Monthly Archives: June 2015

Ride that Wave!

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Emotions are king in our culture. We write love songs while we look for love; we pursue happiness with everything we’ve got. We avoid painful feelings by shopping, eating, drinking, having sex, watching TV or wasting time. When we have good feelings, we hold on to them for dear life, often pursuing them in ways that don’t bring lasting contentment. Most of the clients who come to me start by saying they either want to “be happy” or “get rid of” some bad feeling.

If you think about the way God created the world, there is a lot of ebb and flow – the sun rises and sets; the tide goes in and out; the moon is a sliver and then it’s full. Ecclesiastes 3:1 and 4 says “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven; a time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” Our emotions are meant to ebb and flow. If we desire healing and emotional growth, every emotion should be fully experienced. God understands and loves for us to pour out our hearts to Him, in the midst of our experiences, whether they be good or bad, happy or sad.

We see a great picture of this while reading the Psalms. In Psalm 88, it says “I am forgotten, cut off from your care. You have thrown me into the lowest pit, into the darkest depths. Your anger weighs me down; with wave after wave you have engulfed me.” (Vs. 5-7). Here the psalmist is expressing some deep, dark and painful emotions both about God, and to him. A few chapters later, we read “You thrill me, Lord, with all you have done for me! I sing for joy because of what you have done! O Lord, what great works you do!” (Ps. 92:4-5). Now, the psalmist (a different author) is rejoicing with great and wonderful joy. This isn’t instability of character. Rather this is God preserving emotion in his Word to show us that He can handle all of our emotion as we experience our lives. Again, not all behavior is beneficial, but God loves honesty about how we are feeling.

So what do we do about all of these feelings? If we use the metaphor of ocean tides, instead of getting rid of emotion we think is negative, why not find a “surfboard” so that riding the tides of our emotion becomes an adventure? If you are sitting on your surfboard in the ocean, you can sit there through many large waves before you actually choose to stand up and surf one. You also might be sitting on calm seas one day, and getting knocked off your board and thrashed around on another! This is all part of the experience of surfing. A surfer understands that the waves are not at his beck and call – he will have varying conditions. The one stable resource he has is his board.

One of the primary steps in learning to work with emotion, then, is to observe it and feel it without impulsively acting upon those feelings; this is your surfboard. What would it be like to become angry at poor customer service and not complain or make a scene – simply as an experiment to observe the rise and fall of what anger feels like in your own body. For most of us, the behavior that follows our emotion (like yelling when you are angry) comes so quickly that we tend to think we can’t control it. Feelings and thoughts are inextricably linked and difficult to separate, but behavior is an entirely different thing. It is possible to be fully angry and not respond angrily. It is possible, if you found yourself having feelings for someone outside your marriage, to experience those feelings without acting upon them.

Think of it as a scientific experiment: How long would anger remain in your mind and body if you simply observed it and watched it rise and fall without buying into it or attaching your thoughts to any particular part of it? If you were curious about it but didn’t feed it all of the evidence about why you think you are justified to behave poorly? You can do this with any emotion, and for each person it will be altogether different. For me, anxiety might be brief and tolerable, but sadness almost unbearable. For you, observing anger might feel completely impossible but experiencing loneliness is ok. It’s a life-changing shift to realize that not everything you feel needs to be acted upon.

EXERCISE: Take a look at this list of emotions. Pick a couple that are uncomfortable for you but not unbearable. Practice dedicating yourself to simply experiencing this feeling without doing anything about it. How long does it last? Where do you feel it in your body? Ride the wave as it crests and recedes. Later, you can choose more difficult emotions, but commit to working on this one emotion at a time.

 *Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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Thought Replacement

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Last week we discussed observing our thoughts in order to come up with a “diagnosis” of how our thoughts can negatively affect us. This week, we are going to start talking about a “treatment process”. How does a person find this transformation Paul is talking about in Romans when he says “do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2 NKJV). I think we’ve established that you won’t achieve this change by trying to force yourself to stop unproductive thinking and be transformed! Real transformation is only made possible through the grace of God, kind of like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The caterpillar is a willing participant, but it’s not the agent of change.

So how do we readily participate in this thought transformation? There are a multitude of strategies we can use. We’ve already established the fact that our thoughts aren’t necessarily true, and you might have even identified some of your thoughts that aren’t actually true. It’s often helpful to get a little bit of distance from them, and one way you can do this is by naming them, like the “I’m a bad father story”, or “here’s the I’m an unorganized loser story”. It’s just wording, but it helps you to identify in your own mind that you’re not buying into the false belief that all of your thoughts are true.

One technique I really like is the idea of redirecting, like you might do with a wayward 2-year old who is doing something naughty – instead of punishing, you could just pick her up and set her down by a beloved toy or puzzle. Similarly, you can “pick up” a wayward thought and set it down on a thought you do want to be thinking. This is what Paul is getting at when he tells us in Philippians 4:8 (NLT):

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

Paul knew that thoughts pop into our heads, unbidden. Do we really imagine that Paul never once thought about his horrible past and the things he’d done? Probably he did, but one thing we do know: he didn’t live in the past; he didn’t dwell on those things. If he had, he never would have been available to do God’s bidding. Instead, Paul replaced these thoughts with today’s truth – thoughts that were true, honorable and so on. And he encourages us to do the same. I often say to my clients, you can’t do anything about a bird landing on your head, but you can control how long it sits there! Thoughts will come unbidden, that’s true. But you get to choose which thoughts you will rest your mind on. And you can choose, like Paul did, thoughts that fall into this verse’s instruction from Philippians.

EXERCISE: Make a list of a couple of thoughts you struggle with and then come up with a replacement thought. These can be any sayings or verses, they don’t have to specifically relate. But as an example, here are a couple of mine:

 Untrue Thought: “I am fat”

Thought to use as a replacement: “I am God’s masterpiece” (Eph 2:10)

 [So I’m not trying to STOP thinking “I am fat” – I’m just trying to notice it, and every time I notice it, I say (maybe even out loud), “No, I’m God’s masterpiece”.]

 Dishonorable Thought: “I really don’t like my downstairs neighbor, she’s rude”

Thought to use as a replacement: “Love your enemies, bless those that curse you” Matt. 5:44

 Also, it’s important to understand that this is not “pop psychology” or “positive affirmation”. I acknowledge the painful nature of my thoughts without judgment, and that my experience has value. My downstairs neighbor might well have been very rude to me. I’m not attempting to “get rid” of that thought or convince myself she is really nice. I’m instead choosing where my mind finds its resting place in regard to that particular situation.

 *Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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Don’t Even Think About It

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God’s power and strength are only available to us in this present moment. Being aware of what is happening for you in the present moment is a great launching point to start examining and working with your thoughts. Most of us would agree that our thinking gets us in trouble sometimes, so being able to have a right relationship with our own thoughts is critical.

Familiar Bible verses can be found to encourage a right relationship with thoughts such as “and do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2 NKJV) and “we destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 ESV). But often, the message we get is an encouragement to eliminate our “bad” thoughts; somehow get rid of them because bad thoughts equal bad behavior. And it’s true, we do need to be transformed and obey Christ in our thinking. Trying hard to eliminate thoughts is the root of a lot of discouragement; you don’t have to try this method for very long before you fail. If I say “no matter what you do, do NOT think about ice cream”, I guarantee you will be eating ice cream by the time the day is over! It will be all that you can think about.

So the first step here is to drop the judgment and to start observing what we are actually thinking. This is the first step, I’m not suggesting that we just allow bad or wrong thoughts to simply be okay. But we often jump too soon into the treatment plan before we accurately diagnose what is happening. As Christ-followers, we do believe in absolute truth in the person of Jesus Christ. There is a line of right and wrong. However, before we jump to judgment and treatment, let’s allow ourselves to be curious and compassionate about our experience in the process of our diagnosis.

Remember that instead of trying to control our thoughts, which can’t be done, we are trying instead to have a right relationship with our thoughts. So what exactly are thoughts? Thoughts are simply patterns of words, or stories. We think of our thoughts as true, but often they are not. Here’s a silly little exercise: Think really hard right now “I can NOT lift my arm. I can NOT lift my arm”. Now lift your arm. Your thinking that you couldn’t lift your arm didn’t really affect your ability to lift your arm, did it? Of course not. The truth is, you can think anything in your head, and it may or may not be true.

A right relationship with my thoughts means that I understand that my thoughts are simply strings of words and pictures. They may be true, or they may be untrue. I’m allowed to examine and assess them, and then I’m allowed to choose whether or not I’d like to act on them or behave according to them. My goal isn’t to stop them, push them away or label them – but rather to see them as they are. If my thoughts help me move towards my values or towards Christ-centered living, then I can use them for action. If they don’t, I can allow them to just float on by, making room for something else.

EXERCISE: This week, in order to become more aware of your thought patterns, set a timer on your smartphone for four random times per day. Carry a small notebook, and each time the alarm sounds, simply write down the last thing you were thinking before the alarm sounded. Have no judgment about your thoughts – you are simply trying to see if there is a pattern to your thinking, or problematic thoughts that you notice arise again and again.

 Now, assess those thoughts for truth. So if you thought “my boss is a jerk”, is that true? It might be true that you don’t like what she just did, but it probably isn’t true that her whole character is a jerk. Or if you thought “I’m a terrible father”, is that true? You may have made a mistake or not spent enough time with your kids lately, but I bet you can think of some ways that you are a good father also. It may be true that you can improve based on your thought, but the thought itself might not be true. Also be aware that some thoughts that are NOT true can feel very true, because you’ve been thinking them for so long. But “I’m worthless” can’t possibly be true for anyone when judged against the truth of the Bible and God’s love for you. So if you have trouble determining truth, try seeing what the Bible has to say.

*Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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A Mindful Christian?

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Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.   Matthew 6:34, the Message.

If you are a Christian who felt an internal resistance to the title of this post and the idea of “mindfulness”, or are uncertain about what mindfulness even is, I hope you’ll stay with me while I explain how this powerful practice can deepen your relationship with Jesus and break through barriers to living in the Spirit.   Mindfulness as a secular practice has been proven to be a powerful agent against anxiety, stress and worry. Think of it this way – mindfulness merely means “being present”, or being “right here, right now”. Jesus understood being in the right now, and thought it important enough to address in his famous Sermon on the Mount.

It is so helpful to stay as close to the present moment as possible. Most of us find ourselves often consumed with things that may or may not occur in the future, and this is the root of all anxiety. We can’t possibly resolve problems that are not yet happening. A mom who picks up an automobile off her child in a moment of crisis could not have possibly planned that action in her mind ahead of time. In that moment, she has access to power, strength and creative problem solving in ways she never would have dreamed. Even current day martyrs have a supernatural, spirit filled power in that moment that they could not have accessed days, or even hours, before the experience. We have a glimpse into this when we read about Stephen in Acts 7: But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!” vs. 55-56 NLT

Just like in Stephen’s case, this present moment is the only moment that I can access God’s power. I don’t yet have the strength He’ll give me tomorrow. I don’t have any remnant of what I had yesterday. But in this present moment, God is with me along with all the powers of His Kingdom. I might not like what’s happening in the present moment but if God is with me in an experience He’s allowing, then it is the safest and most productive place for me to be. You’ve heard the slogan many times – “one day at a time”. God designed this concept; he is the Maker and designer of manna. Yesterday’s manna is rotten, tomorrow’s hasn’t appeared yet, so to live on today’s manna would be your best sustenance.

I like the idea of one day at a time, but some days it might even be one moment at a time. Can you feel your next breath? What is the next right thing to do? You may not be able to think calmly about anything beyond that, but you can just do the next right thing – the next thing that aligns with your stated values. Really, Romans 12 says it best: So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. (verse 1, The Message). God is with you, right now, in this moment. Don’t waste that amazing awareness by being somewhere else.

PRACTICE: This week, take a short walk around your neighborhood. During these 15 minutes or so, commit yourself to being completely present. Hear the sounds around you. Notice the colors and the objects around you. Feel your feet hitting the ground. Feel your breath. Don’t try to control your thoughts – thoughts are fine. But if you notice your thoughts are floating off somewhere that is not your present walk, just bring them back by noticing something that IS present. When you are done with your 15 minutes, notice how your body feels. Is it calmer? Do you feel more grounded in your day? Try weaving periods of being present into your every day life – driving, making dinner and so on. Try BEING where you are. Don’t get discouraged, it’s not about being good at this – our minds are designed to wander so just gently bring yourself back to this moment whenever you notice you’ve wandered off!

*Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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