I’ve been thinking a lot of the allegory of physical pain and emotional pain, and how you treat both as I go through extensive physical therapy for my physical pain. My physical pain requires me to focus on stretching out my muscles multiple times a day so that I am in less pain each day. It’s a challenge to choose to do painful exercises that take away time from other portions of my day, but my physical pain increases when I decide not to do the stretching exercises. Likewise, it is this way in the therapy process. Clients ask me, “How long will this take? How many months or how many sessions will this take to get better?” My response is always the same: to whatever level you put into practice the things that I tell you to do outside of the sessions is to what degree you will recover faster. Last time I was going through physical therapy, I had a severe achilles injury that required doing daily stretches. The problem was that I was in the midst of a move to another house and forcing myself to stop packing up my house and do the necessary stretching was very difficult. I wound up requesting that my doctor sign off on doing more physical therapy so that the therapist would force me to do the work I needed to do to get my leg back. The process of physical therapy took longer because I was putting many other things ahead of my recovery. Moving towards emotional pain and the work we need to do to recover ourselves to psychological health is a painful process. We are forced to stare down the things that we avoid dealing with in life, and we are forced to deal with the feelings that we would medicate by keeping our minds occupied. However, I have noticed that the higher my physical pain levels are, the more I self-medicate and the less I reach out to others. My mind is so preoccupied with my pain that I am unable to focus on giving proper care to those close to me. I realize that I must force myself to do the exercises that cost me time and pain in order to get better for both myself and others. My life is happier when I am pain free. I am not hindered in my daily life and the activities that I can choose to do when I my pain is lessened. The same is true for my loved ones. I give them better care when I am not focused on my pain. I am much more pleasant and amiable when my pain levels are down. How about you? How are you dealing with the emotionally painful things in your life? Are you facing them down daily or are you avoiding them at all cost? Each decision has its own payoff. Avoidance of the pain feels as if it lessens the pain in the short term, but the less we deal with it, the more the pain grows, the slower the process of recovery, and the less I give those whom I love the quality of care they need.
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I’m currently in the midst of recovering from a severe shoulder injury. My injury creates an inability to move my arm above my head, to carry weight with the arm, and to do anything that would require the twisting of my arm. It’s been a hassle and frustration to deal with the loss of ability. However, I’m slowly learning to be more ambidextrous. I realize the number of times I can use the other arm to do the same thing that I’m used to doing with my primary arm. It’s fantastic to understand that I am capable of doing the same task with a different limb, and I’ve never done it that way before this point in time. The same can be true when we’ve had a significant loss in our life. Be it the death of a family member, a loss of a spouse, or change in a relationship, we think we know what we are capable of doing but many times we are capable of doing much more than we perceive because we’ve never done it that way before. Emotional ambidexterity (which is my made-up word) is my way of explaining that you are capable of doing something different and ,with practice, you will become skilled at doing it differently. At the moment I am talk typing because typing with my right arm is virtually impossible, and typing with my left arm is slowly progressing. How about you? Do you stop trying when what you’re used to doing things one way and that can no longer be done? Or do you try to learn new ways of doing what you used to do? It’s very empowering to think that we can do things differently when we force ourselves to learn new ways of doing things. The first time I did something with my left arm I felt a little proud of myself because I was learning how to develop a whole other part of my being that has been virtually unused. I have to remind myself always to use my left hand because the old way keeps kicking in and taking over and then the pain comes from doing it the old way. How about you? Are you learning how to use different emotional muscles than you used before this point in time? Even as I type with my left hand, I feel more powerful to be using a skill I never developed before today. You may be used to doing things one way, but the reality is you hold unlimited capability within you that has yet to be tapped from the inside! Keep reminding yourself to do it the new way, and soon you will find yourself skilled in areas you never knew you were skilled.
Isaiah 43:18-19 “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The other day I found myself walking the dog before the sun had risen and I reflected on the fact that I now enjoy the solitude and peace of our early morning walks together unlike seasons past. There was a time that walking the dog before sunrise would have been repulsive to me; however, as my season of life has shifted and what I value in this period is different than the last. One of the keys of embracing the season you are in is not focusing on the season to come or the season from the past but concentrate on embracing the good in your current season. People tell me things they don’t like or don’t want for their future, but we change just like the seasons and what is of value to us in the seasons to come may not be of value to us to us now. When I look back on my life in the last five years, I can see that I was changing through those years to the point that I am now a morning person and a person who likes walking the dog before dawn. Who knew I would enjoy that habit of pre-dawn walks, or be a morning person for that matter?! If you look to your future to be filled with the same elements of today, you will be disappointed because life, people, circumstances, and everything else changes. Five years from now you will be a different version of yourself. Have hope, friends. Life will not be as it is today. In fact, life will be a better version if we continue to push toward the disciplines our heart is calling to us right now.
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11
People ask me all the time how they keep winding up in relationships where there is abuse. They hate the concept of abuse and feel frustrated to find themselves again in this situation and yet, they feel drawn to it. In the world of counseling, we call this hard to explain “addiction” trauma bonding. Trauma bonding comes from people walking through typical stages of bonding with people, but if their bonding in their childhood was bonding mixed with abuse, abuse is normalized in a relationship. So how does one change a cycle established in their childhood when bonding was combined with abuse? We need to change our belief systems. Let me share my own story as an example of how you change your belief system about abuse in relationships. As a child, my mother would leave my brother and me with my mentally ill grandmother as a form of childcare. I think her belief was that as long as my grandfather was present nothing bad was going to happen. However, there was frequent abuse that occurred inside the house while my grandfather was outside working on projects. My grandmother had very high perfectionistic beliefs, and those perfectionistic standards were impossible for a child under the age of 8 to maintain. Hence I would be beaten for making mistakes – mistakes such as not cuffing my socks correctly or standing too close to the door of a room I was not allowed to would result in a beating. I was forced to make perfectionism my standard and shame had to become my means of punishment for myself. If someone shamed me for not being perfect, I learned to completely embrace their shame as a means of striving for greater perfection. The shame would push me to higher standards of behavior and higher standards of interaction with people and tasks. It was an exhausting and anxiety-provoking endeavor that would end each time perfection was achieved, or shame was given by myself or others. It was when I began targeting the belief system that held this behavior in the place that I was able to change how I interacted with others and what I allowed from others. Somewhere along the line I had learned I deserved to be punished and humiliated when I made mistakes and understanding the beliefs that kept that behavior in place, I was able to renew my mind. So what is your addiction? What are the beliefs that hold your addiction in place? What are you doing to change that in your own life? For me, it was a combination of surrounding myself with truth via people, a personal therapist, reading articles on topics related to my beliefs, and spiritually trying to come to understand how God perceived me. Today, I am able to stop disrespectful or shaming conversations by telling the person speaking to me they need to stop or I will end the conversation. I am able to feel the physical feeling of shame or disrespect and I ask people to change how they are communicating or the conversation is over. It took a concerted effort on my part to not use perfectionism as an addiction, but I’m happy to say today that there are times I wish I were a little more anal than I currently am because mistakes are common and now acceptable in my world. I extend love and forgiveness to myself when I make mistakes because I’ve changed the way I think about myself and what is accurate and godly in judging how other people interact with me. I am now able to state I no longer am addicted to shame, and I’m proud of it!
Are you able to find the beauty in a bad day or are you an “all good or all bad day” type of thinker? Rarely do we have an entire day in which everything is terrible, but it can certainly feel like we have that kind of day when all we look for is the negative after something bad happens. The challenge for any given day is to look for the good when a day goes wrong, but that choice is a very intentional choice that sometimes requires a lot of emotional energy. So how does one look for good when an awful thing happens? It is hard to sometimes do that on our own, and many times this type of challenge requires the help of safe friends to help us break out of this pattern of thinking. However, most people going through great loss do not want to hear easy answers, platitudes or “christianeze” ( the language spoken by people who are followers of Christ who sometimes give religious answers instead of compassionate answers). Most of the time you have no idea how to verbalize a need when you are in shock and loss, and we rely on others to figure out what we need. Alas, giving all our power to another to give us good care can sometimes feel a bit vulnerable and scary. For most people it boils down to one innate need: to feel loved and comforted. What does a crying baby need when they are upset and have no words to express what is going on it their head? To be held, to be loved, and to be reassured that no matter what, it’s going to be ok. Quite frankly, sometimes humans stink at this, but there is a God we can turn to who promises to reassure us and love us when man does not; however, we have to invite Him into that process of loving on us because we will miss it if we don’t look for it. Just like we will not be able to see good if we choose to look for bad, sometimes we miss God loving on us because we are not looking for it. Choose to look for love today. Choose to look for the good. God will send you comfort via your dog, the cashier at a store, a neighbor or objects that bring you comfort. He is very present, but sometimes we do not know how to recognize the form He has taken. I vividly remember a day where God showed up in the midst of a bad day and I recognized him because I had been looking for him. I was in the midst of a stressful season of life juggling the many hats that a mom or dad can can juggle and I was complaining to God about how hard my life was at that time. I just needed joy and life and I remember seeing white daisies along the road and saying to him, “ I just miss the old Sharon who had time to do creative things that bring me joy like cut daisies on the side of the road.” Three counseling sessions later in my day and in walked a client with white daisies and I knew that I knew that God had brought me those flowers via a human and my joy from the event exceeded my pain level. I knew that I was loved and that God wanted to comfort me, but I am pretty sure I would have missed the significance of the flowers if I had not been looking for God in the midst of a bad day.
Isaiah 66:13New International Version (NIV)
13 As a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you;
and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”
The other night I had a dream about something that I frequently try to share with people in my counseling office. The concept that we talk about is the power of sharing community with others. In the dream, I went shopping with a group of friends that I pray with on a daily basis via a group texting application on my phone. In my dream, we went treasure hunting to a store, and each of us found and bought a treasure that would be personally meaningful to us. I woke up thinking to myself that the dream was such a great analogy about life. We are more likely to find treasures, and be able to hold onto treasures, when we lean into the strength of those we walk with in life who are mutually giving. I can only hold so much weight in my hands if I’m just using my hands but if I have other people coming alongside me, the weight of what I can carry is significantly larger. Finding a community that you can lean into can many times be a complicated process and it is important to find people who are mutually giving and caring. It’s so important that you examine how the persons you bring into your life interact with others so you can understand if they are selfless or selfish. Despite the difficulty in finding community, I see the difference in the lives of individuals who can lean on a community when they’re going through a hard time or when they’re understanding and moving into grasping a hold of their vision. Treasures are waiting to be released to people who choose to walk with others.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Are you looking at the light or the shadows that you see as you walk through life? Sometimes there are many significant obstacles in life, and we find ourselves focusing on the shadows they create instead of the light that is above it or beyond where we currently are walking. Walking in a dense forest can feel this way because the woods makes things feel darker than it is at the moment. However, if I keep walking, I find a way out as long I stick to the path and continue to observe the sun in the sky. Counseling is often a journey through a dense forest created by our past and current obstacles that have arisen in our life. To complete the mission to open spaces that provide freedom, we have to choose to look ahead or above to the sun that is in the distance. Unfortunately, many of us have moments in which we focus on the shadows the obstacles have created, and we fail to keep moving because we think this is the way the rest of life, our day, or our week will look. On a recent 10 mile hike through a massive gorge, I was forced to come to a decision that I needed to focus on anything positive I could see, feel, or hear around me as a means of forcing me to continue to make it through the gorge before nightfall. I had to make that decision after I found myself counting every time I overturned my ankle (I was at 19 slips on the trail before I stopped that nonsense) or every time another member of our party complained. The more I focused on the negative aspects of the journey, the harder the hike became to the point that I was sure one of our party would soon incur injury or death in the gorge. I now marvel at my accomplishment, and so do others, but I know that the thing that got me out of that gorge was my choice to focus on everything that was positive on the hike. I moved faster and more confident when I focused on everything that was positive and my choice on what to meditate upon was the thing that brought me to the end of my journey. Am I saying that we should ignore the losses and negative things in life? No. God calls us to trade our ashes for beauty, and it’s our constant challenge to invite God into the losses so that he can redeem them and turn them into beauty. So I ask you today, what are you looking at on your journey? The shadows or the light above? At the same time that the world tries to rob you of your power is the same time that God promises to empower you. The Apostle Paul wrote to the community of Philippians regarding focus while, most probably (nobody knows with certainty), imprisoned in Rome. I wonder if he learned how to endure hardship by choosing on what to focus? Paul told his community friends to do do the following in Philippians 4:8-9(MSG): “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.”
I went and got a massage on my shoulder and neck the other day after a couple of weeks of intense pain. I have this problem of waking up to find that I am sleeping with my arms over my head, and the next thing I know my neck and shoulders are tense and pained and out of alignment due to a previous injury I experienced as a child. Going to the massage therapist would work hard to remove the muscle knots and tension in my neck and shoulders, and I knew that the experience would be painful. In fact, I might have intense pain that day, and the day after; however, I was moving toward healing physical pain by forcing myself to go through more pain. Dealing with pain that creates more pain is an analogy that sums up most of the ongoing physical, emotional, and spiritual pain we struggle with in life. We either move toward solutions that will be painful in the short term, or we avoid the nagging pain we feel every day. It’s true that we can choose to live with pain or sometimes we have no choice in the pain that is inflicted upon us. Regardless, we do have a choice with what we do with that pain. Will I move toward healing solutions for the painful things that continue to drain me or will I allow the nagging pain to continue? I don’t know about you, but when I am in pain, it drains my happiness in many areas: I cannot rest well, I can be more cranky with my family, I avoid things that usually please me because I fear pain, and pain makes me physically tired. We avoid dealing with the painful situation because we know it will be worse in the short term. However, the long terms effects on us are even more severe. Depression, anger, and powerlessness tend to seep into other areas of our lives, and soon we realize how far we have allowed that painful situation to go. For many people, the very addictions they deal with were short term pain “medications” they choose to use instead of going through a period of learning new ways to cope with pain. What is the painful situation you are not moving toward bringing about a solution? Why are you allowing the pain to continue to drain happiness out of you? It’s amazing how having a hard conversation with someone can free you from depressive behaviors you had allowed to creep into your life. It’s amazing how making the hard decision to put up strong boundaries with draining people in your life brings about more freedom. Every time we move toward pain it is temporarily harder; nonetheless, the long term benefits are huge! The book of Hebrews says it this way, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11 (NIV)
Sometimes the forgiveness that releases me comes from me choosing to forgive myself. I remember many years ago struggling to get over a boyfriend in college, and finding myself stuck in obsessing over what I wished I had done differently. Shame has a creepy way of continuing to torment you over what you should have done differently by keeping you mired in ways that cause self-hate. You wish you could move on, but the fact of the matter is you keep ruminating over what happened in the past as opposed to moving forward. When my boyfriend and I in college broke up, it was a mutual decision; he moved on to date other women, and I stayed stuck unable to move forward and focused on all the mistakes I allowed in the relationship. I spent a good portion of my junior year focusing on all my errors in judgment and overly aware of all my imperfections in interactions with the opposite sex. Even though I had long ago forgiven him for his part in our relationship failure, I could not stop focusing on the mistakes I had made. One day as I sat in a mall food court with a friend and I shared how I was still stuck, she asked me, “well, when are you going to forgive yourself?” A light bulb turned on at that moment, and I realized I was still walking and shame and unable to forgive myself for my lack of wisdom in my relationship. As it turns out, this conversation was a powerful life lesson about making mistakes. I came to see that to move forward in anything I had to extend the same level of forgiveness to myself that I was extending to other people. It was at that moment that I began to understand how much shame about imperfections, failures, and mistakes impacted my forward movement. What errors of the past are you still focusing on in your thoughts? Are there areas of your life that you are stuck in as a result of focusing on your failings? How do those unforgiving thoughts about yourself affect your self-hate and other sabotaging behaviors? It’s time to start forgiving yourself. It’s time to start giving yourself grace for mistakes because that’s what they are…mistakes.
He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him
After recently speaking at a women’s conference, I have been meditating on the quote of St Catherine of Siena: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” I realize that while I am a good counselor, I am a better speaker, and I do the world and myself a disservice when I don’t do more of what puts fire in my bones and that of others. It is at this point in my blog, I reassure you, that I am not going to be giving up my job as a counselor shortly, but I need to move towards more public speaking. What is it that you are great at doing that you are not doing in life? Why have you chosen to give away your power to numbing yourself instead of giving away your power to endeavors that set you on fire? Because, believe me, when you are doing what you are great at doing, it will set others on fire because they will not just see it, they will feel that which you are gifted to do. They will be “set on fire” by the use of your gift. Do you want to change your world? Do you want to be light on a hill? A fire that cannot be quenched? Start doing more of what you are great at doing and if you do not know what that passionate fire is in your life than you need to take your power back so you can figure that out. So many of us have tried to stuff our giftings in boxes that those around us have deemed to be the right box and, in the process, put out our fire in a box by closing the lid. Fire needs oxygen to spread, and it needs to be fanned. I challenge you to find a group of supportive friends who can both fan the flame and help you remove the structures you have erected that contain the fire. Each time you use the gift you were born to use, you fan that flame and the fire grows. People who have heard me speak reassure me that each time I speak to large groups, I grow in my giftedness and I can feel the difference, too. Have you ever heard Andrea Bocelli sing opera? My grandmother was an opera fan, and I would listen to Pavarotti with her during my childhood, and out of nowhere Andrea Bocelli burst on the scene of opera and sang opera in a different fashion. Bocelli’s expression of emotion in his modernized singing of opera introduced a segment of the population to that style of music that previously never listened to opera. He entered the music scene because of the encouragement of his friends and family and made a choice to leave his career as a lawyer to pursue his passion. You may not be an opera singer. However, we need you to use your gift and to set us on fire. You are uniquely you, and nobody else can be who you were meant to be!
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them