Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Anger Dare

In the wake of the Aurora Theater Shootings, as the world goes crazy with judgment and fear, I have a challenge for you. 

Let's do this without anger.

That's right, I dare you. 
Eliminate anger from your vocabulary for the next month. 
(There are those darned crickets again.) 
Anger: (Webster) a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism.
            (Bing Dictionary) a strong feeling of grievance and displeasure. 
That doesn't sound that bad, does it?  It's not.  I'm talking about the common use of the word "angry" which usually leans more in the direction of antagonism.  I tend to talk a lot about what words mean vs. how they are used, and anger is a big one.  I think it is very rarely used in the dictionary sense, which is pretty mild.
No, in it's purest sense, there's nothing really wrong with anger.  It's just that the word anger, and all it's synonyms, are worn out from overuse.  Many people in the
world today know how to have one of two feelings:  Happy and Mad.  No one really has a problem with happy.  Rarely do people come to therapy with joy management issues.  If we're not happy, we're mad.  Except mad goes nowhere.  Mad is full of adrenaline and while it feels powerful, it merely masks whatever else we're feeling.  So we get mad, and we act out . . . and then eventually it ends, the adrenaline goes away, and nothing gets resolved, because whatever the issue was, it was moot because people are desensitized to anger.  Either they don't hear an angry person because they're so entrenched in their own flight response or they don't hear the person because they are entrenched in their fight response.  Either way, the message is lost.     

So let's give it a rest.  For one month, don't use any of the following words:  mad, angry, pissed, furious, ticked-off or annoyed (especially at the end of the phrase "he/she/it MADE me _____").  I would be tempted to add irritated and frustrated, as they are frequently synonyms for angry as well, but I will allow them, with some strict limitations that they be used according to Webster's Dictionary.  I'm picky like that.  For the record, I'm only letting in things that are physically irritating, like the scratchy tag on your shirt collar, a flickering fluorescent light (actually I would go for ANY fluorescent light), or the whining tone in my children's voices as they tattle on each other in the back seat (what, did you think I was immune to that??).   

In that time, let's learn to identify the underlying feeling instead, and broaden our vocabulary.

Step 1:  Let's start with identifying feelings.  Any time you notice that you're tempted to describe your feeling as "angry" or one of its derivations, pick a different word.  Anger is ALWAYS a secondary emotion.  There is ALWAYS another feeling underneath it.  Find it.  See the chart at the right for some suggestions.  I'll be posting more about what to do with those other feelings throughout the month.  You can't do anything helpful with angry.  Angry turns people off.  Angry sends people away.  Angry doesn't think very clearly and tends to say things in an overly dramatic and hurtful way.  Often, you have to spend time after angry repairing the damage until you get back to a place where you can move forward.  In the dance of one step forward and two steps back, angry is two steps back. 

Join me in this challenge!  Let's make it viral!  I want to hear your stories!  Comment!  Email me!  Speak up! 

Think I'm crazy?  Ok, maybe that's a topic for another time.  My clients LOOOOVE this exercise!  After a while, you won't miss these words.  Possible side effects:  better relationships, less stress, improved communication . . . and less botox because you won't get those little frowney lines between your eyebrows. 

*Photos Courtesy of

Monday, July 23, 2012

We are Powerless . . . or are we?

A tow boat floats offshore from the scene where a small plane crash landed on the beach of Palmetto Dunes along Hilton Head, S.C.

It's been 4 days since I woke up to find my community in chaos.  MY life has been pretty normal.  I didn't know any of the victims.  I know only a few people who were in the theater that night, all of whom are safe and sound.  As far as I know at this point, my immediate circle is ok. 
But it's not ok.  The uproar has begun.  Debates over guns.  Mayor Bloomberg of NY calls for people to demand that gun control be debated in the upcoming elections.  (He has what to do with Aurora, Colorado exactly?  Go pimp your politics somewhere else, Mike.)  I read about plans to increase security at movie theaters.  I guess pretty soon we will have armed security guards posted in every public venue just in case someone decides to open fire.  Good for the economy, perhaps unemployment will go down as more and more people attend 6 weeks of training to handle deadly force situations and watch me eat my dinner in a restaurant, but not so good for my appetite. 

 The bottom line is that events like this shatter the illusion that we walk around the world knowing for sure we are safe.  We don't know we are safe.  Robert Gary Jones went out for a run one March morning in 2010, along a beach in Hilton Head, SC.  An airplane crash-landed on him.  A colleague of mine lost a family member to a lightning strike last year.  That person was out for a run too.  Regularly in our world, people out for some exercise are hit by cars, attacked by mountain lions or bears - or people.  In line with current reasoning, it would follow then that you shouldn't go out for a run, and then you'll be safe.  In fact, we shouldn't leave our homes . . . 
Dominique Thomas

In September, 2011, Dominique Thomas was sleeping on the couch in her living room when a car crashed through the front wall.  She died. 

We live in a society that doesn't know how to accept.  Anything.  We are a society founded on the idea that if you don't like something, CONTROL IT.  We didn't like the rules in England, so we made our own nation.  We build better houses, come up with more technology.  We fight to have control over our environment.  Emissions testing, Ozone alerts, pollution advisories.  We fight biology.  I tried to find a ballpark figure for the number of medications available on the market today.  It wasn't easy, so I'll settle for "A LOT."  We devote A LOT of our resources to fighting biology.  Have a cold?  Whatever you do, don't rest and drink fluids.  Take a couple of (insert favorite cold medicine here) and get to work.  Injury?  Forget RICE, tape it up, take an ibuprofen and keep on going (admittedly, I have to totally own this one).  I have recently heard two stories of parents who CUT A CHILD'S CAST OFF EARLY so they could participate in some sporting event.  And forget accepting death.  We fight it to the end.  Please, tell my kids that if I am 96 years old, have been sick for years, and have a stroke, let me go.  No life support.  Direct them to my copy of "Five Wishes."   

We are powerless in many ways, and we don't like it.  Instead of working to accept our powerlessness, and to develop skills for being able to live in the fragile uncertainty of life, we play tricks on our minds.  When faced with a tragedy like 9/11, like the Columbine Massacre, like the Aurora School Shooting, Virginia Tech, Hurricane Katrina, the collapse of the 1-35W bridge in Minnesota . . . the list is long . . . we don't want to believe it could happen to us.  We don't want to believe it could happen ever again, in fact, so we spend our mental energy figuring out a way to prevent it. 

Let's go back to biology.  This is an adaptive response.  Let's say our pal Joe Caveman and his crew decide to set up their little hunting village in a beautiful valley.  Looks like some nice real estate, and just around the bend is a small river where the deer come for water.  Easy pickings for Joe and the rest of the hunters.  Fat times to come!  Except the first time it rains, that babbling brook becomes a raging torrent and washes Joe and whoever survives from the village miles downstream.  It makes a lot of sense for Joe, in that instance, to spend some time thinking about the factors that created the tragedy.  Heck, it might take centuries for humans to decide that they are safe to build civilizations on the banks of rivers again, or on beaches, or on the sides of mountains.  By then, humans will have perfected the art of BLAME.  And it will be the engineer's fault when the levvy breaks, or the house on the mountainside gets taken out in a mudslide.  If we can point a finger and figure out whose fault it is, we can get mad at them.  Anger feels so much better than powerlessness.  We can wave our hands in the air and proclaim indignantly that if only so-and-so had or hadn't done such-and-such . . . well this wouldn't have happened. 

I agree completely that there is fault in this tragedy.  However, might I suggest that if ONE PERSON hadn't decided to go shoot people at a movie theater, we wouldn't be having this conversation?  That person is in court this morning.  If you HAVE to be mad at someone, be mad at him.  Then again, you might consider he is a victim too, and have some compassion.  I'm not sure how I feel about Gov. Hickenlooper refusing to speak his name during the vigil last night.  I would be interested in the thinking behind that, and I am currently going to give the guy the benefit of the doubt that perhaps since James Holmes hadn't been formerly charged yet, he didn't want to step into that minefield.  What bothers me is that he presented it in a way that indicated Holmes wasn't worthy of being mentioned by name.  At best, Hickenlooper manipulated a gullible public. 

When I first started as a therapist, I had a whole list of people I just KNEW I could NEVER work with.  Sex offenders, batterers, ANYONE who had EVER hurt a child . . . what I've learned over 15 years wading through the horrors of people's experiences is that you can be pretty sure that most of the time, the more egregious the offense, the more pain the offender is in.  I guarantee none of us would want to have been in this kids's head.  Of course, perhaps he managed to get himself firmly rooted in anger and hatred, which doesn't feel bad.  It feels powerful.  It's charged with adrenaline and endorphins, which are highly addictive, sought after by many in the form of alcohol and drugs. 

Over the next few weeks, if other tragedies are any example, we will see lots and lots of blame.  We will see anger, and outrage, and indignant proclamations about how to make the world right.  And we will see public figures show up, put in their two cents, smile for the camera, and go home to their million dollar lives. (by the way, public figures, PLEASE come up with something else besides "Shocked and Saddened."  Warner Bros. is saddened.  The President is "shocked and saddened"  Mitt Romney is "deeply saddened."  Cinemark is "saddened."  Even Queen Elizabeth is "saddened."  Get out a thesaurus, folks.  Saddened falls a little short of what we're experiencing here.)   President Obama was in Colorado visiting the injured.  Thanks, B.  Where will you be in 2 weeks when the victims are out of the hospital and the medical bills start coming in?  Camp David?  Martha's Vineyard?  Oh yeah - that's why we have lawsuits.  Wouldn't it be cool if Warner Brothers, or Christian Bale, or anyone on the planet out there who has way more money than they will ever use kicked in a couple of million for hospital bills?  Or helped the families whose incomes will suffer because their wage-earner is in the hospital?  Just out of the goodness of their hearts?  But that's a whole 'nother blog.

What we won't see is any focus on the real issue, which is the fact that we have become so disconnected as a society that someone can see PEOPLE as target practice.  Fish in a barrel. THAT is the real tragedy.  So you can look at this in 2 ways.  You can get mad and blame, and nothing will change.  Or, you can experience it, and think of ways you CAN make changes.  We ALL can.  Present company included.  And things might start to get better. 

Do me a favor?  Don't get angry.  Don't politicize, don't blame.  Sit in the powerlessness for a moment, and really feel it.  It's scary isn't it?  Then a) consciously recognize that fortunately, these things don't happen very often, so you don't have to be afraid every time you leave the house . . . or stay in the house . . .  b) ACCEPT that sometimes these things do happen.  Sometimes there is fault, sometimes there is not.  Most of the time, it's our own fault and we don't want to admit it.  c)  fight against that powerlessness by doing what you can.  Let me break it down a little more.  Be nice to people.  Willy-nilly.  Be understanding and give people the benefit of the doubt.  Someone was nasty to you at the grocery store?  Well, maybe they had a bad day.  A smile might help them more than a dirty look.  When you need to say something, be assertive, not aggressive.  Use good communications skills and have good boundaries

My best guess is that either this young man has been wounded in some way that drove him to need that wall of anger and hatred around him all the time or he's got a mental illness. People aren't born like this, in my opinion.  Either way, the answer is compassion, not outrage.  (and before you write me off as a bleeding heart, you will probably at some point hear me rant about the justice system not being tough enough, and how I believe people should have significant consequences for their actions, up to including losing their own lives)  Even in circumstances where I'd support some outrage (most of which has to do with politics) I do have to take a step back and admit that assertiveness and collective action is a better answer than outrage. 

Anger and outrage are the way we can avoid the reality of our powerlessness.  Do what you CAN.  What we can do to keep this from happening again is start building a community.  Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan has been quoted as follows:
"We’ve got to start that process; we can’t let this guy win. We have to start healing and we have to start creating a better Aurora today."  "We will take this experience and use it to strengthen our commitment to each other. We will reclaim our city in the name of goodness, kindness and compassion. Let our city be a place where our vulnerable our supported by our strength. We will care for the families and we will care for each other,"
Awesome, Steve.  Got a plan for that?  I'm all ears.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Aurora, CO is my community.

Last Thursday night, I took my kids to the movies.  We went to see the 60th anniversary showing of "Singing in the Rain."  It was magic.  (And deemed, by my youngest as "THE BEST MOVIE EVER!!!").  Two weeks before that, we saw "Brave" in the same theater.  Aurora Century 16 in Aurora, CO. 

This morning, before my eyes were even very open, I learned that at the same theater, a man with a gun had opened fire at a midnight screening . . . 12 dead.  70 injured.  Hundreds of people whose lives will never be the same.  The worst mass shooting in Colorado since the Columbine Massacre in 1999. 

I remember Columbine.  I was working for a community mental health center at the time.  On my 29th birthday, the day after the shooting, I was dispatched to whatever church it was.  The mental health center had not been asked to send volunteers - in fact had been asked NOT to send volunteers - but I was sent anyway.  Everything in the media said that Jefferson Center for Mental Health was overwhelmed with volunteers and would ask for help.  Yet there I was, on a rainy April morning, at 8am, finding out that indeed they didn't want any more help.  Over the subsequent days, I became increasingly disgusted with the world, as signs in Clement Park went up.  "Bob's Deli supports Columbine" - or some other small local business with a sign penned with magic marker.  Genuine.  Humble.  Supportive.  The next time I drove by, A banner "QUEST SUPPORTS COLUMBINE!!!"  Then a bigger banner . . . "COMCAST SUPPORTS COLUMBINE!!!"  Long story short, it was revolting.  Then going to meetings at work in which the topic was not "how can we be helpful," but (and I remember these EXACT words) "How can we have a PRESENCE?"  I left my job at the mental health center not long after that. 

Today, I started my day in shock.  I am simply unable to comprehend the thinking behind walking into a crowded movie theater and opening fire on total strangers.  Not that I support violence, but I can wrap my head around a domestic feud that turns ugly.  I can grasp that.  I can't get this. 

I often talk about the Columbine Massacre, or 9/11 in my office as an example of how poorly we as a society deal with being out of control.  I say "the first day of news coverage is all about the horror.  The second day is all about whose fault it is, what we can do to prevent it, and how we can maintain the illusion that we have control and security."  Today, less than 12 hours after the tragedy, Facebook was crawling with political and religious agenda, using the tragedy as a platform.  I am disgusted.  I have considered carefully whether or not to post the picture that really sent me over the edge, and decided that I don't want to give it more airtime.  You know the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Folks, this isn't about gun control.  It's not about the right to bear arms or whether or not it would have turned out differently if someone in the theater had been "packing" under a concealed carry permit.  This is about a societal disconnect.  Remember that freedom vs. responsibility debate?  This is a prime example.  If we, as a people, are going to place such a high value on freedom at all costs . . . well, this is the cost.  You can't legislate responsibility.  You can only legislate freedom.  Now don't hear me saying that we should become a military state - that's not the case.  I'm saying there's no easy answer.  We've spent generations getting disconnected from one another.  Back in World War I and II there was anti German and Japanese propaganda.  The purpose was to make these people less than human so we wouldn't think so much about the fact that actual PEOPLE were dying over there.  American soldiers were fallen heroes.  Foreign casualties were insects.  Vermin.  It is a well-accepted fact that it's easier to kill someone you don't see as human. 

It's not about the right to bear arms, or vigilante justice, or the pros and cons of the death penalty.  It's about people.  It's not about judging the actions of people in a panic.  Yeah, leaving your wife and kids in the theater and driving away doens't make you look like a hero.  But the view is pretty good from the cheap seats, isn't it?  Are you sure you'd be the one to NOT run?  Take a good look in the mirror before you point that bony finger of judgment at others.  It's not about whether or not parents should take their kids to a midnight movie.  This about 12 people who are dead and 70 more who were injured.  It's about every person in that theater whose life is changed forever.  This is about a 24 year old man who somehow decided it was his right as an American to gun down close to 100 people.  (Oh wait . . . ALLEGEDLY.  Cause we wouldn't want to accuse someone who isn't guilty, even though he admitted it, everyone saw him, and his apartment was full of bombs.)  It's about this 24 year old's parents, who, on top of the excruciating agony they must be experiencing at the knowledge that their son did this, have to deal with the blame of the general public.  So DON'T YOU DARE turn this into an opportunity to advance your political or religious agenda. 

Everyone's answer in these times is "pray for the victims."  Awesome.  If I have to choose?  Less praying and more ACTION.  And I don't mean go donate blood, or take some canned goods down to the local shelter.  I mean take a good look in the mirror and evaluate how you act in community.  You haven't seen your neighbor in a few days.  Do you go knock on the door and see if they are ok?  Someone cuts you off in traffic.  Do you flip them off and scream obscenities?  Are your kids in the back seat?  The cashier at Burger King gives you the wrong change.  Do you treat them with respect and ask them to re-count or do you need to make them really clearly aware that they are an idiot, and a sub-standard life form?  You're tired after a long day and your kids are climbing all over you wanting attention.  You're late for a meeting and you see someone stranded along the side of the road.  Someone in your family needs help . . . but you really don't like them.  You've been at odds with your brother for years . . . do you call your sister and gripe about his latest offense or use good assertive communication skills with the person you have the problem with? 

So yes, pray.  Pray like your life depends on it.  But get off your knees and DO something. 

Fear isn't the answer either.  I've heard people say today that this makes them want to stay home and never leave.  Well that's the whole problem.  It's easy to hate from afar.  It's easy to batten down the hatches and hide from it all.  Don't let this make you a hostage!  Go to the movies.  If we have to stay home to be safe, or believe that we can't be safe unless we're "packing," we are hostages to our fear, and the bad guys win. 

Hug someone you love.  Even when you don't have time.  Call someone you've had a disagreement with and tell them that while you still disagree, you respect them as a human being and value your relationship.  Take responsibility when you've wronged someone, and expect others to take responsibility for hurting you.  At least tell THEM instead of telling the 16 people you complained about it with.  Smile at a total stranger.  Ask someone how they are doing and actually listen to their answer.  Don't cut people off in traffic.  Don't gensture and scream at people who cut you off.  When you're about to deliver that perfect cutting remark in an argument . . . don't.  Just shut your mouth and don't.  Treat all people with respect because they are breathing in and out.  Person and behavior are two different things.  It's especially important to make this distinction  for kids.  Don't call your kids (or anyone, for that matter) names.  Same rules apply to political figures.  The president is not an "idiot" or an "asshole."  Use ANY words that describe his job performance, not his skin color, religious affiliation, or personality.  (No shortage of commentary even without those factors!)  When your kid gets sent to dentention for tardies, don't call the school and chew them out because it means you have to get off work to go pick them up instead of having them ride the bus home.  Support the teachers in shaping responsible behavior.  Do the RIGHT thing in any given situation.  Even if you're tired.  Even if it's harder.  Even if you don't really feel like it, and no one will notice one way or another. 

Want to pray for someone?  Wonderful.  Pray for EVERYONE.  Pray every day.  Not for the victims.  Not for specific people.  Pray for yourself and your ability to reflect kindness and community.  When I served as a liturgist at church, writing the prayers for the people was the hardest part.  Praying for this group and that group . . . it feels like calling God long-distance on your cell phone when He's sitting across the table from you.  Why am I singling out a group?  God give us strength.  He already did.  Lord, in your mercy . . . Dude.  It's through mercy alone that we haven't blown ourselves up yet.  Lord, give me patience . . . patience isn't going to come down from heaven in a beautiful rainbow cloud.  It comes from white knuckling it past our need for control.  Want to know where God is?  God's in the trenches right with us.  Pretty sure He was weeping right there on the curb as they took the victims out of that theater.  Pretty sure he was even right there with the shooter.  But people have free will, and we can ignore God.  Which we do.  My pastor growing up used to say "don't be so heavenly minded that you're no earthly good!"  But that might be a soapbox for another time.

It has taken generations to get to this point, it will take generations to repair if we started at this very moment.  Stand up.  Don't tolerate the exploitation of a tragedy for personal, religious, or political gain.  Speak out.  You won't be popular.  In fact friends and famil might suggest you are "sensitive."  Do it anyway.  If enough people do it, these horrors might stop.  Until then, hug your kids every day.  Use the phrase "I LOVE YOU" with reckless abandon.  LIVE your life.  CARE for people.  Demonstrate RESPECT for not just others, but for yourself.  Do what you CAN instead of raging about things over which you are powerless.   

Fight against fear and hate, not people.  Pretty sure there's more to come on this topic.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hey Look!! Grass!

Shamrock Endurance Ride 2012
One of the other things that sets us apart from our horses is the ability to reflect on events.  Thinking ABOUT things that aren't happening at the moment is a uniquely human characteristic. 

For example, horse people OFTEN speculate on how our horses comment on our activity.  At endurance rides, I often think my horse might say "good grief.  She hauls us in the trailer for 4 or 5 hours to this amazing field of perfect green grass, then she rides AWAY from that . . . only we don't go anywhere, just in a circle to come right back to the grass!  HUMANS!"  Their idea of a great weekend would be just munching grass the whole time.  To heck with this trotting business. 

If you ride long enough, you get hurt.  I always tell people who have just started riding (especially kids) that when (note not IF) you fall off the first time, you get your cowgirl/cowboy patch.  After that, every time you fall off you get a stripe to go under that patch.  No matter how long you've been riding, you know that there's always a chance that today is the day you're going to crash.

Yep.  Recently, I went on a ride and it happened to me.  I don't get stripes very often anymore, fortunately, but this one was a winner.  Now the other thing to know about horse people in general and endurance riders in particular is that Endurance Riders don't quit. Injuries are badges of honor.  A friend recently told me that AERC (American Endurance Ride Conference) actually stands for "All Endurance Riders are Crazy."  She's an endurance rider too.  And of course we finish the ride unless we're being air-lifted out on a stretcher.  Tough or Stupid?  You decide. 

About 3 miles from the finish, it happened.  Allie and I were coming out of the last pond after having a really great drink.  It was a no-brainer.  I reined back 2 steps (which was uphill) and cued her to turn on her hindquarters to bring her feet out of the mud and head back down the trail.  She responded like a champ.  And then something happened and her hind feet slipped.  Her back end went right out from under her and she fell hard on her right side.  And on my leg.  With the stirrup in between us.  Ouch.  It happened so fast I didn't even have time to be scared.  (Or maybe I've fallen so much in 15 years of riding that I've habituated to it!)  I got up and collected my horse, and decided that thankfully my leg did not seem to be broken.  We started to walk down the trail back to camp.  At some point I decided I was ok to get back on, and that I'd rather ride than walk.  So I did.  Allie seemed no worse for wear.  She was pulling my arms out of the sockets, whinnying, and trying to get back as fast as I would let her.  Yep.  It hurt.  But I'm an endurance rider :).

We got back to camp and everything looked just fine.  The vets checked Allie out (which happens during every ride - the vets determine at the finish if your horse looks good enough to continue.  If not, you can be disqualified at the end of the ride)  and said she looked great.  Gave me the big OK to ride her again the
 following day.  We went back to the trailer to get untacked, where my other horse waited, having worn a strip in the grass from pacing all day and missing her pal. 

My friends came around to help, and asked how my ride was.  I regaled them with the story of my adventures and proudly displayed the bulging bruise on my thigh.  I must have retold that story 10 times.  It's what we do.  Humans process through repetition.  We tell stories and create legends.  This was actually the 20th anniversary of this particular ride (To see the web page for this ride click here) and we sat around the candles (there was a burn ban - no bonfire this year) that night and told stories of rides we'd ridden and adventures we'd had.  Until it was very late.

Allie, after the ride. 
See why it was tough
to think she was just sore?
  Here's my thoughts about what Allie probably would have told Morgan as she walked into the pen that afternoon:  "HEY!  HI!  I know you!  Look!  Grass!"  And it was all over for her. 

There are two things that struck me about this experience.  The first is what a different experience humans have of trauma.  We spend years re-experiencing and being triggered by an experience.  We play it over and over in our minds, stay awake at night, talk to our friends about it . . . Allie experiences it, gets done with it, and is glad it's over - if she even thinks about it enough to be glad it's over, I'm pretty sure it just disappears from her consciousness until maybe we're back at that same spot next year.  She gets back to the business at hand of eating and staying alive.  I think humans do what we do for a good reason.  Our problem-solving skills are important.  However I think we can learn something from my horse.  Be sure to let the experience end.  When we repeat it in our heads, we tend to repeat the worst part.  One of the big things I focus on in EMDR is to be sure to play the video all the way to the end.  That's when it becomes a memory, when we recognize that it's over.  I think our brains try to rehearse the experience so if it ever happens again we'll do it differently.  Problem is, it's unlikely I will ever be in that exact circumstance again.  I've gotten a drink at the same corner at that same pond on that same ride each of the 16 times I've ridden it.  One of those times, I crashed.  It doesn't make a lot of sense for me to put a lot of problem-solving into that one.  It was just bad luck.  So I'm going with Allie's approach. 

Now, the part I did replay in my head over and over was that Allie started acting funny about 3 hours after the ride.  She lay down, and looked uncomfortable, and scared me to death.  So I had the vet come over and check her out, and he suggested that perhaps she was sore from the fall.  I actually questioned him a little bit on this, explaining that she'd been fine on the mad trot back to camp.  Strong, good energy, all the vets agreed that I should definitely do 50 miles on her the next day instead of 30.  (NO WAY).  But as I lay awake that night thinking about what was going on with her (it was confusing because she was eating . . . like a horse.  A colicking horse doesn't eat.  Allie would lie down and munch grass while she was down.  Weird), I remembered adrenaline.  That adrenaline rush of the fall for Allie produced endorphins.  Endorphins make us impervious to pain.  So while my leg was REALLY painful on the way back to camp, whatever hurt on her didn't start till later.  Everything in her little horsey head said that the best idea was to get back to camp to the safety of other horses, and to do that as quickly as possible.  She was probably more than a little irritated that I kept insisting we not get there at a dead run.  Thank you, Allie, for listening anyway.  And sorry, Tom, that I doubted you.  Lesson learned. 

While I'm at it here, I'm going to also put in a plug for Arnicare Gel.  Now, I am not prone to posting pictures of my thigh on the internet, but holy cow!  That's the difference in using Arnicare for 3 days, and not starting until about 30 hours after the injury.  I'm impressed, and will never travel to a ride without it again.  There's a coupon on the website for a dollar off. 


Friday, July 13, 2012

The Extinction of Anger

So how about I go for shock value in this post and just announce that anger is an obsolete emotion. 

Silence.  Hear the crickets? 

Yes that’s right.  In my humble opinion, true blue, bona fide unadulterated anger has very nearly NO place in today’s civilized world.

Let’s take anger back to an uncivilized world and see if we can figure out why this emotion that causes so much trouble exists anyway.  Besides, we’ve about beat the flight response to death, might as well hit the high notes on the other side of the coin.

Imagine that our good friend Joe Caveman has just returned from the hunt, anticipating a hero’s welcome as he drags in the mammoth he clubbed.  Instead, Joe and his pals discover that a pack of tigers has devoured pretty much the entire village.  Joe feels disappointed.  He feels despair.  Joe sits down on a log and bemoans the loss of his family, his community . . . and Joe becomes dessert for the tiger.  If Joe is going to stay alive, his best bet is to skip right over the devastation of it all and open up a can of prehistoric whup a** on those saber-toothed furballs.  Joe needs that adrenaline rush to defend himself, and rebuild.  Joe Caveman does NOT have time for grief.  When the danger is gone, and the defenses are secured, Joe will create a ritual for grief.  Perhaps he will call it a funeral. 

In today’s world, we have a shortage of true threats to life and limb.  Remember the instinct is FIGHT or FLIGHT.  Later suggested to be Freeze, flight, fight or fright (Bracha et al) which isn’t as catchy, but gets the order right.  Instinct says first freeze.  Senses are heightened, nerves are ramped up.  Next line of defense is to get the heck out of there.  Discretion is the better part of valor.  If you can’t get away, turn around and fight.  Get ANGRY and DESTROY the thing that threatens you.  Bracha suggested that if fight failed you and the end was near, your brain kicks into sort of a shut down fright state that is somewhat dissociative and protects you from a conscious awareness of the horribleness about to happen.  Really folks, when was the last time you experienced a situation on par with that response?  Ever??  Fortunately, that is the case for most of us.  Now raise your hand if you think the idea of life without anger is just crazy talk.  Every one of you with your hand in the air needs to work on boundaries and assertiveness.  There are those out there who do have big T trauma in their past.  You folks may need to address that before you tackle boundaries, but it’s part of the same deal anyway.

Anger protects us in a situation where other emotions make us feel vulnerable.  Assertiveness and healthy boundaries eliminate the NEED for anger because we recognize that when a person is stepping across the invisible line into our space, we recognize that, while inappropriate, it is not life-threatening, and we create a response that is strong ENOUGH to hold that invisible line (more to come on limits and boundaries).  We calmly and respectfully let the other person know that their behavior is not ok, and we would like them to stop.  They either will or they won’t, and then we have some more choices to make.  What we don’t have to do is use an emotional grenade launcher to blow them into the next county with our reaction. 

Photo by Freewine
 As I have mentioned before, as a society we don’t have good boundaries.  Back in Joe’s day, members of the community relied upon each other for survival.  Joe didn’t decide he didn’t feel like hunting that day because he knew if he didn’t hunt, his family didn’t eat.  If Joe got injured, the community stepped in if they could.  I imagine parents didn’t have to work so hard to get kids to do chores because it was easier for kids to see how the world worked better if everyone pulled their own weight.  There were social norms and customs that made sense.  Everyone understood WHY it was important to act a certain way, and they just DID it.  Those who didn’t were ostracized and shunned and did not do very well over the winter.  There were consequences for misbehavior, and the community wasn’t afraid to enforce them.  Today, we are disconnected from one another.  If you flip someone off on the highway, or snap at the waitress, there are no consequences.  Some people make a career out of seeing how far they can go in that direction.  Anyone who has ever waited tables knows that some people seem to think that part of the dining experience is being able to abuse your server because the customer is always right, right? 

There’s a lot that goes into these habits.  From a very young age, we get taught to ignore our boundaries.  Say YES when someone asks you to do something, whether it works for you or not.  Don’t make waves, don’t be a problem.  We don’t get taught how to resolve conflict.  We get taught to either pretend it doesn’t exist or get angry.  Not helpful.  Parents pull out the power card when they don’t want to deal with an issue.  “Because I said so” teaches children that their needs do not matter, and by the way who cares anyway so shut up and leave me alone.  A few years of that and anyone would get angry.  Throw in some role models who yell at each other and you pretty much guarantee that you’re perpetuating the problem.  Of course not all parents fit this bill, but from my view in the cheap seats, parents who practice some sort of strategy in raising kids are outnumbered by those who, at best, know they don’t want to do what their parents did, but have no plan and end up flying by the seat of their pants in a generational pendulum between too controlling and too permissive. 
Many people out there have 2 main emotions:  happy and mad.  Expand your feeling vocabulary and imagine a life predominantly without anger.  It’s a life with other uncomfortable feelings, feelings like disappointment, frustration, disappointment, grief, overwhelm, embarrassment and helplessness, but those feelings give us something to work with.  If you’re mad, about the only thing to do is wait for you to get over it.  And hope the damage isn’t too much to repair.  When we use anger as information that we're feeling something deeper and identify that feeling instead of just acting out of anger in a boundary-less, self-riteous way, we become more authentic.  Try it for a week.  Eliminate the word “anger” and all it’s cousins (mad, pissed, peeved, irritated, etc) from your vocabulary and substitute the feeling driving them.  When you’re really good at that, you can start addressing those real feelings and solving some relational problems instead of perpetuating the cycle of “blow up, sweep it under the rug till it comes up again, blow up . . . “  How cool would THAT be?  Resolve an issue for GOOD?  That’s just crazy talk, right?  ;-)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In honor of Independence Day, a few thoughts from notable others about the relationship between freedom and responsibility:
  • Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.  ~Abraham Lincoln
It's hard to discern, in today's political climate, the difference between a government protecting its citizens and a government controlling its citizens. 

  • I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.  ~James Madison, speech, Virginia Convention, 1788

Citizens of Colorado Springs honor the
Firefighters protecting their homes

We are a nation of upstarts!  Rabble-Rousers!  We call them patriots, but England called them rebels and traitors.  We are a people founded on the belief that freedom is the most important thing.  But times were different then.  Responsibility was a given and didn't need legislation.  People relied upon each other in community to survive.  If you didn't do your part, your neighbor suffered.  If your neighbor didn't do his part, you suffered.  People were connected in community.  You did not act selfishly because you didn't want others to act selfishly when you were in need.  There was a code, and it was enforced SOCIALLY.  People cared about their reputations, and took steps to protect the honor of their word.  It was the outlier who bucked the system.  Granted, many of these troublemakers molded our nation for the better.  However, I think we have gone too far in exercising our right to freedom to the detriment of community, and for the sheer sake of seeing what we can get away with. 
  • Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry is own weight, this is a frightening prospect. - Eleanor Roosevelt
The secret to any successful relationship is balance, and this country is all kinds of out of whack.  We have moved away from seeking freedom from oppression, and toward a culture of "ME FIRST!"  Maybe that sounds a little cynical.  From where I sit though, greed and a lack of responsibility to community hurts people.  Bosses who out of their own lack of self-esteem confuse leadership with control, parents who out of their own exhaustion forget their responsibility to model respect by showing some to their children and to other people, people of all ages who out and out persecute others for their differences, with very few consequences. 

Without responsibility on an individual level, it is left up to government to step in and be sure people are not unfairly treated.  The more we (and by "we" I probably don't mean people reading this blog, unfortunately) allow greed and fear to rule us, the more we fail to act in the best interest of community.  There's no quick fix, folks.  But the solution starts at home. 

I was touched recently by the outpouring of support and money for the bus assistant wherever it was who was tormented by a group of kids.  People all over the country donated money to send this woman on a vacation.  Awesome.  I wonder how many of those people even know what their next-door neighbor struggles with.  How many of them would take the time to voice appreciation for the mail delivery that day?  How many of them sat on their computers donating money while their kids were up in their rooms alone?  We have lost our balance. 
  •  Freedom is that instant between when someone tells you to do something and when you decide how to respond.  ~Jeffrey Borenstein
 We have to do hard things sometimes.  We have to not lash out back when someone lashes out at us.  That would be DE-escalating a conflict when everything coming from our instinct says we'd better escalate it and fight back.  That means putting kids first when we're tired and stressed (and I can say that, because it's a battle I fight as a working mother of 2 under the age of 10 and I know how hard it is to find the energy).  It means standing up for the teachers who try to discipline kids instead of going to the principal because our kid is in detention and that messes up our schedule.  It means not flipping someone off in traffic and screaming obscenities when they cut us off.  It means setting an example for our youngsters to follow instead of punishing them when they act just like us.   
  • America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. - Michael Douglas in "The American President."  (LOVE that movie!!)
Freedom is that instant between the realization of what the RIGHT thing to do is, and the action you take.  Each of us have a choice every day about what to do in that moment.  We can make the world a teeny smidge better or a teeny smidge worse.  We are free to choose, and responsible for the outcome.  When we do the hard thing, often with no recognition, when we have the good boundaries to separate IDEAS from PEOPLE when we oppose something, THAT is worth celebrating with fireworks. 
Have a free, blessed, and responsible 4th.


Monday, July 2, 2012

What's With the Horse Again?

In the horse/human/brain analogy I present here, I'd like to clarify what represents what.  As I ride down the trail on my magnificent steed, I'm pretty much riding an amygdala.  He's a big, fuzzy, loveable amygdala, but he's still an amygdala.  His whole world is about staying alive, and he is a prey animal.  In the world of "eat or be eaten," he is BE EATEN.  Grass is what he eats.  It's not hard to catch.  He doesn't need predatory skills.  He needs to RUN at the first sign of danger, and run FAST.  He's very good at it.  It's a family trait.  MY role in the relationship is to present the voice of reason.  To suggest, through the use of my riding aids (seat, legs, reins, etc) that perhaps there is another alternative to the presence of the Wal-Mart bag than to go flying off a cliff.  I am the pre-frontal cortex, offering support and guidance to my amygdala.  With me here? 

Over the last few years, I have had the magnificent fortune to create a workshop demonstrating this concept with my horsemanship guru and good friend Louis Wood.  In a few hours time, we can actually show people the transformation from a fear-based reaction to a thoughful, considered response.  (To see Louis at work, click here)  We use volunteer horses that Louis has never met before, and generally they come in the picture of fight or flight - high-headed, wide-eyed and ready to head for the hills.  Louis offers some stability and leadership in his relationship with the horse, and before you know it, you've got a horse literally yawning he's so relaxed.  It is a powerful thing to see, let me tell you, and workshop participants GET IT in a really different way than they would if I were sitting in a lecture hall (or in my office!) yapping at them.  Contact me for more info about this.  It's so extremely cool, and coming to a neighborhood near you.  Be ready though, because I can go on about it for a long long time.

Louis Wood
In our brains, we have to use the thinking power of our frontal cortex to offer that leadership to our amygdala.  That takes practice.  Remember, in that moment of crisis, instinct says we don't need to think, we need to react.  All those amazing coping skills?  They live in the part of the brain that takes a vacation when - um - STUFF hits the fan. 

There are a number of ways to outsmart our biology though:
  • First is through resolving trauma issues.  There are a gazillion different techniques out there designed to help our brains move the storage of traumatic issues from our amygdalas to the file cabinets in the back room where we don't have to react every time we get close to a trigger.  EMDR is my favorite, mostly because it's what I use. 
  • Second, when we install coping strategies, we fill our toolbox with positive ways to deal with stress.  Resolve the trauma isses and you can actually USE these tools in the moment of truth. 
  • Third, and the thing my clients get so sick of hearing about, is rehearsal.  We tend to play over and over what actually happened.  This traces that neural pathway over and over and increases the liklihood that when the situation arises again, we will handle it EXACTLY the same way.  I say rehearse it the way you'd LIKE it to go.  Play it over and over with assertiveness, a sense of calm, and devoid of shame and panic.  Practice for the next time, when you want to do it differently.  That's the key, I think.  We tend to think of angry things we could have said.  That zinger that would have stopped someone in their tracks.  It wouldn't.  It would just add fuel to the fire.  What stops someone in their tracks is an assertive response that asks for a reasonable answer.  An expectation of relationship in which you respect both your needs and the needs of the other person.
What a concept.  You can learn this.  And, if you have the slightest hint of larceny in your veins, you'll begin to enjoy the ability to completely undo another person with healthy, assertive behavior full of boundaries.  Because when you invite someone who just wants to fight to a higher level of relationship, they don't know what to do!!  Try not to actually chuckle out loud when you do it.  And hopefully, they will join you there, in reciprocal relationship, and then the sky's the limit!