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Showing posts with label perfectionism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label perfectionism. Show all posts

Sunday, October 21, 2012

My Year of Living Fearlessly!

When we know who we are, we can overcome our fears and insecurities. We surpass our smaller selves who suffer the slings and arrows of our conditioned reality, and we move to the unconditional truth of our larger selves. The answers to the questions of what to do, what to say, whom to let in, and whom to keep out become a clear and simple matter of listening to our hearts. That inner voice helps us align with our purpose, because each of us has a purpose, even if we judge it to be insignificant the voice is there. We just need to listen to it. When we do that, we live in fearlessness.” – Arianna Huffington, excerpted from On Becoming Fearless in Love, Work, and Life


Since my last blog post, I’ve been busy crossing things of my list of “Fears to Conquer and Dreams to Live,” as part of my intention to live fearlessly in 2012!

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about my decision not to make a list of New Year’s resolutions in my post What Would You Do if You Weren't Afraid? Instead, I decided to embrace the idea that by striving to live fearlessly, an even more authentic and courageous self may emerge. The thing about fear is that it limits full self-expression while keeping us fearfully, anxiously captive. Perfectionism, the underlying culprit behind many New Year’s resolutions, is fear’s evil twin (I’ve written about it in Making Failure Okay). Therefore, I also made a commitment to embrace the belief  “I’m already enough.”

We seek to help our kids to conquer their fears every day, and the best place to start is with ourselves!

The first thing I did after writing my New Year’s post was to make a list of my fears. I was pleasantly surprised to find that none of the classic phobias were on the list. I’m not afraid of spiders, snakes, heights, public speaking, or flying. Of course, when I see a snake on the side of the road on one of my long distance runs, I still jump. That type of fear is biologically-based, instinctual, and the kind of self-protective response we need for survival. Pure fear, instead of anxious “fright,” can be a powerful protector and teacher. In 2012, however, I wanted to coax the monsters from out under my bed, rid old skeletons in my closet. Simply riding more roller coasters wasn’t going to do the trick.

So, here’s where things got interesting. Once I was willing to commit to living fearlessly, I found that every single fear I may have avoided, stuffed, or otherwise denied, when given permission to be expressed, written down on paper, or otherwise invited to show its ugly face, did just that! Around about January 15th, it looked like Halloween in my own head!  Therefore, as I became willing to face my fears, it became very important to identify specific goals and steps to take to conquer those fears. The fastest anxiety-busting technique I know is to take ACTION! As the old adage reminds us: “The only way out is through.” No matter how small the steps you take through fear, it just matters that you keep taking those steps. For every fear on my list, I came up with a fear-busting goal.

Here's a sample of some of the fears from my January 1st, 2012 list:

"I'm afraid of becoming blind." So, I promptly booked an appointment with an optometrist who reassured me I had neither a fatal brain tumor nor impending blindness. Instead, she prescribed a cheap pair of readers and told me “You have excellent vision, but you're in your forties.  The good news is that your forties aren't fatal! Your eye strain isn’t a tumor, you just need readers.” Phew!  One fear down, nine to go!

"I'm afraid of not having friends and family for support during tough times." So, I started reaching out to old and new friends and hosting more social gatherings, whether my house is clean or not, and repaired my heart and upped my happiness a little more in the process.  I booked flights for myself and my family home to Canada for a much-needed family and friends fill-up after a two year absence. I’ve reconnected with old friends and estranged family members. I’ve learned to sit in the discomfort of misunderstandings and past hurts without needing to be right, but instead seeking to forgive and cultivate peace.

A few of the fears on my list involved overcoming previous experiences that had evoked survival responses of fear, like my fear of snorkeling after getting caught off a coral reef a few years ago in the Caribbean (read about that by clicking here). But most of my fears were more existential in nature. Fears that, upon reflection, I realized were holding me back in my relationships and career. Those fears were the ones rooted deep in childhood experiences that required some careful uprooting. Previous hurts in relationships still haunted me in the form of a fear of making mistakes, being unlovable, or being judged. The imposter syndrome was on the list. And like many others, the bag lady fear also made my list—minus the house full of cats.

Looking at my list of fears, it struck me that I had inherited most of my fears from my parents and that, almost by osmosis, I had absorbed many from our culture primarily through fear-based media messaging. Fears like: losing everything and becoming homeless, being a bad parent, and getting sick and old.

Many of my underlying fears I know I share with others. As a therapist I have the unique opportunity and privilege to listen as children, adolescents, and adults in my office peel back the layers to reveal the underlying fears that keep them unhappy and afraid in life. Our materialist society capitalizes on these very fears to sell stuff. “If you buy this cream, you’ll look young and stay lovable.” “If you buy this insurance, you won’t get sick, grow old, and die alone.” But life is unpredictable. Until we learn to live more fully in the present and take action, instead of worrying needlessly about future “what if’s,” we leave ourselves vulnerable to fear’s tight grip. It’s not as if anti-aging face creams, insurance policies, and saving for a rainy day are bad ideas. But I’ve found that when fear motivates my decisions, my goals are less aligned with being authentic and courageous and more about avoiding some kind of possible pain.

After writing down my fears, my next step was to use the surest, quickest way I’ve found to release oneself from fear: author Byron Katie’s Four Questions method. Her method helps folks to reveal how irrational most fears are and to discover what it might be like to live life without fearful thought.

Here are her Four Questions:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it's true?
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
Source: www.thework.com

The four questions have helped me to discover that most all fears are irrational. I also found that once I identified key fears to conquer, more than enough opportunities presented themselves to help me overcome them! Don't say I didn't warn you! My responses to question 4 also helped me generate my list of dreams to live this year.

For example, if I wasn’t afraid of being lost in New York City (which resulted in a mild panic attack a few years ago on Ellis Island), then I would sign up for the 2012 ING NYC marathon and run through all the city’s boroughs. So, I promptly signed myself up.  On November 4th I will be completing my first marathon in fifteen years. It turns out that at age 45 I do have to stretch more, and my first few long runs were painful.  But otherwise the optometrist is right, our forties aren't fatal!

"I’m afraid of asking others for help" was also on my list of fears to conquer.  Plenty of opportunities there when I put my ego aside and open myself up to others' help and what they have to teach me!  I'm now fundraising and asking friends and family for money for the Alzheimer’s Association on behalf of my mother and uncle who have been recently been diagnosed with this devastating disease. Instead of running from my genetic heritage, I’m running towards a cure before anyone else in my family is afflicted! Here’s my fundraising page, in case any of you are interested and/or would like more information on behalf of your own family.

Thus far in 2012, I’ve flown in an open helicopter with my daughter (who was afraid of flying, as some of you may remember from reading Fear of Flying: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Feeling). I got back into the ocean and snorkeled in Cuba. I’ve completed five months of marathon training and two half-marathons in preparation for November 4th. I’ve made sure to focus more on all the good in others, instead of looking for something to judge—thus, effectively curtailing my own fear of others judging me!

I catch myself when I’m worrying and remind myself what I’ve taught my own children since they were little: “A change in your thoughts, leads directly to a change in your feelings.” So, I pick a different thought. A kinder thought that evokes faith and peace, instead of worry.

I completed Kathy Freston’s Quantum Wellness 21-day cleanse as a way to kick start healthier habits, get in better shape for the marathon, and genuinely feel more at ease in the present moment.

I listen more—especially to my kids who’ve felt free to give me feedback on what it is like to have a therapist for a mom who looks too often for problems to solve and advice to give! Once they hit adolescence, I started asking if they wanted to hear my thoughts. Surprisingly, more often than not, they do still want to hear what I have to say especially now that they have a choice.

I’ve made sure to do at least one thing that makes me happy every day. Subsequently, I've cultivated a much more grateful heart.

And after completing all my mental health therapist licensure requirements after moving five years ago from Canada to the U.S., I'm finally listening to that wise inner voice Arianna Huffington's quote refers to and gave notice at my job a few weeks ago.  I will be devoting much more time in 2013 to pursuing a higher purpose and integrity in my professional life, which includes making Lion’s Whiskers into a book.

As I conquer the last few fears on my list, I notice that I’m trusting myself, others, and the Universe a lot more. I’m back to laughing a lot more, stressing less, and generally being a much more relaxed parent.  Fear is no longer a foe, but more a scaredy-cat I'm making friends with—cause let's face it, everyone could use a little more friendship in their lives!

My daughter crossing the finish line with me at my recent half-marathon!

The truth of the matter is that these past ten months I've been most inspired by my own children and those I work with therapeutically to learn what it is to live life fearlessly. I wholeheartedly believe kids have a lot to teach us about courage. It's in everything they do!

I also know that as parents we could be much more aware of how we project our fears onto our children. By trusting our children—instead of letting worry get in our own way and theirs—we intentionally uproot fear's tenacious roots before they grow too deep, thus encouraging our children to develop trust in themselves. But more on that topic in upcoming posts!

Feel free to enjoy the follow-up chapter to this particular story by clicking here: Running Plan B

Care to share a fear of yours and what action you might take to conquer it!?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Making Failure Okay

A couple of years ago, Jennifer, my husband and I took our kids to a ropes course called Adirondack Extreme. It is described as an “Aerial Tree Top Adventure” which includes a complex ropes course suspended between trees at 10 to 60 feet off the ground. It promised to be a fun physical courage challenge. Little did I know that it would be more of an emotional and social courage challenge for me. The labyrinth of ropes wouldn’t prove to be my biggest adversary, but untangling myself from my own perfectionism would be.


Jennifer did not climb due to an old injury, but she supervised our daughters on the kids’ course. My husband, our son, and I challenged the adult course. We attended a brief instruction on how to put on our harness, how to securely hook and unhook ourselves along the course, and how to ask for help—if push came to shove and we decided we were done at some point along the increasingly challenging course. I paid pretty close attention to the introductory talk, but only half-listened to the “asking for help” part. As I’ve written about previously in my post “Quitters, Campers, and Climbers,” I’m not much of a quitter. I’m a climber who, I'm embarrassed to admit, even sometimes secretly feels superior to quitters.


By the time I reached mid-course, my then 12-year old son was lapping me. He seemed recklessly, blissfully unaware of all the risks that I was quickly becoming aware of as I looked down from the tree tops to the ground twenty, then fifty, feet below. He just kept saying “Mom, this is SO much fun. It’s easy!”


I can assure you this course was NOT easy! And I was so over the idea of this being fun. The more joyless and humorless I became, the more rigid my body became.  My joyful son, on the other hand, had the agility of a monkey; while I swung precariously, holding on for dear life with increasingly sweaty palms, between the various rope mazes. He was fearless, while I was quickly becoming fearful.


One of the big differences between kids and adults in terms of risk assessment is the cognitive tricks that our minds begin to play with us as we develop. According to child psychologist Dr. Tamar Chansky (2004), in her book Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical solutions to Overcome Your Child’s Fears, Worries, and Phobias, we feel anxious when we begin to confuse the possibility of occurrence with the probability of it actually occurring. Dr. Chansky writes that the “Anxious Response= Overestimation of Threat + Underestimation of Ability to Cope.” So, while I was focusing on whether or not the ropes were strong enough to hold me, the possibility of falling, how painful it would be to hang upside down for an extended period of time waiting for help, whether or not my children (who I no longer had in sight) were okay or not, and how embarrassing it would be to quit; my son was enjoying each new obstacle on the course while feeling totally secure in his crotch harness and physical ability.




At the second to last level, all alone now on the course, I was officially scared. But quit? OMG, no way! Quitting = Failure, to the perfectionist mind.  Which is, as Jennifer wrote in her last post Failure is Always an Option, “tantamount to total annihilation.” At the very least, annihilation of the ego. Success for me, at times, can be deeply intertwined with trying to prove that I’m lovable and valuable. In short, I wasn’t a kid who learned that her success in life is based on who she is, not on how she looks or what or how well she does. A perfectionist places more value on how she appears to the world than on who she is on the inside.  This misplacement of her inherent value creates a fragile ego swinging precariously from one success to the next, desperately trying to avoid the identity-crisis pitfalls that mistakes, and especially failure, threaten.  It's also what makes perfectionists highly competitive and probably not all that relaxing to be around sometimes. Needless to say, this aspect of my personality is not particularly healthy--nor is feeling secretly superior to quitters, for that matter! These are not personality characteristics I wish to pass along to my children. Instead, I parent my kids in ways that focus on their inherent value.  I focus less on how they look and what grades they get, but more on the core qualities they are developing as kind, loving human beings.  I encourage them to listen to their limits and feelings, to focus on their successes, to identify goals that are truly important to them (not society at large), to do their best because there is no such thing as perfect, and to be gentle with themselves when they make mistakes.  I’ve coached them to develop an internal locus of control (you can read my parenting tips here: Are You an Inny or an Outy?) And I'm known for saying "I love who you are, and who you are becoming."  Let’s be honest, embracing this kind of unconditional acceptance of both ourselves and our children is kind of radical—especially today in our culture of overachievement! Dr. Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection is a great resource for anyone interested in understanding and letting go perfectionism!


One of the many gifts of being a parent, in my opinion, is that we get the chance to teach (and learn from) our kids what we, too, need to learn in life.  In essence, parenting has given me the opportunity to release myself from perfectionism's uncomfortable grip and develop the kind of self-acceptance and love that my kids seem to instinctively possess.  And now I was about to model that it's sometimes okay to quit!


When I reached the next tree post, I found myself hugging and not wanting to let go of that tree with the kind of intense love usually reserved for extreme environmentalists. I was done! It was suddenly much more important to me to listen to my body’s limits and find my kids on the course than to prove to myself and others that I could finish. Suddenly, quitting was not only an option, but it was okay. I couldn’t remember the code word the guide had told me to yell if I needed to be rescued, but in any situation screaming “HELP!” usually works.  I started with a timid “Helloooooo. Guide?!” which quickly progressed to screaming above the treetops “HELP! I need to get down now.” 

In a matter of minutes, a very kind and capable young man arrived on the scene to lower me from the towering heights of my new BFF. I told him I was okay and felt surprisingly calm.  I wanted to reassure him that I wasn’t going to cling to him like a crazy lady when he finally reached me.  He, in turn, reassured me that this kind of thing happens every day.  That made me feel a lot better!  I found myself laughing, recalling my high-pitched screams for help above the tree tops, and relaxing as he lowered us to the ground. I was amazed not to be embarrassed. The earth did not open up to swallow me whole when my feet reached terra firma. Throngs of people weren’t waiting on the ground to laugh, jeer, and otherwise poke fun at my failure. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep perfectionism well-fed, by the way, and keep us from trying things that might mean risking failure in some way, shape, or form. In fact, I felt kind of proud of myself. I had actually asked for help and received it! Trust me when I say, it took more emotional courage for me to quit, ask for help and trust that it would arrive, and social courage to risk embarrassment amongst my peers and family, than the physical courage to force myself to finish the course.


I could have focused on my failure and spiraled down into an abyss of low self-esteem, but I made my failure okay by focusing instead on what I was able to accomplish. I made it okay to quit by untangling who I am as a person from my perfectionist expectations.  I discovered that the belief that you are already “good enough,” no matter what you are able to accomplish, is perfectionism's personal kryptonite. Adopting a new respect for quitting has also freed me up to be willing to climb again! 


By honoring the type of courage I actually needed to develop, I was able to reframe my perceived physical courage “failure” as an emotional courage accomplishment. We can do this for our kids, too, by helping them to recognize the gains they make everyday, by breaking apart difficult tasks into smaller more manageable and achievable ones, and by celebrating their successes. We can help them identify which of the six types of courage they are developing, and are capable of, in everything they do!


As I was writing this post, I asked my daughter to define failure.  Her answer: “There is no such thing as failure Mom. Whatever you are able to do is okay.”  When I also asked if she'd like to try the adult course with me again this summer, now that she's almost 12, she said: “Probably not.  I'm not a big fan of heights.”


You can read more about coaching kids to face challenges in my previous post: Discourage/Encourage: What’s a Parent to Do?