Hearthstones

I love my little clay hearts that you see on this blog and sometimes on my Facebook page header. My sister-in-law gave them to me a long time ago; she is a School Sisters of Notre Dame nun and she got them while on a retreat. They come in a purple, velvet bag and are called Hearthstones.

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The heart-shaped clay tiles are called hearthstones because when the words heart and earth merge the word becomes hearth, a place to experience safety, warmth, intimacy, story telling, and healing. Hearthstones invite us to reconnect with what has heart and meaning in our lives and to rekindle spiritual values vital to sustaining life on planet earth.

They are described as tools of spiritual healing that invite personal, communal and planetary transformation by returning us to the center of wisdom and spiritual energy – the heart.

My sister-in-law selects one each day and carries it in her pocket and uses it during her devotional time. I’ve used mine in a lot of different ways, but my favorite thing to do has been to give them away to people. Since I can’t physically give them away to you, I decided I’d post a picture of a different heart each day in February. Some days I’ll include a quote or two or three…other days maybe a brief meditation of sorts. You are a very warm and supportive group. I so appreciate you, and hope to give a little something back in this way.
 
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Birthdays: A reminder of the awesomeness of being alive.

Tomorrow is my 52nd Birthday! I’m reposting what I wrote two years ago, because I still really like what I wrote :)

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Dad and me in Norfolk, VA

Dad and me in Norfolk, VA

         There’s Something about a Baby

It was January 1, 1962, my mother’s due date.  Relatives had trekked from Tennessee and Alabama to Norfolk, Virginia to be with my parents for my birth. Most were going to stay for a short visit, but my grandmother was going to stay with my mom for several weeks to help out. Leave it to me to be an introvert before I was even born. No way was I going to make my entrance into the world with all those people around. Everyone eventually left. Luckily, my father who was in the Navy, didn’t have to go back to sea quite yet, and on February 1, I made my arrival.

I’ve never given much thought to birthdays before, but turning 50 has thrown me. One minute I feel like celebrating; the next minute I want to pretend it’s not happening and I think I’ll just stay 49, thank you very much.

I casually mentioned my upcoming 50th birthday in my previous post, and I received a thoughtful comment from a fellow blogger (thank you, Doug!). He wrote: “If you were given the opportunity to honor a dear dear friend of yours who was let’s say, turning 40 this year, what are some of the things you might do to honor them? Take your time with that question….and after you’ve given it some thought….I’d like you to apply the same amount of creative energy and passion for yourself…no self-effacing allowed….”

I have taken his words to heart. One thing I’ve done in the past for people is make them a scrapbook. For example, on my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, I wrote to all of their friends (they have many!) and had them write a note and send a picture, which I compiled into a tribute album. Years ago I made myself a scrapbook that I call my “celebration album.” It has meaningful letters and cards that people have sent me over the years; quotes I like; and pictures of people I love. I haven’t kept it up-to-date, but it’s on my to-do list for the year. I took several hours today to look at it in depth, read each letter, and really let the words and images sink in.

On the subject of celebrating, here’s an excerpt from a letter from my uncle and Godfather, Sam Gerth (one who made the trek to Virginia 50 years ago), on the occasion of my confirmation:

Life is not all fun and games. There are many doubts and hurts and pitfalls. And the risks may seem frightening. But we never learn our limits of creative power unless we press on, for if we press on we know how to celebrate and what we are celebrating and why.

This afternoon, I tried to let myself celebrate me–not just what I’ve accomplished, but who I am as a person. I tried to not be self-effacing, as Doug noted that I tend to be. I read cards and letters from previous clients. One card had the inscription, “There are moments when one person make a special difference that no one else can make.” Although I’ve had extensive education and great training as a therapist, I think people not only liked me, but also made sometimes profound changes in their lives, because they rightly sensed I truly cared. I let myself feel deeply blessed to have had these experiences.

Tonight Greg and I went to my parents’ house and they told stories about me when I was a baby and we looked at old photo albums. You could see their faces light up as if it were just yesterday. They talked about what an exciting and special time it was. There’s something about a baby!

When I worked at a hospital, every time a baby was born, a lullaby would play over the loudspeaker. In my current office building, it’s pretty much a given that when someone is on maternity leave, the mom will bring in the baby at some point. Everyone runs out of their offices to see it, hold it, and hear the stories.

All of this pondering about birthdays and babies, led me right back to the topic of this blog: self-compassion.

What if we could nurture ourselves as we would a newborn baby? What might that feel like? What might that look like? How might our lives be different? What if we allowed ourselves to be excited about life, not just when it is new, but also when it is seasoned.

I remember when my own son was born–the powerful and intense feelings of love and attachment. Tonight, I looked at a photograph of myself looking into his eyes when he was only a few days old. I was so young, and so enthralled with the perfection of this little guy. Tonight, I saw that same look on my parents’ faces as they recalled my birth. There’s something about a baby!

Barbara Quick, an author and editor of my first book, once sent me one of her poems. I don’t remember in what context she sent it to me, but I loved this line and have it written in my celebration album, along with pictures of my son as a baby.

I never understood before how an infant is the natural symbol of redemption: everything sundered is made whole again, every mistake forgiven.

Once again, there’s something about a baby!

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Me with my baby…
22 years ago.

A Tidbit of Truth from Around Here Lately

I don’t buy that we should face our fears just for the heck of it. People are always posting quotes on Facebook about overcoming fear and how you should never let fear hold you back. Sometimes I get sick of those quotes (even though I have posted some of them myself).

What is true for me is that I will do things that scare me if it’s for a reason I believe in, or for someone I love. To paraphrase Victor Frankl:

Those who have a WHY can bear almost any HOW.

Yesterday I drove to St. Louis to be at an important doctor’s appointment with a loved one. I used to live and drive in St. Louis every day, but since we’ve lived in Jefferson City for 15+ years, I rarely drive more images-8than a five miles at a time and never in heavy traffic. Unfortunately, I’ve let myself develop quite the phobia of driving over bridges, getting sandwiched between big trucks, driving next to a median, passing other cars, etc. It wasn’t easy–there was snow earlier in the day and the schools had even been closed. The road conditions were okay, but what freaked me out was that the snow had blown on all the highway signs, and I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to find my exits. I was very tense, but I made it. It was worth the stress–not because of some abstract reason of facing my fear, but because I did something important for someone I love. And by the way, the doctor’s appointment went well.

Stories and Compassion

“Everything is held together with stories.

That is all that is holding us together,

stories and compassion.” 

― Barry Lopez

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I told you my stories, and you reached out with compassion. It helped. It continues to help. Thank you.

I have had a good few days, and I know it’s because of you. This is no small thing–being there for each other. Yet we underestimate its importance.

At first glance, there seems to be nothing new about valuing compassion. It’s an idea that has been around for thousands of years in both the religious and secular worlds. But perhaps it is the universality of compassion that has lulled us into underestimating its importance.

Compassion is a treasure hidden in plain sight,

which we often don’t notice. -Larry Dorsey, M.D.

A big trend in psychotherapy is  “evidenced based treatment protocols.” Even as a write that, it sounds so cold. Of course, there are techniques and methods that are effective for a wide variety of problems.

But research over a long period of time continues to find that the core ingredient of someone’s progress in therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client. It’s what humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.” Psychologist David Myers writes:

Unconditional positive regard is an attitude of grace,

an attitude that values us even knowing our failings.

noname-30Writing on a blog is not the same as psychotherapy, but similar healing happens. You tell your stories. You find others have similar stories. You learn you’re not alone. You are seen.

You find out people accept you even if

you’re a bit tattered around the edges.

Again, this is no small thing.

Again, thank you, friends.

Beginning Again with Self-Compassion: Part One

Dear Blogging Friends,

After my last post admitting the fact that I have no clue what I’m doing with my various blogs and social media pages, my faithful reader, Doug, said he voted for having this be more of a personal blog. Although appealing, it scares me for several reasons. One, I’ve been raised to be very private. (Why not just write in a  journal?)  In addition, some of the things I want to write about involve other people, who don’t want their stories told. I respect that. And then there’s this: a personal blog is, well, personal. Do I really want the world to know how messed up I am? I told my husband a few weeks ago, “I thought I’d be more together by age 52.” He so sweetly and earnestly said, “Being together is over-rated.”

You have been taught that there is something wrong with you and that you are imperfect, and there isn’t and you’re not.

-Cheri Huber

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But, at least for today, I’m going to go for it, and tell you what’s really going on with me.

My self-compassion practice has been a joke. My husband told me the other day that he thinks I’m still way too hard on myself.  I said incredulously, “Really?” I hadn’t even noticed. So I retook the self-compassion test on Kristin Neff’s website and I scored horribly–probably lower than I did when I first started this blog. Oh my gosh. I felt badly because I was feeling so badly about myself! Of course, I started to cry.

My first year of blogging went really well. I was learning to be kinder and more gentle with myself; I felt more peaceful. So what happened? I’m not sure, but here are a few theories (maybe not in order of importance–I’m figuring this out as I go):

1. Chronic pain has worn me down.

  • I’ve felt overwhelmed dealing with doctors and new medicine trials. I’ve had hopes dashed when a medicine gave me so many side effects I stopped taking it, and then read in my records I was labeled “noncompliant.”
  • I don’t have doctors I trust. I feel like I’m flip-flopping around too much, but I can’t find anyone I click with.
  • It’s frustrating having to weigh every decision based on whether I think I’ll be able to manage the pain, and how long I’ll take to recover.
  • The things I like to do the most are the things that exacerbate my pain.

One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.

-Michael J. Fox

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2. Dealing with depression on top of chronic pain really sucks.

  • I’ve had a long, long history of depression, and I’ve come to realize that I have what’s called “treatment-resistant” depression. Despite lots of psychotherapy and lots of different medications, I have a very difficult time maintaining a stable mood. (And going through menopause definitely made me worse!) I’m not Bipolar with highs and lows–I just have varying degrees of lows, with just enough good days sprinkled in to let me know what I’m missing. My last psychiatrist retired, so I’m starting with a new one. Of course, she thinks the previous doc had me on all the wrong things, so I’m trying some new things, which is EXTREMELY scary for me. I am trying really, really hard. I didn’t read any of the information on side effects and am giving this a chance. It’s been two weeks and I’m afraid to be hopeful, but maybe I am, just a little bit.

When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.

-Mark Twain

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3. I have an over-active reptilian brain.

The reptilian brain is the part of the brain that deals with threats. From an evolutionary perspective, this part of the brain kept us safe from lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). When confronted with perceived danger, adrenaline kicks in and we swiftly move into survival mode. Our nervous system goes on overdrive and we can do amazing things–run quickly, fight off an enemy, or freeze until our enemy thinks we’re dead and leaves us alone. I would have been great in prehistoric times. But now? My brain is constantly scanning for things to go wrong, leaving me in worry-mode much of the time.

Also, as Kristin Neff pointed out: “…when the threat is to our self-concept, self-criticism does not work well. When you view yourself as the problem (I can’t believe I gained those 5 pounds back, I should’ve gotten an A on that test) the reptilian brain kicks in and attacks yourself, thus the self-critical self-talk.”

To top it off, as neuroscientist Rick Hanson describes it, my brain is like teflon for remembering positive events and velcro for remembering negative events. In actuality, the ratio of positive to negative events in my life is in my favor, but it often doesn’t feel this way. I forget the good.

What does this have to do with my self-compassion practice going awry? I think because these grooves are so deeply cut into my brain that I have to be very intentional to move out of this way of being. And I haven’t been very intentional (partly due to #1 and #2)

We have to have compassion for the self critic. Self-criticism comes from a desire to keep ourselves safe.

-Kristin Neff

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This is getting kind of long, but I’m not finished yet! I’ll continue in Part Two, hopefully in a few days. I want you to know how much I appreciate you reading this and all your support. I am going to begin again with self-compassion, this very moment, and know that it is okay. I’m okay, you’re okay, and everything is already alright.

You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you’re beautiful.

-Amy Bloom

Photos by Greg Markway, taken over the past few weeks.

Living the Questions

photo-61My blogging and social media is a mess! Despite seriously thinking about giving up blogging due to my chronic pain, I somehow have three blogs that I can’t part with. I have this blog, The Self-Compassion Project, and two on Psychology Today. The first blog I started over there is called Shyness is Nice (named after The Smiths song). The other is called Living the Questions (named from the Rilke quote to the left).  I’ve been doing this for about two years and I haven’t really found my voice on any of these blogs.  Writing books was so much easier for me!

A few days ago, I impulsively thought I should change my Facebook page name from The Self-Compassion Project to Living the Questions, so it would at least match one of my Psychology Today blogs.  I submitted the change to Facebook, not thinking they would approve it. I heard they were pretty picky about such things. The very next day, however, they had approved the change. Now I realize that I will have hundreds of links to change on my Psychology Today posts. Plus, I’m not even sure if I’m happy they approved it. I wonder if I could write Facebook back and say I made a mistake? I obsess over everything!

Who knows? Maybe this will free me up to write more on this blog. Really make it a personal blog, and not worry if I post too many pictures of my dogs, or that I write silly things, or that I’m inconsistent in posting.

Anyway, I just thought I’d let you know that if you notice the Facebook name change, it’s because I do not know what I’m doing!

 

The Courage to Be Ordinary

my_collage_by_Fuzel-3It’s the end of the year. People are blogging about their favorite memories, their biggest challenges, and their hopes and plans for the new year. I haven’t had the energy for introspection. And I’m okay with that.

Instead, I’m making a simple plan: embrace being ordinary, even average. In our culture of striving for excellence, this plan is going to take courage.

Here are some gems I found to inspire me, and maybe you, too…

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“Often we take for granted just being ordinary. We feel the constant pressure to compete, to excel, and to be special. The fact is most people are average with respect to any particular human characteristic. That is the definition of average. And yet many are not satisfied with the average or ordinary and tend to be discontent and always striving. It is a great relief and healing when you realize that just being ordinary and your ordinary life are wonderful gifts.”

Healing Zen, by Ellen Birx

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“Now I see that the journey was never meant to lead to some new and improved version of me; that it has always been about coming home to who I already am.”

Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment, by Katrina Kenison

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Perhaps most tragically, when we work so hard to be special, there is no time to be alive! No time to open our arms to the simple, the average, the everyday. Which is where 99.9% of the life happens and where we get to be who we are!

In Celebration of Being Ordinary, by Jennifer Louden

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“I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.”

Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger