All posts by Shaun P. Kell

About Shaun P. Kell

Couple and Family Therapist (LMFT) at Reflections Psychotherapy in Gray, Georgia. For appointments or questions: http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/153959

The Promised List of Resolutions

I’ve noticed some resistance to putting this list together as I thought about it this week.

My mind kept saying things like “If you put that out there, you’ll have to either do the things on your list or admit that you aren’t willing to put the effort into it.”

Incidentally, I’ve stopped talking about “being motivated.” Moving in a valued direction (after all the root of “motivation” is the same as “movement”) is about wanting what you are headed toward more than you want to stay where you are. Or, to paraphrase an old saying about therapy “The pain of staying the same has to outweigh the pain of changing.” It’s about valuing. So, either I value the changes I say I want enough to put in the work, or I don’t. Assuming, of course, I picked the right resolution to build the habit I say I value. I can move with vigor in the wrong direction, or expend a great deal of effort on a resolution that doesn’t move me the direction I want to go. So, I’m compassionate and flexible with myself about this.

Anyway, Here they are, organized by topic and month in a nice little spreadsheet:

Shaun’s Happiness Project Resolutions

A few notes:

I settled on 4 broad resolutions that break down into 3 or 4 specific behavioral “to do’s” each day: Strengthen the Marriage, Lighten Up (this is one of Rubin’s too), Be a Better Friend, and Be the Parent I Wish to Be.

Marriage: I want to be more affectionate, stop griping when plans change, do my part to keep the house tidy, and join my wife in a goal to trim a few pounds.

Lighten up: I tend to be grumpy in the mornings, so I will get up 30 minutes before the children to jog, do some yoga, meditate, or have a quiet cup of coffee. Also, I will work to laugh more and to be more silly with the children and my spouse.

Friends: Like most men, I tend not to put enough effort into cultivating strong friendships. So I will offer warm greetings to neighbors and acquaintances (I have a tendency to be shy), check in with one friend every day, and find people to exercise with.

Parenting: I want to look my kids in the eyes more. Looking them in the eyes helps me to tune in to them and them to listen to me. I want to take my own advice and play 15 minutes with each of them on their own terms. And to give attention and support to their positive emotions. I’m good at naming and helping soothe the negative, but I want to teach myself and them to savor the positive.

What about you? Are you working on your own list? What’s on it?

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What I’m “reading:” The Happiness Project

The Happiness Project

Hi there! and happy Monday Morning. (Ouch.)

My favorite little “business expense” is my Audible.com subscription. Once a month, on the 22nd, I get a new credit to download an audiobook. Since I have a 25 minute (but who’s counting?) commute to the office, I get to listen to my new book to and from work. Usually, I get something about mental health or positive psychology. Sometimes it’s something from one of the contemplative spiritual traditions. This month, it’s been Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. 

Ms. Rubin, riding the subway one morning, was struck by the realization that she wasn’t as happy as she wanted to be. There was nothing particularly wrong–actually, life was pretty good–she just wasn’t experiencing the happiness she wanted. So she set out to learn and try out as many tricks and habits of happiness that she could in a year. She got a bunch of books (kindred spirit: my automatic thought when in distress is “there must be a book that will help!”), written by everyone from ancient philosophers to modern psychological scientists. Then she made herself a list of goals.

I commend the book to you. More than that, I commend her method.

If you’re like me, you have your ups and downs, your satisfactions and disappointments. But most of the time, unless a moment brings intense joy or pleasure or painful sadness or unease, you just kind of go along, doing one thing after another, picking up the kids’ toys, doing your job, going to the pool or the trail or the grocery store, never really paying attention much to the larger questions.

“Is this the way I most want to be living my life?”

“Am I treating this one precious life, these few precious people with the care and attention it all deserves?”

“Am I doing what I can to savor the good, let go of the bad, and grow?”

Gretchen Rubin asked herself and answered, like I and I imagine most of you would; “sometimes.”

Here’s the magic, though. She got serious about changing it. She thought about what areas of her life bring the most happiness and set specific, measurable goals that would improve her happiness. Exercise. Organize the closets (“no!”). Make scrapbooks of the kids’ pictures. Check in with extended family regularly. Try new things. Lighten up (“YES!”).

She made a chart.

Seriously, a chart, friends. With daily check-boxes to keep her thinking of the goals she had set for herself. I love this. Take it from  guy who works every day to help people make changes: change is hard. It takes sustained, focused effort. The people in the AA movement suggest that once a person gets de-toxed from an addictive substance, they should go to 60 12-step meetings in 60 days. Of course it’s a hassle. Of course it’s all you have time to do.

But that’s what it takes.

So, for people like me who are pretty happy, but who want to really wake up and appreciate this one good life, it might take making a list and checking it daily.

I’m working on my list this week. I’ll try to put it up for you soon.

What I’m Listening To: Rainy Morning Playlist

This is my Dreary Morning Playlist. Inspired by Alicia, who was, I think, inspired by Brene Brown, I was trying to think of my “theme song.” But I love music too much to pick one.

“Captain Kirk,” I said first; “I just wanna feel good. I don’t want to hurt nobody. I just want to get a good time out of my life,” goes the chorus. As a recovering unboundaried, compulsive do-gooder, this was my theme song several years back as I began to let go of the need to fix, um, well, everything.

No, wait, “Pride,” by U2. That balances the other song; showing courage in the name of love (rather than in the name of filling up an insecure ego).

But, “Sons and Daughters,” with Colin Meloy’s utopian “here, all the bombs fade away,” always brings tears to my eyes. Squishy as it sounds, I really do pray for world peace. Every day. With my children.

But speaking of prayer, John Prine’s chorus,” Father, forgive us for what we must do; You forgive us and we’ll forgive you. We’ll forgive each other ’til we both turn blue,” just about sums up most of my other prayers.

Which got me to thinking about how we deal with our hurts: Holding space both for the inevitable pain of life and the beautiful grace that emerges when we sit compassionately with ourselves and others, committed to transforming our pain instead of transmitting it; that’s my definition of the good life.

So, I added Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” Colin Hay’s “Beautiful World,” Rancid’s “Fall Back Down,” Mumford and Sons’ “Lover of the Light.” I was on a roll.

To round out with the quiet joy and gratitude I feel when I settle down to appreciate the life I’ve been given, I added Jack Johnson’s “Better Together,” and Josh Ritter’s “Snow is Gone,” Which reminds me to add a couple more right now.

So, what’s on your playlist?

Men’s Shame (and how to kill it)

10272567_10203620278335393_6146136852354296547_oI’ve mentioned Brene Brown’s work before, but I want to share a story I heard her tell that changed my marriage and my work. I first heard it on Krista Tippett’s wonderful podcast, On Being, last December.

She tells a story of a man in a yellow golf jacket who approached her after a talk on shame.

“I noticed you don’t talk about men,” he said.

“Oh, I don’t study men,” she replied–although you really should listen to her tell the story

“That’s convenient,” he told her. “Because men have shame. But before you talk about all those mean fathers and coaches, let me tell you that my wife and daughters, who you just signed books for, would rather see me die on my white horse than get down off it.”

Whoa.

I was riding home from a visit to my mom’s house with my wife and daughters when I heard this, and I stopped the podcast.

Did you hear that?” I asked my my wife.

“Yeah.” She said, kind of casually, like “ok, what’s the big deal?” ( should interject here.  Contrary to what people usually say about men and women and feelings, I am the drama king in my marriage. My wife is less reactive, more able to take the long view, and much more able to hold on to perspective when things get heated. I need to take breaks to get my head back on when I get upset. She may have suspected I was having a moment.)

“I’m not laying any blame on you for this, but that thing she just said–that phrase about you would rather see me die on my white horse than come down off it–that is maybe the truest thing I have ever heard about about the way I and my friends experience shame.” My voice was thick. It is so hard to say those things out loud.

OK, guys, here’s the dirty little secret:

Shame keeps us silent and distant from our loved ones and our lives and our best, strongest selves by getting us to believe one big lie: It is not OK to be weak or to let people think you are weak. 

I sit with lots of men and teen boys in my practice. And I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth or tell anyone’s secrets, but let me just say one thing about men: I’m convinced that this shame is one of the root causes of much of the violence, aggression, depression, disengagement, emotional unavailability, blowing off school, disrespect for women, and materialistic greed we see in men and boys.

Guys, we have got to start talking about it. Shame dies when we say it out loud to a person who cares enough to look us in the eye and say , “yeah man, me too.”

Maybe I’m being a drama king again, but I really think this is how we change the world for the better.

Mindfulness Links and Instructions

Mindfulness Links and Instructions

Hi! 

If you’re here because you saw me on WMAZ, then welcome!

What is Mindfulness?

Simply paying attention to what is happening right now without trying to change it. That’s it. There are two parts:

1. Repetition of a focus of some sort–breath, a prayer, a focus on the body, a sound, or (more advanced) whatever thoughts pass in your awareness. 

2. Acceptance of what is. Whenever thoughts, distractions,  worries, the grocery list, physical pains, or any other kind of thought grabs your attention away from your focus, the moment you notice it, you gently return your attention to the focus. The hard part is is to accept that you have been distracted, in pain, worried, or wandering around in your thoughts. Do not judge it as good or bad. “It is what it is,” as people say. 

How?

The link above is to the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center’s free mindfulness downloads page. If you are starting out, these are great, short mindful practices you can do every day. Try it daily! 3 minutes a day is better than 20 minutes once a week. The point is to practice frequently to train your mind to be present and non-judgmental.

What if I’m not into “Eastern Religion?”

This is not an Eastern thing. This kind of practice appears in all faith traditions. Much like the Golden Rule, it just makes sense to Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and people of all faiths and people of no particular faith at all. If you want a specifically Christian practice, look at the centering prayer page here. While you are there, have a look at the Lectio Divina practices, too. 

I tried it and I’m not good at it!

Yes you are. You are supposed to be distracted. The gentle act of will you engage when you turn your attention back to the focus IS the practice. If you have a million thoughts or distractions in three minutes, you have a million times to practice moving your attention back to the present moment. Inner silence may come in brief moments after you’ve been doing this a long while, but it’s impossible to stop the mind from making thoughts. It’s what the mind does. Just like the stomach digests, the mind makes thoughts. The work here is moving your attention back to the focus. The only way to do it wrong is not to do it! 

More links:

ADHD: http://psychcentral.com/lib/mindfulness-skills-useful-in-addressing-adhd/0004286

The Harvard research team: relaxationresponse.org

Jon Kabat Zinn lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gViiux9ANMk

A TED talk by Daniel Seigel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiyaSr5aeho

Have an experience to share? Post the comments! I’ll try to moderate and approve them as they come in. 

 

 

On Taking My Own Medicine

lexaproI resisted for six months or so despite having promised myself last time this happened (the year I changed jobs and our first daughter was born) that I would probably need the extra help whenever life changed in a major way. I told myself I could do it without the help, that lots of people struggle and who was I to complain or ask for extra help. I thought I could manage by trying harder: at self-care, willing away the worried thoughts, meditating more, praying more, exercising more, journalling more.

But the anxiety went with me on vacation. The second half of my family vacation to some of the most beautiful beaches in America (Malibu, Palos Verdes, Manhattan–all in the Los Angeles area) was punctuated with intrusive thoughts about stressors, fears of failing, money worries, and guilt about worrying while I should have been relaxing (ah, “should,” how much of our pain is caused by that word?) At home, my wonderful partner told me in a moment of honest confession she felt the worry had become a third member of our relationship. Ouch.

I reflected. I considered re-starting the antidepressant medication that had helped me with the anxiety in the past. After all, anxiety tends to run in my family–a sibling, a parent, at least one grandparent, and lots of cousins, aunts, and uncles all struggle with it. There is most likely some biological component of this. An inner thermostat set lower than average, when stress heats up, it kicks on the worry and forgets to switch it off. Plus, my own Holmes-Rahe Stressful Life Events score for 2013 was 248. Big changes in my life included a new house, new practice with all the major schedule changes it brought, moving a disabled parent to less than a mile from our home, a child starting pre-K, and the other normal life stuff that comes with working and having young children. And some of those big life stressors touched some of my personal worry buttons: the perfectionistic desire to be extra good at my job, the painful history with that parent I was now taking more care of. Some of them touched buttons that I’m convinced are pretty universal: income, bills, children, fear of failure in my career. So I was kind of due.

A month later, I’m managing much better with a little pharmaceutical support. I’m leaving the work worries at the office and enjoying the mental space it’s created for birthday parties, playing My Little Pony with the girls, walking to the park, talking with my spouse about what she wants to talk about, planning trips, and simply enjoying the way the earth is being reborn for another Spring.

I share all this for three reasons: First, to remind me and anyone who reads it that being a helping professional means not that I do not struggle with the very things my clients do, but that I do. Remembering that helps us all be fully present to the struggle together–and that’s what therapy at its best really is anyway. Second, I’ve come to appreciate (again) how hard it is for someone to admit it’s time to get help. I suspect we all wait too long as often as not. Third and most important for me personally: I believe that the most powerful antidote to perfectionism is honesty about my struggles and vulnerabilities.

Not my goose, not my bottle, not my problem

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I often tell the Story of the Goose and the Bottle. I first heard it as part of the Harvard Mind Body Medicine curriculum. Here it is:
A seeker climbed a mountain to ask the teacher for wisdom. “What is the secret to a happy life?” He asked.
“Tell me how to get a goose out of a bottle,” she replied.
So the seeker returned home to think about it. A week later, he returned and suggested; “smash the bottle to get the goose out.”
“No,” the teacher said. “You must not harm the bottle.”
The seeker returned home for another week to think. He climbed the mountain again and proposed; “crush the goose.”
“No. You must not harm the goose,” the teacher replied.
After another week thinking, the seeker returned a third time. But this time the teacher was not home. So he left a note.
Later that day, the teacher found the note with 9 words on it:
Not my goose.
Not my bottle.
Not my problem.

Stress: Part 2B: Cultivating Self-Compassion

Giving yourself permission to be human

My mentor Alicia Gregory, and I share a sort of nerdy obsession with good research on what I’ve taken to calling “the good life.” Lately I’m really loving what I’m learning about Self-Compassion. I commend Christopher Germer’s website and free guided meditation downloads. Since I started this post, I’ve gotten halfway through Kristen Neff’s book Self Compassion, which I have enjoyed too. If you’re looking for a “self-help” kind of book that introduces the concept, some of the background, and the research, this is a good place to start. Self-Compassion can begin with a startling realization: most of us talk to ourselves in ways we would never talk to another human being (or even the dog).

“Suck it up!” “You are stupid to feel this way!” “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and just have another drink!” “Who do you think you are to think you deserve a break?” “If you don’t do better, they are all going to realize you are a fraud and leave you.”

There are three movements to cultivating something healthier: First, we must become aware of our distress, negative emotions, self-defeating habits, and automatic responses to pain. Without judgment: just aware. Simply learning to say to ourselves before we rush off into a reactive tailspin; “oh, I am feeling bad.” Or, as Sylvia Boorstein recommends: “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Breathe. Pay attention to what is happening. Then we will figure out what to do.” There is a mindful part of us that is aware of our experience without being caught up in it–an inner observer. It is out of this place that we notice, label, and sit with our difficult experience.

A separate paragraph to emphasize the hardest part of this practice. The attitude is kindness. It helps to imagine a beloved child, dear friend, or precious pet. Approach  yourself as you would a beloved other, with care, with compassion, with empathy. I’ve been teaching myself put my hand on my heart and say softly; “Wow, buddy, this really hurts, doesn’t it?” Because I can’t bring myself to call myself “sweetheart.”

The second movement is normalizing your experience. Everyone struggles. Failure is normal. Everyone knows discomfort. It can be a powerful teacher. Give yourself permission to be a fallible, normal human being.

Third, practice compassion toward yourself. Incorporate your own version of Boorstein’s wonderful “sweetheart” practice. Download Germer’s self-compassion meditations and put them on your phone and do one every day. It may be hard to sit quietly and wish yourself well. I recommend sticking with it. None of us will be fully compassionate with our weakness every time, but we get better with practice.

One further note: for those of us with a strong habit of perfectionism, shame, or feeling unworthy of love, it may be really difficult even to start with such a practice. We may fear that if we offer ourselves compassion for mistakes, pain, weakness, or hurt, we will be “lazy,” or slip off the deep end into failure. It can be hard to keep in mind that just as trees bear fruit in sunshine and good soil, humans grow with love, belonging, and security. I’m not merely being poetic here: the research is in. Secure, loving relationships (with self and others) are the basis for flourishing. If you want to work on self-compassion (or want to want to), but find the inner barriers too difficult to surmount, working with a therapist or spiritual director may help.