Stumbling on Creativity
CHAD MORRIS, Ph.D., Director
At times, being present rather than reactive as a parent is extremely difficult. And when I say “at times,” I mean every day. My 9- and 12-year-old children are, together, a perfect storm of hormones, sibling rivalry, pre-teen angst, non-stop chatter and increasingly smelly feet. In the midst of these conditions, I find it hard to not be blown off my own emotional moorings. Every minute has the potential for epic and ever-shifting intensity.
I have been practicing, but in no way perfecting, being an observer. Not necessarily detached, but also not engaged in the unfolding drama. I am experimenting with ways to be available but not as a peer, friend, conspirator, or authoritarian. I have found, surprisingly, that consequences work quite well, and possibly better, when I don’t raise my voice. On those most balanced of days, I even find that I can express anger and disapproval in a constructive way. Now, if I can just remember these hard won insights and accept that my children’s days are not based on logic or rationality. They are still getting accustomed to constantly changing bodies and their place in the world. I have great motivation to smooth my reactivity in the face of dating and driving lessons to come. (Actually, I think I will leave the driving lessons to less anxious parental proxies.) I believe if I can continue to work on this aspect of parenting, the rest of my social and work interactions will also become increasingly balanced. All the same dynamics apply, albeit in typically less dramatic fashion.
CINDY WANG MORRIS, Psy.D., Clinical Director
Change can happen so gradually that sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened and when. Not long ago, I became aware of how light and happy I feel. I can be silly and playful in ways I have never been, even as a child. I can be engaged in an intense situation with positive thoughts playing in my mind.
When I stop to think about what is different, it seems that I feel free. Free from what you ask…well let me explain.
Sensitivity to the emotions of others has always come naturally to me. I am particularly aware of subtle nuances in verbal and non-verbal communication. I can sense the energy of other people’s feelings, particularly when something feels “off.” Sometimes it can feel like an intuitive hit, like an ah-ha moment. Other times it builds slowly with a gentle persistence. The information I receive provides a wealth of knowledge—knowledge about what other people want, what they may be thinking, and how they really feel regardless of what they express.
Although this has served me well in my career, there are pros and cons to everything and this particular skill is no exception. On the positive side, there is richness in my daily experience, I receive an abundance of information that allows me to understand and connect with people in powerful ways. I can use this information to guide my interactions, make decisions, and solve problems in a manner that feels harmonious to the people around me. However, it can also come at a cost. Sometimes there is just too much information to process. Or there may be conflicts that I can’t resolve. Or the emotions can feel like a burden that I can’t put down.
Getting back to what’s changed, my mindfulness practice has allowed me to choose what kind of experience I have. When I focus on my experience, practicing holding true to my authentic self, I feel free. I create space for my emotions and experience as well as that of others. I make the conscious choice not to “fix” things when I feel someone else’s discomfort, even when I feel tempted. It is at these times that I remind myself about how empowering it is for each of us to work things out for ourselves. As I attend to this aspect of my well-being, I am free to explore all of the wonderful and yet undiscovered parts of myself.
LAURA MARTIN, M.D., Medical Director
As I puttered around my home organizing the kitchen cabinets on an absolutely beautiful fall day, my mother came into the room and remarked, “You look stressed.” I reflexively responded with a garden-variety denial, “I’m not stressed.” She stared at me with doubt on her face, apparently not buying my response. Hmm…rationalization and minimization might work, “Of course I’m a little stressed—I’m on call.”
As I answered, I realized I was letting myself be victimized by the pager, even though the chances of my being significantly interrupted were slim. The stress associated with being on-call triggered two of my less-adaptive coping strategies: isolating and organizing. While they can work wonders when unleashed on cleaning my home, they interfere with my ability to connect with my family and engage in physical activity, which are two of my more-adaptive coping strategies.
As I was coming to this awareness, my son ascended from the basement and asked to go play basketball. With my new insight, I was able to resist my urge to say, “no” and herd him upstairs to organize his bookshelf. Instead, we went out and had a great time playing basketball. My mood lifted with each shot, particularly when he concentrated on his free throws with his tongue sticking out. It felt really good to focus on dribbling the ball and laugh as it bounced off my foot.
Moving forward, my goals are to pre-emptively make dates with my family, friends and the gym for the weekend I am on-call. The positive effects of these activities far outweigh the minimal risk that they will be interrupted. They are key to my emotional wellness and should be used even more, not less, at times when my wellness is at risk.
Made to Move
JAMIE PFAHL, B.A., Community Liaison
It’s a terrible day. I’d love to describe in gruesome detail all of the stupid little things that are ruining my life at the moment but that would be unproductive. You know the feeling though. Stressed. Tired. Frustrated. Mad at myself for my inability to pull it together. It’s easy to let all that negativity spiral into THE WORST FEELING EVER, and it’s crippling. And on days like that, my routine looks something like this: Get home. Feed the cat. Mascara off. Pajamas on. The man of the house has been living abroad for the last four months, so I’ve got no one to complain to. Instead, I grab the cat and a snack and retreat to my room to watch something on Netflix.
The funny thing is, I know that exercise boosts those feel-good chemicals in my brain. I know that exercise can be a great way to get out my pent up frustration. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s really hard to get out of the rut of negative emotions when I’m having so much fun stewing, but at some point, I have to confront myself and say, “Listen, it’s up to YOU to feel better, so sit and be miserable if you want, or get off your butt and do something constructive.” If I had only gone to Step and Sculpt after work, I’d be in a much better mood. Because who can stay mad when your goofy male fitness instructor is yelling “POWER BOOTY!” as you leap with ballerina arms from side to side over the step? And if I feel like processing the things that are going on in my life instead of distracting myself, a solitary walk or jog is just what I need.
I know that sometimes it feels impossible to get moving when you’re emotionally worn out, but here are a few tips that help get me going:
Throw away “I can’t.” I absolutely CAN. Every moment I’m making choices by action or inaction. By staying in bed, I’m choosing not to go for a run. When I reframe “I didn’t work out yesterday” to “I chose not to work out yesterday,” it tells a whole different story.
Turn “I don’t have time” into “It’s not a priority.” When I think about where my time actually goes, I realize I’m implicitly valuing checking Facebook over my well-being. That’s not the kind of person I want to be, especially since I say that wellness is really important to me. I need to realign my actions with what my priorities really are, or what I want them to be.
The hardest step is the first one. Just make that first step, whether it’s getting on the floor to do some pushups or putting on your walking shoes. I could invent barriers and make excuses all day, but I won’t. I’ll be on the move.
SARA MUMBY, B.A., Program Administrator
It should come as no surprise that I find the holiday season to be a wonderful time for food—eating together, cooking for others, dining out. Quality time spent with family and friends around a dinner table or in the kitchen nourishes me. It creates a well of fond memories and emotional bonds that I draw from throughout the year to help me manage difficult situations or relationships that arise. I know that the emphasis on food is a benefit to me emotionally simply because it creates opportunities for support and community. But I also know that it can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food that I’ll be regretting once New Year resolution season is upon me.
That’s why it’s my goal this season to maintain healthy boundaries with food. I know that when I’m enjoying myself, feeling inspired by the people surrounding me, I don’t notice how much of the pumpkin pie or chocolate-drizzled crème puffs I’m eating. But I also know that when I’m in an uncomfortable situation, like my partner’s office holiday party, that you’ll likely find me stationed at the hors d’oeuvre table trying to look busy by filling my plate for the second (or third) time.
Embracing the holiday season is important. It means embracing family and friends, being thankful for all I have, and creating bonds and memories that will be my emotional “stockpile” for the rest of the year. But it doesn’t mean I HAVE to gain an extra five pounds to achieve it. In order to nourish my spirit, I need to ensure that I’m also nourishing my body. And I definitely don’t need several helpings of potatoes au gratin or bread pudding to do it.
SUSAN YOUNG, Ph.D., Director of Research
When approached about contributing to this month’s wellness newsletter, I jumped at the chance. As an empirical researcher, it isn’t common to be asked to write something in the first person, let alone something that reflects my personal wellness philosophy. I love new territory.
Then I looked at my topic area: Serenity. What started as a chuckle quickly built into a fully belly laugh. At that moment, I happened to be hunched over my laptop with a hot rice bag wrapped around my neck to relieve my stress “pinch.” So I took a few minutes to ponder how I actually conceptualize serenity in my own wellness practices. As an academic psychologist, mother of twin daughters (and a dog), wife of an academic, family CEO and CWO (Chief Wellness Office), I need motivation and planning to make balance and calm happen.
I began with a New Year’s resolution to cultivate a more positive and present frame-of-mind. After feeling traumatized by the Sandy Hook tragedy last December, I vowed to slow down, be grateful and make joy a priority. I started by setting limits on my news time. I realized how the constant bombardment of negative world events had been polluting my thoughts and emotions. I am an admitted NPR junkie, but I had to change the station. By doing so I was reminded of the serenity I feel when listening to great music (Amos Lee is better than Botox for my furrowed brow).
I also began to make time for meditation and yoga, my two favorite ways to reduce head noise—and those pesky neck pinches! I don’t know about you, but when I’m in full pigeon pose, there is no room in my consciousness for grocery lists, deadlines, or sibling squabbles. There is only breath and visualization of my over-stretched hip flexors. My sister-in-law also turned me on to Martha Beck’s book, “Finding Your Way in a Wild New World.” Martha is a life coach with tremendous perspective on the power of quiet and our emotional connections with all living things—a nourishing read to say the least.
So as 2013 winds down, I am working on my gratitude goal. The catastrophic floods in September left many in my community without shelter and basic necessities. I’ve been using this opportunity to teach my girls about charity, compassion, and gratitude for the incredible bounty we too often take for granted. This year, I will also give thanks for my new Wellness Posse at the office who really “walk the walk.” They seem to be rubbing off on me.
JIM PAVLIK, B.A., Professional Research Assistant
The theme of this and future posts are wrapped around notions of “play”: the things we do that we don’t get paid for—activities we engage in alone or with others that, often unknowingly, teach us about ourselves and help us become the people we want to be. That may mean actual play in the form of sports, board games, video games, or crossword puzzles; but it also includes other types of hobbies too: hiking, biking, reading (or writing), and, as in this case, watching television or movies.
That said, I promise not all of my posts will be about Star Wars, but it’s relevant and I’m new here, so you may as well get to know me. I love the original Star Wars trilogy, and consistent with the cohort of people who are old enough to have seen at least two of the movies at their original theatrical releases, I think Empire Strikes Back is the best of the three.
For those who don’t remember (or have never seen) Empire, it is in this installment that Luke Skywalker of Tatooine is sent to study the Jedi faith under Master Yoda. It is here he comes face-to-face with himself as Darth Vader, an ominous (and confusing for a five-year-old) foreshadowing of events later in the movie. It is here that Luke learns that Darth is his father (oops spoiler alert). It is, in other words, the emotional core of the saga and therefore, an appropriate vehicle for talking about emotional wellness.
There are two scenes that, as a five-year-old, I completely ignored and as a teenager, were merely confounding. In the first, Yoda laments to the ghost of Ben Kenobi that the young Skywalker is brash and his emotions are out of control. Yoda knows this because Luke has left Jedi training to save his friends. In a later scene, the evil Emperor Palpatine is trying to get Luke…to save his friends. Yoda and the Emperor agree. If Luke does the typical “good guy” thing, he is taking a step…if not going wholly…to the Dark Side.
What they both fail to understand is that emotions are emotions. There are appropriate times to be angry; there are appropriate times to be scared. That both his mentor and his enemy agree on this point forces Luke to be aware of his emotions, to name them, and to identify their source. This awareness allows Luke to exercise his anger in a positive way. It allows him to maintain an optimistic outlook in the face of seemingly unbeatable odds. Luke is able to accept his own emotions and that gives him power to deal with disappointment and cope with stress. Luke is able to reconcile his emotional reactions with rational choice behavior and his accepted belief systems. It is his ability to be honest about his emotions and not feign a balance he does not feel that allows him to live authentically.
I’m not saying that I’m emotionally well-balanced because of my childhood obsession with Luke Skywalker (as a matter of fact, as a kid, I was much more infatuated with Han Solo). But being confused by that plot-line and attempting to resolve it over the years since certainly contributed to my attempts at reconciling my own emotions with the thoughts and actions I have sometimes wanted instead.
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