Dealing with Grief

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I recently watched the movie Wild, with Reese Witherspoon.

I guess it’s supposed to be a positive/inspirational movie about someones personal growth when they hit a difficult time in their life.  And in some ways I guess it is, but it’s also pretty messed up.

The movie is based on a true story, and it’s about (Spoiler alert!) a woman whose life falls apart while she’s dealing with grief over the death of her mother.  It cause her to shut down, and go down a very self-destructive road, destroying her marriage and her life with drugs and promiscuous sex, until she finally hits rock bottom and decides to reboot her life by going on a hike down the Pacific Crest Trail (with no prior outdoors experience).

 

One of the things the movie drives home is that grief can really mess people up.  And while grieving, people will often do some crazy, self-destructive things.  This doesn’t just happen in movies though, you see this in the real world too.

There are so many stories where someone suffers some sort of a personal tragedy – maybe a loved (parent, child, close friend) dies or gets a serious illness, maybe THEY get a serious illness.  And in response to the situation, sometimes a person just (for a lack of a better term) “breaks”.

They shut down, retreat into themselves, stop caring, and stop “feeling” – becoming numb to the world around them (or some combination of these things).  They become like the walking dead, going through the motions of life but not really being engaged in it anymore.

During these times of grief, it’s not uncommon to hear about people falling prey to addictions (or just addictive behaviors) such as drugs, alcohol, affairs, gambling or any number of issues; as a way of “dealing” or coping with their grief.

 

Why does this happen?

I think this quote sums it up pretty well:

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Think about this for a moment…

The story wasn’t finished.

 

Why wasn’t it finished?

Because we weren’t ready.

We thought we would have more opportunities.

And we thought the story would have a different ending.

 

Grief is about loss we weren’t prepared for, where we are left feeling helpless and powerless to change things.

And I think maybe this sense of helplessness is where grief is strongest.

Helplessness.

A lack of control.

A feeling that it doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t change anything, and you can’t make things any better.

 

Elisabeth Kubler Ross defined the 5 stages of grief (a series of emotional steps people will experience while dealing with grief) as:

  1. Denial – refusing to accept that something is actually happening, and clinging to the hope that maybe it’s a mistake.
  2. Anger – accepting that something has happened, but lashing out because it shouldn’t have happened, or it isn’t fair.
  3. Bargaining – a way of trying to avoid the grief.  A promise (often internal) of changes that would be made if only this problem would “go away”.
  4. Depression – accepting that this has happened (there’s no denying or bargaining), but despairing at what it means and at the sense of loss that comes with it.
  5. Acceptance – coming to terms with the event.  Fully accepting that is has happened, and cannot be changed.  And realizing that life will move on – maybe not in the way you once expected, but that things will still be alright.

 

I think when grief causes people to break, they are stuck somewhere in those first four stages.  To them, the story wasn’t finished and they are unable to accept that.  They are unable to cope with the pain and the sense of loss, so they don’t actually deal with it.

Instead, they shut down to insulate themselves from that pain – often acting in a self-destructive fashion in order to escape from it.

However no one can escape forever.

Eventually all things need to be faced.

 

The final stage of grief is Acceptance; and I think acceptance is when we finally realize that yes, the story actually WAS finished.  It just didn’t end the way we thought it would.

Life doesn’t always work out the way you want it to, and not all stories have a happy ending. 

And maybe that’s alright. 

 

Because in life, what can you actually control?

The reality is, we control almost nothing.

Through our own efforts and actions we can exert a degree of influence on the things around us.  But we can’t change anything.  We can’t force people or events conform to the way we want.

Bad things happen to good people sometimes.  And sometimes people do terrible things and don’t face consequences.  Sometimes things don’t make sense, and there is no “reason”.

Sometimes things just happen, and all we can really do is try to manage the fallout.

And we do that through the things we CAN control.  The primary thing we can control being our own responses to the events that occur in our lives.

We control our own choices.

Our own actions.

Our own responses.

And really, that’s about it.

 

We can’t control how other people will treat us, or what they will do.  We can’t control external events.

When we try to, it’s understandable that we will feel powerless – because we are powerless to control these things.

Instead of feeling powerless over our lack of control though, I find it freeing.

We can influence thing, but not control them.  The ONLY thing we can control is our own actions and responses.  Accepting that and focusing on these actions and responses is a form of power.

For me, it allows me to understand that life can’t be fit into a box.  I may have ideas on where my life is going, but those ideas are only how things look right now.  Things happen, and things change.

So maybe the most important thing we can do is learn to be resilient.  To accept that some things are beyond our control, and to adapt accordingly – directing our energies towards those things we CAN control.

 

Grief happens when we believe the story wasn’t finished.  But if we are able to let go, we can see that our own personal story is always being written.  And it’s up to us to be open to new roads, and to be willing to see where they take us.

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What do you bring IN to your Relationship?

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When I hear people talk about relationships, there is a lot of talk about compatibility, and how important it is to find the right person.

Compatibility does matter (to a degree), but I think it’s much less important than most believe.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the quality of your relationship often has much less to do with your partner, and a lot more to do with you.

 

I see/read/hear men and women who are “unable to find the love they want”, and they complain, saying things like “all the men I meet are X” or “all the women I meet as Y” (insert stereotype of choice for X and Y).

Sometimes we run into so many similar problems that we start to lose faith in our gender of preference completely, and start to convince ourselves our experiences are representative of all members of that gender.

Here’s a potentially uncomfortable question for you:

If you have had a number of relationships, and they all turning out badly or you are struggling to even find a relationship, what’s the one common link?

You.

 

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here.  I’m not saying that you are a terrible person, or you are unlovable or anything like that.

I simply think that anytime life isn’t working out quite the way we want it to, the WORST thing you can do is think of yourself as a victim.

How your life goes is not “just the way things are” and I don’t believe in “if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be”.  Those ideas, and the idea that you “just need to find the right person” paint yourself as a passive participant in your own life.

Rather, I believe that life presents us with different opportunities, and it’s up to us to decide what to do with them.  We can’t control how things will turn out, but we ALWAY control our own choices, and how we respond to the events that happen to us.

So if a relationship (or life in general) isn’t working out the way we want it to I think it’s important to take a look in the mirror, and try to understand the ways you might be contributing to things.

 

If people you meet aren’t treating you the way you want, ask yourself what are you attracted to?  How are you presenting yourself (as the energy you give off influences what you are attracting)?  If you are interested in a “certain type” and things work out the same way, maybe it’s time to expand your horizons and look at something different.

Are you respecting yourself and properly enforcing your boundaries?  Do you even know what your own boundaries are?  Unfortunately, many of us don’t really know what our boundaries are.  We know when they have been violated because of how it makes us feel, but even then, we often don’t know how to enforce them.

 

Another big question you I think people need to ask is, what are you bringing IN to the relationship?

Yourself obviously, but what does that actually mean?

As people, we are the sum of our experiences – both good and bad.  The experiences shape us, and shape our expectations of what we are looking for, and how people will treat us.

What are your expectations in a relationship?  Are they realistic?  I find that one of the biggest sources of unhappiness for people is that their life hasn’t turned out quite the way they thought it would.  Frequently by all objective measures those people have a lot to be happy about, but it is the comparison to the expectations they had for live that lead to their disappointment.

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One of the things we bring with us into relationships that can often be damaging is our coping skills.

What are your coping skills?  How do you deal with conflict, or respond when things get hard?  How do you fight?  Do you shut down and pretend things are alright?  Do you get angry?  Petty?  Passive aggressive?

Lastly, what baggage/insecurities do you bring into your relationship?  We all damaged in some way, and that’s okay.  We all have our own baggage, and although that baggage can seem like it’s part of who we are, it’s up to us to deal with it.

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Part of dealing with it involves allowing our partners understand our baggage, so we need to be willing to let them in enough to understand it.  We need to be willing to tell them how we have been hurt in the past, what are triggers are, and why we feel the way we do about things.  This can be difficult, because these are often some of our most personal and sensitive memories/experiences.  However by opening up and communicating these things to our partners we are allowing them to understand us.  When someone can understand why we feel the way we do about things, it allows them to approach those triggers with empathy and care.

 

If we are not careful, our personal issues and insecurities can easily start to poison our relationships, so an important question is what are you doing about them?

If you take the approach “this is just how I am”, you are expecting the other person to accommodate you, and that’s not fair.  And they should be understanding/empathic, and try to accommodate you to a degree.  At the same time though, you need to work on your own issues (own your own sh*t as some would say).

HealYourself

 

I believe taking a hard looking in the mirror, and trying to understand what you bring in to a relationship is very important to the health of any relationship; as it allows you to understand how you contribute in both positive and negative ways.

Understanding your own role in something gives you a degree of power.  Because you can’t change other people, at best you can influence them.  However you are always capable of recognizing parts of yourself you may not like, and working to improve them.

Saying “this is just the way I am” is just as much of a cop out as “I just need to find the right person”.

It’s more accurate to say “this is just the way I am – right now”.  But it doesn’t have to be the way you are tomorrow. 

 

I opened with the idea that the quality of your relationship often has much less to do with your partner, and a lot more to do with you.

What you are interested in, the energy you give off, how you enforce your boundaries, how you cope, and how you deal with your own baggage.  These are all things that influence the success of your relationships, and they all come from you.  And you are the only person who can change these things.

So instead of “I just need to find the right person” maybe a big part of thing is “I just need to BE the right person”.  I’m not suggesting you should ever change for someone else.  But you are never a victim, and you can always strive to be the best version of you.

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What is Enough?

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In my last post I discussed one of my major life/relationship philosophies; the notion that my life is not my own.  It is, but even though I am an individual my actions impact others.  Due to this I can’t just *do what I want*, I need to keep others in mind with everything I do.

One of my other major life philosophies is the concept of enough.

What is enough?

What does this even mean?

 

A few weeks back I went and saw the movie Logan (great movie by the way), and before it there was a trailer for the upcoming Fast and the Furious movie with excerpts of interviews with the directors.  In it, the directors talked about how the Fast and the Furious movies are always spectacles, and for this one they felt they needed to top the previous one.  They wanted it to be bigger and better; with more explosions and more elaborate stunts.

This idea of “bigger is better” (or “more is better”) is common in movies (particularly sequels).  And this line of thinking isn’t limited to movies, it exists everywhere in life.

If something is good, then more of that something is better, right?  We can improve anything, just by having more of it.

 

How do we know we have a “good” life?  We measure it by our happiness, right?  So it stands to reason that if we REALLY had a good life we would always be happy.  And if we’re not always happy, then something is missing.

We just need to find what that something is, and then we will be happier.

But what do we need?

More money?  A better job?  A better house?  A better body? More sex?  More friends?  More time out “having fun”?  A better lover/partner?

One of these?  Some of these?  All of these?

Will ANY of these improve the quality of our life?  Will any of them actually make us happier?

 

Personally I think our notion that you can measure quality by of life by “happiness” is broken, but the “more is better” logic tells us yes.  And who knows, maybe changing some of these things would result in improvements to our level of happiness.

If we get that raise, maybe now we can go on that trip we wanted.  Maybe we upgrade to the bigger house, or the nicer car.  If we lose that weight maybe we will feel better about ourselves.

These sorts of things do feel pretty good, at least in the moment.  But it’s always short lived.  These sorts of improvements are only temporary, because there’s a fundamental problem with “more”.

It’s doesn’t matter how much you have.  There will ALWAYS be more.

You can always make more money.  There is always a better job, a better house.  You lose those 10 pounds, and there are always other changes you can make.  Even if your partner is pretty good, there is always going to be another person out there who will be a better lover or partner.

 

Here’s the problem…

When we believe we don’t have enough, it leads to unhappiness.  Because when feel we don’t have enough, we are focused on what we DON’T have.  We are focused on what our life is “missing”.

And when we are preoccupied with what we don’t have, we are unable to be present, to actually “live” in the moment.

 

So to me, the REAL question is not about more.

The REAL question becomes, what is enough.

 

Continuous growth is unsustainable.  There is always going to be something you don’t have.  You can always have more.

At what point are you able to be content with what you already have?

To me, THAT is the key.  Being able to say “yes, there’s more.  But that’s alright because what I have is enough for me”.

My job is enough.  My house is enough.  My partner is enough.  My life is enough.

I am enough.

 

Enough is about appreciating what you have right now, today; instead of focusing on what you don’t.  To me, this should be a good thing, a positive.

But instead, believing that what you have is enough seems to be looked down upon.  There seems to be this notion that saying something is enough is about not striving to improve, or about settling.

And in today’s culture, settling seems to be one of the worst things you can do.

Just turn on a television, open a magazine, or listen to the radio.  Within a few minutes, you will probably see or hear something telling you how amazing you are.  How special you are, and how you deserve the best.  After all, YOU are special – You aren’t like everyone else.  You should stand out, not fit in.  So if you don’t have the best, you are settling.  And you could or should have had more.  This same approach is used in marketing to make you want to get the best for your partner, or your children.  Aren’t they special too?  Don’t you want the best for them?  Don’t THEY deserve it?

Of COURSE your kids should have the best.  Of COURSE your partner should have the best.

But here’s a secret…

 

I am not special.

You are not special.

Sorry, it’s true.  We are all just people.

Regular people, going about our regular lives and doing regular things.  Most of us get up in the morning and go to work at jobs that aren’t glamorous but allow us to live our lives.  We cook our meals, do our laundry, clean our living spaces.  We pay our bills, and hope that at the end of the day there’s enough money and/or energy left over for us to take some time out and do something special for ourselves.

This is reality for most of us, and that should be alright.

 

 

I’m not saying that no matter what you have, it should be enough for you.  I’m not saying people shouldn’t want more out of life.

Sometimes you DON’T have enough money, and it’s damned hard to get by.  Maybe your family HAS outgrown your house, or your vehicle.

And sometimes your partner IS an asshole, and you DO deserve someone who will treat you better (and in turn allow you to treat them better).

 

It’s not bad to want more, or different.

But what I AM saying is more doesn’t necessarily make things better.

 

Ask yourself this – if what you have today isn’t making you happy, why in the world would you think that more would make it better?

 

Life is multi-faceted, and there is balance to be found in everything.  There are many areas in life where we can change, and improve.  And for each of these areas we need to figure out what enough looks like for ourselves.

 

Maybe you DO need that six figure salary.  Maybe you DO need that big vacation every year.

Enough for me may not be the same as enough for you.  And that’s alright.

Each person needs to define that for themselves, and doing so involves looking inward.  It involves truly understanding ourselves, and our boundaries.  It also involves understanding the difference between need and want, and in today’s world I think we often confuse that.

More isn’t better.  And it won’t make us happier.  And actually, sometimes it’s the scarcity of something that makes us appreciate even more when we do have it.

 

When I look at my life, there are a ton of things I would *love* to do.  I love travelling, and would be happy to do more of it.  I wish I could eat out more, or at least at some of the places I know are outside of my price range.  I wish I had more free time to just slack off, and do some things for me.

But then I ask myself, what REALLY matters?  What are my REAL priorities?

My children.  My family.  The people who actually matter in my life, and who I matter to.

I know what love looks like, and I know what caring looks like.  And I know what it means to me.

When look at my life I can truthfully say I like what I see.  And I know that for me at least, it’s enough.

Your Life is Not Your Own

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One of the biggest things that shapes my world view is a belief that my life is not my own.

In some ways, that statement seems completely nonsensical.  Because of course my life is my own.  I mean, if it’s not mine then whose is it?

Am I not an individual?

Don’t I make my own choices?

When I get up in the morning, I decide how my day looks.

I can go into work, or I can call in sick.  If I go to work, I decide how hard I want to work during the day.  I choose what I want to eat – I can eat pizza pops and candy all day if I want.  I can flirt with co-workers, come in to the office drunk or high, and pick up prostitutes.  Hell, I can head into my bosses office and defecate on her desk if I really wanted.

I have those choices.  I have that *power* (if you can call it that).

Based on all of the above it seems obvious that my life is my own, and I can do with it whatever I want.

 

Thing is, although I COULD do whatever I want, I don’t (fine – I’ve probably had days that I ate nothing but candy and pizza pops, but they’re rare.  Never more than once a week).

Generally there is some thought process behind my choices; and 99% of the time this involves weighing my choices against my core values.  Values that tell me doing things like flirting with co-workers, coming into the office drunk or high, picking up prostitutes and defecating on my bosses desk are BAD decisions.

I can’t say that I’ve ever wanted to do any of those things, but even if I did, they are choices that would potentially have long term implications on my life.  And these implications don’t just affect MY life, but also the lives of the people around me.  The people I care about.

See, my life isn’t just about me.  My actions may be my own, but they impact other people.

 

I’m a father, and virtually EVERY decision I make has the potential to shape the lives of my children.  Some decisions can radically affect their futures, but even for smaller decisions I need to model behavior to them that shows them how I believe they should live their lives.

In my mind, when I became a parent I gave up the right to focus primarily on me.

 

Even without children, the same rules apply in relationships.  It’s one thing if all you want is to casually date.  Casual dating is all about you, and what you get out of it.  It’s the easy part – the “fun” without any responsibility.  You see someone only when you want, and on your terms.  You can focus on what you get out of that “relationship” and not actually care about the other person (side note, I don’t consider casual dating an actual relationship).  And if they don’t like that?  Too bad for them, you can move on and find someone else.

That approach to relationships works for some, but most people want more out of their relationships.  Most people want at least some commitment from the other person.  For that person to be faithful to them; and maybe to start building something with them.  I think most of us like the idea of growing old *with* someone, and sharing our life with them.

For that to happen, things need to change.  It can’t just be about you anymore.  Relationships are about both people, and both people matter.  Both need to feel valued, and heard.  And for that to happen, the other persons needs/wants have to matter just as much as our own.

In a relationship, your actions are still your own.  You are still an individual, and you can choose to do whatever you want.  But your decisions impact your partner, and as a result you need to take your partner into account in the things you do.

You can still choose to do whatever you want, and not take your partner into account.  But if you do that you are not respecting that other person, and you are not respecting the relationship.

 

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Even if I don’t have children and I’m not in a relationship, I would still contend my life is not just about me.  I still have parents, siblings and friends.  I still have co-workers who rely on me.

There are ALWAYS people who are impacted by my actions and my decisions.

That doesn’t mean I have to live my life for those people.  That doesn’t mean I *can’t* do what I want.  But it DOES mean I should take them into account, and realize that my decisions may affect those people adversely.

 

Pretending I’m an individual who can do what they want without realizing my actions impact others is self-absorption.  Thinking we are special, and we can do what we want because the regular rules of life don’t apply to us is entitlement.

In reality we ALL have moments of self-absorption or entitlement.  It’s just a question of how often do we do these things, and how do we respond when we’ve realized what we’ve done?

To me, I am in control of my own life.  I make my own decisions, and I do my best to deal with the impacts of those decisions.  And I do that recognizing that while I control my own life, it impacts others.  So I need to take others into account.

And in that regard, I accept that my life is not my own.

How The Primal Brain Damages Relationships

Before I became a parent, I had a vision of the type of parent I wanted to be.

I thought I would be someone who would talk “to” his kids –not down to them.

I would treat them like “people”, with kindness and respect.  They were small people, sure; but they were still people.

Because of this I figured I wouldn’t need to raise my voice or yell, and I definitely wouldn’t ever do anything like spank them.  Instead, I would be patient.  I would explain things to them, and use reason when dealing with them.

Ha.

Man was I ever naive.

Nice idea in theory, but in practice?  It doesn’t necessarily work.

 

See, kids are still learning how to interact with the world around them, and they are just learning about their own emotions.

Sometimes kids (mine included) will have tantrums.  And experience has shown me that during time of high emotion (such as during the heat of a tantrum) there is no reasoning.  There is no logic.

In those moments, they are simply REACTING, and are completely out of control.

After the moment has passed and they have calmed down, THEN I can talk to them.  That is when they will be able to actually hear me, and reason will kinda/sorta/maybe work.

In a heightened emotional state though, reason has no chance.

 

 

I see this a lot in life.

Times where people do things and make choices that leave me dumbfounded.  Often I’m left wondering “what the hell are they thinking?”

And that’s just it.

Sometimes people aren’t thinking.

Sometimes people WILL made decisions that are absolutely TERRIBLE, and have long term ramifications that seem so obvious I can’t understand HOW people could possibly make the decisions they do.

But maybe in those moments people aren’t actually thinking.  Maybe in those moments they are just reacting, and aren’t actually CAPABLE of understanding the implications of their choices.

 

The Primal Brain

Now, a bit of a disclaimer here.  Usually my posts have a fair bit of research to them, and I have facts to support what I’m saying.

For this one, I’m kinda flying by the seat of my pants and throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.  So hopefully this makes sense to someone other than me.  Maybe there is data to back it up, maybe not; but it still “feels” right to me.

I first started thinking about this stuff when reading up on anxiety, and the fight or flight response.

The fight or flight response is something we’ve all probably experienced at one point in time or another.  It occurs when you are in a situation that you feel threatened, or uneasy, and it’s largely a physiological response.  Biology takes over, and (as the name implies) a person gets ready to either stand and fight or run away.  It’s a survival mechanism that is built into our DNA.

I’ve seen this described as being part of the primal, lizard, or reptilian brain.  And it’s described as follows (from brainupfl.org):

Our most primitive piece of brain anatomy is responsible for basic functions (i.e. breathing, heatbeat) and primal instincts (i.e. survival, dominance, mating).

 

Think about this for a moment:

Survival, dominance, mating.

All of these things are kind of important, and they are also things that often get people in a TON of trouble!!!

In each of these areas, you hear stories where people sometimes do things that they never believed they were capable of – sometimes for good, but usually for bad.  And when these things happen, those who know them look at these people and struggle with reconciling the action with the person.

Abuse, affairs, murder even.  The term “crimes of passion” is used to describe actions someone took because of a strong sudden impulse, but was not premeditated.

In these cases, I think the primal brain is at work.

To be clear, I don’t think the idea of people reacting to the primal brain means they aren’t responsible for their choices.  They still are – ALWAYS.

But this does highlight the importance of people being more responsible for their own emotional state (more on this below…).

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I think this idea of the primal brain and certain instinctual behaviors being able to override logic and reason (and the ability to think through consequences) is supported by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy is an idea about human motivation and personal growth.  In it he breaks down different levels of needs, with the fundamental ones at the bottom and the “higher level” needs at the top.  One of the primary ideas is that we need to be in a position where our lower level needs are being met before we can move up the hierarchy to the higher level needs.

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Taking a look at the bottom level (or basic needs) you have things needed for survival, followed by a need for safety and security.  And although it’s not depicted on the chart I have here, often sexual instinct is seen as a need that sits at the level of basic needs.

Psychological needs such as love and intimacy are next, which means they can’t be met until our physiological and safety needs are met.

This makes a ton of sense.

Love and intimacy is based on trust, and when issues occur in relationships that break down trust usually the sense of intimacy soon breaks down as well.

 

Coping Mechanisms

Any regular readers will know that I talk a lot about coping mechanisms.

Over the past few years I’ve come to believe that the coping mechanisms each individual brings to the table are probably the most important things that contribute to the success and longevity of the relationship.

So what are coping mechanisms?

Well, here’s my take on it…

Our coping mechanisms are the default behaviors we exhibit when confronted with threat or conflict.  These behaviors are our automatic responses, and are probably a combination of nature and nurture.  Although there may be an inherent component to them, they are also learned behaviors.

Going back the Fight or Flight response, I think everyone’s coping mechanisms fall someone on a spectrum, where we have aggression and anger (fight) on one side of the scale, and we have withdrawing or shutting down (flight) on the other end of the spectrum.

BOTH of these approaches are TERRIBLE for both individual health and for relationships.

The way I see it, both extremes of fight and flight are responses of the primal brain.  In both scenarios, someone is simply reacting to a situation, and during those moments they are incapable of reason, logic, or thinking of consequences.

But these responses aren’t either/or, they sit on a spectrum.

So a goal we should ALL have is to work on our coping mechanisms.  We should work on regaining control, and not letting our primal brain take over.

If we are someone who reacts with anger when things go wrong, we need to learn to control that.  If we are someone who shuts down and withdraws when times are hard, we need to learn to work with other people and stop retreating into ourselves.

 

As kids, we are learning the world around us and learning to manage our feelings and emotions.  And sadly, some of us don’t really learn that very well.

But the key word here is learn.

Shutting down and withdrawing, or becoming aggressive and angry in the face of perceived threat or challenge is never the answer.  We should always strive to find a way to push back the primal brain and respond with reason.  Because caring, compassion and empathy are all higher level functions; and they require us to be able to stay in control

Our coping mechanisms, no matter how broken, can always be improved.

And in many cases our very relationships depend on it.

The Identity Gap

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Identity is a big topic for me in my writing.  Who are you?  Who am I?  How well do we really understand ourselves as a person, and perhaps more importantly, how well do we accept ourselves?

Along this lines, one idea I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while is the idea of an “identity gap”.

To me, an identity gap is the gap between who we ARE and who we WANT TO BE.

 

Related to my post on fantasy, we all have an idealized version of self; this picture of who we wish we were, and how we wish our life looked.  This ideal is related to our dreams, and may be influenced by the things we see around us or the expectations that were placed on us growing up.

 

However this is just an ideal, and I don’t think ANYONE is their idealized version of “self”.  And for that matter, I don’t think anyone ever achieves it.

This concept of an identity gap has huge implications for the level of happiness a person has in their life.  And I think this happiness is directly related to three questions:

  1. How big is the gap between who you want to be and who you are?
  2. Do you accept that your idealized version of self is simply an ideal, and not reality?
  3. What are you doing to improve yourself and close the gap between who you are and who you want to be?

 

What is your Ideal Self?

This is a tough question to answer.  But I guess another way of look at it is, when you were a teenager who did you think you would be?  What did you think it actually meant to be an adult?

This is an area where man oh man, I think a lot of us screw up something fierce.

On one hand, we have all these adults all around us modelling what life as an adult looks like.  So you would think we would actually learn something from that.

On the other hand, we have tv shows, and advertising telling us how amazing we are, and how special we are, and how we “deserve the best”.

I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that even when all the evidence around us is telling us life as an adult is pretty mundane, there’s also a part of that expects life to look like a beer commercial.

 

I don’t think many teenagers/college students take a look at their parents and say “yup, that’s who I’m going to be when I grow up”.

For some reason we think we are different, and special, so of course our life will be different.  We will set goals, and achieve all of our wildest dreams.

 

A few posts back used a line I found:

What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.

That line seems simple at first, but it’s also one of the most profound things I’ve ever read.

How things are “supposed to be”.

What life is “supposed” to look like.

What “love” is supposed to look like.

Who we are “supposed” to be.

 

I’m reminder of a scene from movie Boyhood.  It’s kind of a bizarre film, as it doesn’t really follow a traditional mold; but it’s also really powerful.  It was filmed over 12 years, and during the film you actually see the characters age and grow up.

In it Patricia Arquette starts out as a young mother with little education.  And during the 12 years of the film her children grow up, she is married and divorced twice, and gains an education and becomes a college professor (I think).

Late in the film there’s a scene where her son is leaving for college and she breaks down.  She reflects on all the things that have happened in her life, all the things she has done and accomplished.  And then she says:

I just thought there would be more.

 

I just thought there would be more.

Life hasn’t matched up to the picture she had in her head.  There was an identity gap, and when comparing reality to ideal, life ended up being a disappointment.

 

I think this happens often.

For some reason we expect “more”.  And real life isn’t able to measure up.

In our society right now, depression rates are up.  Anxiety rates are up.  People talk about happiness as if it’s this magical thing that they can achieve.  This goal in life that will make everything better.

So how do we make this better?

 

An Ideal is a Dream

I think one of the first things we need to do is accept that our ideal is simply something to strive towards, and not something we are likely to ever achieve.

And that’s alright.

We are all just “regular” people.  We aren’t any better than anyone else, and we do not deserve special treatment.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have goals – because we should.  We need them, as goals give us something to strive towards.

Instead of just looking at our imaginary end state, we need to be able to set small milestones or goals, and celebrate the little successes we have along the way.

Because sometimes our ideal isn’t actually realistic.

So we shouldn’t measure our success in life against it’s end state.  We need to be able to look at where we are now, and appreciate it each and every day.

 

How are you Trying to Improve?

Let’s say I want to make a fence.  What do I need to do?

Does it help me to wake up everyday, look in my yard and think “man, I wish I had a fence”?

Ummm, no so much.

How about if I buy some wood and some screws, and put them in my yard and just leave them there?

I suppose that gets me a bit closer, but again, it’s not very helpful.

 

Instead, a few things need to happen.

  • First I need to understand where I am today.
  • Next I need to understand where I want to be.
  • Then I need a plan to get from point A to point B.
  • Lastly (and perhaps most importantly) I need initiative. I need to be willing to do something about it.

 

So everything starts with accepting yourself for who you are TODAY.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, good sides and bad sides.  And until we accept ourselves for who we are today (warts and all), we can never move forward or improve.  We are never able to live in the present moment, and able to appreciate the life we DO have.

When people are focused on their identity gap, they are focused on who they are not instead of who they are. And when THAT is the focus?  If someone is focused on what they are missing or who they are not, I don’t think they will ever be happy.  Because it doesn’t matter how much you improve, you can always get better.  And people who are focused on what they are not are unable to live in the moment and appreciate the things they DO have.

So any improvements need to first start with self acceptance.

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Once you have accepted who you are today, you are now in a position to better understand the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Ironically, once you have accepted yourself it may not matter as much.

Because although we can always be “more”, when we have accepted ourselves we know we are “enough”.

The “Easy Road”

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My last post was about living in fantasy land, and how dating and affairs are really a form of escapism.  They aren’t real love, and they aren’t even real life.

And I think sometimes problems can occur when people get confused about what “real life” actually is.

When people have online profiles (like facebook), they only present the things they want you to see.  It’s usually a “sanitized” version of their life.  They show the good parts, the celebrations, the parties, the trips.  If you looked only at peoples profiles, you would think they all had the perfect life, where everything was happy all the time and there were never any problems.

But that’s not what life really looks like.  Real life isn’t just the image of ourselves we portray.  It’s not the like the movies, and it’s not about escapism.

Real life can be messy.  It has highs and lows, and it requires us to face challenges and overcome them.

 

Looking for Fun

In the comments section of my last post, commenter wordsaremylife wrote (about her husband leaving):

my father summed it up perfectly, “He wants to be a college kid again. Fun without responsibility.”

 

This is a common thread in almost every story of a failed marriage or an affair.  Someone eventually seems to come to the conclusion that a marriage is just too much like work, and for some reason they believe it should be different.

They seem to think:

  • Life should be easy.
  • Love should be easy.

So many people seem to want life to come with an easy button, and when they find it doesn’t because things have gotten difficult?

They quit.

They walk out, and go in search of something simpler.

In search of fun, without responsibility.

Because it’s easier to walk out than to work on improving what you already have.

Thing is, often what they are walking out on is simply “real life”, and they are leaving it in pursuit of something that doesn’t actually exist.

 

Accepting Responsibility

I’ll be the first to admit that people often get so caught up in the “responsibility” side of life that they forget to have fun.  And when you ARE caught up in responsibility, it can be overwhelming.

But quitting is not the answer.  Escaping is not the answer.

Here’s a few important things that often get overlooked:

  • Life isn’t always easy.
  • Life doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to.
  • Life doesn’t mean you have to be happy all the time.
  • Life is not all about you!!!
  • Responsibility isn’t a bad thing.

Not only is responsibility not a bad thing, I actually think it’s a great thing.  Being able to be responsible, and take responsibility for things means you are taking ownership of your own life.  And what could be better than that?

Responsibility means you aren’t a victim. 

Things happen in life, sometimes good and sometimes bad.  And usually we have no control over those things.

But we ALWAYS have control over ourselves, and how we react.  How we respond.

That is something that is always up to us.

We choose what situations we put ourselves into, and we choose how to respond to those situations.

 

Putting in Effort

If you’re an adult (legally, if not mentally) you have bills.  So I’m pretty sure you have a job too.

I’ve had a number of jobs over the years, and in all the time I’ve held a job I have yet to find one that doesn’t expect anything of me.

I’ve yet to see a job description that says something like “We will pay you a fantastic salary to do things the way YOU want.  You can come and go as you please, with no real duties and no expectations on you.”

*Maybe* jobs like that exist.  I kind of doubt it though.  If they do, I’ll guess there aren’t very many of them and they’re probably in high demand.

No, generally the jobs that pay more also have higher expectations and responsibilities.  That’s kind of the way it works.

With most things in life, if you want to get more out of something you need to be willing to put more in.

Putting in effort in everything in life is key to maximizing what you get out of it.

This is why I can’t understand the mentality of people who are looking for the easy road in life.  People who are looking for fun without responsibility.  And people who just quit and walk away when things get hard.

If everything is supposed to be easy, where is the sense of accomplishment?  Where is the sense of ownership in having built something that matters?

 

I’m not saying people should NEVER quit.  Because there comes a point in time where you have to accept that things aren’t working, and you have to be willing to go in a different direction.

But I am saying there’s a HUGE different between putting everything you have into something, and being able to accept when it doesn’t work, vs quitting when things get hard or when things make you uncomfortable.

 

The Color Red

Years ago I took some philosophy classes in university.  University was a long time ago, so I don’t remember much; but periodically bits of Philosophy classes pop up in my head.

One of my classes was Epistemology (the study of knowledge), and in it I remember my prof presenting a hypothetical world where everything was red.

Paraphrasing here, he asked us:

“in a world where everything was red, would you be able to see the color red?  Would you even be able to conceive of it?”

That’s always stuck with me, and I think it’s especially relevant here.

Life isn’t always easy, and not only is that alright – it’s also NECESSARY.

We need to experience good AND bad, pleasure AND pain.  It’s the opposite side of the spectrum that allows us to appreciate the differences in life.

 

When people are looking for the “easy road”, they are trying to avoid the parts of life that make them uncomfortable.  Fun, without the responsibility.  Which is similar to pleasure, without the pain.  Or love, without the sacrifice.

 

But that’s not the way life works.

One of the more formative books I’ve read in recent years is Brene Browns “The Gifts of Imperfection”.  And beyond the discussion of trying to live an authentic life, one of the most important moments in it is when she talks about numbing behaviors.

We all have issues, and we all have pain to deal with in our lives.  But if you’re looking for the easy road, it’s because you want to avoid that pain.  So people turn to different things in order to numb the pain.  Drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex (affairs can be big ones), there are a number of numbing behaviors people will use.

But all of these are just escapes, and they don’t deal with the actual problems.  Because as Brene Brown says, we cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also number the positive emotions.

Fun without responsibility, pleasure without pain?  These aren’t sustainable.  They are short term “fixes” that do more harm than good.

 

The Keys To “Real Life”

Real life is complicated, and messy.  In real life we can’t selectively choose what we want to deal with and what we want to avoid.

But this also makes real life wonderful.

Earlier I mentioned that it’s the opposite side of the spectrum that allows us to appreciate the differences in life.

The key word there is APPRECIATE.

 

In real life, we need to be able to appreciate what we have, and not just look at what we are missing.  In fact, practicing active appreciation is probably one of the most important things you can ever learn to do.

 

People who can’t appreciate what they have tend to be chronically unhappy, while people who practice active appreciation tend to be happy, or at least content in life.

Active appreciation means living in the moment.  And when I say that I don’t mean being a selfish hedonistic a$$hole.  It means looking around you at what is REALLY important.

I guess that means different things to different people, but to me that means family and friends.  It means trying to do the right things and live with integrity.  It means facing issues instead of avoiding them.  It means BUILDING something instead of just using something.  And it means trying to appreciate what I DO have in my life instead of focusing on what is missing.

 

That doesn’t mean things are always good or I’ll get what I want.  And that doesn’t mean I’m always going to be happy.  But it means I can always put forth effort, and influence my situation in a positive way.

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