Make Way for New Learning

 

We are creatures who are organized by the familiar. We do so many without thinking. I open doors with my right hand. I carry my purse on my left shoulder. I fall asleep on my right side. I button shirts bottom up. I stir my tea with my right hand clockwise. I hit the first step on the stairs with my right foot. I brush my teeth top left down. Do these small things matter? You bet they do. I do everything “the right way.”

Try this:

Clasp your hands naturally. Take a moment to see what that feels like. Then shift the fingers. What do you feel? Most likely you will experience this slight shift as feeling “wrong.”

The point is that our brains get wired to register the familiar as “right” and the unfamiliar as “wrong.” Often when a new client begins therapy I suggest that they try to do some things differently. Real growth can occur when we make room for new experiences and loosen the hold that the familiar has on us.

By loosening we expand the boundaries of possibility.

If you are interested in opening your life to new possibilities you can loosen the hold that the familiar has on you. In daily, simple tasks, you can opt for doing things in an unfamiliar way. Here are some suggestions:

  • Do any routine task with your non-dominant hand.
  • Reverse processes, like buttoning and unbuttoning a shirt, putting on socks, saying grace after the meal.
  • Take a new route when driving to a familiar destination.
  • Eat a food you never ate before.
  • Change your usual seat at dinner.
  • Go to an unfamiliar neighborhood and take a walk.
  • Do something you’ve never done before—iron a dish towel, saw a piece of wood, sew on a button, plant a flower, dance by yourself in the kitchen before dinner, pay for the person standing behind you in Starbucks.

 

The possibilities are endless. Keep thinking of the small in-your-life things you can do differently and give them a try. The loosening of the familiar makes space for new experience and learning.

You will recognize these lines by Robert Frost from The Road Not Taken”:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

 

Imagination–Your Best Friend

 

When I was a kid I spent summers at my grandmother’s house in the woods on Long Island.  The days were sweet and slow.  There were no other kids, no toys, no video games.  There was a vanity brush, a whisk brush with a china torso as the handle, that looked like this;

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She sat on my grandmother’s dresser and her purpose was to brush lint off clothes.  There was another object–a piece of raw plywood cut in the shape of a Dutch girl with a pointy bonnet and clunky wooden shaped shoes on her feet.  The features of her face were sketched in with pencil.  These two objects were central to my play as a child.  I looked forward to arriving at Grandma’s and finding them again and again.  With them I created endless adventures, stories, and dramas.  That they were hardly fit as toys mattered not a bit.  My imagination needed only these modest props to ignite an afternoon of play.  Children have no problem engaging imagination, but as we “mature” sometimes the imagined is sacrificed for the “real.”

Fantasy and the use of imagination serve the development of the future.  By imagining what can be, expanding beyond familiar and known territory, a person can begin to envisage new and exciting possibilities.  When fantasy replaces reality, we say it is a delusion.  But according to Dr. James Doty, a Stanford based neurosurgeon and the author of Into the Magic Shop imagination offers a powerful tool for shaping reality.  He says, “The brain doesn’t distinguish between an experience that is intensely imagined and an experience that is real…[and] it will always choose what is familiar over what is unfamiliar.”

In my work as a therapist, I often encourage a client to imagine a desired outcome. By engaging the imagination fully, a person can begin to create something for themselves, something new, exciting, transformational, even fun.

Here are the guidelines:

  • Choose a quiet, relaxing place and close your eyes.
  • Imagine yourself into a desired situation.
  • Do not entertain any reality based limitations such as time, money, companionship, etc. Hold the attitude that everything is possible.
  • Sink into the imagined scene as fully as possible with great detail.  For example, what are you wearing? Where are you located?  What is the weather like?  What is around you?  Who is present?
  • Play the scene out.  What happens?

 

Using the imagination in this way will give you new ideas about what you are craving from the deepest part of yourself.  Later on, once you have an idea about what that part of you is yearning for, you can shape taking action considering not only the imagined, but also the limitations of reality.

But don’t DON’T bring reality in too soon!

 

Feelings I’d Rather Not Have

 

In a previous blog post I wrote about states of mind.  States of mind and emotions are like weather: variable, unpredictable, and transient.  One day your husband brings you flowers, white roses.  You feel happy–a cherished wife, a thoughtful husband.  Another day your husband brings you white roses.  You are annoyed–unimaginative husband, he forgot I only love yellow roses.  The very same act can provoke a very different set of feelings depending on your state of mind.

Do you remember the tale of Sleeping Beauty?

Sleeping beauty

There was to be a celebration of the princess’s birthday.  Because the king and queen only had 12 golden cups, they invited 12 fairies to the party and left out the 13th.

That 13th left-out, uninvited fairy angrily showed up at the birthday feast anyhow.

prick finger

And she put a curse on the baby:  One day the child would prick her finger on a spindle and she would sleep for 100 years.

As you know, that’s just what happened.  There’s more to the story, but this part of it is a good lesson about what happens when something is left out.

We all have states of mind we don’t particularly care for: boredom, anxiety, sadness, lethargy, anger, frustration, impatience, and the list goes on.  When we work at suppressing or excluding these feelings from awareness, they act like the 13th fairy.  They turn more negative and cause trouble. Shut out of consciousness, they gather strength, and then when they finally come out, they ambush us, take us down a rabbit hole of sadness, anger, despair, etc.  It’s like the prick that causes the 100 year problem.  The suffering is longer and more intense.

We need to invite all of our feelings to sit at the table.

animals at table      even the snake!

If we exclude certain feelings or try to push them aside, we’re acting like a bad parent who says,

  • “You’ve got nothing to cry about!”
  •  “Just go to your room until you can come back with a smile.”
  •  “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

 

Parents probably didn’t welcome all the states of mind when you were a child.  That’s how you learned that not all of you is lovable.  But now that you are a grown-up, you can make room for parts of yourself that have been unwanted by others, and that have grown to be unwanted by you.

The good thing that will happen when you let all parts of yourself, yes, even the angry and unhappy parts, come to the table, you’ll find that they don’t have as much power, they are more transient, and sometimes, even the bad feelings, when they show up can even bring a smile to your face….like you recognize an old familiar friend!

States of mind

 

States if mind and emotions are like weather–variable and transient.

We have states of mind we don’t care for. And they can come upon us very suddenly.  For example, I can feel upbeat, competent, sitting with a client feeling completely “adult” and “sane.” Let’s say my sister calls me and chews me out for having forgotten to do something I agreed to do.  Suddenly I an in an unwanted state of mind–that of a bad little girl.

What happened?

Each of us has subjective states–which are based on experiences we’ve had. Those experiences lay down pathways in the brain.   If you were habitually criticized growing up, that track is going to be well established.

imgres                                                   imgres-1

If you were humiliated, then that’s a familiar path.  If you were praised when you tried new things, then you’ll feel that good feeling.

Many years ago when research was just beginning to discover the secrets of the brain, the Wall Street Journal published an article that described how certain habitual cascades are triggered.  It used the example of an eagle flying over a rabbit.  The rabbit is hard-wired with a pathway that the shadow overhead triggers a panic cascade:

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The rabbit senses the shadow overhead as threatening, and it goes into a survival-based response.  If you have a pet rabbit, and you pass a pad of paper over its head, causing a shadow to fall on the rabbit, it will go into a response as if a predator was overhead.

Our brains behave in the same way.  Events that approximate or suggest a previously experienced danger will trigger a response AS IF it were the real old danger.

We can’t stop being triggered.  What we can do is differentiate whether the situation is an eagle overhead or a pad of paper,  We can figure out if the state of mind that was just triggered and the cascade that follows matches the current here-and-now situation.  Often we find that the reaction is bigger than what the current situation calls for.  That’s one of the most helpful clues in identifying those automatic cascades of emotion and state of mind.

 

 

 

Self love–what does that mean?

 

As a therapist, I hear many accounts of individuals struggling with the idea of self love.  Many people confuse self love with self indulgence, a sense of entitlement, self absorption.  self centeredness, and frank narcissism.  “I bought that new purse because I deserve it.”  “After all, for how hard I work, I’m entitled to a vacation.”  “It’s an all-about-me day.”  Most often these indulgences do little to fill the bucket of self esteem or increase genuine love for self.

hiugging myself

Self love requires the ability to gain a little distance from oneself, to slip out of the current state of mind, particularly if that state of mind is loaded with emotion.  Self love requires being able to look at yourself from an outside perspective, and from that vantage point notice, admire, love, be curious about, the miracle of the unique individual you see there–as if you were the most adoring parent to the person you are today.

From that perspective loving yourself means being able to orient, guide, and provide what that person needs.  Ask yourself these questions from that appreciative perspective:

  • What are the experiences that make you thrive?
  • What inspires you?
  • What makes your heart sing?
  • What gives you energy?
  • What restores you?
  • What brings out the best in you?
  • What grows and expands you?
  • What are the challenges you need to bring forth your potential?

 

Being able to orient yourself toward nurturing, caring, and providing for this precious person who is you is what self love is all about.

 

 

 

Color in Dreams–White

 

Over many years of working with others’ and my own dreams I’ve observed that occasionally an object appears in a dream that normally is another color, but in the dream, it is white.

White Wolf

I had been working for a long time with an anorexic young woman.  Shortly before she had a breakthrough that preceded her beginning to eat more normally, she dreamed that she was visited by a white wolf.

The wolf is often imagined as an animal with a voracious appetite–hungry as a wolf.  In this dream it showed up, not in its more familiar color, gray or black, but entirely white.  The dream announced the soon-to-be arrival of the young woman’s healthy appetite.

White Mary Janes

Another client who had had a terribly abused childhood, including sexual abuse,  dreamed one day that her child self was walking down the street in her familiar Mary Jane shoes, but instead of being black patent leather, the shoes she wore were white–the color brides wear indicative of purity.

Two white irises

Two white irises appeared in my own dream after I made an important decision.  I struggled with a conflict about ending an important relationship.  Finally I came to a decision to end the relationship and the night after I delivered my decision, the two white irises graced my dream.  Iris was the messenger goddess in the Greek pantheon who navigated between the divine and human realms.  She was associated with the rainbow, and represented a similar meaning as the rainbow–a sign of God’s promise to Noah.  The two white irises confirmed that the decision I had made was aligned with a deep soulful part of myself. The white irises represented a promise of hope.

In addition to the irises appearing white (the more familiar color is purple) this dream depicted them as doubles–a sign of an energy brewing in the unconscious, not yet fully realized by the awake, conscious self. At that time for me, it was optimism–at the time I was nervous, fearful, and worried whether I was making the right decision, but once made, the dream reassured me, just like the rainbow, that sunny days were ahead. For more on doubling in dreams see my post on twins, pairs, twosomes and duos in dreams.

White adds a spiritual, soul dimension to a dream image.  Not only does it highlight the importance of the image, it tells the dreamer that the message of the dream has a spiritual dimension.  For the anorexic woman, beginning to eat was a holy act–her hunger was not only related to her body, it was related to her soul. When she began to eat again, she was choosing life. For the woman who had the abused childhood, revisiting her childhood and finding a “white” standpoint, pure, naive, virginal, was deeply transformational and healing.  She could claim the holiness of childhood that had been denied her by  the abuser. And for me, finding hope out of confusion and conflict was not only a matter of the single decision I had made.  Through the image, the dream  restored a sense of faith and trust in myself.

More on the Inner Critic–and Saboteurs

 

I was at a leadership training when one of the stellar women of the group shared a delightfully wicked story she had written. It was about slaying the saboteurs, all those inner figures that hold us back, criticize us, demean us.  She wrote something like–slay the naysayer, strangle the perfectionist, take a machete to the chicken, asphyxiate the critic and whack the know-it-all to bits.  Ahhh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to get rid of those inhibiting, diminishing, killjoys!

In a previous post I wrote about identifying stowaways, those voices that aren’t really you, but belonged to others and now masquerade as you: parents, teachers, older siblings, coaches, etc. that snuck in and were so familiar they feel like a part of the self.

Some of the saboteurs I’m going to address are different, and for some, it’s just another angle on the same one.

Early in life we adapted strategies like:

  • Be vigilant and watch your parents mood so you know how to behave.
  • Keep your mouth shut so you don’t aggravate the big people.
  • Don’t show off.
  • Don’t try to appear smarter, funnier, prettier than your sister.
  • Always think of the other person first.
  • Be helpful so you will be loved.
  • Hide angry feelings.
  • Always stand up for yourself.
  • Never stand up for yourself

 

All these strategies that organize us came into being for good reason–survival.  Nothing is superfluous, unnecessary, or irrelevant. These inner critics, saboteurs, or gremlins evolved, were brilliant solutions in the treacherous world of childhood. Each of us grew up in a family situation that was our world.  The amazing and resourceful mind that each of us had as a child figured out strategies for being loved, remaining safe, and forging an identity and sense of self.  We did what we had to.

Later in life, we go out into the world with these survival strategies in place.  However–the world isn’t like the family we grew up in.  A much wider range of behaviors is acceptable, but unfortunately these early survival strategies don’t depart easily.

Often we learn to override them behaviorally by applying some extra effort. That can work instance by instance but overriding the saboteur doesn’t eliminate it.

To transform, it’s necessary to identify them as having helped you survive and THANK them for the excellent job they did.  Appreciate how brilliant they were in keeping you safe and gently let them know that the world isn’t exactly like it was in childhood, and you are now stronger, smarter, and more able to handle complex situations. These strategies are always built on some natural strength or gift.  Figure out what that was and decide how you are going to use that beautiful gift that belongs to you–now–differently.

The Inner Critic–Who’s That In My Head?

 

Most of us have voices chattering in our heads.  These are not hallucinations.  They are running commentaries–one of the most familiar is the inner critic.   He or she says things to us like:

 

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“How could you be so stupid.”

“You’re so fat.”

“Wrong again.”

“You’ll never be any good.”

I was sitting in a circle with other writers at a workshop when one of the women lamented that she was stuck in her writing because she had an ogre who sat on her shoulder and babbled criticism and worries in her ear.  I jotted a note  to myself:  Tell Jenny about stowaways.”

What is stowaway?

In real life a stowaway is someone who boards a vehicle, vessel, or other mode of transportation secretly and undetected.  I like the term and use it often when I’m working with a client on the inner critic.   When she talks about the harsh and critical voice she hears, I ask her if she would say the same thing to someone she loves.  Most often she wouldn’t–EVER!  That’s the litmus test for whether the voice belongs to her or whether the voice is actually a stowaway–a voice that belongs to someone else who sneaked in.

If you heard something often enough growing up, it seeped into the psyche..Over time it began to feel like your own voice and you lost track of where it came from.  Over the years of practice, I’ve found this to be a really dangerous, insidious process.  It’s sort of like psychic cancer–where the immune system doesn’t recognize something as foreign.  The mind doesn’t recognize the stowaway voice as not belonging to me.

What to do about it?

To correct the situation you need to start paying close attention.  You don’t need to do anything, in fact, it’s better if you don’t.  What is important to do is to be diligent to notice, tag, name these words/feelings/thoughts as “not me.”  Over time as they become differentiated, things change–a lot.  You will be differentiating what is actually me from what is not-me.  The not-me will begin to quiet down as deep inside you begin to be more aware of those unwelcome stowaways.

 

Images in Dreams–signs or symbols?

 

The difference between a sign and a symbol is that a sign is an image that stands for a specific word or object, whereas a symbol is much greater.  It is an image that communicates something much larger than itself.  As an example, let’s take the apple. When we see this apple

 

Apple logo
Apple logo

 

We know that this apple signifies the technological company that makes computers, ipads, iphones, and ipods.  Because the image says: apple = Apple, Inc. it is a sign,  Most trademarks are signs.  When images appear in dreams, they are seldom signs.

 

There are many other associations to the apple:

images

The apple of my eye    Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge

And there are many other mythological associations to the apple:

  • Eris, the goddess of discord, threw the golden apple inscribed” To the most beautiful”  at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis.  She caused discord among the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hers, leading to the Trojan War.
  • Heracles was required to travel to the Garden of the Hesperides as one of his Twelve Labors, and there he was to pick golden apples growing on the Tree of Life.
  • Atalanta did not want to marry and defeated all her suitors by racing them.  Hippoomenes defeated her by throwing 3 golden apples in her path causing her to lose the race.  The apples were gifts from Aphrodite.
  • In the Arthurian legend, Avalon was the “Isle of Apples.”
  • The Cornish festival of Allantide celebrated on October 31st included giving large shining red apples as a token of good luck. An apple under the pillow of the unmarried brought dreams of a spouse.
  • When Heracles wanted to crush an apple under his foot, it grew larger.  it was an apple of discord.  When he tried to crush it again, it grew again twice more its size.

 

Through the many mythological stories about the apple, we understand it not to be merely a sign, but a symbol that has many meanings shimmering around it. When an apple appears in a dream, its roots reach down into this fertile ground of meaning.

 

Here’s a dream image:

I dreamed I sat on an apple and fished.
I dreamed I sat on an apple and fished.

The apple in the dream is not a sign, it’s a symbol.  It doesn’t have an assigned meaning.  To understand this dream, we draw from all the symbolic meaning.  The apple as a gift from the gods, with the ability to generate discord,  The oversized apple makes us think of Heracles who tried to crush the apple of discord, and it only grew bigger.  Could this dreamer be sitting on a discord that he is trying to crush?  For sure we know we are circulating in the symbolic realm of the large apple.  Too much knowledge for one’s own good?  Discord that is growing exponentially?  A challenge to the gods?  A temptation?

 

All of these questions will help the dreamer locate the psychological and emotional area to which the dream makes reference.  Hopefully the curiosity of the dreamer will be awakened by the dream symbol and a rich discovery can be made,  Write to me about the symbolic images that appear in your dreams.

 

The Dreamer and the “I” of the dream

During the night as I dream, I do many things that I would never imagine myself doing in my awake life.  I commit murder, adultery, theft, and other horrifying actions.  When the “I” of the dream does these outrageous things, the awake person often feels shame and responsibility as if she had actually done them. Identifying with the self who appears in the dream can be a detriment to gaining valuable information from a dream.

The shame a dreamer feels for what she did during the dream often causes her to discard the dream rather than experience the bad feelings of the dream or the bad feelings about the dream.  Separating the awake self from the dreaming self is so important. In that way the awake person can gain insight that the unconscious is trying to communicate.  For example, here’s the image that a dream brought to me:

Stabbing with a kitchen knife
Stabbing with a kitchen knife

The night after a serious conversation with my sister, I had such a dream!  Imagine an empathic, kind person in my waking life, and night was driving a kitchen knife into my sister!  If I dismissed the dream because the “I” of the dream was so hideous to my awake sense of self, I would have lost information about myself.  I learned from the dream that I was mis-using my sharp insight.  What would have been useful to “pare down” a big issue, instead made my sister feel bad about herself.

Because of the dream I was able to go back and rectify the situation. So the dream brought to my attention the unconscious way the empathic, kind person I thought myself to beI had been a “murderer.”  The dream self introduced my shadow self to my awake self.

More later on this topic because the relationship between the dreamer and the “I” of the dream is so important!