I'm a grad school dropout. There, I said it.
I decided at about the age of 12 that I wanted to be a psychologist. I was then and still fascinated with how the mind works and why people are the way they are and act the way they do. In 1975 I wrote away to the American Psychological Association for brochures with titles like "Careers in Psychology". I checked books out of the library. I read about it in the 1972 World Book Encyclopedia.
While I was drawn to the subject intellectually, I think I was probably like a lot of people who gravitate to psychology. I wanted to understand and maybe fix the problems I saw in my family and myself. In my rural Oklahoma house there was alcoholism, attempted suicide, isolation, loneliness... so much pain. And on the face of it, it didn't make a lot of sense to my kid-brain. It didn't look like anything had gone wrong. We had a nice house. We lived in a pretty area. My parents had three neurotypical kids who got good grades in public school and who were on student council, in the band, ROTC (one of my brothers opted to be on the ROTC rifle team to get his gym credits.) I didn't feel like I fit in really, but I was a chameleon. I managed to get through my own bout of high school depression by toughing it out.
Fast forward six years and off to college I went, leaving behind the problems of my childhood home. I majored in psychology and did really well -- still really interested in the topic. But I discovered SOCIOLOGY, and liked it so much better! Groups! Not individuals! So I took more sociology classes, but kept my major as psychology.
Then one day, my favorite sociology professor handed out a survey in our Social Deviance class about sexual orientation! Eek! By this time I'd had a non-platonic relationship with another young woman, but this was Oklahoma, and 1984, and even handling a survey that had the word "lesbian" on it freaked me out. I couldn't turn it in. Whew. But the cat was out of my brain's bag. Coming out was something I'd get around to dealing with two years later when I was a senior. I still needed to finish school and figure out what next, but it was becoming clear to me that clinical psychology wasn't what I wanted to do. The closest field of study in psychology to sociology at that time was industrial/organizational psychology (later the programs got better and the language got hipper and it morphed into Organizational Dynamics.) So I set out to get into an IO psych program, and my chief criteria? Proximity to skiing.
After many a high school and college spring break, I loved Colorado and I loved skiing. I picked my grad school based on location. And I got a job as a hall director that paid 100% of my educational costs PLUS room and board. Colorado State, here I come!
Then two things happened. I fell in love with a real live out lesbian who was also into me, and I hated my grad school program. The details are not super important, but ultimately I dropped out of grad school after a year and a half and moved with my then-girlfriend to the East Coast.
No one plans to drop out of grad school. I had a lot of my personal identity tied up in the image I'd held for myself and my future as a PhD for more than a decade. I had a lot of elitist and classist stuff to work through. I quickly became under-resourced. I was starting over in deciding who I was going to be when I grew up. I had several pretty tough years. (I wish coaching had been available to me then!) But eventually I got my bearings and created an awesome new story for myself.
Is there a moral to the story? Ummm... It's okay to change your mind? What happened to you in the past is just part of who you are today? Once you're a few years away from it, it's not a thing anymore? Something that feels enormous won't always feel like that? Maybe do a little more research on grad programs before you decide?
Are you at that place of deciding what to do with your third third of life? Coaching can help. Sign up for a free session and get that extra assistance in sorting it out.
Spoiler: Feel your feelings and then find a thought that is equally believable that feels better.
My son Scott is about to fly the coop. He is a circus performer, and he's got a great opportunity that we expect will last many years. When I'm all practical and logical, I know that everything is just as it should be. Kids are supposed to grow up and move out and find their way in the world. Our guy is able to pursue his passion and because he's awesome and dedicated, I fully expect he will have a wonderful life-fulfilling career in the field of his dreams.
And yet some days I am super sad that this transition is upon us. In a week's time, everything will be different. The day-to-day relationship will come to an end. So much of the last 10 years was filled with driving him to classes or training or attending performances. We've gotten a little taste of him not being home much since he got his drivers license, but still, he comes home every night and wakes up here every morning. In a week, it will be over. Sad, right?
What's to be done when we feel sad? In our culture, we've pretty much been taught that feeling bad is unacceptable. "It feels bad. Please make it stop," our brain cries. When we were little we were told to not be a cry baby, or were offered some ice cream to cheer us up. Or worse, our feelings weren't acknowledged and we had no idea if we were even visible to the people around us. In the face of serious illness or the death of a loved one, most people are at a total loss about what to do or say, so maybe they offer platitudes or just disappear because it is too painful for them to manage. An opiate addiction public health crisis has blanketed our society, with the option of artificially blotting out pain becoming a preferable choice over living with and through what hurts.
If we are talking about emotional pain, what is it really? When we peel it all the way back, it is just a vibration in our bodies. I'm not saying it doesn't feel like it might actually kill us. But since we are still on this planet, then surely we have all demonstrated to ourselves that we can make it through some unpleasant emotions. And the truth of it is that the more we resist and distract from feeling the feelings, the longer they fester and continue to hurt.
So take a beat to feel it. I feel sad that Scott is moving away. In my body, that feels like a tightness in my chest. It feels like there is something blocking my diaphram from being able to take a full breath. It feels like heaviness behind my eyes. My throat is tight. On a 1-10 scale of unpleasantness, I give it a 6.5. Even in just a few minutes of identifying what's going on in my body, the intensity has lessened.
The point isn't to feel the feeling so that I can feel better (though it's definitely a by-product). It's so that I don't get stuck there. When I allow myself to just acknowledge and experience it without trying to soothe myself with distractions or food or some other external thing, I actually have given myself the opportunity to to connect with myself, which in turn helps me to feel closer to Scott. And I have opened a window to let in equally believable thoughts that feel better.
Instead of "Life as I know it will change for the worse," I can easily get to "Things will be different," which feels better. Can I get to believing the thought "It's going to be great to have Scott gone!" Absolutely not. Not even close to that. Can I get to "Maybe Scott and I will find a great new way of connecting even when he's far away"? Maybe, maybe not. Can I get to "When Scott has gone away for months at a time in the past, I figured out how to manage my feelings then"? I can believe that, though admittedly it's not too far up in emotional vibration from the original thought.
I can also not try to hit it so head on. Thoughts that are easy for me to believe that feel better about the whole thing include "We did a great job parenting him," and "How great that we were able to support him so that he can fulfill his dreams," and "It will be fun to travel to see him and watch him at work dazzling his audiences," and "How many parents are able to just show up at their kids' workplace and see them in action like we will be able to?" and "He knows that we will always be his home when he needs us," and "This is part of the deal in parenting and apparently it's not fatal." And I can plug into the knowledge that I don't need to think about forever, I just need to be present right now.
And just like that, I feel a little better.
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"Come to your senses." To me, that sentence has always meant returning from being knocked unconscious, or regaining equilibrium after a descent into some line of thought or action that you think or society tells you was wrongheaded or misguided.
Look at the actual words though. What if we re-appropriate it to mean "return to the physical sensations in your body"?
I do a lot of work personally and with my coaching clients to develop awareness of feelings. The end we are working toward is actually feeling our feelings, rather than resisting them, denying that they are happening, or distracting ourselves from feeling them. Our brains and bodies developed evolutionarily to keep us safe. Our body's reactions to thoughts are the same as its reactions to actual happenings in the physical realm. It's why athletes use visualization as part of their training.
But it's also why low grade worry stresses our bodies out physically. If you are always on an impossible deadline at work, or your boss or spouse or other person you interact with daily is inconsistent and volatile, your nervous system (the connection between the brain and the body) is always on alert, and stress hormones stay active in your system. You've probably heard about the negative impacts this has: weight gain, pain, depression, anxiety and more.
What's there to do then?
Try coming to your senses. Assuming you are someplace where you can take two minutes without interruption, you can do this right now. Feel the actual sensations in your body. What does your current emotion feel like? If you are anxious or sad, is there a clammy heavy rock sitting on your sternum? Or a band tightening around your lower guts? Or heaviness behind your eyes? From a scale of 1 -10, how uncomfortable is it? Explore and describe the actual sensation of the feeling in your body for between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. Breathe. When your mind wanders and it will (because it really wants to keep you safe and can't distinguish between thoughts and physical danger), just notice that it wandered and come back to your senses. Don't sweat it if you don't feel anything or can't come up with a clear description, just stay focused on your breath.
You just truly felt your feelings. They are just a vibration in your body, largely driven by neurochemicals and habits of thought. I find it nearly impossible to do an exercise like this when I am in the middle of a situation. The key is to practice at times when you are not all wrought up. Then it gets easier at times of greater stress.
This is a great skill to work through with a coach. And really, it's the key to getting everything you want. Curious? Get in touch for a free coaching call and see how you might be able to benefit from coaching.
In the latest podcast episode, I share some tips to get a better feeling mood going right now, for next to no money, or as I say, "less than a latte." I encourage you to listen to the whole episode, but one thing I mention in the podcast is how hard it is to not feel happier and want to move more when hearing the song Despacito. The original version in Spanish is great, but you should hear the various covers from around the world. I like this one because the guy has such a different facial expression for each instrument he plays. He's clearly in flow when he's on the oud!
Seriously -- Test it out. Go to YouTube and type "Despacito" and any other language, instrument or country, and you will find it. Really loads of goodness in just about every rendition (though I do not prefer the Bieber/English translation.)
Oh, and here's the podcast!
There's a thing you have to do when you are getting your private pilot's license. When you are first learning to fly, you use what's called visual flight rules (VFR, because everything in aviation has an abbreviation.) Because you do need to know what to do if suddenly you find yourself in a fog bank or something else that obsures your vision, you have to experience relying solely on the plane's instruments. To practice, you put a hood over your head that only lets you see the dashboard. (There's an instructor with you, so you know you won't crash. Whew.) Essentially, it's like flying blind, except that your plane's instruments can tell you the direction you are headed, your airspeed, whether you are climbing or falling, turning or flying straight. How hard can flying only with instruments be? Piece of cake, right? Who needs vision to fly?
A funny thing happens though. Your body stops sensing whether you are turning, changing speed, climbing or diving. When your body can't feel it, even if the instruments give you evidence that maybe something is going wrong, you don't pick up on it. John F. Kennedy, Jr, crashed his little plane because he was only rated for VFR and found himself in some weather with poor visibility, got disoriented and crashed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) deemed it spatial disorientation. JFK Jr was no dummy. His inability to recognize where things were going wrong wasn't because he didn't understand that he didn't want to crash into the ocean. It was because he didn't have the benefit of having a more full view of the situation, and maybe not enough experience in flying with poor visibility.
Our brains can act like a hood when practicing instrument flying. We think we know what's happening, and we might be right. But we might have accidentally put ourselves into stall or spin situation. If we have enough altitude, maybe we can catch it before impact. If not, we may have a catastrophic impact before we've even figured out something is amiss.
That's why, even if we know we ought to be able to sort out a problem for ourselves -- maybe lose weight or get healthy, maybe change jobs, maybe work on a relationship -- we don't stick with it long enough to reach our goal.
This is where watching your thoughts comes in. It's why coaching is helpful too. Sometimes we can totally see what's going on and can do the things we know we need to do. Sometimes we need the help of a flight instructor to point our attention to the altimeter or air speed indicator so that you can make the changes you want for yourself.
Ready to get started? Let's go!