Warning: Imma get all hippie-dippy up in here so if you don’t feel like navel gazing, you can always check out Humans of New York. Make you smile all day.
I love self-help books. I love projects on myself. I love therapy. Which means I’m either the world’s biggest narcissist or have the world’s lowest self-esteem. But either way I’m always trying to get better, to be better. (Perhaps I should address that compulsive drive in another post?) Anyhow, when my church offered a free women’s conference this past weekend with classes on everything from parenting to cooking to mental illness, I was in like sin! (Well not sin exactly, it being a church and all. Ah who am I kidding? Sins too.)
Parenting was the first class I went to because a) I’m convinced I’m a terrible parent and b) the teacher was a licensed therapist who specializes in treating adolescent sex offenders in prison. (ADMIT IT: You’re interested too. Who picks creepy teens as their dissertation topic? Although I’m glad someone does.)
I was all set to jot down some tips about more effective time-outs*, potty training without bribery or teaching your kids to be ambidextrous in Chinese or something. (*MY tip: It’s more effective if you put yourself in time out. Preferably the closet. With a stash of chocolate. To heck with the kid – eventually they stop the tantrum when they no longer have an audience. Or they climb on top of your fridge and eat two packs of gum forcing you to call poison control because you think it’s a myth that swallowing gum is bad for you but you’re not totally sure and you really don’t want his intestines gummed up on your watch. AHEM.)
But the teacher surprised me: He started out by talking about us, the parents, and how we are doing. It turns out that to be a good mom, I need to be a healthy human being first. He used a pretty nifty diagram and so I thought I’d recreate it for you here with my handy dandy notebook (that doubles as my gratitude journal and Jelly Bean’s art pad), with a little bit of the Charlotte zing in it for good measure. Plus, everyone knows that the only thing the internet loves more than cat gifs are weirdly illustrated diagrams. You’re welcome.
1. This is where we all start:
We’re kind of a blank slate, waiting for experience to fill us up.
2. Eventually we get old enough to know that with all the rad fun we’re having, the future can be uncertain and the past can haunt you.
That thing in the middle is a rainbow, in case you were wondering. I was an illustration major in college for two whole semesters – clearly that was not wasted tuition.
3. If our brains get glitchy – as brains so often do, let’s be honest – sometimes we spend waaaay more time worrying about the future or feeling bad about stuff that happened in the past than we do about what’s going on right in front of us. If it gets bad enough, it impinges on our reality, crushing us until we feel like we have to escape from this narrow, dark, scary place we’ve created for ourselves.
Looking at this diagram in class I thought that it is the perfect representation of how a panic attack feels for me. My mind ping-pongs back and forth between worrying about stuff that might happen and feeling crappy about stuff that’s in the past until I feel like the walls are closing in on me and I literally feel like I’m suffocating. Cannot breathe. Heart feels so tight.
4. It’s easy to do. Often it takes the form of pseudo- love or self-care:
These are just my neuroses, feel free to substitute your own brain barf.
5. Eventually – understandably – we feel like we need to get out of our “now” because now is seriously sucking. The teacher told us that when people want to escape “now”, they look for things that make time speed up or disappear. He pointed out that when our kids are playing video games and we tell them “five more minutes”, it literally feels like only five minutes have passed to them even though in reality they’ve been playing for hours. Turns out adults do the same thing but with a much wider variety of time-stoppers:
Stop looking at how my door isn’t hung plumb!! I told you, my spatial awareness gene is MIA.
6. But this is how our lives should really look like. The past and the future are very real things and important to our well being so we don’t want to go all Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or anything. But we can’t control either one. And since we can’t control them, we have to give up trying to fix all the “What if…?”s and “I should have…”s. We can still think about them but the bulk of our attention should be on what’s happening now:
I believe all the real gurus call this “Mindfulness”. I hear it’s good stuff. I want some. I tried to draw a picture of it but my “brain” came out looking like zombie baby food so I thought I’d spare you.
7. Easier said than done though, right? The teacher said the key to refocusing our attention on the now is to find a place to dump the other stuff. Since this was church and I like church (I’m a Mormon!), I went with Jesus. He’s so wonderfully compassionate in my mind that I know he’d totally be down with taking care of my past and future stuff. Plus the whole omniscience thing is super handy. But there are many ways to let go of things we can’t control. If Jesus isn’t your jam, you can always give it to a higher power or throw it out into the universe. The teacher suggested writing down some of our most repetitive worries and regrets and then burning them in a fire to symbolically get rid of them. Another idea was to light a candle, say what you want to let go, and then blow it out. Tying them to a balloon and releasing it was also brought up but I’ve heard that releasing balloons is actually really bad for wildlife (probably the same place I heard that gum staying in your intestines for 7 years is a myth) so maybe tie it straight on a butterfly or a pigeon – that sounds way safer. Seriously though, be creative! Turn it into paper mache and make a leaping dolphin or something.
This is my least favorite drawing. I think it looks like one of those erectile dysfunction ads if you’re not reading clearly.
8. This was my epiphany: Instead of telling ourselves we’re “bad” for needing all our escapes and trying to focus on getting rid of all our bad habits, recognize that the escapes are there for a reason! They are filling a need so instead of getting mad that we “have no willpower” or keep “giving in”, we should look for the reasons we want so much to escape. Some things are in our power to change, to ditch what’s dragging us down. But other things just are what they are. In that case the teacher suggested we try to reframe the bad and look for the good or at least the lesson. When we train ourselves to focus on what’s happening right now – and enjoying it – then we won’t need the escape anymore. (Obviously if you’re addicted to something, it won’t resolve itself but removing the reason for doing it would still be a good place to start.)
Whoa. 8th grade called, it wants its handwriting back.
I’ve been thinking on this point all weekend. My original plan was to learn how to be a better parent and if you’ve ever met a kid you’ll know that they live entirely in the present. In fact they’re so bad at predicting future consequences and remembering past mistakes that I’ve had to buy seven (7!!!) pairs of shoes for my first grader this year because… because. But their faun-like nature also makes them endearing. They know how to have a party with nothing but some rocks and dry weeds. They can walk around the same block 10 times and see something new every time.
But I don’t enjoy that. I’m sorry, I feel like I’m blaspheming all that’s holy about being a mom but I’ve talked before about how the infant-toddler stage is so so hard for me because I find it so stultifying. The older my kids get, the more I like them. (Which is directly proportional to the amount of hilarious things they say.) So I’m really struggling to find that balance between learning to enjoy the “now” I’m in and trying to make my “now” into something I enjoy. I suppose there’s “balance” in there. I haven’t got it all figured out yet. What I do know is I’ve sure been doing a LOT of escaping (binge-watching House – where has that show been all my life?!) and so something’s got to change.
There, that’s better! I definitely enjoyed that “now”. Somewhere my illustration teacher is dying inside and doesn’t know why.
So help me out – how do you guys stay focused on now? Do you have a good suggestion for ditching worry/regret? How do you enjoy now vs changing your now to something you enjoy? Anyone else a self-help junkie??