and an entire century passed.

Lesson Seven:  Rejoining the Whole To live deeply and fully, we seek awareness.  Yet as soon as we sense that we are seeking, awareness escapes our grasp.  Chaos theory, as applied to change, requires that questions remain unanswered.  Perhaps we learn more from the journey, than when we reach the destination.

So how can chaos theory impact our everyday life, and what does it have to do with change?   Well-known to those participating in recovery programs is the Serenity Prayer, which asks  “…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.“   While we strive to effect positive changes from within, and struggle to adapt to changes that appear from without, we can remind ourselves that chaos does not necessarily need to be tamed.  Sometimes the path of least resistance is the way we are meant to follow.  Yet “least resistant” is not synonymous with “easy.”  Although we may not be able to make order of chaos, we can find calm within the storm.

“When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

~ Victor Frankl

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