How do you define success?

I had considered titling todays post “how do you handle failure”… however it seemed a bit dark for a title, so I opened with your definition of success. I believe that these two things go hand in hand: both how you define success and how you handle failure. Seems to be that you can learn a lot about a person by how they view their success and failures and how they behave accordingly.

When I think about successes and failures, I cannot help but think about how one defines the terms, and how they vary widely from person to person. And once they have been defined, how do these definitions impact our lives?

For example: If my definition of success in a marriage involves deep conversation and weekly strolls through the neighborhood, sharing emotions, and philosophical debates, how will I feel about my partner’s silence in the evenings, or lack of desire to be active?

Or if my definition of financial security involves a loaded savings account and a plush 401K, how will it impact me if my partner feels it’s more important to have a nice home and nice things for quality of day to day life?

Without realizing it, we all go into relationships with these templates or expectations of how things should feel or how they should look, and we don’t mean to be selfish, but it’s difficult to change what you have always thought or how you have viewed things.

The challenge of any relationship in life is that we each bring our own set of templates or expectations, as well as definitions of successes and failures, and often times these do not line up or match someone else’s.

For some of us, there is a realization somewhere along the journey through life, that our template or expectations may not even be serving ourselves very well, let alone another relationship. At that point we are left with more questions than answers. What are my options? Do I have options? Is it possible to change? I will readily admit that this particular junction can be rather stressful and presents with a rather daunting level of involvement.

But is it possible to reconstruct these templates, either for the sake of another or simply for the sake of a healthier definition or expectation?  Dr. Dan Siegel says yes, through the study of interpersonal neurobiology, we now understand that we can remap the way a brain functions. This allows us to change the way we think and the way we behave. How is this possible? Through literally rewiring the brain to focus on something different and therefore encourage a new, and perhaps healthier template to emerge.

The simple science is that “neurons that fire together, wire together”, which is another way of saying what you think about and what you regularly do, become your template for how you think and what you do… so if you want either or both of those to change, you have to begin to think and behave in a way that is more in line with what would be considered healthy.

Perhaps in order to further explore this, one could benefit from identifying what their templates are and what expectations come with those templates. We need to first identify these definitions and expectations before we can begin to look at how they were created in the first place… let alone go about the work of changing them.

The more that I explore within the field of psychology, the more I realize the long and arduous process, of becoming, of changing, or growing, of expanding… and the more I get excited for the ride.

Facing Fear

In my line of work, there is a lot of talk and hype around depression and anxiety, as both disorders and symptoms. We also tend to do a fair amount of assessment around mood and affect regulation (a fancy way of saying the ability to increase positive feelings and minimize stressors and negative feelings). All of these symptoms and disorders are very widespread and popular in experience, and I don’t want to minimize any of them, but it seems to me that we have drastically under-focused on fear. Fear as an emotion, fear as a symptom, fear as a crippling disorder.

Whether an individual, a couple or a family, I see fear more often than I see any other symptom… and the glaring reality is that these fears are CAUSING vast amounts of anxiety and depression and mood dysregulation.  So, we provide treatment for the symptoms that our patients present: depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, mood instability, etc.  All the while, we often miss what is underlying these symptoms: fear. We as professionals end up spending a great deal of time providing “symptom management” rather than healing at the root cause of the symptoms.

What is it that is so powerful about fear? How can a single emotion have such a widespread impact on our daily lives? Many of us do not even know that we are afraid, let alone have the ability to share with someone else, what we are afraid of and be able to connect this to the many other symptoms that we experience. Why is fear so difficult to identify, let alone fully understand the ripple effect of widespread influence?

My hunch is that in a culture where we turn to medications as quick relief and abatement of discomfort, that somewhere deep down, we know that there’s no medication that will treat fear. Sure we can give you an anti-anxiety to reduce the feelings that often come alongside fear, however all we’ve done is blunt the affect, we have not directly addressed the fears and what resides below the fear. Which leads me to my next question, of why are we afraid? What are we afraid of? There are many different ways to answer these questions… and I will begin by acknowledging that the bulk of what we fear is being judged, or unaccepted by someone else or a group of people. And from this very large and pervasive fear stems many more fears of inadequacy, insecurity, doubt, shame, and failure.

So how do we begin to address the fears and their underlying influence in our lives? I propose that we begin with a journey of self-discovery, perhaps alongside someone to guide in the process, to explore the many facets of who you are, and what you contribute to this world.

Our contributions do not have to be large and world wide, they can be a small and still be incredibly significant. Our positive impact on even one person can send even the greatest of fears far from our mind, even if momentarily. We need to identify what we have and what we give to our world.  Once we have identified that, we can begin to explore how to continue to give and creatively be who we are, in a world that is much in need of thoughtful, compassionate, caring individuals.

Striving to become…

The author Richard Bach writes a story entitled “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”. In this story he writes of a seagull that is discontent with who he is and what his capabilities are, and he sets out to make significant changes, in order to build more into his life. He begins by practicing different types of flight, and training to become faster and more efficient in his soaring and gliding. Even this pursuit eventually becomes boring and purposeless for him, and he continues striving for something; for what he isn’t even sure. He is eventually expulsed from his flock, for his refusal to conform and live the common life of a gull. His pursuit for excellence and perfection is relentless, he must strive harder and longer to ultimately become more than what he is told he is, “bone and feathers”.

One of my favorite authors Ronald Rolheiser comments on this seagull story when he says “everyone identifies with Jonathan. We are that gull, restless and dissatisfied, driven by a perpetual inner disquiet that we do not always fully recognize or understand, pushing always harder, to fly faster, to go more places, to break through, to break out of the asphyxiating confines of our place and condition in time and history”.  Fascinating the efforts one will go to, to be someone other than who we are, but rather desperately clinging to something…

Those of us who can identify with this gull named Jonathan are aware of the struggle and inner turmoil that striving entails. It is all consuming, a voice in one’s head saying “you should be different, you can do better than that, you can become something greater than what you are now, you should be faster, you should be thinner, you should be…” These voices are endless and the need to perform and upstage is incredible. But I have come to believe that there is a need for a balance between striving and acceptance; between growing and simply being.  This is fundamental to a fulfilled and balanced life.

I will admit I have spent the bulk of my life striving harder and longer for excellence and perfection, and I have exhausted myself emotionally and physically. I am slowly discovering that there will always be more, or a better way, or another option, and despite all the variability’s in life, I ultimately do have a choice about whether I continue running on the treadmill of life looking for more, and trying to becoming more, or whether I find a steady place to stand, knowing that I am enough today, in this present moment.

Still to this very day my quest continues. Surprisingly, I still haven’t found what I am looking for in life. But I have come to a new understanding that I may not find all of my answers to life’s questions, and that I may not feel utter peace and contentment in this life. But I can choose to live in the knowledge that life is a journey full of endless longings to love and be loved, and to share with others in the goal of creating meaning and purpose, one day at a time. So each day I have a choice to make, shall I focus on the insufficiencies and areas I would like to grow in or change, or shall I focus on who I am and what I currently have to offer, to others and to myself.

Running in the Rain

I never really thought that I liked the rain. For most of my life the rain meant that I couldn’t go outside and play or enjoy a long run, or sit on a blanket and read a good book. It means that things are damp and most often here in the NW, they are also cold, which seems to reach deep into my veins and bones and create a chill that isn’t easy to warm.  In addition, the rain in the NW is almost always accompanied by grey darkness and reduced natural lighting even when indoors, which drastically impacts the way that I feel about the world I inhabit. The other night, I got a new perspective, or perhaps a renewed perspective, as I needed to get out and breathe the fresh air, regardless of temperature, wetness or darkness. I layered up, put on a hat to protect my face and head from the rain, and took off, feet hitting the pavement in a natural rhythm.  As the rain came down around me, I found myself feeling a sense of freedom and peace that I couldn’t really describe, however I noticed that it was propelling my movement forward. I felt autonomous, free, uninhibited, and brave.

I recognize that there are many people who run every day in the rain, and people that darkness and cold does not sway their exercise routine. For me, however, this was a feat, and it was even daring, due to the fact that for most of my life I have heard my mom’s voice in my head stating “never run alone, and never ever in the dark, because you could get raped”. It never ceases to amaze how that phrase can just slide off the tip of her tongue without pause or commotion, just a statement of fact and a warning, one that has kept me in doors many a days. The irony is that my father, with quite the opposite take on life and the great outdoors, often shared stories from his childhood in Alaska, where he owned his own fishing boat at age 12 and was often out fishing all night long all alone… or working in the woods or hunting, day or night, dark or light.

As part of my lifelong quest for finding the middle path, I have always pat myself on the back for finding the balance, which in this case happened to fall between being alone in Alaska on an ocean in a fishing boat at age 12, and sitting in my house with the lights on, and all the doors locked and curtains closed, safe and sound. My middle option has most often found me going for runs during the daylight, and sticking to paths somewhat out in the open so as to be able to see others or better yet, have them see me, so that I could be saved were I to be attacked.

It’s amazing how one’s life can be so impacted by the life of our parents, whether near or far, their voices tend to ring in our ears, of caution of safety, of courage, of strength, perhaps of doubt or fear, or zest and purpose. For me I have come to realize in my life that I have allowed to many fears and anxieties to hold me back and keep me from leaving a more spontaneous or free life, and by that I mean one where I am not constantly analyzing my thoughts and actions and how they may be perceived or received by others or how they may impact me long term. Not to say that it’s not beneficial to ask these questions sometimes, but honestly I have plagued myself with these questions and I have prohibited myself from engaging in some of the joy of life because of this.

I encourage my clients to pause long enough to think about how they judge themselves, how they create order and meaning in their lives, and how they allow for mess ups and learning and how they respond to this.  What most of us find is that there are some things that are serving us very well, and many others that are not serving us well at all, but instead are keeping us from living lives individually crafted and uniquely designed with intention.