Is it fear or is it intuition? How to tell the difference.

You’re standing in line to board an airplane, headed for a long overdue vacation, when you suddenly remember the old Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” where a leering, evil gremlin perches on the wing of an airplane in mid-flight, taunting a nervous passenger while it’s dismantling an engine.

You shiver, and your body recoils. You begin to worry.  Is this a premonition that your flight will have trouble?   Should you get on the plane?

Your mind races between the fear of getting on the plane and the fear of not getting on.  You’d be pretty upset if you missed your flight and delayed your vacation for no good reason. The line begins to move forward and you panic, not knowing what to do.

Is this fear or is this intuition?

If we want to rely more on our intuition, we need to understand the difference.   And it’s tricky, because intuition can provoke a thought that provokes fear.

By definition, intuition is a direct perception of Truth. It’s knowing without knowing how we know.  The mind’s logic and reasoning processes are not involved.

Fear, on the other hand, is a distressing emotion of a real or perceived danger.  It can be true or false.  A false perception or memory can provoke fear, like when we see a paper fluttering in the shadows, and startle because we think it’s a spider.  Or when we remember a creepy television show

We all know what fear feels like—shaking, sweating, churning, burning, gnawing, hand-wringing angst.

But what about knowing without knowing how we know?  What does that feel like?

For starters, fear screams at us.  It won’t leave us alone until it’s convinced we’re safe. Intuition whispers, and stays indifferent whether we heed it or not.

Intuition gets our attention if we’re listening. Fear gets or attention no matter what—it’s a survival mechanism, intended to override everything else.  After all, if we’re in danger, nothing is more important than our immediate safety.

Intuition is not only beyond explanation, it’s beyond fear.  It speaks mysteriously, sings to us, tosses us tidbits and synchronicities.  We suddenly remember a person, a song, a bird.  Or a gremlin.

Intuition pops into our awareness, but after that, it doesn’t seem to care what we do. It’s detached, content to let us choose whether or not to heed its messages.

And intuition doesn’t rattle your bones.

Fear is a two-by-four that smacks right between the eyes.  Intuition is a poet.

So how do you untangle them?  How do you know whether to leave your marriage, your job, your city?  How do you know whether to take off on an adventure, or whether to board a plane?

Start by getting your fear out of the way.  Get to the calm, peaceful core within yourself.  It’s always there, waiting for you.  That’s the place of Truth.  Go inside to the place that’s beyond fear.

But how do we do that?  How do we get to the place beyond fear?

Here are some tips you can experiment with:

Remain silent as you allow yourself to feel the fear in your body. Just notice it without trying to change it or make it go away.  Then, with curiosity and compassion, gently ask it what it believes, what it’s come to tell you, and what it needs.

Take several soft, breaths all the way down through your belly.  Then, allow your breath to become even and regularized. Keep breathing like that.

Let go of needing to find an answer. Trust that it will come to you.

Try my Heartbreathing Exercise. Drop an email to [email protected] with “Heartbreathing Exercise” in the subject line, and I’ll send you an mp3 and worksheet with a guided exercise you can practice.  It will help you get calm and in touch with your intuition.

Soften your gaze and expand your field of vision. Fear causes the eyes to sharpen their focus to a single point.  It’s a survival mechanism designed to keep precise tabs on gremlins.  Widening our field of vision signals our brain and body that the gremlins are gone.

Be here now. Practice mindfulness. Practice stillness.  Practice yoga. Practice staying connected to your body.  Practice laughter.  Practice anything that helps you learn to stay in the present.

Be a witness and an observer. Observe your thoughts, rather than debating with them or analyzing them.  Just notice how they bubble up, but that they are not you.

Remember that coaching ourselves out of fear is a skill. It takes both practice and permission to make mistakes. With patience, you can learn to let go of your fear, efficiently and effectively.

And there, in that place beyond fear, you will find your answer to whether you should leave your marriage or your cushy but soul-sucking job.  Or whether you should jump on a sailboat with that pirate of the Caribbean you met on vacation.

When we can step into that place beyond fear, we can sense, see, hear, notice intuitive messages.  Decisions and answers reveal themselves there.  Your path may not be easy, or even completely revealed, but your direction will be clear.

And when you get to that place, you’ll know–without knowing how you know–whether or not to get on that airplane.

Finding the Sweetness in Criticism

I recently taught a telecourse on how to develop your intuition. I spent weeks preparing it and was pleased with the result. It was fun to do, well attended, and afterward, I received many enthusiastic thank-you emails and Facebook posts.  It felt great.

But one email was quite critical.  In this attendee’s opinion, I’d done a lousy job, gave lousy examples to illustrate my points, and took longer than the advertised time.  It was a very lengthy and detailed commentary, and it was directed to Martha Beck, Inc., who sponsored the call, rather than to me. Ouch.

In the not too distant past, I would have stewed about this for days.  My stomach would have hurt, and I would have stayed focused on it, disconnected from my good feelings of accomplishment.  Then, I would have dealt with my discomfort by putting on my metaphoric power suit and stilettos, and summoning Portia, my Inner Lawyer.  Portia would have searched for technicalities and loopholes, and argued an impassioned and detailed case for my defense.  My response to the writer would have taken hours to prepare.  Honestly, I really would have gone to that much trouble.

Happily, Portia is kicking back these days, and allowing Susie Q, my Inner Cheerleader, to fill her old role. Susie pointed out that with over a hundred people on the call, and such a subjective and mysterious topic, it was not surprising that someone would have disagreed with me.  Susie suggested that I focus on all of the compliments I received, send a simple note to the unhappy party, thanking her for writing, apologizing for the call going overtime, and offering her money back.

So that’s what I did.  And then I let it go.  And it felt good.  I was weirdly grateful to the writer.  She had a valid point about my going overtime and I’ll be more mindful of that in the future.  But more importantly, I was grateful for the opportunity to practice this simple principle: that other people’s opinions of us are their business, not ours, and when we stay in our own business, we are the happiest and the most productive.  When we stay in our business, our hearts are free to sing to us, and to guide us to what pleases us in the most deeply meaningful ways.

When we move into more public arenas in the world, staying in our own business is imperative.  This applies to any form of expression, whether it’s with words, paint, clay, or another form.  When we express ourselves openly, when we reveal our truth, we’re bound to encounter those who disagree with us.  We have a choice at that point.  We can go back to being small and quiet.  We can play it safe,  water it down, avoid controversy.  We can focus on the criticism and lose connection with our souls.  Or we can continue to connect with the places inside us that want to be heard, accepting the risk of not pleasing everyone.

Emerson spoke of this almost 200 years ago in his essay, Self-Reliance:  “You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

So what about you?  Which choice are you making? These days, I’m choosing to walk into the crowd with the same independence as if I were in solitude, whispering only to myself.  And, as Ralph Waldo said, it’s pretty sweet.

How to Deal with Difficult People

“We need to talk,” your partner says.  You hear The Tone and glance up from your book. They’ve got that look on their face.  You know, The Look.  The closer they get, the more sure you are.  Trouble. With a capital “T”.  Cue the opening bars from the Jaws soundtrack.   A sick feeling in your stomach kicks up, and you feel weak.  Your heart pounds, your palms sweat, and your mind races.  “What now?” you wonder from a confused place inside.

Welcome to your brain and body on emotional contagion.  You have literally “caught” the emotional upset of your partner.  It’s not hard to do.  We are actually programmed through several complex physiological systems, electrical, hormonal, and chemical, to literally pick up and take on each others negative emotional states. We can tune into each others positive emotions, too, of course, but catching the negative ones are as easy as picking up head lice in a room full of infected kindergartners.

This made great sense eons ago, when the threat of physical danger was great.  If we missed a positive signal from someone, the stakes were relatively low—we might miss a meal.  But if we missed a negative signal—well, we could be the meal.  So nature prepared us well.  Survival is paramount, so we read each others signals of fear, upset, and stress with great speed and high precision.  And we’re wired to swiftly react with our own fear and upset.

But we don’t have to respond so primitively.  We can actually learn to regulate our own response to the signals that others broadcast. We can keep our heads even when those around us, like Kipling famously said, are losing theirs and blaming it on us.

How?  Before you continue to read below, start by watching this video, understanding that it’s the real deal, not faked or staged or a camera trick.

Amazing, isn’t it?  Now, consider the mood of the diver.  Watch the video again if you need to, focusing on her movements and imagining what  her emotional state is.

She’s cool as a cucumber, isn’t she.  Why?  We all know the answer.  If she isn’t, she’ll be shark food.  This woman is actually one of a handful of the world’s  “shark feeders,” people so attuned to these animals that they can interact with them like this.

Her emotional state is crucial–it keeps the animal calm.  Animals are wired to pick up fear and upset, just like we human animals are.

When we respond to an upset person or animal in a dispassionate, deliberate manner, they are more likely to calm down.  And even if they don’t, we’re able to think more clearly and effectively while we’re interacting with them if we are in a calm, clear frame of mind.

Here are some tips to remain calm when you’re with someone or something that is upset (or upsetting to you):

1.  Breathe. Breathe gently and regularly, letting the exhale last as long as the inhale.  Inhale-2-3-4, exhale 2-3-4.  Do it over and over.  The exhale is important, and it regulates the relaxation part of your nervous system.  Repeat, slow and easy, again and again.

2.  Set an intention to stay calm. Say something like this to yourself: I’m in charge of my own experience, and I am safe.   I will remain calm and peaceful as I interact with this person or situation. Breathe into the power in that statement.

3.  Recognize the inevitable. You know your partner is going to break out in hives every time they get near the credit card bill.  You know your boss is going to get crabby every time his boss comes to town. You know your teenage daughter is going to have a meltdown every time the word “fat” is mentioned within twenty yards of her. If you remember their triggers, you won’t be caught by surprise and you’ll be better prepared to deal with them peacefully.

4.  Shields UP, Scotty. Be like Captain Kirk, and get your shield up.  Imagine a force field around you. It can be as creative as you’d like.  An invisible but very powerful force field like the one that protected the Starship Enterprise.  A fluffy, pink, yet impenetrable cloud.  A sparkly net of little twinkling stars.  A steel shark cage.  Imagine you are safely inside it and that upset and agitation bounce right off of it.  Feel how safe you are in there.  Breathe.  This little exercise is actually a powerful tool that engages the right hemisphere of the brain, and enhances your ability to maintain healthy boundaries and to stay immune from emotional contagion.

5.  Soften your eyes and widen your gaze. Let your peripheral field of vision help you.  When we are afraid or upset, we tend to narrow our focus.  It’s nature’s way of helping us keep track of exactly where the shark is.  When we intentionally soften our eyes and widen our gaze, allowing our peripheral vision to come into our awareness, we are signaling our nervous system that the shark is gone and everything’s fine.

6.  Be empathic without being a sponge. Many of us in the helping and healing professions who work with people in states of upset falsely believe that we have to absorb the toxic energy of our clients in order to understand what they are going through and to help them.  This is simply not true.  Instead of helping, we wind up drained and burned out, and help no one.  These principles of self-protection from emotional contagion apply especially to those of us who work as helpers and healers.  We can learn to shift between a state of feeling into another’s emotional state to understand and explore it, back to our own state of calm and peace.  It may take some practice, but it’s well worth it.   Try shifting your empathic focus in and out of your client’s emotional energy.

7.  Step into your own power. Whether it’s a family member, a corporation, or a client, we are often called on to step into our own power.  We can resolve not to get sucked into the destructive, disempowered vortex of emotional contagion by understanding that we are all the leaders of our own lives and our own emotional states.  This is the underlying thesis of Dan Goleman’s brilliant book Emotional Intelligence, where he states:  “Handling someone at the peak of rage is perhaps the ultimate measure of [emotional] mastery.”  This is best done by staying in our own business, knowing that we have responsibility only for our own emotional responses.

8.  Remember the Truth in the situation. The Truth is always this—there is no situation or person or problem that can be solved or dealt with more effectively, more intelligently, or more efficiently from a place of upset.  Upset states compromise us.  Calm states enhance our resources.

So next time you hear The Tone or see The Look, the next time you encounter someone who is upset, remember these tips to keep calm. These practices will help you deal with any stressful person or situation, whether your partner is freaking out because the credit card bill just came in the mail, or a ten foot long shark is suddenly swimming alongside you.

 

How to Stop Yourself from Chickening Out

Have you ever chickened out from pursuing a dream?  Some of my coaching students are having some fears about blogging.  They asked if I had any fears when I began.

It brought back some funny memories.

I started my own blog when I was in training to be a coach.  I had no idea what I was doing.  (I’m still not sure that I do.)  I didn’t read blogs and didn’t realize that the web itself was a virtual classroom about blogging.  One of my coaching instructors just encouraged me to “start a blog as a way to let people know you.”

So I did.

I read a few posts by my instructor and began writing.  I wrote about why I became a coach.  It was like a memoir, rather than something to inspire or help people solve a problem.  I posted it with a trembling hand.  Arggh!!  What if no one reads it?  Or worse, what if people do read it?  Yikes!  They’ll all laugh and ridicule me, I was certain.

But I simply wouldn’t let myself chicken out.  Why?  I’d already learned this: the humiliation of doing something imperfectly and even foolishly is far less painful than the humiliation and frustration of living a small, contained life where dreams and opportunities wither away from neglect and fearful thinking.

I learned that painful lesson, once and for all, at a workshop with Martha Beck when I began coach training.  There were twelve women in our group, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we all, ahem, hero-worshipped her. On the second day, Martha asked us all to gather on one side our classroom–the spacious living room of a large hotel suite.  Martha instructed us to cross the room in a unique way, a way no one else had done.  She crawled across the wide floor on her hands and knees to demonstrate.  One by one, we hopped, skipped, and arm flapped our way across the room.  “Again!” she commanded.  We went backwards, rolled, and spun in circles.  “Again!” she instructed, over and over, until we began to run out of ideas.

I thought about climbing over the furniture to make a new route to the other side of the room.  But I didn’t do it.  I stood frozen like a six-year-old on the first day of school, afraid I’d look awkward and foolish launching myself over the sofa.

Soon, our group gave up.  We’d run out of ideas.

Martha chastised us.  “You guys gave up way too soon. You could have done all kinds of other things. Who said you had to just use the same part of the room I did?  Why didn’t anyone climb over the furniture?” she demanded, demonstrating exactly what I’d thought of doing. My stomach clenched.

“I thought about it,” I said weakly, hoping to get a small tidbit of praise from her for my creative thinking.

“You THOUGHT about it?  Why didn’t you DO it?” Martha practically shrieked, pointedly and very loudly.  You have to DO IT. Good ideas don’t count unless you USE THEM.” I felt like I’d been filleted, skewered, and roasted over hot coals.  I don’t think I heard another word she said that day.

I made a promise to myself that I have kept to this day.  I would not let my fear of looking foolish hold me back ever again.  The humiliation of looking foolish is nothing compared to the pain of staying small, safe, and stuck.

Now, posting my writing is easy.  My posts are much better, too, because I’ve done dozens of them.  And along the way, I read many excellent blogs and listened to what my friend and blogger extraordinaire Pam Slim and other experts have to say about it.  I educated myself as I went along.

But did I need to know a lot or be good before getting started?  Absolutely not.  I just needed to start.  That alone propelled me to learn more and to do better.

Here are some questions to ask yourself, if fear of embarrassment is clucking and squawking inside you, tempting you to chicken out and abandon your dreams.

1.  Imagine that you do the thing you resist and you are embarrassed, humiliated or shamed. Close your eyes and feel it in your body.  What is the felt sense you have in your body?   Where is it, how big is it, and what kind of movement is it doing?  Can you tolerate it?

2.  If you pay attention to that felt sense with curiosity, what happens to it?  Does it weaken or strengthen?

3.  What do you believe it will mean about you if you flop?  Is that a reasonable, intelligent conclusion?

4.  Who are the specific people you fear will judge you?  Is impressing them or getting their approval worth giving up your dreams?

5.  If you fail, could you find a way to learn from it or to do a better job next time?  Is this a skill that gets better with practice?

6.  Can you absolutely know you’ll flop or that you’ll be ridiculed?

7.  Is there a way to minimize the risk of failure and still do it within a reasonable time frame and budget?

8.  What would you rather live with, the embarrassment of a failure along the way, or life without your dream?

9.  Who inspires you?  Do you think that person has ever failed at something?  Do they ever feel fear? (Hint—if they are alive and breathing, they feel fear.)  Do you think that person lets their fears or failures stop them?

10.  Visualize doing the thing you want to do without feeling afraid.  Imagine having fun and doing it brilliantly and confidently, that it’s well received, that you achieve your goal, and that you move closer to your dream.  How does that feel?  Breathe into that feeling.  Memorize it.  Call it up whenever you are tempted to chicken out.

Now, take that feeling along with you, and just go do it.  And be sure to let me know how it turns out.

You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that chickening out serves chickens way better than it serves humans who want to live their dreams.

Maps to Manage Your Mind Chatter, Part II: Tips from a Self-Taught Master

“The Camp” Courtesy of Judy Fuller.

“What makes you think you can paint?  You’re not an artist.  You’re kidding yourself!”  This is Judy Fuller’s inner voice at two a.m., when she wakes up churning about a painting she’s working on.  Judy is a self-taught artist whose extraordinary, luminous landscapes of the Florida wetlands are sold for thousands of dollars at an upscale gallery in my neighborhood.

Judy’s bright smile, twinkling eyes, and obvious success might suggest that she never hears a mean-spirited voice like this.   Not true.  Like the rest of us, Judy is human.  Like the rest of us, her mind can spin out of control.

“What do you do when you hear that voice?” I asked.  We were both at a party in the gallery, and by chance, happened to begin chatting.

“I just tell myself that I’m tired, that I worked hard today, and that I deserve to rest now,” Judy tells me.  “I remind myself that I’ve worked through blocks like this before, and I remember how wonderful it feels when I finish a painting and it pleases me and I just know it’s beautiful. That’s the truth.  The voice in the middle of the night isn’t.  And I get up the next morning and go to work again.”

“I have a post-it on the studio light switch. ‘The painted ponies go up and down.’ I see it at night when I turn off the lights.  It prepares me to remember the truth if the voice comes in the middle of the night.”

Judy’s not only a self-taught artist; she’s also a self-taught coach, who coaches herself when she hears the nagging, nay-saying inner voice that keeps so many of us from our dreams.  She gently reminds herself of the truth.

Here’s exactly how Judy stops her mind-chatter from stopping her:

1.  Pay attention to what is happening. Judy didn’t avoid the voice. She didn’t surf the internet or eat a quart of Chunky Monkey ice cream straight out of the container.  It’s important not to distract yourself at this point.

2.  Be compassionate. She spoke to herself gently and kindly.  She didn’t make herself wrong for having the thought, and didn’t berate herself further.  In other words, don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up.

3.  Find “the why.” Judy found reasons why the harsh voice was acting out.  She was tired.  She had been working hard.  She had an artistic problem that was unsolved.  She was discouraged.  You can similarly ask yourself: why could this voice be speaking out?  What’s it afraid of?  What’s it trying to tell me?

4.  Find evidence that the critical message is untrue. Judy reminded herself that she’s heard from this voice before, that she produces many beautiful paintings and loves what she does, and that her work in on display in galleries and is purchased by others.  This kind of specific, detailed, truthful evidence is exactly what we need to find when we are disputing the mind chatter that threatens to derail us.

5.  Acknowledge the real truth. Judy remembered what is true for her and what that truth feels like–when she finishes a painting and sees its beauty, she feels it, too.  In those moments, there’s no doubt.  She knows she’s an artist.  When you land on the real truth, your feelings will shift.  It feels so much better.

6.  Give yourself an immediate, healthy solution. “I tell myself to rest, that I can come back to the painting later, that I’ve worked it enough for now,” Judy said. Taking a break from a problem is a proven strategy for moving through it.  So is resting.  Three slow, gentle breaths, a walk outside, or a bath with lavender oil are remedies that work, too.  With experimentation, you can find what works for you.

7.  Don’t give up. The next day, Judy went back to her work.  She didn’t believe the voice and didn’t let its message stop her.    You don’t have to, either. You don’t have to believe everything you hear, even if it’s coming from inside your own head.   That critical voice doesn’t mean you should give up your dreams–just go back to work.

It’s a fantastic example of masterful self-coaching.  The proof?  Her beautiful art exists on canvasses, not as unfulfilled dreams, existing only inside her head.

So, the next time a voice inside your head says you can’t have what your soul yearns for, remind yourself as Judy does, “The painted ponies go up and down.”

Maps to Manage Your Mind Chatter, Part I

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpTqV6LPl8c[/youtube]

We’re a lot like baby otters, us humans.  We’re not born knowing how to do everything we need to thrive.  Part of thriving requires us to understand and manage the incessant, often self-destructive conversation inside our heads.   Virtually all of us do it.  Welcome to the human race!

That mind chatter it can imprison us, making us feel helpless when we are not, keep us stuck in perpetual rumination, questioning ourselves and our actions over and over, plunge us into self-destructive habits and false ideas about what will really make us happy.

Managing our mind chatter is the key for many of us to live our dreams, connect with the essence of who we are, and to create the best lives we can possibly have.  Scores of great sages from spiritual leaders to social scientists and psychologists have addressed the issue.  Here’s Carlos Castenada on the topic:

“We talk to ourselves incessantly about our world. In fact we maintain our world with our internal talk. And whenever we finish talking to ourselves about ourselves and our world, the world is always as it should be. We renew it, we rekindle it with life, we uphold it with our internal talk. Not only that, but we also choose our paths as we talk to ourselves. Thus we repeat the same choices over and over until the day we die, because we keep on repeating the same internal talk over and over until the day we die. A warrior is aware of this and strives to stop his internal talk.”

Got that?  As long as the inner conversation remains the same, we repeat the same choices over and over because we repeat the same internal talk over and over.  We have to change the tunes we sing to ourselves in order to hear the music that inspires our souls to live as large and joyfully as we possibly can.

But before we dive into the how-to do it, let’s set the stage, the ground of being for the journey.  Before we consider some specifics about how to quiet the mind, let’s go over a few ground rules for the journey:

Practice makes perfect. They don’t call these techniques practices for nothing.  We must practice them.

It’s experiential. If you only read cookbooks, you’ll stay hungry.  If you only read self-help books, you’ll stay stuck.  Attending workshops and classes, and buying an expensive library of self-help books does not substitute for actually doing these practices.  The feeling you get from the experience is what teaches you what you need to learn.

It’s not about the pose. As my yoga teacher says, “It’s not about the pose, it’s about your reaction to the pose.” Most of us will fail at this over and over. Your failures are as great as your successes.  Accepting this with a light attitude is part of the process of managing your thoughts.  When you can accept your failures as gracefully as your successes, well, you are a warrior!

Be nice. Okay, so you beat yourself up in your mind.  Don’t compound it by beating yourself up for beating yourself up.

Get a guide if you’re lost. Hiring a coach or therapist or other helper who is experienced at thought management is not evidence of failure or incompetence.  It’s evidence that you are serious about wanting to change.

Cast a wide net. It may take several approaches to succeed.  It does for me.  Maybe for you, too.  Sound like too much trouble?  That’s just more mind chatter.  Wouldn’t it be worth the extra effort, if it meant you could live joyfully?

Play. Allow yourself to have fun as you experiment.  This shouldn’t hurt.  Approach it all with curiosity and a commitment to find the pleasure in your practices.

And, as always, a sense of humor gets extra credit.

Stay tuned. I’ll continue with specific approaches and techniques in subsequent posts.

Why are women twice as depressed as men?

It hit me like a bucket of ice-water in my face.  I was putting away a book this morning, and it fell open to this:  modern Western women have twice the rates of depression as men.

How could this be?  We have access to unprecedented independence, careers, education, birth control, therapy, and options unimaginable to prior generations.  What is getting to us?  What’s bugging us so much?

I began to read.

Could it be our hormones?  Nope.  While hormonal factors can play a role in feeling lousy, it’s not significant enough to account for the whopping difference between men and women.

Genetics?  Maybe we’re just predisposed for some ancient evolutionary reason?  That doesn’t explain it either.  While there is a tendency to pass on depression through the generations, careful genetic examination shows that it can’t account for such a wildly lopsided disproportion.

How about our willingness to talk about our depression more openly than men?  No, the two-to-one ratio shows up even when people who are very private about their internal states are studied.

Perhaps it’s because women go to therapy more than men, so it’s reported and studied more?  While we do, door-to-door surveys produce the same result.  Women not in therapy have twice the depression rates as men not in therapy.

Is it due to sex-based discrimination, or economic factors, since women tend to have worse jobs for less money? No.  Rich or poor, well-employed or unemployed, women are twice as depressed as men.

How about the multiple demands and roles that women deal with today—working plus tending children and maintaining a home?  This theory doesn’t pan out, either.  Working women are less depressed than stay-at-homes, who have fewer demands placed on them.

One by one, the possible culprits are eliminated by Martin Seligman in What You Can Change & What You Can’t, A Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. Seligman is known as the “father of positive psychology” and has written and researched extensively on happiness and how to achieve it.  After shooting down all of the obvious possibilities, he offers three possible explanations that are all confirmed by social science.

Here’s what the evidence points to:

First, learned helplessness, a proven predictor of depression, is far more prevalent in women than in men.  We often feel we have no control over the outcome of a situation, even when we can control it, because we’ve “learned” that we are powerless.

We live in a culture that trains women to be bystanders.

From cradle to grave, Seligman says, women get a masterful education in helplessness—boys learn to be active and adventurous, girls to be passive and dependent.  Women who become wives and mothers are devalued by our culture, and women who don’t marry or don’t have children are perceived as out of place.

How about this one, sisters?  Women who achieve success or power are seen as tough, bitchy, and aggressive.  Man-like.  Who wants that? So why bother, we tell ourselves, and ignore the yearnings within our souls.

Since we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, we tend to give up and stop trying.  We assume we are helpless when we are in fact, not.

Second, we ruminate more, we churn and worry about our upsets and their causes, way more than men do. We lose our jobs and want to know why, what we did wrong, what happened, how could we have prevented it, who didn’t like us, and on and on.  This kind of reflection is not useful and digs us into a deep emotional hole.  Men tend to ignore causation and exploration, and take action.  It may not be healthy action—they might get drunk, watch sports, or otherwise distract themselves.  But they don’t tend to churn about it inside.

Our inner worlds sound like this:  Will he call? Maybe he doesn’t like me.  What did I do wrong?  I said the wrong thing.  I wish she wasn’t upset.  How can I fix it?  I didn’t do enough.  I did too much.  I’m not enough.

A man’s inner world sounds like this:  Hmmm, wonder what’s in the fridge? TGIF. Can’t wait for the game tonight.  Maybe I’ll call that girl I went out with.

Think I’m kidding?  Ask a man.  I have.  Lots of times.  And they consistently tell me these kinds of answers.  Sure they worry, too.  Sure they ruminate.  But not like we do.

Third, (and this one was the big shocker for me, so buckle up, girlfriends), the futile pursuit of thinness. Yep.  We are chasing a biologically impossible ideal with such zeal that we have depressed ourselves in record numbers.  We hate our natural curves that much.

We strive to have an unnaturally thin body so excessively, fruitlessly, and unhealthily that we work ourselves up into staggering and unprecedented amounts of depression.

When boys approach puberty, hormones give them lean muscles; when girls arrive, we get body fat.  Guess what?  We need that extra fat to make estrogen and the female hormones that also bless us with smooth, soft skin, supple bodies, and babies and breast milk.  How do we respond to this gift?  We hate, starve, vomit, exercise, worry, lipo, pummel, and then overeat ourselves into massive depression.

We are literally brainwashed into thinking our natural beauty is ugly.

Here’s a powerful factoid:  all the world over, every culture on the planet that believes thin women are the ideal have women more prone to depression and eating disorders.  Every world culture that does not worship at the altar of the unnaturally thin female body has no eating disorders and no lopsided female-to-male depression.

Be clear about this one, please.  I’m not suggesting that overeating is an emotionally healthy option.  But torturing ourselves because we don’t have a body like a prepubescent teenager’s, loathing our beautiful, curvy, naturally soft bodies is futile and extremely self-destructive.  And, our obsession passes this viewpoint along to our daughters, who begin “dieting” practically as soon as they learn to read and write.

What’s the good news in all of this?

All three of these causes can be changed. Learned helplessness, rumination, and poor body image are all based on thinking patterns and false beliefs that we can learn to change. 

Isn’t that wonderful, amazing, fabulous news?  I’ll say it again.  The major causes of depression in modern Western women can be changed when our thinking and attitudes change. By changing something we have control over.

It’s not easy, but depression is worse. I’ve been there.

I don’t know about you, but learning that I was in control of most of the things that bugged and upset me was the single most empowering discovery I ever made. And I do not say that lightly.  I am an attorney.  When I practiced law, I won cases that impacted thousands of people’s lives.  I am a mother.  I gave birth to two children and connected with the raw power of my body’s torrential forces.  Both of those roles gave me tremendous feelings of power and joy.

But the power and joy available by managing my self-destructive thinking patterns has been beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, and beyond anything I could have ever imagined.

Once I got the hang of it—with simple tools that are powerful, user-friendly, and available—my lifelong tendencies to feel helpless, to worry excessively, and to hate myself for not being built like a Barbie doll began to fade away.  So far, it hasn’t returned.

So what do you say?  Shall we declare a truce on ourselves and our bodies?  Shall we accept that some of us have breasts and hips and, ahem, muffin tops, and that’s okay?

And as for our learned helplessness and our excessive worrying, we have the power to change that, too.

So if you need help get it. A coach or a therapist can do wonders with stuck thinking patterns. If  you are prone to feeling low or prone to depression, or actually depressed, be sure that your recovery plan includes resources that help you manage your destructive thoughts.

Seligman’s research also confirms what my experience has taught me:  managing your thoughts manages your moods.  Our feelings are a direct result of our thinking.

The Tao of Holidays

“When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”  The Tao te Ching

Do you approach the holidays in a spirit of leaving nothing undone?

I feel your pain.  My holidays used to include a ten-foot Christmas tree, a perfect specimen chosen with a careful eye and festooned with hundreds of carefully placed lights, trinkets, and toys.  It took two ladders and several days to complete it

My family didn’t share my attention to detail.  “Mom,” my eleven year old son said one year, as I was speed-hanging blown-glass icicles moments before dozens of guests were arriving, “The tree is beautiful.  No one cares if you get more stuff on it.  Just relax and enjoy it.”

I thought this was a very uncooperative attitude.

Relax and enjoy?  When there were halls to deck and gifts to buy.  And parties to throw.  And meals served on antique china and vintage linens.

Truth is, apart from admiring my handiwork for a few moments here and there, I was frazzled most of the time.  If I had a spare moment, I’d fill it.  “Florentines?  Perfect! If I go buy hazelnuts right this minute, they’ll be finished by 2 am.  Hmmm…I wonder where I can find organic, fair-trade hazelnuts this time of night?”

Happily, I found a different way.   Here’s how it works—if it feels like love and can be done with ease and my full presence, I do it.  If not, it’s left undone. It’s not only more peaceful, it’s way more fun.

I still love creating a Christmas tree, but now, it’s small and simple and takes about an hour to decorate.  It’s sparkly and beautiful and smells divine, and I have time to sit in front of it with friends and a glass of wine.  I cook on Christmas Day because I love to, but it’s no longer a competition with Martha Stewart.  I might even break out the antique china once in a while, because it’s lovely and these days, because I actually got some sleep the night before Christmas, I have the energy for the hand-washing that follows.

Guided by principles of love and ease and mindfulness, I do less and less, and enjoy the holidays more and more.  Without the long to-do list, I can connect with the people in my life with my full presence.  And isn’t that the point of all the preparations, decorations, meals, parties, and gifts?  Isn’t that connection what really matters, what we really want?

Truly, by doing less and less, all with loving, effortless ease and full presence, nothing that really matters is left undone.

During this holiday season, may you give and receive love and connection with those who nourish your life, and may you keep it with effortless ease in the coming year.

From Aha Moments to Lasting Transformation

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUV65sV8nu0[/youtube]

Don’t you just love them?  Those “aha” moments when everything falls into place as if by magic.  It can happen when you solve a problem, when you figure out the perpetrator in a whodunit movie, or, best of all, when you get a powerful insight into how to change your life for the better.

There’s a good reason “ahas” feel so good.  At the moment of insight, our brains release a surge of energizing chemicals and give off strong gamma-band waves, signals that the brain is literally dancing as it makes new brain-wide connections.

This is learning at its very finest, and we are called to action from the deepest parts of our hearts and minds.  In the dramatic clip from the film, The Miracle Worker, posted above, Helen Keller figures out that the random hand movements her teacher has been making were a symbol for  water.  She instantly got it, and understood that there was a way to communicate beyond the isolation of her dark, silent world.

In The Story of My Life, she described it this way:  “Suddenly … somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.  I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.  That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

But what do you think would have happened to Helen Keller if, after that momentous day, she didn’t do anything more?  No doubt about it—without repetition and reinforcement, her insight would have soon faded.  Instead, as Helen tells it, “I did nothing but explore with my hands and learn the name of every object that I touched; and the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.”

Brain scientists put it this way: “what fires together, wires together.”  That’s another way of saying “practice makes perfect.”

The energy surge and resulting intense motivation we feel after an “aha” can pass very quickly, and we can soon forget about it, unless our learning “wires together.”  That’s why follow up and practice is crucial.  We must reinforce our insight with attention and repetition, to help our brains remember and apply our insights in future situations.

Here are some ways to help you use ahas to create lasting change:

1.    Write it down. The action of recording your insight will itself help strengthen the brain’s new connections and help you remember it.
2.   Return to your insight often. Post-it notes on the mirror and your computer screen really can strengthen your brain’s new connections.  Repeatedly bringing your attention to your “aha” will reinforce your learning by strengthening the new connections in your brain.
3.    Keep your attention on the solution, not the original problem. If you got an insight into how to stop procrastinating, for example, gently redirect your attention to the insight you got whenever you are tempted to procrastinate, rather than reminding yourself of your challenges with procrastination.  Again, this strengthens the brain’s new connections, rather than the old ones.
4.    Take easy action. As you move your insight into new, real-world behavior, it’s important to take action in small, easy steps.  This will minimize the brain’s stress signals, which will occur if you try to do too much too soon.
5.    Be generous with yourself. Remember that you didn’t learn to walk the first 500 times you tried.  Allow yourself to try and fail at your new behavior.  The very fact that you are trying is enough to re-focus your attention on the solution, and will strengthen your new insight.

With time and patience, you’ll see  your “ahas” gradually transform into “no-brainers”—automatic behaviors that hardly take any conscious attention.  So have fun, enjoy your ahas and happy learning!