Bringing Presence to our Obsessive Thoughts

Does anyone else get plagued by OBSESSIVE THOUGHTS? Here is a great tool that can help, from mindfulness teacher Tara Brach.

First, identify your primary areas of obsessive thinking. These may include:
– How someone or people are treating you
– Mistakes you are making/ways you are falling short
– What you need to get done
– What others are doing wrong
– Your worries about another person
– How you look
– Symptoms of being sick/what your symptoms mean
– Worrying about a relationship problem
– How you want someone/people to change
– What is going wrong/what has already gone wrong
– How you need to change
– Something you are craving
– Something you really want to happen
– Something you wish was different

Select a couple obsessions that regularly take over your mind and trap you in anxiety, anger, shame or discontent. Give each one a specific label. It would be a good idea to journal about these.

For example, my main areas and their labels would be: “What I need to get done” (Productivity), “Worrying about a relationship problem” (Marriage Story), and “How I need to change” (Be Better). Also, “What does my husband’s tone of voice mean about me?” (Tone Decoder). That one’s a real doozy!

For a few days, try to notice when you are caught in the obsessive thought, and when you do, whisper its name and pause. Offer a non-judging, FRIENDLY quality of attention to the thought. Remind yourself that the thought is Real, but not True. Check in with how your body is feeling. Breathe in and out with whatever emotions are there. Don’t try to change them; just offer respectful, allowing presence, and then go back to what you were doing. This practice should take only around 30-60 seconds each time.

Would anyone like to comment with your own labels for the obsessive thoughts you identify in yourself? I’d love to hear!

“I Saw You Suffering”

Am I the only one who has kind of a morbid fascination with suicide? Well, with not the act of suicide itself, but the mindset of someone who would make this kind of drastic and irreversible choice; the factors and environment and thought processes leading someone to no longer want to exist on the planet anymore. In college I did a lot of research on suicide in literature. And whenever there are public suicides reported in the news, I haven’t been able to resist being drawn in.

Last week was another case of a well-known and successful person choosing suicide: 52-year-old Chris Cornell, best known for fronting the rock groups Soundgarden and Audioslave. I’ve immersed myself in his music for days, ever since I first heard about him taking his life by hanging. I recognize in him the soul of a poet–a deep thinker, a deep feeler.

“Choosing suicide” has been called into question by Cornell’s widow, Vicky, whom he called his “soulmate.” She insists that he never would have intentionally committed suicide, and that he wasn’t himself that night after taking too many prescription anxiety pills, which the shy loner needed in order to perform in front of large crowds. If that really was the case, it adds another heartbreaking dimension to this tragedy, and goes to show to extent to which drugs, even legal and prescription, can alter one’s mind and personality. But that’s a topic for another time.

It’s common for people to look for suicide messages in everything the victim had said or done before the death, or in this case wrote and sung about. I certainly saw some things in his music that can be read that way, such as this portion of “Worried Moon:”

Yeah if it all goes wrong
And I’m a heart without a home
Maybe you can talk me out
Of doing myself in

But since we all have our moments of depression, heartbreak, and despair, I decided to look for other kinds of messages he may have been trying to convey. Because he produced dozens of albums and hundreds of songs with four different groups, I’ve decided to limit myself to just his most recent solo work: Higher Truth. (Just the album name itself conveys importance and meaning.)

To start, enjoy the lyrics to his song “Misery Chain:”

Won’t you take one link, from this misery chain?
Keep it to remind you of a long-forgotten time or a place,
So that you recognize its shape, when it’s near,
Any time or place this misery chain should appear.

Take the locks and shackles, and melt all of it down.
Shine a light upon every shadow, every acre of ground.
The hidden corners on it all around,
Any way you feel this misery chain should be found.

When we’re gone, and it’s all said and done,
What will we leave?
Stories told, will they speak of us, when God only knows
What those words will be.

And if I should fall, from the top of the world
To the depths below, so far below where our belief could exist,
Down further still will be the one who hides the key.
And there to try to put these misery chains on me.

Won’t you take one link, from this misery chain.
Keep it to remind you, of a long-forgotten time or a place.
So that you recognize it, ’till it’s understood
That every trace of this misery chain is gone for good.
‘Til every trace of this misery chain is gone for good.

There’s a lot of meaning here, but what I took was that we need to hold on to just a small piece of the painful experiences in our lives. Not enough to cause us to relive the pain over and over again, but to be a reminder of it, so that we can learn from it and avoid going through something like that again. This allows us to “shine a light upon every shadow” and see things as they really are. We don’t want to hold on to the whole chain, because it’s too heavy and would enslave us in misery, but just one little link of that chain, in order to be equipped to rid ourselves of any future misery chains.

I also love the idea in the chorus of this song: “When we’re gone, and it’s all said and done, What will we leave?” It’s so empowering to think about the mark we’re making on the world because most of us are typically more focused on the daily trivialities of life. But we must all depart eventually, so hopefully by that time, we leave the world better off for us having lived. Also, it’s only God who knows the full story of our lives. We may think we know enough of certain people to speak of them and tell their stories, but our view is limited.

Here’s a portion of another song along similar lines: “Before We Disappear:”

Time ain’t nothing if it ain’t fast,
Taking everything that you ever had,
And giving nothing in return
But a cold bed in a quiet earth.
If there’s a door to every cell
A pearl inside of every shell then
How hard can it be
To share your love with me?
How hard can it be
To rise with me each morning?
I know that it feels like
We will live forever,
But I fear
That time will hide the years.
Life ain’t nothing if it ain’t hard,

It’ll show you who you truly are,
Knock you down when you get too tall
Till you’re spun around in a free fall.

But somewhere out there past the storm
Lies the shelter of your heart.

I know that it feels like
We will live forever,
But I fear
That time can hide the years
Like we were never here,
So hold on tightly my dear
Before we disappear.

He was clearly thinking a lot about his mortality and the short time we have to be alive. There’s a sense of urgency in the title “before we disappear.” Sometimes we lose touch with just how temporary our mortal existence is, and we waste time because “it feels like we will live forever.” But this song speaks to me of the importance and necessity of our relationships. Are we letting time steal the years we have, “like we were never here,” or are we making the effort to truly love each other?
This life is far from easy. In fact, it’s meant to be hard, to “show you who you truly are,” and to keep us humble. If it were easy, we’d gain nothing from it. It’s such a blessing that through it all, our loved ones can give us much-needed shelter from the storm.
Along similar lines to these songs is the chorus to “Our Time in the Universe:”
Save the dying arms of midnight
For the patience of the lapse of light
Cuz it’s our time in the universe
Well I don’t mind
If we’re blessed or cursed
And it’s our time in the universe
Yours and mine
Just being here and alive is something to be celebrated. At times we may consider ourselves either “blessed or cursed,” but that’s only a matter of perspective. Our existence here must eventually come to an end, so seize the day! As another lyric in this song goes: “So don’t worry on what tomorrow holds for you,” but live in the present moment.
The lyrics that resonate with me the most come from these selections of “Through The Window:”

I saw you suffering
Through a foggy window in the rain
When you thought no one was watching,
Going through your memories
Like so many prisons to escape
And become someone else,
With another face
And another name
No more suffering…
I saw you suffering
Through the cracked and dirty window pane
I was ashamed that I was watching,
Going through your imagination
Looking for a life you could create
And become somebody else,
With another face
With another name
No more suffering

…spit the ashes from our mouths
And put the grey back in the clouds
And send them packing with our bags
Of old regrets and sorrows
‘Cause they don’t do a thing but drag us down
So far down
The past is like a braided rope
Each moment tightly coiled inside

I saw you suffering
Through the yellow window of a train
With everybody watching,
Too tired for imagining
That you could ever love somebody else
From somewhere far away
From another time
And another place
With another life
And another face
And another name
No more suffering.

So many around us are suffering. Do we see them, through those foggy, cracked, dirty, or yellowed windows? They may think that no one’s watching. Do they know that you are there for them? Or are you too ashamed that you were watching them in their pain? Our culture teaches us to value independence above all, so we hide our pain and struggle from others, and assume that they want to hide their pain and struggle from us. When someone is “caught” looking, it can seem like a humiliating thing, for both parties. But is it really? There’s something so vulnerable about seeing through those windows into the pain of another. Anything vulnerable can seem scary, because our culture teaches us that in order to be strong and safe, we must keep our shields and defenses up. But is this really so? What if true strength is found in being ourselves and connecting with one other’s hearts?
What causes our suffering? It almost always results from being removed from the present moment. You may be stuck in the past, “Going through your memories, Like so many prisons to escape.” Or you may be living in the future, “Going through your imagination, Looking for a life you could create.” Either way, you will suffer. Memories and imagination serve important purposes, but they’re abstractions, and when we spend too long there, we become removed from what’s real and productive: right now. Anytime we want to be something other than we are, in another place than that which we’re in, or yearn to have another life or place or name, we are going to suffer.

I love the idea of sending “old regrets and sorrows” packing. Other than the little bit of the “misery chain” that is constructive to hold on to, these regrets and sorrows “don’t do a thing but drag us down.” The braided rope of the past, containing each moment that has gone before, is a heavy thing to drag around. When we can let it go–relinquish, move on, surrender, forgive–that’s when there will be “no more suffering.”
Since I’m currently reading the book Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, I can’t help but read into this song a perspective of seeing ourselves suffering. Even if no one else can see through those windows, we can see it in ourselves. We can comfort and soothe our own pain. When we can do this, everything becomes so much clearer and we’re equipped meet our own needs so that we can let go of that “braided rope” of the past that’s dragging us down. And once we’ve seen our own suffering, we will see so much clearer in order to be aware of it in others. Sometimes just knowing that we’re seen is all we need.
Although it’s so tragic that Chris Cornell is no longer among the living, I’m grateful for the impact his music has had on my life. I fully consider this recent delving into his Higher Truth album to have been a mentoring experience, and I hope that you have found some gold nuggets here as well!

From Victim to Victor (Drama Triangle series, part 3)

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

– Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre

I hope that becoming aware of the dreaded drama triangle (part 1 of this series) and learning that you can shift out of the drama into the more empowering creator mode (part 2 of this series) has had a positive impact on your life. I have two objectives with this third part: First, to denounce the “victim-shaming” approach common in the personal development field, and second, to provide you with some questions to ask yourself when you’re ready to make the shift from the anxiety-based victim mindset into the passion-based creator stance.


I cannot stress enough that the #1 most important part of the process of change & growth is to be kind to yourself. Most people who are striving to improve themselves–which includes you, the audience of this particular blog–beat themselves up continually for every perceived failing. They think that this will motivate them to change. However, no good, no lasting positive effect, ever results from an atmosphere of shame. Unfortunately, our society has conditioned us to believe that shaming has a purpose and can be productive. Even the personal development field is rife with attitudes of putting victims down (under the guise of trying to help “motivate” them) and condemning them for choosing such an unskillful mindset. I hear you saying, “But victimhood IS an unskillful mindset!” I do believe this is so, as described in my previous two posts, and that there is a better way to live, but what I’m NOT saying is that people are wrong and bad for taking on the role of the victim.

Every time someone chooses to go into victim mode, it is because a deeper need is going unmet. It is those needs that deserve attention, not the victim behavior, which is only the symptom of the problem. When a baby is crying, telling him to stop crying does no good. We don’t turn up our noses at the child and say, “He’s making the choice to be a victim” and lecture him on why he should adopt a more positive outlook. That would be ridiculous. Nor do we punish him and tell him that he’s bad. No, we just try to figure out what the baby needs and then meet that need, because he can’t meet it on his own. We all are like that little baby sometimes when we have an unmet need and don’t know how to get it met. We may pout, sulk, throw tantrums, or lash out. When we see that we are reacting in these less-skillful ways, let that be a red flag to alert us to the fact that we have an unmet need, so that we can take the proper steps to get that need met.

This looking for our own unmet needs and trying to meet them in loving, constructive ways is self-empathy or self-compassion. We are so often told to love others, to be empathetic and compassionate to them. But our first responsibility is to ourselves. We cannot be of much help to others when we are broken inside and in need ourselves. Every time we take a flight, we are told that in the event of a depressurized cabin, we are to attach our own oxygen mask first before attempting to help others. Same principle. Love yourself. Be kind to yourself. You are doing the best you can. Check back on this site for future blog posts about core human needs and some tools you can use to cultivate self-empathy and to demonstrate compassion to yourself at the times when you need it most.

That being said…Moving on!

The Three Vital Questions

When you recognize that you’ve been playing the victim, and you’re ready to make the shift to a more skillful inner state, asking yourself these questions can help:

  1. Where am I putting my focus? Ask yourself, “Am I focusing on problems or outcomes?” Whenever there is drama in my marriage, it’s usually because I’m overly-focused on the problem. For example, I say things like, “You’re not spending enough time with me; I feel ignored and unloved; I wish we had a closer relationship;” etc. These comments usually make things worse because they activate shame and drive us apart. When I’m outcome-focused, however, I can communicate the same concerns in a more constructive way that actually leads to solving the problem. “Can we set aside 15 minutes to talk after the kids go to bed each night?” or “I’d like for us to start going out on weekly dates” or “When you’re finished watching the game, would you please help me clean up the kitchen?” This approach usually elicits a more positive response, free of drama.
  2. How am I relating–to others, to my life experiences, and to myself? We have a relationship with every person, including ourselves, and with every situation we’ve ever been in. Are these relationships constructive or destructive, positive or negative? Ask yourself, “Is the way I’m relating to others perpetuating drama, or empowering others?”
  3. What actions am I taking? Ask yourself, “Am I just reacting to the problem of the moment, or taking deliberate action? Are my actions helping to solve my problems and contributing to the outcomes I desire? Am I spending more time planning my steps than actually taking them?” If you find yourself paralyzed into inaction by the enormity of the tasks ahead of you, look out to next thirty days rather than over the next year, or out to the next day or week rather than month. You don’t have to have it all figured out before you start. After all, the Wright Brothers experimented with different ideas and didn’t have a set plan in place, and yet they were able to achieve their dream of giving mankind the gift of flight.


I like this graphic (from David Emerald) because it shows how these questions each build on one another. If we’re focused on problems, we’ll probably be predisposed towards anxiety when looking at how we are relating and the actions we’re taking. And actions is the last question because relationships trump them. No action is independent of a relationship of some kind.

An even more basic question to start with when you want to shift out of drama is, “What do I want?” Obviously, I don’t want a marriage full of issues and problems, but if that’s what I’m focused on, that’s exactly what I get. Instead, if I focus on what I DO want–a marriage of connection, passion, harmony, fun, and trust–I’m more likely to attract those things instead. Also, your mind notices more of what you focus on. The problems and issues may still be present in my marriage. But if my mind is focused on the positive aspects instead, I will notice those more than I would have, and notice the problems less, thus creating a happier relationship.

Other great questions to ask yourself in shifting into Creator mode are: “Why am I experiencing this? (Not asking with the intent of generating pity!) What is there to learn? How can I grow?” 

You may have already seen the following graphic in the previous post, but I’m adding it here for reference for the following section. Sometimes we may have already made the shift from victim to creator ourselves, but we need to shift out of being a part of someone else’s drama triangle. Asking yourself some other vital questions can help with that.


From Persecutor to Challenger

If you find yourself commonly perceived by someone else as a Persecutor, it’s time for some introspection. The vital question in this case is, “What is my intention here?” Is it to be right or take charge or look good, or is it to support others’ growth and learning? Basically, are you focused on elevating yourself, or on helping them? When you’re focused on yourself, it’s no wonder they view you as a Persecutor. If you really do want what’s best for them, and they still see you as Persecutor, look at how you can improve the way you have been relating to them, or whether it’s even appropriate for you to attempt to be their Challenger in the first place. If the person really does need you to be a Challenger for them, if you are their boss or parent for example, remain firm, but be fair. Preferably with their input, set some boundaries and outline the consequences of their actions with them, all with the intent of helping them learn and grow.

From Rescuer to Coach

If people are often turning to you to rescue them from their problems, remember that this does them and you more harm than good in the long run. Ask yourself: How am I viewing this person (that I’m wanting to support)? Do you see them as needing to be fixed or needing someone to take care of them? If so, you are probably viewing them as a Victim and yourself as their Rescuer. Instead of reinforcing their powerlessness, make the shift of seeing them as a creator in their own right. See them as responsible for their own choices and actions. Then you will have made the shift to being a Coach.

A Coach asks questions and helps someone clarify their vision rather than merely tells them what to do or solves their problems for them. Some questions you can ask the person are:

  • “What do you want?”
  • “What’s your current reality?”
  • “What are the possible baby steps you can take toward what you want?”
  • “What support can I offer you?

Choose Choice

The key point I’m trying to make with all of this is to choose choice. Having the ability to choose brings limitless power. Be aware of how you’re relating. Think the thoughts, say the words, and take the actions that will enable you and others to make choices rather than limiting choice. If you haven’t been skillful at this, no shame. Take it easy on yourself and go forward with a new mindset.

I’ll leave you with a powerful declaration that you can say out loud when you feel stuck in drama: “As a creator, I own my capacity to respond to my life experiences, even when I feel victimized.”

I love you all. Choose choice.




Lean Into It

“Growth and comfort do not coexist.” -Ginny Rometty, CEO of IBM

Do you ever take cold showers…on purpose? Call me crazy, but I’ve tried it a few times. You have to psych yourself up for them. As soon as that cold water hits you, your heart races, you start hyperventilating, and it feels for half a minute like you’re gonna die. But then the discomfort recedes and the cold water starts to feel refreshing. You feel a surge of vitality and energy, and by the end it doesn’t even feel cold anymore. And that energy boost and refreshed feeling lasts for a long time. Given several good experiences with cold showers, and knowing how beneficial they are for your circulation, brain functioning, and energy level, you’d think I take them all the time, but I hardly ever do. It’s that half a minute of discomfort that I have such a hard time voluntarily putting myself through.

If you were given the choice between experiencing discomfort, or experiencing pain and suffering, which would you choose? While the answer seems obvious, I see people over and over again choosing to be comfortable in the moment, even knowing that they will reap pain and/or suffering in the long term. Or, like with the shower example, knowing that rewards and benefits lie just on the other side of a temporary discomfort, but resisting it anyway.

A prime example of this is exercise. It doesn’t matter how conclusively science proves its benefits; many will not exercise enough–even when their doctor tells them they will die an early death! That’s because in the file cabinet of our minds, the discomfort of exercise is filed in the same file folder as “Pain.” Yes, exercise feels uncomfortable or even painful at times, but the surge of vitality that comes with it confirms just how good it is for us. A muscle will never grow unless it is strained first. (That said, please don’t push your body past the limit of what’s healthy! Learn the difference between real pain and fake psychological “pain.”) One benefit of practicing yoga is learning how to breathe through discomfort, finding relaxation and surrender even while pushing to the edge of your pose.

Feedback is another necessary part of life that can feel very uncomfortable, for both the receiver and the giver of the feedback. We shy away from feedback because it challenges us to change, and change almost always feels uncomfortable. A feedback conversation is deep and real, causing us to (hopefully) examine ourselves beyond the superficial. One thing that can help a feedback conversation feel less stressful is going into it knowing that it’s supposed to feel uncomfortable. When we begin to normalize these experiences, we will start to welcome them rather than shy away from them.

I’ve enjoyed reading what Brene Brown has to say about discomfort. She challenges us to “lean into” discomfort instead of instinctually shying away from it. When you lean into and welcome discomfort, you often gain a new perspective that causes you to cease to be concerned about comfort. She writes:

“When we stop ‘taking the edge off’ and those sharp edges come back into our lives, we begin to witness how leaning in to the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude, and peace.”

One of the most uncomfortable experiences for me is leaving a conversation before it’s resolved. Sounds pretty stupid, I know, but I have almost never been able to make myself walk away from an unproductive conversation when emotions and tempers are running high. I want to keep on discussing (translation: arguing, repeating myself, crying, demanding, etc.) until the issue is tied up neat and tidy, according to my own standards. It doesn’t matter how many times I learn by experience that continuing to behave this way leads to pain and suffering in my marriage; the short-term sensation of discomfort gets me almost every time. Also, during stressful conversations, silence is so uncomfortable that not talking for ten seconds while I wait for my husband to respond takes every ounce of willpower I have. My poor husband. For him, having these conversations is more uncomfortable than just about anything else in life, and for me, it’s not having them or ending them. What a wonderful opportunity for growth this provides! (Translation: recipe for disaster!) Declaring this here makes it official: I’m now challenging myself to end conversations with my husband when they become strained, and lean into the discomfort of letting things remain unresolved for a period of time. It won’t kill me, and I know it will add to the peace in my home and build trust with my husband.

Comfort seems to have become almost a religion in our society. I won’t get into politics here, but it crops up everywhere, from discussions about altering bathroom legislation so that some individuals can feel more comfortable, to demonstrations in favor of raising the minimum wage in order to provide people with a “comfortable” living. The problem with comfort is that it’s different for every person, and what one person is comfortable with may alter rapidly, even day to day or hour to hour. For this and many other reasons, comfort is not a benchmark we should be shooting for.

Why do so many of us choose comfort above all else? A primitive area of our brain actually thinks that uncomfortable things will eventually kill us. Going without food may cause discomfort, although for a limited time period it doesn’t harm us, and it is in fact healthy to fast periodically. But if we were to keep going without food for many days, obviously, we’d die. Getting pins and needles in a limb is harmless, but uncomfortable, because if the blood flow is restricted long enough, our cells would start to die. We feel uncomfortable being in situations or around people who leech our energy, because our energy is our life force and we’d die without it. That discomfort serves us by motivating us to cut off those drains on our energy.

Discomfort can therefore serve a purpose, but it has a negative effect when we mistake the harmless or beneficial for things that can kill us. The reason the experience of embarrassment is so uncomfortable is because in primitive cultures, if someone were to make a big enough social blunder, they’d be ostracized by the community, which often meant death, since the harsh realities of life caused ancient people to depend upon one another for their very lives. But even though times have changed, we’re still so afraid of doing anything that could cause us embarrassment that we hold ourselves back from doing things that could help us grow and add to our quality of life.

On the other side of discomfort lies opportunities for growth, excitement, love, adventure, learning, happiness, and connection with others. I certainly don’t want to give up these benefits in order to merely remain comfortable. So get outside your comfort zone daily. You don’t have to take cold showers, but challenge yourself. Find out who you really are. Beyond discomfort, you just might find the life of your dreams!

Sticky Negativity

As a middle school teacher, I dreaded calling the parents of disruptive students. After making the calls, I couldn’t stop thinking about these students’ problems and generalizing in my mind that ALL students were difficult. I also thought about everything else about teaching that was a struggle. I felt so deflated and drained of energy.

My mentor teacher gave me a great suggestion: each time I make a call about a problem, choose an admirable student and make a call to his or her parents simply to praise their child. Although this took some extra time to do, it was well worth it because it focused my mind on the fact that a lot more kids were doing wonderful things than those that were causing problems. As I grew in gratitude for these stellar kids, I was reminded of the great work I was doing and felt renewed energy to accomplish what needed to be done. It trained me to look for and notice the positive things that were happening instead of focusing on the negative only.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how negativity gets a grip on us. It sounds obvious, but I think we are usually unaware of what’s going on because this happens so often. When you hold a negative thought or belief, it snowballs into more and more negative thoughts and beliefs, until you’re totally stuck in the mire of negativity. I believe that the law of entropy is the force behind this destructive pattern.

Simply becoming aware that this is happening, however, can cause a shift. You can choose a new thought or belief. And when you consciously choose to hold something positive in your mind, it can lead to more and more positivity, if you keep up the effort. The law of entropy is the default governing force of our world, but it can be overcome through intention, energy, and work.

The following 10-minute TED talk explains this phenomenon well, using experiments and examples. I think you’ll find it interesting:

When you identify with any negative idea, it tends to stick to you. Deepak Chopra has identified the following common negative thoughts and beliefs. Which of them do you commonly identify with?

  • I feel horrible.
  • I don’t deserve this. Why me?
  • Somebody’s going to pay.
  • I didn’t bring this on myself.
  • Who can I unload this on?
  • This is making me crazy.
  • Nobody can help me.
  • How can I distract myself until this feeling goes away?
  • When I’m feeling this bad, everybody better look out.
  • I need [my drug of choice] to get through this.
  • I want to be rescued.
  • Somebody has it in for me.
  • This has to be settled right now.
  • I can’t help how I feel; it’s just how I’m wired.

When you catch yourself in these thoughts, let them act as red flags warning that you need to shift to positive thinking. Try replacing the thought with one of these:

  • I can get through this; it won’t last forever.
  • I’ve felt this way before. I can deal with it.
  • I won’t feel better unloading on someone else.
  • No one ever wins the blame game.
  • Acting out leads to regret and guilt.
  • I’m not alone; I can call someone to help me through this bad patch.
  • I am much more than my feelings.
  • Moods come and go, even the worst moods.
  • I can be patient; let’s see if I calm down in awhile.
  • I know how to center myself.

If you can make any of these statements true, you’re moving in the right direction. How do you make them true? By simply wanting them to be. What you persistently believe to be true becomes your reality.

Also, focus on what you’re grateful for, and negativity will immediately begin to lose its power over you. When you train your mind to habitually look for the good, you will notice it more and more often until positive thinking becomes your default pattern.

Recognize Your “Awfulizer”

I was recently told that I have a tendency to go into “doomsday mode” at stressful times. After some reflection, I admit that is often true. I will see evidence of something I don’t like or experience unmet expectations, and then extrapolate my current reality way out into the future. At these moments, instead of taking things one step at a time and dealing with the present situation, I fixate on the bleak future of my imagination. Along with that comes anxiety and fear, and suddenly I’m desperate to protect myself from this dragon in my imagination that I totally invented myself. Do you think at these times I’m very pleasant to be around? Not one bit. This is one of my many self-destructive patterns that I need to reduce and hopefully eliminate. Is anyone else in the same boat with me on this?

I recently heard of the term “awfulize” in a class. It means to imagine something to be as bad as it can possibly be. This seems to fit what I just described about my doomsday mode. This verb has been made into the noun “awfulizer” to describe a person who does this often, but I don’t care for that usage because I don’t think self-destructive patterns should define a person. But many of us have an “awfulizer” in our brains that can hijack our rational thinking and send us into a downward spiral of horror and woe.

The first step to avoiding spiraling to doomsday is simply to recognize the awfulizer when it kicks in. Parents, especially moms, are likely to be victims of thought patterns like this one:

  1. My child lies and keeps lying.
  2. He will grow up to be a sociopath.
  3. He will end up in prison!
  4. And I will be a failure as a parent,
  5. And everyone will know!

As soon as you catch yourself obsessing over an imagined negative future, trace your thoughts back until you identify what the problem is in the present moment. In this example, it’s that the child has just told yet another lie. As frustrating as that can be, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will continue lying until he is inevitably led into a life of crime. Instead of throwing your hands up in dread and fear, think about what you can do now to encourage your child to live more honestly, and take whatever steps are in your power.

The Awfulizer likes to hide its existence from us because its nefarious operations can only continue as long as we remain unconscious of it. But there are ways to bring it into the light. In Huffpost, Penny Love suggests that we ask ourselves the following questions the moment we recognize we are spiraling into a negative thought pattern:

  • Is this thought helping me?
  • Is it really true?
  • Am I overemphasizing the negative?
  • What’s the worse that will happen?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?

Just being aware will open our eyes to the broad range of alternatives in front of us, allowing us to make a better choice than we would have, had we remained unaware of the Awfulizer operating so sneakily in our minds. Living mindfully in the present is the only place where we can have peace. The past is a place of guilt; the future is a place of anxiety. Both past and future are illusory. Only in the present do we experience reality; only over the present moment do we have any real power. I like how Eckhart Tolle expresses this:

“The power for creating a better future is contained in the present moment: You create a good future by creating a good present.”

How exactly can we create a more positive future through the present moment? First, make a plan and take action. Say you’ve already done that, though, or the situation is no longer under your control, and the future still looks bleak. There is something you can yet do. Visualize what you want to have happen! When in doomsday mode, I visualize a negative future outcome, and usually what follows is that circumstances conspire to move me closer to that. Instead, do the opposite. Fear dissipates immediately the moment we replace negative thoughts with hopeful and positive intentions and visions of our future. Author and healer Carol Tuttle has written, “The greatest power you have to avoid the worst is to intend for the best to happen.”

Everything that now exists started out as something merely imagined. Our imagination is truly an instrument of creation. It is powerful, so instead of allowing it to produce anxiety and stress, put it to work to add value to your life!

Too Much of a Good Thing

The NBC show Parks and Recreation is one of my favorites because of its wide variety of entertaining characters. On the show, Chris Traeger (played by Rob Lowe) epitomizes what this post is about. This character is absolutely obsessed with fitness and nutrition. He has run ten miles every day for the past 18 years (which equates to a third of the way to the moon!). He comes to realize that although his body is in nearly-perfect physical condition, his life feels lonely and meaningless. That’s when he starts going to a shrink five times a week and talks about him to his friends nonstop.

Can you get too much of a good thing? Absolutely. We all know people who get taken in by something neutral or even good, which, when taken to unreasonable extremes, ends up having a negative impact. Some people spend so much of their time and energy in caring for others that they neglect their own needs. Some are constantly seeking to learn more and more, but rarely end up applying that knowledge and don’t actually ever accomplish anything. Others are so overly concerned about only eating the healthiest food that it actually now qualifies as a mental disorder called Orthorexia nervosa. Or there are those monkish “spiritual” types that always have their heads in the clouds and can’t really relate to those around them, who end up living isolated lives. Caring for others, learning, spirituality, and eating healthy food are all positive habits, but problems come when we emphasize these to the exclusion of other important and good things.

The ultimate health and fulfillment comes from balance of all the aspects of our lives. Any extreme or excess in any one area causes things to come out of alignment. That is because if we focus too much on either the body, mind, or spirit, we usually end up neglecting one or two of the other areas. We have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources, so directing too many of those things to one area deprives the others. Often, the truest wisdom is found not in what we choose to do, but what we choose to leave undone.

I’ve come up with a short list of other examples of excesses. (If you come up with more, feel free to add them in the comments section.) Perhaps you’ll see inclinations toward one or two of these in yourself:

  • Worry and anxiety (thus overly expending mental energy, causing emotional redundancy)
  • Too much socializing, talking, laughing
  • Concentrating with too much effort
  • Too much time or energy spent doing the same activities (work, TV, games, media use)
  • Pushing the physical body to extremes
  • Overemphasizing a personal relationship (as is the case with Super-moms)
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Overeating (even healthy food!)
  • Overly stimulating the senses
  • Getting worked up emotionally to passionate extremes

If any of these rang true for you, I hope you’ll recognize the steps you need to take to bring your life back into balance. As a teenager, an area of imbalance for me was obsessing over grades and schoolwork. I took this to such an extreme that I only slept 4-5 hours a night in high school and ended up getting Mono, which then relapsed a couple of times. At other times in my life, I got myself so worked up emotionally that I would deliberately put myself in risky situations, such as walking outside alone in the middle of the night or driving recklessly. One other area that used to cause problems was my over-thriftiness, when I wouldn’t spend money for something unless it was at a certain price point or I had a coupon. There’s nothing wrong with saving money, but for me, it took a toll on my family relationships, and I wasted a lot of time seeking out good deals.

The way to obtain health and balance is through moderation. We must conserve the forces that sustain us. That is done through peace, rest, nourishment, restraint, detachment, calmness, and relaxation. Our objectives are a strong and healthy body, a disciplined, aware mind, and a creative, vital spirit. Contentment is the result of these three points coming together in harmony.

Pyro Pages: A Release Technique

In our neighborhood, garbage day is on Fridays. A scheduled day that the trash gets hauled away every week! Isn’t that great? And all I have to do is take the cans to the curb. What would happen without sanitation services? I don’t want to think about having to live with stinky trash as it piles up. Waste products are natural aspects of life, coming in cycles as frequent as every exhaled breath. So why do we so often neglect our *emotional* waste? Why do we allow negativity to remain camped in our minds and hearts? These burdens, at the very least, sap your energy, but can also cause pain, disease, and suffering.

Fortunately, there are ways to deal with this. Release techniques are vital because, as important as it is to bring positive thoughts and feelings into your mind and heart, you also need to remove negative thoughts and feelings if you are going to make progress. No matter how positive a person you may be, there is some negativity in everyone, because we’re all humans in a fallen world. It’s possible that you may be unaware of the negativity buried deep within you, which has the power to trap you, handicap you, stop you. Now, negative emotions do serve an important purpose, which you can read about in this post, but once that purpose is served, those things need to be moved through you and out. While there are many strategies for getting that yucky stuff out, I find a certain tool particularly effective, and also kind of fun. I call it “Pyro Pages.”

When you recognize a negative thought in your mind or feeling in your heart, get a loose sheet of paper and write: “I feel __________ because __________.” Aim to fill at least half the page. If possible, read aloud what you’ve written once finished. And then, the most important step: destroy the paper ASAP. If you keep it, that will tell your subconscious mind that what you wrote is true and something you want to hold on to. (Believe me on this one.) When you watch that paper being destroyed by your own hand, your brain gets the message that you are rejecting those ideas and that you want those feelings out of your life. It doesn’t matter how you destroy it, whether shredding it, ripping it up, or burning it, but be sure obliterate it more completely than merely crumpling it up. I like the visual impression of burning it: flames consuming the words on the paper, smoke drifting up and away, leaving only insubstantial ashes.

I wanted to share this with you because I did this a couple times this week, and it reminded me how powerful this tool can be. As I watched my pages consuming in the fire out on the backyard BBQ grill, I felt a huge weight lift right off me, leaving me light, buoyant and peaceful inside. This really works. I had allowed myself to feel all my hopelessness, frustration and loneliness while I wrote, then whispered what I wrote to myself right before I lit it up. As it burned I felt freed from those feelings, immediately. I asked my Higher Power to take the burden from me, and the visual of the smoke dissipating into the sky seemed like it literally carried my bad feelings away and up into the heavens.

Just as a side note: doing simply this will not magically “solve” all your problems. If you’re got issues in a relationship, you will probably still need to work it out with the other person. If there is some specific action you need to take in your life, this won’t take the place of that step. It’s just a way to let go of the negative *feelings* and bring you some relief and peace, whether permanently or temporarily. If these kinds of feelings keep you awake at night, do this right before bed and enjoy a better night’s sleep. But if the same feelings keep coming back, that’s a clue that there’s more you need to go and do to solve your problem.

Here’s what I would suggest to try. At first, write and burn every day for two weeks. Even if you don’t think you have anything negative in there, sit down to write anyway. Setting pen to paper shows your intention. Something will come to you. (Another note, it’s better to do this longhand rather than typing, because the act of writing it out connects better with your brain, but you can still type it, print it out and burn it if you want. Just make sure the file doesn’t get saved to your computer!)

The following prompts are difficult to write about, but will clean you out for sure. (Think juice cleanse.)
I feel worthless because __________.
I don’t feel valuable because ___________.
After the two weeks, you can continue to do it daily, or just use this technique as the need arises. When you’ve finished burning the paper, it helps to “backfill” with something positive:affirmations, prayer, writing down what you’re grateful for or what you love about yourself, etc.

If you are a parent, or not, this tool will make you more approachable to children. They are very sensitive, and they know when you’ve got negativity stuck inside, which sometimes they “take on” to try to help us adults (but it only ends up hurting them). If you are married, this tool will help you be more fun and lighthearted with your spouse, and who doesn’t want that? Generally, it opens you up to others and allows more people to come into your life. Because you can’t hide behind your emotions anymore, it gets you unstuck and lets more of your true self shine through.

Try it. What do you have to lose? You might even discover a little pyromaniac streak inside that you never knew you had!

Don’t Try to Understand Evil

Little J.J. Sieger died last week from injuries inflicted by his mother’s boyfriend. And I still haven’t gotten over it. This two-year-old child, still just an innocent baby, suffered truly horrendous, despicable things. (You can read his story here.) For two days after I heard about this, I kept thinking about it and crying, feeling sick to my stomach over what happened and just was so, so sad. I don’t know why this atrocity has haunted me so much. I didn’t know him at all, so why all the grief and pain?

Maybe it’s because, as a mother, I feel connected to every child on some level. Maybe it’s because I feel for this boy’s birth father, whose son was taken away from him and there was nothing he could do about it. Maybe it’s because every time I see and hold my little Toad (pictured below), who is also two years old, I’m reminded of how trusting, innocent, loving, curious, fun, and gentle children are at this age, and of all the life and potential they have in front of them.


But mostly it haunts me because I absolutely can’t conceive of how someone could do something like this to a baby. I know that drugs were a factor, and I’m sure there were other factors as well, but no amount of “factors” can explain this level of evil. And it is precisely this level of evil that mystifies me, much more than any other mystery out there. I don’t want to keep thinking about something so sick and sad, but my mind keeps going back to it because it just doesn’t understand, and it wants to make sense of the world and what happens in it.

How many of you have had the same reaction to senseless tragedy? To bombings, school shootings, 9-11, genocide, and other horrible acts of evil? I hear it all the time, in the stories surrounding these kinds of events, that people are struggling to “make sense of” what happened, to understand why, to “comprehend the incomprehensible.” I get it. We all want to feel like we have some control over our lives and what happens to us and our loved ones. When something terrible happens that we don’t understand, the world seems turned upside down, like that control we thought we had was nothing but an illusion (which is actually true), and that we’re totally at the mercy of the forces of chaos. We grasp at straws of “understanding,” trying to explain things away so that we can quiet that gnawing fear in our heads.

Here’s the thing, though. The overwhelming majority of people will never understand these heinous acts. This level of evil is never going to make sense, on any level, to most of us. And that is a good thing, because a person can only truly understand what is already inside inside of him. It’s like Velcro. If you don’t have the “stickies” already in there, then the same kind of “fuzzies” have nothing to attach to. I’m so glad that most of us don’t understand these brutal acts, because people are generally good-hearted, and depraved evil just doesn’t resonate with anything that’s already inside us.

So, I’m giving up trying to “understand” what happened to this boy, and so many other children who are tortured and abused. I don’t want to understand it, ever.

But I do need to have peace. And the greatest peace I’ve ever found is through my Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the only one who truly understands all of the evil that has ever come into the world, because he suffered all of it, personally, in his own mortal body. And because He is omniscient, like his Father, He knows what is in the depths of every human heart. I don’t need to judge people (and am indeed ill-equipped to do so) because God will judge every person in perfect justice one day. I can leave the sins of the man who did this to J.J., and the sins of his un-mother-like mother, in the hands of God and cease to suffer in my own heart. I know that this boy is in a better place, is free of suffering, and is encircled in the arms of love.

Remembering the power of faith also brings peace. When we’ve gone into a place of fear, we cannot be in a place of faith. Fear gives the darkness power over us. Faith will always bring light and strength. I don’t need to fear anything in this world or the people in it when I have the faith that God will protect me and my family. Yes, bad things can and will happen, unfair and cruel things, but God knows beforehand what is going to happen and He will strengthen us to persevere through these trials, which gives us the opportunity for growth that nothing else can. And every injustice any one of us suffers will be made right in the next life.

Yes, as terrible as this story was, I’m not going to waste any more happiness and energy in trying to make sense of it. Reflecting on what happened, I have tried to look for the failings inside myself and see where I have been impatient and unloving to children in my own way, which reflection has inspired me to do better. We need to learn all the lessons we can from “dearly-bought experience” and do all we can to prevent things like this from happening to any more children, but the fact is, in our fallen world, no matter what we do, things like this are going to keep happening, and at some point, we need to leave it in the hands of that Someone who is continually inviting us to hand our burdens over to Him. Little J.J., I’m sure I will think of you again, but hopefully not with any more tears.

When Mothers Suffer

Happy Mother’s Day! As you might expect, my thoughts have been full of my mother and also my grandmothers. I like this old photo of my mom, JoAnne, and her mother, Erma, because it’s not posed and seems vulnerable and “real.” It’s hard to condense a few thoughts for this post concerning the immense topic of motherhood and all that it means to me, but my mind keeps going back to a few memories again and again, which tells me these need to be expressed.

I’m learning that the selflessness that generally accompanies motherhood is something that has to be learned (for me anyway). Sure, when that first baby comes, the inclination to be selfless comes naturally, springing from the tender feelings you feel for that precious child. But the truth is, those tender feelings don’t hang around on a constant basis, and when they are absent, it is so much harder to choose what’s best for the child over what I want.

This is an area in which my own mother is a saint. She’d be the first to admit that she’s not perfect, but the consistent pattern of selflessness that she has shown over my entire life is awe-inspiring. She had to have wanted that last piece of pizza or cake all those times, but she always offered it to me or my brothers. (And of course, immature as we were, we always took it.) What’s even more amazing to me was that I almost never saw her spend her time or resources on anything self-indulgent. I never saw her watch movies or TV (unless she was simultaneously exercising or folding laundry). She never asked for “alone time” away from the family or went on outings with friends. She never spent money on anything for herself that was unnecessary. I don’t think those things are bad; they can, in fact, be very therapeutic for a mom if done responsibly. But, unlike me, my mom would never have taken 3-4 days away from her young family to indulge in a road trip to the Shakespeare festival to attend six plays with friends. (Although I feel a twinge of guilt for these trips, I’m not going to give them up! I’ll write more in the future about the need to feed our souls—fill our own buckets—so that there is even more of ourselves to give and share with others.)

My mother knows how to walk the line of serving her children without spoiling them. She made sure we knew how to do things for ourselves, so at those times that she chose to do certain things for us out of love, we knew love was motivating her, and that it was not that she thought us incapable. I have some brothers who still say, “I’m capable of getting it myself!” when she offers to bring them a glass of water or something else small. I know they simply don’t want her to exert herself on their behalf, but I’ve learned to just gratefully allow her to serve me, since “acts of service” is her primary love language. Not allowing her to express love in these ways might feel to her that we’re not accepting of her or her love. Furthermore, what I’ve learned from the Give and Receive Cycle is that merely giving isn’t enough. You also need to consciously receive what others give, in order to allow your cycle and theirs to keep turning and blessing you both.


Here is a photo of my mom and my first baby on vacation. My mom had made that particular little dress for me when I was a baby. I’m able to more fully appreciate her now that I’m increasingly realizing what loving my own children entails. I didn’t understand my mother’s love for me until I became a mother myself. I could really go on for several more paragraphs about how wonderful my mom is and how much I love being a mother, but I feel an urgency to share something much less fun to write about. It’s time for a confession. I’m sure we’ve all hurt our mothers at some point. As a mother, I fully expect my children to hurt me; it’s a question of “when” and not “if.” But the reason I feel so terrible about what I did to my mom was that I hurt her ON MOTHER’S DAY. And because, although I didn’t mean for her to get hurt, my bad behavior was to blame, so I can’t dismiss it as purely an accident. And because I didn’t apologize to her (at least, not until much later).

I had been a teenager, and I don’t remember the details very clearly, but I was fighting with one of my brothers over some kind of big, heavy, solid thing. My mom was sitting on the couch near where we were struggling over possession of this object, and as I finally wrenched it from my brother’s hands, it collided with my sweet mother’s head. I still remember the sickening sound and feel of the wood striking her forehead, and how she cried out in shock and pain. I dropped the thing and ran to my room and cried. When I came out and saw the huge, ugly, black-and-blue lump on her head, I felt so terrible that I wouldn’t acknowledge what I had done. My poor mother had thought that I didn’t care, or that I had wanted to hurt her.

Every time I’ve seen my mother really suffering, I have been too sad to be able to find any words to say anything at all. It seemed so cruel that someone so angelic must suffer that I was completely floored by the injustice of it. I remember a time when she was suffering horrible abdominal pain, which landed her in the hospital for a few days. I regret that, although I had been present, I wasn’t a source of much comfort to her because I was so lost in my own feelings of confusion and dismay. I’m sorry for that, Mom. I wish I had been a more caring and attentive daughter to you during your difficult times.

Thinking back on these times reminded me of an experience my paternal grandmother had had as a young girl, which she shared with me near the end of her life as I interviewed her for her personal history. Here is a photo of her with the first four of her eight children. (My father is the little boy to the far left.)


The first thing Gert could really recall about her mother was an incident that happened on a cold winter laundry day, when she was very young. Her baby sister, only three months old, had been in a basket right next to the wood-burning stove, on top of which was a big pot of boiling water. Her mother didn’t know that someone had screwed the steam vent shut on the pressure cooker. She went to open the lid and the steam and water burst out all over her. The steam burned her face and body very badly. The steam and water had gotten trapped in her tight sweater where it continued to burn her. Miraculously, just moments before this happened, Gert had heard the baby crying, so she had taken her out of the basket and happened to walk far enough away that they were both unharmed at the time of the accident. Little Gert hadn’t known what to do; her mother was suffering so badly, but she went for help.

My great-grandmother was in the hospital a long time. She had to get skin grafts and wasn’t able to move her arms because some of the skin had been welded to her body. After a long time she got well, but she always had the scars and limited use of her arms. Gert was so glad that she had been able to save the baby, having picked her up at just the right time. (The basket that the baby had been in had gotten boiling water in it, a testament to the horror of what might have occurred otherwise.) Gert says this experience was the biggest shocker of her childhood, and she was so shaken with emotion as she told me this story that I knew it had haunted her for almost her entire life. Seeing our mothers suffer to any degree is probably one of the most tormenting experience anyone can have.

Just today I was reading about an experience a man told at his mother’s funeral. As a young boy, he had been canning peaches with his mother and accidentally spilled some of the scalding juice onto her hand. She calmly went to the sink, ran her hand under cold water, and applied balm and bandages to the burn. She didn’t yell at her son or get angry at his mistake, which certainly had caused her great pain and discomfort.

Because I know just how just how hard it can be on children to see their mothers suffer, the lesson here for me is to selflessly consider their feelings, even when I may be in great pain myself. I look back in regret at all the times I’ve sobbed and cried in front of them. I had caused their little hearts to grieve through my own indulgent display of emotion, which I should have allowed in private rather than in their uncomprehending presence. I’m filled with guilt at all of the times I’ve yelled at them in anger when they’ve accidentally hurt me through their rambunctious behavior. From now on, I will strive for self-control as I seek to do what’s best for my children and conserve the tender energies of their hearts.

I’ll leave you with some wise words of advice from my grandma Gert:

“Enjoy your life. Follow what you know is true. You can do a lot for others and bring happiness to yourself, too.  Love your partner in marriage to the fullest extent and raise your children in the light of the gospel and love them fully and guide them back to our Heavenly Father; they are precious not only to you, but also to us who have gone on before them!”