Starting from a deficit is always frustrating because after all the work done and resources used to get oneself to the surface, you often find yourself exhausted by the journey. Further, deficit thinking has us defining ourselves from the perspective of where we’re going, not where we’ve come from, it can feel that no movement has occurred at all! Unfortunately this mentality is exactly what we bring to ‘goal setting’ and it’s precisely why the spiral of shame and self-doubt is so often the end result. Thankfully we can give up goals by instead looking at achievement. The way to do this is to reframe our behavior within a consideration of Values.
Values are not Behavior
Values are not synonymous with, or at least not fully understood or fulfilled by, particular behaviors. This may at first sound obvious, but it’s not typically how we assess and judge ourselves and one another. When was the last time you chastised yourself for not going to the gym and instead binging a tv show? When was the last time you judged another as being dishonest based on a particular situation? For that matter, when was the last time you felt yourself unfairly judged when you went with being supportive rather than being honest? Or, how easy is it to think of a time when you gave up on supporting one Value, like Honesty, for the purpose of saving someone’s life, job or prevent being hurt?
All of these scenarios bring us to three conclusions:
Values never go away
Sometimes in supporting one Value in a particular way, it may mean not supporting another in a way we’d otherwise do
Context often drives what Value(s) we’re focused on
Consider the difficulty of judgment, both of others and ourselves. Often it happens where one family member will declare you don’t love them because you don’t treat them exactly the same way as another. The accusation is often met with stunned frustration because of course you love them, it’s simply that you interact differently due to the nature of the particular connection, the context in which a behavior occurred and what the other person’s interests may be. A more obvious example would be if one of your kids declared you didn’t love them because you don’t treat them the exact same way as your spouse. Clearly the claim is absurd, the very nature of the connection leads to different behavior. Importantly, the Value itself never went away.
Life is a constant juggling act of supporting what we care about, utilizing the behavior we’ve learned to associate with particular Values and doing so within contexts of which we often have no control over the particulars. Consider self-esteem or integrity, where ‘standing up for yourself’ is a common advice given. Yet, when faced with a hostile work environment or unhealthy personal relationship we won’t follow the advice, instead opting for another behavior. Where we often then shame ourselves, the reality is we did act to support a Value, but instead of Integrity, we acted on Financial Security, Safety, Peace, etc. What we’re concerned with here is not a judgment about long-term consequences, but a proper evaluation about why we do what we do in any given moment.
Those moments are context-driven. We are not likely going to be able to focus on Health when we’re incessantly surrounded by junk food and find it difficult to gain access to healthier alternatives. It’s little wonder in that context that Pleasure takes center-stage. We’re not likely to work on Self-Esteem/Image when coming out of an emotionally abusive family, surrounded by unsupportive community and/or lacking in skills that our specific society finds useful. I say “likely” here because there’s always personal stories of people seeing their way through adversity; this is about the general experience. In fact, behind every story of success despite adversity you’ll find that the person did the one thing we’re about to bring attention to: expanding perspective.
Daily Valued Living
Rather than goals, let’s consider what we’re already doing in our lives that is helpful and expand on that. Rather than getting caught up in a hyper-focus on one behavior, let’s consider how we’re always seeking to support what we care about.
Identify an area of your life you’d typically set a goal based on lack or self-denial
What Value is associated with that area?
Select 2-5 other Values that come to mind, or are associated with, that initial Value.
What are healthy behaviors to support that Value?
Consider how others are supporting those same Values and how you may bring such behavior completely or in part, to your own life.
Each step is about starting from your humanity, at the center of which is what you care about, and building upon what already exists. From that foundation you can increase your confidence in what is behaviorally possible by enlarging your competence in how you support what matters to you. Noticing what you’re already doing is exactly the opposite of getting lost in the contemplation of what you’re not. The latter is an ever-expanding sinkhole and we know where it sends us: nowhere.
By promoting to ourselves the daily ways we support our Values, we remind ourselves that we are constantly in service to them. By expanding what is possible through noticing how others support our shared Values we build a greater repertoire of behavioral tools to work through the struggles that inevitably come up. Isn’t that what we’re all ultimately interested in anyway?
To live is to change. Whether such change is directed from the inside-out through reflection, thoughtfulness and study, or from the outside-in through environmental shifts, life is a constantly moving beast we hold onto with smiles and gritted teeth. The difficulty with change is not found merely in the situation itself, though clearly this can be felt as small to monumental in that moment. What occurs with change is not bound within that moment however and it is in the ripple effects that our relational lives are most deeply known.
Consider that new job or home, losing a job or home, gaining a new friend or losing an old one, going through a dark emotional time or riding the high of a powerful experience; these are all events changing our lives and splashing over the sides of our personal stories. A new job and friends will bring about new social connections and shift our internal stories. A loss of a job or a friend will also funnel the power of change. Oliver Wendall-Holmes said:
“I find that the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving; To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it – but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.”
We cannot help but move our own lives within the flow of this relational reality. To attempt standing in one place in the midst of any of this is to be tossed about like flotsam in the sea rather than calmly shifting our balance at the wheel of our own ship.
That flow of relational life is how Daniel Siegel defines relationships, the form of which changing as the flow of information and energy moves. What used to be impossible to imagine becomes inevitable and what seemed inevitable becomes highly unlikely within this flow expressed through change. What new interests never before considered come about with a new intimate relationship? Consider how behavior that was once considered “not the real me,” becomes normal with new work and social environments? Mindfully reflect on verbal phrases picked up from friends and co-workers, jokes and stories retold that would not have been heard elsewhere and how people who are together for longer start acting more alike.
With these questions and thoughts being pondered, is it any wonder then why change is stressful and can feel overwhelming? Let the answer to this be both a thunderous yes and a powerful acceptance of such being normal. The wonder and privilege of living relational lives is how very much the limits of our imagination are largely due to the extent of our social connections. This means the difficulty that seems insurmountable awaits only a shift in those very connections to become less burdensome.
This process can involve searching for new people, but it can also be found in expanding the images we have of ourselves and those who are connected to us. The phrase “I didn’t know that about you” should not be bound to exasperation about a loved one, but a ringing cry of wonder at each and every new discovered facet of another and the connection between. We are much more, individually and together, than the current limits of our imagination would have us believe. To explore that potentiality is to ride the flow of our relational lives and not be tossed about when the sea churns.
The phrase “mental illness” brings up all manner of images, emotions and opinions. It also comes with a fair amount of social stigma even in this day of pill-pushing advertisements. Perhaps the ubiquity of medications leads to questioning personal struggles, supporting the judgment of just taking a pill and moving on. There exists then a social pressure with so-called “solutions” being readily available, that to honestly admit of a continued struggle is a weakness or personal failing. Further, the heavy presence of advertising can give a false impression that we as a society are indeed talking openly and honestly about such matters. A similar impression could be made given the prevalence of sexuality in our media. Both are unequivocally false.
Being honest about such matters is what leads me here. I walk with depression and have been for almost twenty years. I use the phrase “walk with” because it’s a helpful metaphor for my experience. I enjoy going for walks and while there is a level of similarity each time, placing one foot in front of the other, there is also a great deal of variation. The terrain changes depending on where I’m at, leading to changes in what is noticed and how often I stare at my feet so as not to trip. The length of time will change depending on what I’m up for, varying through the years and the level of personal fitness. I can still talk about going for walks, but without taking into consideration all these variables, it becomes just something a lot of people do.
Depression is similar, shared by millions yet unique to each person. The mental tapes of self-castigation, concern over potential loss, being unloved, and the inevitable underlying thread of being a failure and unworthy of life provide a description for what depression has been for me. Some of those aspects may resonate with others, but they are not the whole story.
Medication, counseling, diet changes, various books on mental life have all been part of the journey. All of these attempts at intervention have been helpful in their own way, even the unhelpful medication, having provided building blocks to where I’m at today.
Personal lessons found along the journey:
1. I stopped using the term “illness.” I’m not sick and the term has far too much negativity connected to it, particularly as it alludes to there being something wrong or in need of curing. There isn’t. On the spectrum of emotional expression I simply fall more on one side than another.
2. Not every intervention works the same for everyone. Whether it’s medication, prayer/meditation, physical activity, etc., each will work differently because we are all composed of a unique combination of personal narratives, histories and social supports.
3. Not every intervention works the same way each time. This one can be particularly frustrating, though it leads to the building up of several means of self-care. Relying on any single one over and over again runs on the law of diminishing returns. Just as depression is complex, so then the self-care involved to meet it must be.
4. Self-care doesn’t mean an absence of social-care. Certainly there are times when a quiet room has been the only healthy way to go, but avoiding social contact entirely is more than likely counter-productive. The last thing the incessantly running tapes of self-recrimination need is to have the echo-chamber of the mind reflect the echo-chamber of an absence of social connection. Besides, loved ones do care and it’s helpful to be reminded of that.
5. Be careful of making causal connections. Just as interventions will shift in how helpful they are, so also do triggering events shift in their ability to lead to depression. Focusing too much on one can give it a power that it otherwise wouldn’t or perhaps even shouldn’t have. This isn’t to mean ignoring the personal context, only to see that connections can and often do change through time.
6. Fighting doesn’t lead anywhere except to a bruised self. Setting up depression as a monolithic Goliath may be a particular salve to the ego, but eventually one begins looking too much like the other. As in physics where every action has an equal reaction so then in the realm of the mind. The more attention is paid, the more that becomes due.
7. I and you are more than this. Depression cannot characterize the whole of who you are. No single action or thought or emotion ever can.
None of these statements are intended as universal. They’re lessons, as much a part of the journey as the depression itself has been. Each of our stories is a reflection of who we are, what we see and what we are striving to uncover. Whatever parable of the mind is being written, with its shades of light and dark, the result is always worthy of the life it is living in.
The “plane of being” spoken of in the entry Possibility Relationally Constructed, is host to every variable, known and unknown, influencing a person’s life and providing the context in and through which decisions are made. The movement from plane to plateau (mood, mental framing) to peak (behavioral and/or conscious instantiation) is a sea of probability patterns, guided in no small part by our awareness and the attention we bring to events/variables. What this attention can be seen as is the beginning of a journey, even if that path is a short one resulting in a declaration of love, a protest of frustration or a shout of anger. A journey need not be long and arduous, filled with demons to slay and dark paths to traverse for it to be meaningful and significant. Each and every moment in our lives is a culmination of a vast number of forces, consciously deliberated and otherwise, and every one is an opening or door or entrance into yet further experiences.
In the United States version of the show “Being Human” when a person dies and has made peace with something integral to who they were, a door appears. This door is as individualistic as the person it is for and opens to the next realm on their journey. The concept of a door hit me lately for any number of reasons, some clear and others undoubtedly swimming around in my unconscious. Many speak of “a door opening” to new possibilities and of “doors being closed” when potential connections fade, or that wonderful positivist cliche of “when one door closes another opens.” They are the conduit through which others pass to enter our homes and our personal rooms. A door is invariably one of the first things people notice on a house, indeed it could be said that without a door a house ceases to be anything other than a box, a vessel for carrying something locked up and incapable of interacting with the world and people.
The personal nature of the door intrigued me, seemingly inevitable the question came up as to “what would my door look like?” Further, what material would it be made of? Would it be pocked and weathered with age or shiny and new as if it were never used? And what, pray tell, grasping at the metaphorical linkages to life and journeys and new spaces of growth, would any of this say about my life?
Life is an unending sea of possibilities, of potential waiting within the actual, in other words it is energy, the term given for the existence of potential movement or change. This within quality may sound backwards, for we are often brought up with the notion from parents and teachers that we “have so much potential” waiting to come out, like an assembly line of parts ready to pop into being full tools and creations. This foundational narrative begins from a position of lack however, it assumes we are separated pieces just waiting to be made whole, often in ways those in power over us decide. When it is considered that without a life already living, an instant of the actual, where would any of the potential come from? We do not have to wait for life to happen to create more out of us, it already is through us and by us. The door of possibility is fairly bulging with all of life welling up inside and out of our bodies/minds. The wood bends and shapes, asking to be used, to be opened, to serve its purpose and give life to that potential as an outgrowth of the current actualized reality of our existence. We have but to knock and it will be opened to us. The universe cannot help but keep on giving and creating, it knows not the path of lack to whole but that of perpetual and continued being-ness, of wholeness to ever more manifestations of wholeness.
There are many ways of attempting to deny this reality, to continue wallowing in the space of waiting to be made whole. Explicitly we put locks on our doors, barricade them with boxes and put in side entrances so nobody and no experience has the opportunity to come hurtling forward full force into our place. Implicitly we stand behind the door, waiting for someone to enter, never realizing our hand is staying firmly on the doorknob and not letting it turn. In either case we have succumbed to chaos or rigidity, identified so strongly with one mode of being that the door of our lives remains sparkling new, without blemish, believing that if we simply stay the course we won’t be interrupted.
Certainly a door may appear tarnished and pocked after much use, not so because of abuse but due to communal interaction and the creation of relationships with people and ideas and the experiences of a life given over to deliberate and conscious interruption, a life of responsible seeking not docile stagnation. A clean door is one having never been opened. One weathered by experience, by the constant slow massage of knuckles knocking, is one that revels in its opportunity to let something new in, to let the wholeness of who we are expand in connections to greater degrees of life.
What life does your door show? What do people find when they approach? Is it the waiting arms of a person flinging open their door, grounded in their constant life-affirming existence, waiting with pregnant potential to give birth to something new? I certainly can’t answer with a constant affirmative, but I hope and pray that each person with quaking heart and held breath at such a notion will find it with themselves, as I have found it within me, the power to see life’s constant affirmative and weather the change that is life’s constant expansion.
There’s an old comedy skit (don’t remember who originally did it) about a psychologist/doctor in an office and a line of patients outside. As each patient comes through they receive help and as they go the doctor begins exhibiting the same symptoms that the patient had. By the third or fourth person the doctor has several physical tics, shouting all manner of phrases and anything else the writer decided to come up with. Finally a pregnant woman walks in and the doctor runs from the office screaming.
In the relational schema of existence put forward by Siegel, there are brains, minds and relationships coinciding with the physiological mechanism, regulatory process and the sharing of the flow of energy and information (Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology). We bring to each connection our brains and bodies but it is in the inter-flow soup of energy and information within the relationship that behavior is built out of. With each person we come into contact with we are no longer the same person that existed before, changes, usually subtle, have occurred in our brain, actions that were less likely to happen now may be more likely and our thoughts/emotions are now charged along a different route than before meeting.
When we lived on farms or small communities it was a process largely dealt with fairly easily, but social media has increased our connections to a degree of near-infinite capacity, regardless of how well our brains can take it all in. Recently this reality has been weighing heavily upon me, struggling as I sometimes do to come up with the next piece of writing or find the energy to engage with one more person or work on the projects languishing in bytes in a folder buried on my Mac. The sheer enormity of life comes crashing down, previously held at bay by ignorance of its impending tidal wave. Add in events like what has recently occurred in Boston and there comes a threat of emotional shut-down.
A common point of advice in my field is to “take a mental health day,” largely consisting of getting away from it all and focusing on healing the self. Vacations are often characterized this way for most people. They are welcome gaps in the unstoppable inundation of information and taking on of human connections that we all do. Rather than looking at such times as gaps though, I want to refocus them as personal points of grounding. The information hasn’t stopped in these “mental health days.” Mobile phones are likely still glued to our hands, computers are up and running, a show or movie is being watched, some form of public interaction ends up occurring. We don’t get away from the information and relationships so much as shift our intentional focus.
Still requiring further research as to the mechanisms of its constitution, is the notion that mental life, particularly that of attention, can shape the firing of our neurons as much as the reverse is true. This makes intuitive sense to most, but as even a cursory overview of the study of physics indicates, our intuition of things is often not a good place to get an accurate understanding of the universe. However, there is good reason and research to support such a notion, at least in its general application so we can move forward while still remaining wary of declaring anything absolute. Suffice to say, the way we interact within our relational dynamics will shape our future behavior, in particular the attentional focus we apply to any given situation.
As I noted before, the enormity of life was held at bay through ignorance. The sheer magnitude of the connections I have and most of us have don’t ever go away nor did they pop into existence all at the same time to squash us like bugs, they are simply not always at the top of our attention list. A good thing too else we’d be mentally liquified and unable to act at all. Instead of relying on this unconscious safety mechanism, we can attempt to raise it in consciousness and apply it more intentionally. Whatever is being done, do it with the utmost of attention. Whoever is in front of you, give them the greatest degree of focus that can be brought. Yes, this sounds like common wisdom of planning and organizing but common sense notions are often forgotten for being so common.
The beauty of the human creature is our ability to connect with, love and empathically concern ourselves with others even when we are not physically close to them, as is the case when tragedies occur in communities far removed from our own. It is a good and precious thing to be aware of, this connective process and the altruistic behavior flowing out of it. The incredible power of this, however, is not something that can be maintained intentionally every hour of every day. Sometimes it’s good and well to remember that a “mental health day” isn’t about getting away from it all but about refocusing on what’s right in front of us.