Serving the City of Raleigh and Surrounding Areas

Month: November 2009

Putting the Thanks back in Thanksgiving

According to the popular history of America, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated with the Pilgrims and Native Americans in honor of the collaboration and new friendship between the two groups. It was time to give thanks for not dying during the first hard years in the New World and to honor the Native Americans who taught the newcomers how to live in this new world. Over the years Thanksgiving grew into a national holiday devoted to remembering the blessings of the past year.

Unfortunately, for a lot of Americans it has also become a time of extreme stress. Many people find the tension of a large family gathering difficult because of unhealed wounds. Many people feel pressured to present the “perfect” picture of Norman Rockwell happiness with perfectly carved turkey, homemade sides, and amazing desserts all displayed alongside perfectly manicured children who haven’t destroyed their special clothes for the occasion. This image is exploited by the advertising company in hopes of pressuring a few bucks out of those desperately searching for perfection at the holiday.

Between trying to balance family tensions and the pressure of creating the best meal yet, the true meaning of Thanksgiving can get lost. Now, I’m going to make a kind of extreme statement here, but I think it’s accurate. I think this loss of meaning for a holiday focused on blessings is a symptom of a greater problem in our society right now. For years, the western hemisphere has become obsessed with image and acquiring the newest and best. In this kind of environment, we have forgotten to look at the things we have and to live in the moment. This focus on the future and inability to find contentment in the moment leads to feelings of worthlessness at not being able to keep up with the Joneses, feelings of helplessness when factors out of your control (can anyone say economy) wreak havoc on your finances, worries about how you’re going to maintain the standard you have set for yourself, and a desparate search for something to numb the pain.

It is easy to see the descriptions of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders in the previous paragraph. New research also shows some interesting connections between thankfulness and decreased depression and anxiety. One study found that participants who wrote down three things they were thankful for each day for three weeks saw an improvement in depressive symptoms for SIX months. Something as simple as being thankful decreased depression to a significant level.

So in honor of Thanksgiving, here are some ideas about bringing some of the true nature of the holiday into your holiday. In short, putting the Thanks back into Thanksgiving and getting rid of some of the stress, pressure, and family drama out.

1) Prior to the chaos of preparing the meal, tkae time to think about what you truly want people to feel while enjoying the products of your work. If you are honest with yourself, you probably want to impart a feeling of love and caring in your family as they enjoy each other’s company.

2) While preparing your meal, remember times from the past that were happy or made the holiday so special for you. Whether you’re cooking the traditional meal or bringing home Boston Market, focusing on you true purposes behind these preparations will help take some of the pressure off creating the perfect meal.

3) For that matter, get everyone involved in making the meal together. Rather than making the entire meal on your own, invite your family into the kitchen with you to share in the process of creating a meal together. Or, just have everyone bring a side dish. It will give you more time to relax before the family descends and leave you with a lot less clean up.

4) Whether or not your family prays prior to the meal, you may want to try to incorporate a way to share what you are thankful for just before the meal. It is nice to stand in a circle, hold hands with your loved ones, and give thanks for your blessings.

5) After the meal participate in something that has the family interact. If you all love football, by all means watch the game together. But, if that’s not your thing break out the board games, go for a walk, or simply sit by the fire (hopefully it’s cold enough for that).

These are just a few ideas to get you thinking about what this special time of year should really be about. I have a feeling that there may be a move back to the roots of Thanksgiving, simply because the financial hardships many are facing make it impossible to create the extravagant feasts that may have been a part of the past. Even in these tough times, the people who survive and even prosper are not necessarily the richest. Our lives are not about the things that we accumulate but about the times we spend with those who lift us up and bring us peace. I hope that you and yours are able to reconnect with the true thanks giving that this holiday is all about. Happy Thanksgiving.

Simple vs. Easy

I had a client say to me recently, “Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean that it’s easy.” This hit me as such a profound statement. I think it’s probably something we are all aware of on some level, but never actually verbalize. Some of you reading this might be thinking, “Wait a second, I learned about synonyms in elementary school and simple and easy definitely have the same meaning. So I got a little curious and looked up the definitions of each word.

Let’s start with simple. Dictionary.com provides 29 definitions for this seemingly simple word. For our purposes the two best definitions are “not complicated” and “easy to understand, deal with, use.” To me this implies something that has minimal steps and can be explained in about 3 words. Comparatively, easy had much fewer definitions, with a grand total of 17. Again, two stand out as the best for psychological purposes, 1)not hard or difficult, requiring no great labor or effort and 2)free from pain, discomfort, worry, or care. So, while we may have learned that simple and easy were synonyms in elementary school, when we really look at the meanings, simple seems to refer to the plan or the steps involved in a process while easy applies more to the effort required to carry out the plan.

OK, so now that we’ve had our grammar lesson for the day, what could this possibly have to do with psychology? It comes back to my client’s observation that while something may be simple, it most certainly will not be easy. This seems to be an innate understanding that anyone who has ever had therapy has. Anyone who has sat with their therapist discussing their depression will at some point express shame or guilt about not being able to follow through on the steps they know are necessary to feel better. And for the most part they are not difficult steps. The steps tend to be along the lines of get out of bed every morning, take a shower, eat breakfast, and participate in one activity that you enjoy. Simple? Yes. Ease? No. Being depressed is similar to having the worst flu you’ve ever experienced except no one seems to believe that you’re really sick. Can you imagine having the flu and getting the message from loved ones that you are weak because you became sick?

The same thing occurs for almost every psychological concern. Friends and loved ones become frustrated with the person who is depressed or anxious or addicted because they can’t seem to follow the simple steps to recovery. It is similar to people who blame battered women for staying in abusive relationships. While the steps are simply – pack your bags, grab your kids, and run like hell – they are far from easy. Wouldn’t it be more useful to help the person discover what keeps them from taking the steps, rather than to blame them for not making it look easy? Sometimes it is necessary to understand the system that keeps the simple steps from being easy. Nothing in life is easy; anyone who has walked out their door recognizes that. However, when it comes to psychological issues, the shame and guilt attached to messages that recovery should be easy keep people stuck.

So,the next time you’re tempted to tell your friend how easy it would be for her to just dump her scummy boyfriend or to tell you dad that if he would just leave the house he wouldn’t feel so depressed, think about the message you’re really sending. You’re probably confusing something that is simple with something that will never be easy. Maybe a better way to show your love, caring, and support would be to sit with your friend or your dad and listen, cry, or just hold her/his hand. What could be easier?

Much Ado about Happiness

This may be the most often made statement in therapy – “I just want to be happy.” It’s amazing to me how often the person making this statement cannot answer the logical follow up question – “Well, what do you think would make you happy?” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they necessarily have to have a full, complete, detailed plan, but some idea of what happiness would look like would be helpful. What started me thinking about this common issue was an article from the October 5, 2009 issue of Newsweek. In that issue, Julia Baird wrote an article entitled “Positively Downbeat: Sometimes happiness isn’t everything.” The basic gist of the article was that we spend so much time trying to reach this goal of “being happy” that we forget to enjoy the process. I think she has a point.

I’m sure that you, just like me, have received the relentless message from your parents, your friends, your siblings, even exes that “we just want you to be happy.” And for the most part, we find this message comforting. It expresses unconditional love, in that no matter what you are doing as long as you’re happy I’ll be supportive. However, it can also be used as a weapon when someone disagrees with your actions, i.e. “The only reason I’m telling you that your boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person is because I want you to be happy.” or “The only reason I’m discouraging you from pursuing your dream of being a chef/artist/psychologist/fill in the blank is because I want you to be happy.” Am I discrediting the intent behind these words – absolutely not. Am I questioning the impact they have on the people who receive them – you bet I am. Humans are innately social creatures. We make determinations about our lives based on the reactions that we receive from other people. If you are surrounded by healthy people, who are completely unselfish in their intents, and will always think of your well being first, that’s a great way to be. However, if even one person that you trust and depend on employs the “I just want you to be happy” excuse to stamp on your desires and dreams, then you have a problem. Done over a repeated amount of time, in many different situations, the message becomes “You will not be happy until you agree with me.” Which in turn leaves you unable to decide what happy is for you.

In addition to these messages that most of us have gotten since birth, we are also living in a society where positive thinking has become the gold standard. Books, talk show hosts, even morning DJs encourage people to think positive in situations that in truth deserve, if not outrage, at least frustration. We are encouraged to ignore the unfair, unjust events that happen in our lives, in the pursuit of happiness. Friends try to convince us that “everything happens for a reason” and “it will all turn out for the best.” In all honesty, I’ve probably said these things myself when at a complete loss for words in the face of a loved one’s pain. Now, I’m not endorsing that you dwell on every negative event that has ever happened in your life. I am, however, endorsing that you allow yourself to experience the emotions that come along with these hard events. When we attempt to block our emotions, we usually end up blocking anger, sadness, guilt, and shame. Unfortunately, we usually end up blocking happiness, joy, peace, and contentment too.

So, the next time someone tells you “I just want you to be happy,” remember that your happiness may not match their picture of happiness. Use the tragedies of your life to learn about your strengths. I’m not saying that happiness does not exist, just that the paths we are currently taking to get there may actually lead to depression related to not understanding ourselves, anxiety over our abilities to be happy, or guilt about our inability to be happy. On our way to happiness, we may be missing laughter, joy, hilarity, and moments of grace. Many of us would be able to agree that the Dali Lama is a model for happiness – the secret to his happiness and probably to ours, is an open heart and mind to what is happening in the moment. Rather than a continuous focus on some vague happiness in the future, become mindful of the happiness that is occurring now.

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