Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Eventually, I Would Like To...

An old friend from college finally came to visit me, and after some 15+ years of not seeing each other, there were lots of hugs, compliments and laughter. Shannon (not her real name) had brought her four year-old little boy, who made the perfect playmate for my two children, freeing us for some good catching up.

Shannon and her husband Erik (not his real name) live and work in northern New Jersey, where they bought an old Tudor-style mansion some three years ago. Owning a big old house had been Shannon's dream since she was very young. The only fly in the ointment: it was very much a fixer-upper.  When they first saw the house, Erik had been less than enthused. Shannon was relentless in convincing him that this was a great opportunity for their little family (Shannon is in real estate), not to mention the investment potential when it was fixed up. Erik is an accountant, so that argument appealed to him and the deal was done.

I wanted to hear all about this because we live in an old Victorian home, which is in a perpetual state of “being fixed up.” As she talked about her house, Shannon became visibly tense. "You know,” she said, "this whole thing was pretty much all my idea. When I saw the house and I knew we could afford it, I was simply on fire. All the work ahead was going to be an adventure. I could clearly see the lawn parties I would give, and my children would grow up in a house like those in the old English romances."

She paused for a while, looking at her hands. "Heidi (my real name), it's become a nightmare." She looked very unhappy. "Erik is an accountant for God's sake. He just doesn't have the skills to move us along, and he is less and less willing to do anything at all. We have terrible fights on the weekends when he wants to catch a ballgame. I don't play enough with Billy, because I'm always painting or scraping something. I don't want to get out of bed in the morning, because all I can see is work. I have never been so depressed."  Looking around my newly-decorated living room (rarely used for living in) she asked, "How did you do all this without losing your mind? Or did you have the money to have it done?"

"No, no," I said. "We did it ourselves. But come with me,” and I broke my forever-rule of no one but family allowed upstairs and showed Shannon all of the second and third floors. Only my children's bedroom and neighboring bathroom are finished and decorated. The other rooms - there are four more including the master bedroom - hold a jumble of furniture. Some of it from my old New York apartment, and also quite a few parental hand-me-downs. There isn't a hint of a decorating scheme to be discovered anywhere.

I could see that Shannon was shocked - her gaze had locked onto the peculiar shade of green with which the previous owners had painted all the walls in the hall. Some was peeling off on the broom closet door. "Eventually, I would like to paint those a creamy eggshell color,” I said, leading the way back down.

Not only did I want Shannon to see that a large part of my house was also still “not done,” and that I hadn't become undone with it, but I also wanted her to hear the philosophy expressed in my last statement. It’s the reason why I am happy now.

I will eventually have a beautifully decorated bedroom. But making the time for that now would rob me of all the fun I have with my family. My husband likes to plan adventures for us on weekends and I would rather be able to be a part of that than live in a show-worthy home. But I will get to it, eventually.

When working on a personal goal causes you frustration or becomes an obsession that pushed everything else aside, not only will you suffer, but everyone around you will, too. You will start hating the tasks it takes to get done, and chances are the results will reflect your state of mind as well. When you feel well, you do well.

Above all others by far, my first goal in life is happiness and contentment - the kind that comes from inside, and being with the people I love. I selfishly want to feel good while doing work of any kind. If time or financial pressures interfere with doing something, it goes on the "Eventually, I would like to..." list. (Emergencies, such as a leaking ceiling, toilets that don't flush, or a swarm of wasps in the attic, go on the FIX IT NOW! list.)

Eventually, I would like to... is a wonderful tool for those of you who are too keenly aware of “things that need doing” - like peeling paint, fading shutters, or a couple of cracked tiles -  and are made very unhappy by it day after day. Time or money may not allow for a quick fix. Eventually, I would like to paint the shutters takes the pressure off for now. You are not saying "To hell with it!" and putting yourself in danger of becoming  one of those people. You know it will get done.

Oh, and if it's about what the neighbors will think, come on - you know better than that by now!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Worried About People Behaving Badly During The Holidays?

Take a trip down memory lane to the last few years of your family gatherings on Thanksgiving and the Winter Holidays. Were they as warm and happy as you had wished for?

Perhaps you have taken over the role for your mom, at whose house they had always taken place before, and your home is now the place where everyone meets. You are very serious about keeping the old traditions, and passing them on to your children as well.

So, basically, you knock yourself out, doing all the shopping while your spouse helps with the unpacking. You clean the house from top to bottom and decorate to make it perfect. You spend hours in the kitchen preparing the food, ignoring the mutterings of your family, as you dole out some of the tasks.

Finally, it's Thanksgiving Day. You’re a little tired, but also excited. The table looks great and everything is cooking on schedule. Your guests start to arrive and you hope that there will be no arguments this time, and that Bob will wait until dinner before making his martinis. "Keep your eye on Bob,” you whisper to your husband. "And do what?" he whispers back.

Helen and her husband arrive with their four unruly children who run past you to the kitchen to raid the refrigerator for soda. They are “dying of thirst” from the fifteen minute ride over to your house. Things are crashing to the floor in the kitchen, but Helen has made her way to the sofa and sits down with a sigh. She is now a guest and passes the responsibility for her kids to others. Grandma is wiping up the floor.

Others arrive in a steady stream now and the conversation becomes lively. Beer cans are popping and the guys are talking football while the ladies are paying compliments due to each other on outfits, new haircuts, etc.  Back in the kitchen, your husband is opening the wine bottles, while Helen can be heard from the living room,  "Has everybody forgotten my drink?” Her husband stopped hearing her requests years ago.

While bringing in the wine for the ladies, you see Bob at the bar mixing martinis. Your stomach tightens a little. Bob becomes The Victim Of The Government when he drinks, and does not suffer in silence. Jane came late, and now approaches you with a tray of homemade sweet potato chips which you gratefully accept with thanks as she follows you into the kitchen. "Do not make me sit anywhere near that woman!" "What woman?” you ask, feeling your stomach getting more tight. "Helen,” she says rather loudly, and  you know better than to ask why.

There will be trouble at the dinner table, you already know it. And with a captive audience. Your husband puts the best looking turkey ever on the table and you follow with the rest of the dishes. "Time to eat!" he calls out beaming with pride as the "oh, what a feast" and "it smells so great" are expressed by everybody now taking their seats.

Jane gives Bob's wife a conspiratorial poke as they both glance at Helen and giggle. You look at Grandma, and yes, she saw it too and looks tense. If only you could relax and enjoy all your hard work. Grandpa says the prayer and asks for the blessings.
Everything is peaceful while the platters are passed around and plates are being filled. You and Grandma fill the children's plates, who are set up on a small table in the family room. Helen stays seated and asks for a refill of wine.

Finally everyone is eating and your husband is refilling glasses where needed. Bob is taking care of himself. The general conversation starts pleasantly enough and you want to keep it that way. "Mom, do you remember the year our oven broke down before the turkey was done?" - hoping that she would tell that now funny story with it's unusual ending. She did and everyone listened - some nostalgically, because they had been a part of it. "Wow, I remember that,” says one of your siblings. "I remember a thing or two, myself” says Jane loud enough so all can hear. Her face now flushed with anger, she begins her attack on Helen for grievances endured for too many years.

You get up to check on the children's table and Grandma is right behind you. "I think Thanksgiving is over,” she says, "but let's get the children their desert." You close the door to the dining room, but it's impossible to shut out the angry voices. As you're serving the children you can clearly hear, and so can they. "You stay out of this!" "I will say what I want and when I want. You gonna stop me?" "I wouldn't even have come if it wasn't for Grandpa and Grandma, it means so much to them!" Helen shrieks at somebody.

Upstairs Grandpa is putting on his coat and comes down the stairs with his wife's coat and purse in hand."Mother, we have to go home, I forgot to bring my medication." They both look at her purse and know exactly were his medication is. She smiles as she puts on her coat and hugs everybody near her. "Oh, Mom," you say as you squeeze her tight, unable now to stop your tears.

You now know why Mom stopped having the holidays at her house. When they were young, her children had better manners. The aunts and uncles that came in those days brought with them gratitude and good will as well as wonderful stories of their “good old days.” The whole experience was entirely different. But it is what you wanted to bring to your family, especially your children.

When everyone is finally gone you sit down at the table you had set with such pride and hope, but had become a battlefield instead. You cry for a long time before you get to the
 clean-up already started by your husband, and hit the bed just before midnight.

If you can identify with the host and hostess, and have had similar experiences on your holidays in the past because of people behaving badly, you owe it to yourself and your children to do things differently from now on.

Everybody readily agrees that family is important, and everyone wants to belong to something close knit with ties that never break, no matter what. The reality is that most families experience plenty of strife, and not every member values family to the same extent. Quite often, there are periods of non-communication, and sometimes, sadly, complete rifts. Family dynamics do not only consist of shared values and wonderful memories, but also of sibling rivalry about achievements and status that can tear all that apart when egos are big enough. Who are Mom and Dad most proud of? Who got preferential treatment? The addition of new in-laws adds another whole dimension of potential discord. Are they good enough for us, or are they looking down on us? Will they try to fit in with us, or pull their spouse away?

When you consider all those dynamics coming together for dinner, it takes a commitment from everyone to be respectful to each other and not allow good-natured teasing to slip into insult. There is an additional sense of betrayal when a family member exposes another's weakness or a past mistake. My advice is, observe the Golden Rule.

My mom told all her married children, after suffering a few awkward dinners, "If you are fighting on the way to my house, turn around and go home. No questions asked.” We got the message loud and clear.

If you still want to host that big dinner, decide now what type of behavior is acceptable in your home and in front of your children. Remember the memories they will carry. Don't invite anyone with a drinking/behavior problem, no matter how closely-related. They'll be welcome again when the problem is under control.

You can e-mail everyone now, telling them that your family is looking forward to a joyous and peaceful time, and that you are asking anyone with a grudge against anyone else to please stay home. Please come only if you want to help us celebrate the day!

If you are not the host, but instead a guest who feels loathe to go to that type of family free-for-all, bow out and tell them why.

Being an advocate for respectful behavior will not cause you to lose anyone who truly cares about you.  Stand up for your right to enjoy your holidays, in peace.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It Is Not Too Soon To Think About The Holidays!

If your response to this headline was oh, please!!, you probably need to read on and consider my advice with an open mind, because the advice can help you keep your nerves in check when other people's go haywire. (For all of you who are by nature prevention-focused and therefore have a solid system in place for this approaching time, this article is not for you.)

In general, it does not take a psychologist to notice the high stress levels people experience preparing for A Peaceful Holiday Season, not least of all the birth of the “Prince of Peace” himself.

Seriously, it boggles the mind to think of all the work, down to the minute details, it takes to make it all come together in the end. Well, I have a solution for you that will help keep insanity at bay and have you actually enjoying the process. The secrets are organization and taking more TIME, and that means starting earlier.

Time management is a tricky thing for some, especially when the calendar tells you that you’ve still got four weeks before Christmas. Seems like plenty of time. In real time you do not have four weeks to get everything done -  with a full-time job and/or children to care for, you only have three weekends, or six days, with a few evening hours here and there. If you have an average-size family, having only so little time to get it all done will certainly make your blood pressure go up!

In addition, to borrow from John Lennon, "life happens while you're making plans.”  You must consider the possibility that you may get sick with a virus or a cold, or that a member of your family will, because it is that season, too.

So, for a few years now, I’ve been starting to prepare earlier - because all of the above has happened to me, almost spoiling my favorite time of the year.

There are many things that you can get done earlier than your friends may do them. I start entering my holiday “action items” into my calendar around October 15th each year. I never give myself more than one task a day. I do this in pencil, because inevitably things will have to be moved around for other appointments, school and activities for the children, and for the holiday parties we don't want to miss.

My secret for making shopping fun is to start early, and only shop for one member of my family at a time. The advantage is that you can really focus on that individual, their likes and dislikes, resulting in more satisfaction with your purchase. Also, you get to go home before you are exhausted. I do combine shopping for others when there are only one or two gifts involved. For books and CDs, I shop online.

I keep all receipts and tags with the name of the proposed recipient in an old shoebox decorated by my daughter two years ago, in case something needs to go back.

In the past, I have waited to wrap everything when shopping was done. It took too long, it was boring, and my back and legs ached miserably. Ho, Ho, for that routine. Now I wrap things as I buy them (and shop early for the wrapping paper). I lay out a sheet on the floor of a spare room, gather the wrapped gifts there, and cover with another sheet to keep the dust off. Bows go on the day I give them away. (Another thing to shop for early are the toys for the children's charities - those pick ups come fairly early.)

Here are some of the other things I deal with sooner than later so I can check them off the list:

·      Inspecting and trying on the outfits I would like to wear at the parties and the feast days at home. Dry clean now or buy something new? The children's clothes will surely be too small and there will be pictures, so I’ll have to get new outfits for them.  (My husband is on his own.  He prefers it that way.)

·      I buy holiday cards very early, along with the necessary stamps. The cards we received last year are still in a shoebox. Is there anyone new to join the list? I start writing a few every day, stamp them and pile them up on my desk until my daily calendar says “mail.”

·      I wash and iron all the holiday linen two weeks before Thanksgiving. All the wine and mixers to last through New Years Eve are in my cellar by that time also. Window lights and string lights get inspected after Halloween.

Having my calendar handy to see what is checked off and reassure me that I am right on track, gives me time to watch all my old favorite Christmas specials with my children, and keeps the stress and strain to a minimum.

So, have a Happy Season, spread out the work, and start now!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tell Yourself A New Story

“Our virtues are habits as much as our vices…our nervous systems have grown to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded, tends to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds”
 --William James, one of the founders of scientific psychology (1899)

I have always loved a good metaphor, particularly those that give a deeper and clearer insight to an old truth. A lightbulb goes on and we say, "Oh, that's why!” or “that's how!”

With the scientific study of brain function, we now know that learning happens much the way a paper is folded – as the groove becomes more deeply creased, the paper naturally refolds in that same spot, even when you lay it flat on the table.  Our unwanted “automatic” reactions  - the ones that cause us pain or get us into trouble – are the result of the way our paper has been folded by past experiences.  We have learned to look the world as if this is the only way the paper can be folded.

Some old folds - truths accepted in childhood - can haunt us more than fifty years later if they were never quite ironed out.

When my mother was a child in postwar Germany, it was one of her daily chores to go into the cellar and get the potatoes for the day’s meal. It was an old house with an ancient deep cellar. The walls were black with coal dust and only one sad and sooted light bulb gave a glimmer of light - just enough to throw long shadows in the cavernous space, until you went around the corner into an open chamber were the potatoes laid on shelves in complete darkness. Being raised on the old Christian chestnut, “the Devil will get you if you are bad,” and knowing she wasn't always good, this became Mom's daily childhood nightmare. She had convinced herself that one day the Devil would come through one of the big cracks in the floor and grab her in the darkness. She couldn't tell her mom she was afraid the Devil would get her because her mom would then know she had been bad.

Moving to America and living most of her life on an island at the Jersey Shore, Mom never had a cellar again. Actively pursuing a more liberal spiritual path, the Devil too was left behind with the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales.

Retired for some time, Mom recently bought a small 100+ year old cottage near us in Pennsylvania. It also has a 100+ year old cellar with one lightbulb, cobwebs and debris. The first time she went down those barely lit steps, she felt "an eerie creepy feeling take a hold of her," turned around, and quickly went back up. Standing in her kitchen and calling herself a coward, it dawned on her that she was still afraid of cellars, after all this time. (The fold in the paper had never been ironed flat.)

She went down the steps again and got the same feeling, only this time she kept going, telling herself, “this is my house and my cellar and I love it and it loves me!” She doesn't remember how long it took before she felt normal in her cellar. She now uses it as her laundry room and for extra storage. Other than a good cleaning, nothing else has been done down there and Mom is quite content to have it as it is. She has flattened the old fold by retraining her brain.

A friend of ours stopped smoking by frequently telling himself that he was a non-smoker. When the urge to smoke became strong, he would go outside into the fresh air take a few deep breaths and repeat to himself three times slowly that he was a non-smoker. On the weekends, when football games on TV made things especially challenging, he would still go outside and do his usual “I am a non-smoker” routine. Then he would go into another room, where a hard puzzle was in the works and stay there until he felt ready to rejoin the game. He has remained a non-smoker for many, many years.

Over time, the beliefs we accept as “true” become set (like the fold in the paper) and our reactions to our world become predictable and routine. A certain situation will arise, and we respond by becoming fearful, very angry, volatile, stressed or depressed.  The idea that these painful emotions are occurring because of what we believe to be true, rather than what may actually be true, would not cross most people’s minds.  But in many instances, the way out is to iron out the fold, and refold the paper in a new way – to retrain your own brain.

So, when you find yourself unhappy with an old habit, or repeatedly reacting in a painful way to the same situation, you can do something about that. Find the thought you believe is true in “that” specific situation. That's the old fold in the paper. In the above examples it was:

1) The Devil is in the cellar.

2) I am a smoker.

Then replace it with your new truth, repeat it and act on it as often as is needed, to iron out the old belief that you no longer want to accept. Be patient - some creases are old and sharp, but you will make progress. It may be subtle at first, but once the mind has been opened to something new it will never quite close again, unless you wish deliberately it too.

Each effort in the new direction is a step forward, and you cannot fail, if you don't give up!