This has been a hard week! (My lead sentence keeps getting used over and over.) Always looking for common threads, I gathered a few and just started to unravel them a bit. The threads are these: “I can’t seem to get a grip anymore.” “Things are going by so quickly.” “There doesn’t seem to be any firm ground underneath me anymore.”, and my favorite (from a patient), “Molecules of crazy are raining down.” My unraveling of these has given me a chance to slow down my own mental treadmill. So, I decided to take a look at the content of my thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors – the four cornerstones of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Habit is a useful strategy, but it can also become a blind spot. Here’s what I mean. I suspect you have all experienced this at one time or another. You are driving to a specific location (say your drug store) and your mind is thinking, “I’ll just stop by the post office and pick up some stamps, then I’ll go by cleaners since they are on the way, and then I’ll treat myself to a cup of coffee …” and by that time the turnoff for the drug store is in your rear view mirror and the car is heading to the coffee shop of its own volition. This is habit.
The problem with habit is that it is, by definition, unconscious! And while not needing to focus and think about some things is useful (e.g., the sequence of starting your car), it can be problematic when we miss the turnoff for our destination. The same thing happens with positive and negative thoughts.
When the content of our thoughts is negative, then the negative thoughts take over. When our feelings respond to those negative thoughts (crying, feeling blue, irritable, or angry), our behaviors reflect our thoughts (driving aggressively, saying mean things, sleeping/eating/drinking too much). These conspire to either validate or challenge beliefs we have about ourselves (“I am/am not a nice person”, “I am/am not calm and quiet.”, “I can/can’t control my eating/drinking/etc.). It’s truly a vicious cycle.
This system of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors is influenced by what I listen to (e.g., TV/Radio), who I associate with (friends/family/co-workers), what people of influence and authority are telling me (parents, teachers, religious people, news media, police, elected officials), and what my capacity I have to take all this in. This last part is important.
How much capacity I have to manage my thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors varies from day to day, and sometimes from moment to moment. When I am rested, well-fed, well- exercised, and hanging out with people I love and who love me, my capacity is HUGE. When I come home after a day of work, tired, hungry, not feeling appreciated, then my capacity goes down. If you live alone, or have chronic pain, or are dealing with illness and despair, then your capacity may be even less. Add financial worries, feelings of low self-esteem, and being someone on the outside, and there is even less.
My point here is that we all need to be working on building our capacities. We need more love, more tolerance, more compassion, more space, more time, more happiness. We need space to breathe and think without being told how and what. We need to forgive ourselves more quickly, and forgive others just as quickly. We need to find ways to support each other instead of tear each other down.
The only way we are going to make it in this world is if we help each other. In spite of all our cultural directives to be independent, that only works for the short-haul, and we have a lot that needs to be done in a short period of time.
I feel an urgency and a call to action that hasn’t been present for several generations. Boomers were tasked with not asking what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. That invitation now extends to the world. As aging Americans, we have been blessed with peace, incredible prosperity, and the promise that we would not have to struggle. We have an obligation to extend that legacy to our children, grandchildren, and the communities we live in. If I don’t find a way to manage the negative content that currently fills the airwaves, I will become frozen and unable to contribute and change my habits. My capacity to act and effect change will become less and less.
I am not suggesting that each of us take on the whole world. I am suggesting that each of us pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. Take responsibility for increasing your capacity to care for yourselves and then care for others who are in your lives. This may look like smiling at the grocery checkout clerk and having a conversation with someone you don’t know. It may look like holding a door open for someone who is moving more slowly or needs extra help. It may look like taking flowers to a sick friend or baking cookies and taking them to a meeting. It may look like inviting two or three people to your home, listening to music, and having a cup of coffee or tea. It may look like picking apples from a neighbor’s tree (with permission!) and sharing them with others.
Truly, small acts of kindness have such powerful effects on the giver and receiver. I may not be able to put out the fires in the Amazon, but I can write my elected officials and ask that they take a stand for the good of Mother Earth. I may not be able to address economic imbalance, but I can leave a generous tip when I go to a restaurant. And if you can’t do any of these things, I invite you to just appreciate who you are and the differences you have made in the lives of people you love.
The threads I started with at the beginning of this blog seem more manageable when I look at them through this lens.
- “I can’t seem to get a grip anymore”, can be transformed into “I have to let go of some of my responsibilities and let others help me.”
- “Things are going by so quickly.”, can be transformed into “It’s time to stop and smell the roses.”
- “There doesn’t seem to be any firm ground underneath me anymore.”, can be transformed into “Change is a challenge. I’m not sure what’s ahead, but I have made it this far . . .” and last but not least,
- “Molecules of crazy are raining down.” , can be transformed into Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds . . .