Make a Good Provision of Optimism for Gloomier Days

I have a regular routine I follow each morning. After my shower and cuppa, I open my computer and click on two horoscopes that I enjoy. The first is a traditional western horoscope where I find my daily observations under the sign of Cancer. The second is traditional Chinese horoscope, where I am identified as a Water Snake. I read both. If I don’t like one, I have a back-up. Today’s Chinese horoscope started with a sentence that became the title for this week’s blog. Honestly, I can’t think of any better advice for our current predicament.

I find myself doing my best to balance my own needs with the needs of my patients, my friends, and family. Cancers are often cast as caregivers, this being one of the astrological personality traits attributed to my sun sign. I suspect that all the Signs of the Zodiac have some proclivities that would be considered useful in a caregiving capacity, but Cancerians are gifted with a bunch of traits that make for being extra-good caregivers. Sometimes, however, I forget to take care of myself.

The admonishment to intentionally seek out those things that bring me joy and happiness (two of the qualities I associate with optimism) acts a bit like a rudder and changes my tack especially when the current is taking me to dark places. It is also a way to care for myself. When I find something joyful, I let my heart sing. When I am feeling happy, I let myself laugh out loud. My goal is to increase the numbers of these experiences each day. Some days I do better than others.

melting_iceOne of the challenges with optimism and happiness and joy is that these states are not permanent. One of my patients always complains to me that she can’t seem to keep hold of her happiness. I can identify with that!  Rather than seeking to hold on, we are exploring whether it is easier to just pay attention to when happiness is present and when it is absent, rather than trying to keep it and never let it go. This is why the instruction in the Chinese horoscope was so helpful today. How can I go about making good provision for happiness?

I actually have come up with some ideas. You may already use these, but if not, please feel free to see if they work for you and share them with others if you find them useful.

Name it and claim it!  What this phrase instructs me to do is get into a habit of naming what I am feeling. For example, if I am irritable, I say to myself, “I’m irritable!”  That is naming it. If you do this enough and with enough different shades of feelings, you will soon discover that there are literally thousands of different feeling states!  Because I am a writer, I like finding new ways of saying things, so instead of being stuck with just four or five feelings (e.g., mad, sad, glad, angry happy), I now have lots and lots of different ways of describing the multiple feeling states I have every day!

The second part of this phrase asks us to “claim it”. I suspect that you may have several feelings that are uncomfortable, unwanted, or even avoided at all costs!  I know I do!  Claiming your experience after you have named it allows you to confront it and then let it go. For example, if you have ever done physical therapy, you are asked to hold an uncomfortable position for a few seconds (I know – it feels like years!) in order to regain your functioning. The more often you do this, the easier it becomes.

what stress does to the body thumbnailClaiming uncomfortable emotions is like that also. The discomfort that happens when we are scared or angry has physical consequences. Muscle tension, increased stomach acidity, headaches are all parts of the feeling. Sometimes, these physical states are actually trying to tell us what we are feeling!  When we claim them, somehow they are released. Maybe a little bit at a time, but eventually they dissipate.

Adopt the Unknown. It can be overwhelming when we don’t know what to call something. The act of adopting something means you have an intention to bring it into your life and are committed to caring for it. Once I have adopted it, I will give it a name and welcome it. Now I can establish a relationship with it. Now I can learn what it wants from me and whether I can provide it. I can also set boundaries, and let it know what I want.

bedsheet_GhostWhen I worked with children, I used to help them name their fears. One of my patients had the most wonderful imagination, which is sometimes good news/bad news. When her imagination was causing her distress because of the scary things she would conjure, we decided to give her fears specific names. She called her fear of the dark, “Fred”. When Fred was around, she was only able to stay safe if she pulled the sheets over her head. Turns out, in getting to know Fred better, we found out he was scared of ghosts, and guess what my patient looked like with the sheets over her head?

It’s pretty easy to do this with children. Unfortunately, we seem to lose our playfulness as we become mature adults. More’s the pity, I say!  What if we called COVID-19 by some silly name (oh, how I miss Dr. Seuss!)?  Instead of telling people to wear a mask to protect against the virus, we could wear masks to keep the Schnurff-Fetzer from reading our lips. Just a thought . . .

Bottom line, our nature is to give meaning to thoughts, feelings, behaviors, experiences, and to assume that once we have done that, it is true. This is a fickle fact about how our minds and bodies interact with our world. I may hear a piece of music and it will make me cry. You will listen to the same piece, and feel joy. The key insight is to realize it will change. By making good provision for gloomier days, we can store memories of good things and recall them when life is making it hard to find joy or happiness.

The end of my Chinese horoscope for today concluded:  “Everything will seem to you easy, merry, sunny; try to preserve this state of grace as long as possible.”  And so I shall.

feelings_r_not_fcts

3 comments

  1. Great points, Mary. These days we are being so (externally) super-saturated with what I call the “societal morphology” of Perfectly Plausible Gloom. It’s a palpable inbound energy field (not just overtly, via “The News” — shudder shudder, which at the moment contains the massive delusional idiocy of our “executive branch” and Senate, but also close-to-home, via all our own new anti-Covid behaviors we’re having to (a) learn and (b) repeatedly, mindfully practice.

    Such a situation (all that external, and yet also In-Our-Faces) pile of “negative” stuff pouring in, definitely DOES require (as you said) the deliberate cultivation of optimism. I’m guessing that we actually need to cultivate THREE doses of such optimism, for every inroad of Apparent Gloom that comes in! (I just got a mental picture of an old Evinrude Outboard Motor, which had to have a rope wound around a coil and then energetically yanked out to get that motor started). Time to give our Optimism Evinrude multiple cheerful yanks! Bzzzzzzz

  2. Great entry, Mary!
    It helps to name a feeling, even if it’s ikky! Recently, I had opposite feelings about the same person: compassion & anger he had a big problem AND before that he’d not done things he knew affected me badly. It helped to know one set of feelings didn’t cancel the other out. I wasn’t judge or saint. I just had many different feelings in separate nests & that was that.

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