Kindness in the face of hate

“Compassion is the basis of all morality.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

We see hate and violence everywhere and we feel powerless to stop it. While it is impossible for any one of us to call a worldwide ceasefire, we can offer kindness, care, empathy, and love. Kindness can fill the void that hate leaves behind and can bring light to the dark of ignorance and violence.

Like so many, I am in terrible pain to learn of yet another shooting, taking the lives of innocent people. The police kill innocent people, terrorists kill innocent people, and seemingly regular people kill innocent people. Political figures spew hate-filled messages and social media is rife with support for racism, rape culture, and bigotry. It can feel like the world is turning inside out.

When we feel hopeless and overcome with pain, let us turn our efforts away from blaming and towards empathy. It is through compassion and understanding that each of us can change the seething tides of anger and hate.

Consider doing something kind today – in the next ten minutes – if you can. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, offer to buy lunch for your coworker, put money in the next expired parking meter you see. None of these acts need to be grand or heroic, they just need to happen. Be the antidote to intolerance and killing. Practice patience. Resist the temptation to meet fire with fire. Know that you can start kindness at any moment, regardless of what has come immediately before. Find love and warmth wherever they hide, nurture them, and share them with as many as you can.

“Love and hate are beasts and the one that grows is the one you feed.” – Shane Koyczan

Getting Over Guilt

Everyone feels guilty over a social faux pas or missed opportunity now and again but, for some, guilt is an intense and overwhelming experience. If you feel:

  • Plagued by a mistake from long ago
  • Discomfort with opportunities and privileges
  • Disabled by thinking “I’m wasting time”

… this blog is for you.

#FirstWorldProblems

Our society (and especially the Millennial generation) is becoming more comfortable disregarding our genuine struggles as “no big deal” and some even reproach themselves for experiencing hardship in the first place. Identifying the loss of a job, end of a relationship, or indecision about your life’s direction as “first world problems” generates a sense of guilt. It tends to make us think that we are undeserving of feeling distressed. The problem with thinking this way is that your distress is genuine and pretending that it doesn’t exist (or shouldn’t exist) often gets you stuck in a cycle of distress and guilt and more distress and more guilt.

Gratitude Over Guilt

Guilt is considered a negative emotion because it results in your mind shutting down. When we feel negative emotions we go into survival mode and all of our creativity gets put on hold. This means that guilt tends to limit your ability to see other options and that can lead to feeling stuck in a problematic pattern.

The positive emotions, however, are opening in nature. They inspire creativity, social connections, and exploration. Gratitude is one of the most powerful positive emotions. Gratitude and guilt occupy opposing sides of the same coin – where guilt removes us, shamefully, from relationships, gratitude inspires connection and generosity.

The first step in changing your guilt to gratitude is to acknowledge your guilt triggers. Perhaps you tend to feel guilty when you:

  • Notice your partner doing more work than you around the house
  • Encounter homeless or underprivileged people
  • Delay on completing a project at work
  • Recognize that you don’t call your grandmother as often as you’d like to

Once you’ve determined what your biggest guilt triggers are, consider writing them down. Jot down some of your trigger thoughts/feelings like “I’m such a bad grandchild and I must not appreciate my grandmother much” or noticing how you tend to avert your eyes and distract yourself when walking past a person begging on the street.

Now that you have those down, start brainstorming some ways in which you can notice what you are grateful for when your guilt gets triggered. When you notice you are beating yourself up over not calling your grandmother perhaps you can redirect your feelings, lingering on what you love about her and how grateful you feel that she is alive and part of your life. Likewise, if being around homeless people makes you uncomfortable, consider focusing on the aspects of your life that you are most fortunate to have: a safe home, a dependable food source, and a caring support system. Really dig into these thoughts and allow yourself to relish how grateful you feel for having the opportunities that you do. The closer we get to feeling gratitude the more likely we are to act generously (which happens to reduce guilt)!

Practice, Practice, Practice

It is totally normal to struggle to institute this practice. Guilt is a strong emotion and doesn’t like being pushed out of the way so it will force its way back in often. For many of us, guilt is a well-worn path in our brains and it will take time to wear down an equally clear gratitude trail. Our “success” at how grateful we feel in any give moment is significantly less important than keeping at the ritual of redirecting our thoughts to gratitude when we notice unnecessary guilt being triggered.

Learning from Guilt

Much of our daily guilt is unnecessary and doesn’t teach us anything instead it just makes us feel bad. However, guilt can also be a useful feeling. When we have done something to hurt someone or have acted recklessly, guilt is often helpful. It’s our own Jiminy Cricket telling us not to do that again. We can learn to discern helpful from unhelpful guilt by deciding if there is something we need to learn from how we are feeling. Oftentimes, we learn these lessons quickly (because guilt is uncomfortable!) and if we continue to feel guilty, we have crossed from the realm of helpful to unhelpful guilt.

Resilience and Healing from Trauma

Consider a tree in a storm as a metaphor for healing from trauma. The tree has several options:

  • Withstand the storm by staying firmly upright and trying not to budge in the wind
  • Bend in the storm so as not to be uprooted by the wind and, after the storm is over, snap back to its usual upright position
  • Bend in the storm and, as a result of bending, reshape itself after the storm

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to recover from and, perhaps, grow as a result of trauma and pain. There are several ways in which the human organism can do this.

The first tree that held it’s ground during the storm is a manifestation of the “stiff upper lip” attitude towards trauma and stress. In the Western culture it is not uncommon to hear “just get through it” or “soldier on.” We tend to conceptualize resilience as the ability to be unperturbed by our experiences and simply withstand pain. As you can probably imagine, the risk that we run in doing this is that our tree, with its inflexibility, looses branches or even becomes uprooted in gale force winds.

The second tree is an example of recovery. Like most trees, it bends to the wind and snaps back like a rubber band when the storm has passed. For this tree, a stressor is disruptive at the moment that it happens and then is quickly forgotten. Our tree has not learned anything from the experience and also has not lost anything. Chances are this was not a very severe storm.

The final tree is engaging in reconfiguration. As a result of the storm, the tree may have changed its growth course. The injuries that the tree sustained from the storm inform how the tree continues to grow, making it unique in it’s architecture and more prepared for the next storm.

Trauma and Growth

Post-traumatic growth is the ability to gain something valuable as a result of struggle. The final tree, that of reconfiguration, has undergone post-traumatic growth. In the course of a human life, trauma is essentially unavoidable; disaster, assault, loss, and fear will accost us all. Like the third tree, however, there can be something beneficial in recovering from our wounds.

Against all odds, most people find that they have gained something vital as a result of trauma. One of the most common outcomes is a realigning of values: perhaps you are a kinder and more attentive friend, or you experience value and gratitude where you previously overlooked it, or you feel less tempted to waste your time on unfulfilling pursuits. Trauma can put our lives in sudden, sharp focus. In a moment you may realize that your time is precious. This radical, intense discomfort makes space for our unique growth following trauma.

Setting Things Right Again

When we are wounded, we can foster resilience by righting the wrongs of our traumas. Trauma, by definition, implies being alone (either in reality or in perception) and being disempowered. Following trauma, we can begin to right these wrongs by seeking community and justice.

As social creatures, we are programmed to seek support when feeling frightened or overwhelmed. Following September 11th, 2001, there was a flood of interconnectedness as we all tried to establish safety in numbers. People sought to receive and offer support and there were very few who aimed to stick it out alone; we underwent collective grieving. Following trauma, we can seek resilience by finding others who understand our tragedies from the inside. By forming a support group or calling a friend we get to notice that we are not, in fact, alone.

When we feel as if our voice has been taken, our instinct may be to take it back. The Columbia student who carried her mattress around in protest of the university dismissing her rape allegations made her experience visible to the naked eye. She took something that was silent and that she burdened alone and turned it into a monument to which others could bear witness. Following police killings of innocent black men, protesters chanting “Black Lives Matter” asserted their voices to a system that wanted to quiet them. In doing so, these protesters are advocating for the dead and protecting the potential victims of the future. By reasserting what has been taken during trauma we not only allow our own voice to be heard but we speak for others who are voiceless.

5 Ways to Survive Break-Up Season

January tends to be the hardest month for couples and it is the time of year when a break-up is the most likely. You can learn to navigate the common pit falls and strengthen your relationship (or find one that is closer to what you want).

January: Break-Up Season?

The most common reason for the January break-up season? Stress. In the shadow of the already stressful and financially draining holiday season, couples have a hard time coping with the mounting concerns. You may have encountered family pressure to settle down (or find a different partner) or are dealing with the let down of the holidays ending and the gloomy weather setting in. Taken together, these stresses make it difficult to maintain a healthy relationship.

Get Through Winter Together

There are simple steps you can take to make sure you and your partner increase your positive experiences so you can come out of this stressful time stronger.

Schedule Together Time – With all of this stress, you and your partner need time to enjoy each other’s company in a low stress environment. Schedule a date night once per week to do something enjoyable and rejuvenating together: take up a new exercise routine, have a movie marathon, or go see a museum exhibit together.

Kindness is Key – When we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed we tend to forget to be nice to each other. Take a moment to reflect on why your partner is special to you and consider a way to express what they mean to you: write them a short letter, bring them a small meaningful gift, or offer to do a chore for them.

Make a Plan – If a big portion of your stress is due to financial or familial concerns make a plan to address it together. Write out a savings plan that has you each contributing equally. Call the friend or family member that you are concerned about together. Whatever your concern, feeling like you have a plan to address it and being able to rely on your partner to help you carry the plan out reduces your stress and builds your relationship.

Plan Alone Time – It’s hard to improve your relationship when you don’t feel well. If you notice yourself feeling tried, short-tempered, or highly emotional, make sure that you take care of yourself while taking care of your relationship. This may mean giving yourself an extra day off from work to recuperate, scheduling weekly alone time, or deciding to seek out the help of a friend or professional.

Keep the Conversation Open – Ignoring problems or stonewalling your partner will only lead to further problems. Instead, encourage an open dialogue where you are each able to express your concerns and frustrations without being accusatory. Really listen to your partner and they will likely do the same for you. Sometimes the very act of encouraging open, judgment-free conversation can be deeply healing.

Decide What’s Right for You

Sometimes the reason for January break-ups is the relationship should have ended in October. You may hold out through the holidays because you don’t want to be alone (or leave your partner alone) through the holiday season. You may have committed to plans and gifts and feel the expectation of friends and relatives seeing you together so you decide to put the decision off until the holidays are over.

If the relationship has been in trouble for a while, if you’ve made a substantial effort to improve things but it’s just not working, if you feel exhausted or run down, these may be signs that the relationship can come to an end. Sometimes, rather than holding on until the last possible moment, it is a relief to let go of a relationship before it wears you out. By making the conscious decision to end the relationship you can treat yourself and your partner with dignity and respect. Let them know that things are not working and consider scheduling a conversation to give support and feedback about what you appreciated about the other person while you were together. Seek out the counsel of a trusted friend or professional to help you both through the transition and give yourself adequate time to grieve before moving on. If you do, you will be refreshed and ready to seek out a partner that is better suited to your needs and personality. Consider making a fresh start of the New Year.

How to Cope with the Holidays

Problem #1 – “I Feel Overwhelmed!”

There is rarely enough down time during the holidays and we often feel pulled too thin. We may feel compelled to do and be everything all at once, which often leads to feeling immense pressure. This can be compounded by television and social media depicting everyone else seemingly effortlessly enjoying themselves. So what do you do?

First, know that almost everyone experiences high levels of stress during the holidays. Some feel overwhelmed financially and others feel unable to meet all the expectations thrust upon them. Know that you are not the only one.

Consider making a list of all of your to-dos. Write each down and decide which ones fit in each category:

  • Things that I have no control over and need to accept as they are
  • Things that will work themselves out with time
  • Things that I can do something about right now
  • Things that I can work on but need to wait until later

Pick the top two or three that you can work on right now and make an action plan for yourself (i.e.: what small steps can I take to address this today?)

If your worries persist, set aside a specific time each day to worry for half an hour and if your worries try to get your attention outside of that time tell them that they need to wait for their appointment.

To limit your stress, limit your commitments. Consider shortening your gift buying list or spending less time at the office party. Give yourself more time to breathe. Choose to attend just the celebrations that you are really looking forward to so that you allow yourself more time to enjoy the people and activities that you care most about.

Problem #2 – “The Holidays are Sad for Me”

For many, the holidays are a reminder of something that is lost or missing in life. This may be the first year that you spend without a loved one or you may feel far away from the people you love. Coping with loneliness and loss is a struggle for a lot of people during this time of year.

If the holidays remind you of pain or loss, it is essential to allow yourself ample time to grieve. Consider giving yourself a break from the merriment to remember the person or thing that you miss. Write a journal entry or speak to a friend who also remembers that person fondly. Don’t force yourself to feel joyful if you don’t, allowing space for sadness and absence.

Reconnect to the people with whom you do feel close. If you know that a particular day is challenging for you, consider making plans to be with people who love you on that day. If your loved ones are far away, schedule a few phone calls or write emails. You can also connect with meaningful experiences that may include prayer, meditation, or quiet reflection.

Problem #3 – “I Just Don’t Feel in the Spirit”

There’s nothing wrong with feeling like the holiday spirit eludes you. Some people just aren’t “holiday people” and sometimes even the most festive of us have a year that feels less than merry. When this happens, consider doing a quiet holiday. This might involve making minimal plans with only the most important people, not participating in gift exchange, or taking the holiday as an opportunity for quiet reflection.

If you want to feel in the spirit but you just don’t, consider turning your attention towards others in need. Call a relative who you know tends to be lonely or volunteer for an entire day at a soup kitchen or animal shelter. If you feel like you could use a fresh start in preparation for the new year, go through your clothes, shelves, and cupboards and find items to donate to charity.

There’s no one way to participate in the holidays so find what works for you.

The Season of Gratitude

This is the time of year when many of us pause to reflect on the parts of our lives that we are most grateful for. Why do we practice gratitude just once per year? How can we make this experience part of our regular lives?

WHAT GOOD IS GRATITUDE?

Most people think that you need to be happy in order to feel grateful but, amazingly, it’s the other way around. Those who regularly practice expressing thanks tend to, over time, become happier. Gratitude can be expressed in many ways and leads to noticing the beautiful things that we may ordinarily miss, encouraging us to linger on them.

Gratitude even lessens the symptoms of anxiety and depression. When we focus on feeling grateful the parts of our brains that control stress and positive emotions are activated leading us to feel a decrease in stress and an increase in pleasure. When we act grateful we also tend to be better communicators. People like talking to you when you are gracious and it is a great way to diffuse those who are angry or resentful.

Outside and Inside

When we think of expressing gratitude we typically call to mind an image of expressing thanks out loud to another person. This is called external gratitude. When we write a letter to a loved one, say ‘thank you’ to a stranger, or smile at someone who was helpful, we are expressing gratitude externally.

There is another form of being grateful that is just as important: internal gratitude. Internal gratitude is a momentary reflection on anything we are thankful for, a chance to put the spotlight on our gifts, accomplishments, and opportunities. Internal gratitude can include taking a moment to name three things that we appreciate about our lives and noticing beautiful experiences during our day.

What’s great about internal gratitude?

  • It’s quick – take five seconds to name something that’s great in your life right now
  • You can do it anywhere
  • It’s a quick pick-me-up when you are feeling down

What’s great about external gratitude?

  • It’s a chance to do something kind for another person
  • It builds relationships
  • It takes us out of our internal worlds and builds empathy for others

The Big and the Small

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what we are thankful for. To make gratitude a part of your daily life, start small. When you are about to go to sleep, write down three things that you are grateful for from your day (internal gratitude). Some days, thinking of three things is really difficult. Here’s a starter list:

  • My ability to breathe (try taking a deep, slow breath and appreciating that feeling)
  • That I can walk and use my hands
  • My hearing and vision
  • The sun rises every morning
  • There is another person who loves me
  • My home is safe and warm

Items both big and small count. Notice that you have friends and family, access to work, and that you live in a country of opportunity and prosperity. Also notice that you saw an awesome subway performer, the sunset was incredible, and you remembered your wallet every day this week. No item is too small.

We can practice being grateful for the small things externally, too. Start to get in the habit of writing one email/text/letter every morning to someone who you love reminding them why they are special to you or thanking them for something they did. Consider making sure to thank the first stranger you come in contact with: thank the lady who held the door for you or the barista who made your coffee. If available, give to those who are less fortunate than you.

Practicing gratitude daily improves your emotional health and the lives of those around you.

gratitude, coping, depression, anxiety, positive thinking

Read more in a recent New York Times article on the topic here.

A Roadmap to Wellbeing: What Comprises Mental Health?

Wellbeing is a sustained sense of value in oneself, the world, and life. But when we take a microscope to it, what actually makes up wellbeing? Below are some of the core features of mental health. Not everyone poses each of these attributes, of course. What are some of your strongest abilities? How can you foster these abilities in yourself?

  1. The Capacity to Work – this does not necessarily refer to your ability to hold a 9-to-5 but rather the sense that there is something that you do with your time that is meaningful. This could be a hobby, volunteer work, a job, or caring for a family member. If you don’t have that now, what do you envision it might be?
  2. The Capacity to Love – our ability to have an authentic relationship with another person or to experience devotion towards someone’s wellbeing even if it sometimes comes at a cost to our own.
  3. The Capacity to Play – the enjoyment of actively participating in something fun like playing sports, dancing, singing, or actual play. All mammals play and it is probably an essential part of who we are.
  4. Feeling Safe in a Relationship – as young children some of us learn that the world can be a dangerous place and this understanding can persist into adulthood. We all need another person with whom we can feel truly safe. Research has shown that if we did not feel that way with our parents/families as children the two things that can start to change that are a partner relationship that lasts at least five years or a relationship with a therapist that lasts at least two years.
  5. Self-Efficacy – a sense that you have control over some aspects of your life. You might start determining your level of self-efficacy by asking “how many of the things in my life are happening because I want them to happen?”
  6. Identity – a feeling that you know who you are and can recognize both the great and not-so-great things about you. This is also a sense of comfort in our bodies or “in our own skin.”
  7. Resilience – our ability to make it through difficult experiences (which is something that we have all done).
  8. Self-Esteem – this is not just feeling good about ourselves. It’s a balance between being kind to ourselves but also knowing what our strengths and limitations are. We need to know what’s valuable about ourselves and how we can use those things to move towards our goals.
  9. Values – a sense of moral integrity. We may feel like we have an inner compass that guides us toward what we feel is right, kind, and just. What do you value above all else?
  10. Emotional Flexibility – our ability to not only be okay with but to enjoy the variety of emotions (and thoughts) that we experience. We are creatures that can feel love, fear, anger, sadness, empathy, joy, disgust, etc. We can savor these emotions and embrace them.
  11. Awareness of Others – when we can recognize that other people have lives, thoughts, and intentions separate from our own, we can experience something entirely outside of ourselves.
  12. Balance between Togetherness and Separateness – we can be like porcupines on a cold night: we come together for warmth but then pull apart when we start to prick each other (and then get cold and come together for warmth again). What’s the “sweet spot” for you in between these two opposed ideas?
  13. Feeling Alive – this often comes from a sense of enthusiasm or vitality for living. It can also mean feeling like you are embracing your authentic self and living the life that feels right and genuine for you.
  14. Acceptance – there are always things in life that are painful and unchangeable. That is inevitable. When we can grieve the losses associated with that and begin to move on we encourage an essential part of our mental health.

What struck you on this list? Are there several skills with which you are particularly strong? Which skills would you like to work on strengthening? Remember that wellbeing is, by definition, a process and not a state of being. Therefore, we are all striving towards greater wellbeing together.

Note: this post is based off of the ideas of the brilliant Nancy McWilliams. To see her talk on this subject, go here.

Next time: Building Hope

Let altruism be your guide

http://www.ted.com/talks

search: altruism

Click: Matthieu Ricard – How to let altruism be your guide

Altruism is doing something selfless for no benefit other than the satisfaction of knowing you were kind. Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and sometimes called “the happiest man in the world,” talks about how we need altruism today more than ever. With our population recently passing 7 billion, there’s not quite enough to go around. He says that altruism is now necessary for our survival and if we all act more selflessly we will decrease hunger and pollution and preserve our world’s natural beauty.

On a smaller scale, we can make our families, cities, and countries more beautiful with more altruism. Kindness can manifest in doing something thoughtful for someone we love or volunteering on a local park cleanup. The added benefit of altruism is it provides a deep sense of satisfaction and brings meaning to our lives. Next time you feel down, try doing a kindness for a stranger (perhaps buy a homeless person a meal or give the person next to you on the train a compliment) and watch how it changes your mood.

Kindness is contagious, too. Remember the movie “Pay it Forward?” Each altruistic act received generated three more acts of kindness. Kindness spread like wildfire. If we contribute to a kindness epidemic we could do the world a whole lot of good.