The Recovering Farmer

Thursday, April 30, 2020

I Blame Myself

There is another component to playing the blame game. In my last post I talked about our tendency to blame others when things go wrong particularly if you throw stress and anxiety into the mix. I talked about taking the third person approach in trying to recognize what our mental health may be contributing to a conflict.

It is imperative to also ensure that we don’t go blaming ourselves. I admit that when I realize that my own emotions or cognitive distortions have created tensions in relationships I have a tendency to beat myself up. That in itself is not healthy either.

As I have mused about previously I easily get caught up in the negative aspects of life. They control my mood and my thoughts. They are often filled with regrets. Far too often I look back and wish I would have done things differently. I challenge myself and others to rid ourselves of negativity through positive thinking which is good and well as long as we don’t stew about those negative experiences. But stew I do. I need to change that.

Mark Manson, in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a “bleep”, speaks about the “feedback loop from hell”. That piqued my curiosity. I have this uncontrollable way of letting my mind run rampant with negative and morbid thoughts. And because I know better than to allow those thoughts, I start bemoaning the fact that I have these negative thoughts and that I am such an idiot for thinking them and such a loser for thinking that I am an idiot and because I am an idiot there is no wonder I am useless at this thing called life. Notice how quickly I can get myself in trouble? As Manson states; “we feel bad about feeling bad. We feel guilty for feeling guilty. We get angry about getting angry. We get anxious about feeling anxious”.

Many people feel that self-criticism is healthy, it helps us do better. As a result we often say things about, and to ourselves that diminish who we are. Think about it. Do you think that if you used that same tone and words with others they would feel encouraged? I think not. We would be much more compassionate with others.

According to the Dictionary, compassion is defined as having “sympathy (empathy) for the suffering of others, often including a desire to help”. We know that caring for and wanting to help others is a good thing. It feels good. And we all know when others care about us, when they want to help us, it feels good.

We need to practice self-compassion. The theory is quite simple. Do you know that as humans we have an innate desire to be understood by others particularly during periods of distress? We never outgrow that. Our pain and anxiety reduces the more others understand and care. Our physical health improves when others show they care, when they show they understand, when they reach out to help.

Using that same principle on ourselves is just as important, it helps in countering negative thoughts and social isolation. It helps us in softening our attitudes about ourselves. You will find that the response is similar to when someone treats you with compassion. It can begin a journey of self-discovery, seeing ourselves as worthy of kindness and respect. Make it a good one.

“Believing in our hearts that who we are is enough is the key to a more satisfying and balanced life.” Ellen Sue Stern

Friday, April 24, 2020

Who Can I Blame

I made some comments a few weeks ago that I was encouraged with the way most people were cooperating in this time of pandemic. I saw leaders of our country and provinces make incredible efforts to work on doing what was needed to “flatten the curve”. I saw a softening of partisanship. It felt like a global effort to keep people safe and alive.

Overtime I sense a shift in attitudes. Perhaps it has been too stressful a time in isolation. Maybe many of us are frightened to the point of panic. Or maybe we have become immune to what could happen and now want our freedom back. A few weeks ago this all felt surreal. But now that we have been immersed in this for an extended period of time it is feeling more real and that leaves us with a feeling of discomfort, a big unknown.

So it appears that many of us, including government leaders, are looking to place blame. Blame for the virus, blame for the deaths of thousands, blame for financial struggles and blame for the inconvenience of life among others.

To what end? Why is it that as humans we seem to have this innate desire to place blame? Add increased stress and anxiety to the mix and you have the potential for a volatile situation. My expectations for others increase proportionately to my anxiety levels. When I feel my depression rearing its ugly head it’s like no one around me can do anything right. When my mood changes, my outlook on life changes.

David Burns, in his book Feeling Good, talks about ten cognitive distortions that people with mental illness may experience. He talks about “catastrophizing”, how we have the tendency to “exaggerate the importance of things” particularly as it concerns our own shortcomings or someone else’s imperfections. We get to the point where we assume our negative emotions truly reflect reality because that is how we are feeling. And as that happens, tensions increase and conflict ensues.

I have had to learn to be proactive when this happens. I use what I call the third person approach. When I first began using this technique I would, after the fact, review the tensions or conflict from a third person perspective. I found it much easier to characterize my attitude, communication style, and conflict management style through the lens of a third person. It was easier to recognize who I was and how my emotional state contributed to the issue.

So as we continue to experience the fears and anxieties of our current reality, in addition to our normal stressors, it is important to recognize when our increased anxieties or fears might be causing cognitive distortions, when our own inner turmoil creates tension with the most important people around us.

Next time you feel irritation and frustration with the people around you, remove yourself and view the situation from the third person perspective. You may be surprised to find that it is your own personal stress in life that is creating these feelings of frustration, anger and the desire to lay blame. With awareness and practice you will find that incorporating the third person approach into your coping skills, will help you gain a new perspective and a deeper appreciation of your relationships. Try it. You may like it. Make it a good one.

“. . . research found that you may think about a conflict more wisely if you consider it as an outside observer would”. Douglas LaBier

Friday, April 17, 2020

A Tale of Two Brains

I find that as we move further into the Covid 19 experience my anxiety levels increase on a daily basis. Not entirely sure why but, based on my conversations with others, I am not alone. Perhaps it can be likened to the financial situation many find themselves in. We get by as long as the paychecks arrive but when one gets missed it creates problems. Perhaps that is the way many of us are with our mental health. We get by but just barely. And then when something like Covid 19 happens with all its glory we tumble over the abyss.

I recently chatted with a client and asked him if anxiety was a person or thing how he would describe it. With little hesitation he answered “a squirrel”. I found that intriguing. As we delved into it further the concept really made sense to me. Imagine a squirrel. Very active. Quite noisy. Flits from place to place. Never runs in a straight line. Hops from tree to tree. Quite agile. Can be intrusive. Always on the lookout. Never a dull moment. I wonder, do they ever sleep?

Now compare that to anxiety. Many people I talk to describe how anxiety creates a myriad of thoughts running through their minds. And just as you deal with one thought another one comes rushing in. Scurrying about in your gray matter, jumping from one thought to another. Puts you on edge. We become spooked. Never knowing what lies around the next corner. It is intrusive and if it sleeps it is with one eye open.

I could go into some detail about the way our brain works. However the brain is complicated. Allow me to simplify it for you. Let me be bold enough to suggest we have two brains, the thinking brain and the feeling brain. (this has not been medically proven)

The thinking brain tends to be conscientious, accurate, impartial, and methodical. It has the ability to reason through options. The feeling brain, on the other hand, is somewhat of a drama queen. It is impulsive, inaccurate, and irrational. It represents our emotions and arrives at conclusions quickly. Sounds like a squirrel.

I am of the opinion that when I experience this added anxiety on a daily basis it is my feeling brain that is in control. As I have my morning coffee and read news headlines or look at social media the feeling brain takes over. It jumps to conclusions that are often inaccurate. As that happens my thoughts become irrational. And then it flits from crisis to crisis and convinces me that the world is doomed and that I will die.

After my usual hour or two in this state my thinking brain slowly begins to emerge. Perhaps it was sleeping in. As it comes to life, perhaps it’s the coffee, I begin to think of all the good things I am experiencing. It helps me focus on the work I need to do. It helps me be proactive about the activities I can partake in which will provide purpose for life. It will help me focus on the positives happening both globally and closer to home.

Based on my thoughts today I believe some of my biggest challenges come from things completely outside of our control. And no matter how hard I try, I can do nothing about it regardless of what my feeling brain is telling me. So I need to try hard to put those aside. If I manage to use my thinking brain I can put aside those uncontrollables and find my list of stressors becoming much shorter and easier to deal with.

Whether we are the praying type or not, the serenity prayer can be helpful. It talks about serenity, courage and wisdom. I particularly like the wisdom part. Having the wisdom to know what I can change and what I can’t is significantly important for our mental health. Takes practice, but it can be done. Make it a good one.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Friday, April 10, 2020

Let It Be

I awoke this morning with an interesting epiphany. Hardly before the coffee had kicked in I went on Facebook to post what I had discovered, something I rarely do. I expressed gratitude for the friends I have. I realized that I had now hung out with myself for four weeks. I have talked to myself and argued with myself. I had come to the understanding that I probably don’t make for a good friend so felt thankful that there were still those that considered me a friend.

Truth be told, most of that was said with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. But, perhaps, that was an early indication of what my day would be like. I knew that this isolation was getting to me. As I reflected on it I realized I had not driven my car, not been off our street for over two weeks.

In my perusal of news headlines one of the first articles I read was about a working group that was planning for a worst case scenario. A time when doctors might have to decide who gets a ventilator and who is expendable. That felt like a death knell for me, being the age I am and my less than stellar health.

I knew there was work I needed to get done. But I felt exhausted. I had a good sleep but did not feel rested. I have experienced that at other times in my life. To me it has become simple. Overwhelming stress is incredibly tiring. Constant rumination about what was, what is and what will be creates fatigue. It can be more tiring than actually do hard physical work.

Finally, in desperation, I hopped in my car and went for a drive. No destination, just wanting to get out, get away. And as happens I listened to music. First a song by the Rolling Stones with a good beat which made me crank the volume. Next a song by Nazareth that my wife and I enjoyed back in our dating days. Then a song that I felt was so timely. The Beatles’ Let It Be.

It is quite interesting to read about the inspiration Paul McCartney had when he wrote the lyrics. It seems that he was having some struggles in his personal life. He was lonely. The story goes that he had a dream one night where his mother appeared and said to him “Let it be”. He took a lot of solace from that message. He found comfort and in those simple words he found the message; “be gentle, don’t fight things, just try and go with the flow, and it will work out okay”.

I found my spirits rising as I sang along. Those three words, let it be, gave me comfort. They helped me come back to the present. Find the center. Breathe. Take control of my thoughts. I got home and felt renewed energy to carry on with life.

I still wonder about the irony, the timing, hearing that song at that time. If you really think about it, it happens often in life. We have moments where we get subtle messages. Messages that give us pause. Messages that give us clarity. It’s a matter of hearing those messages. And when life is getting to us, when we are caught up in isolation not knowing what the future holds, we need to “let it be”. Make it a good one.

“You don’t have to be positive all the time. It’s perfectly okay to feel sad, angry, annoyed, frustrated, scared, or anxious. Having feelings doesn’t make you a ‘negative person.’ It makes you human.” Lori Deschene

Monday, April 6, 2020

A New Equilibrium

I have now entered week number four in isolation. At the outset I was almost looking forward to it. Thought my time would be filled with boredom and Netflix, not necessarily in that order. It has been anything but that. Partially due to work that continues by video and telephone conferencing but also because I have ventured into activities that I would normally not do.

Someone suggested at the outset that there is a simple definition for introvert. If you get excited at the thought of spending two weeks by yourself watching TV you are probably an introvert. That makes sense to me.

This time of isolation has also provided ample opportunity to think. I admit that often the thoughts I think lead me down a dark path. So in an effort to avoid that I try to observe and think about the positives I see.

My social media and email inbox are rife with jokes that are coming out of this. Although they can get tedious and, at times, in poor taste, I need to laugh more than I do. I have been told that kids laugh up to four hundred times in a day and as adults that drops to as low as ten or twelve. Simple message is that I need to laugh more.

I called this piece A New Equilibrium. As I like to do with “big” words I checked the definition of equilibrium in the Encarta dictionary. One of the definitions is “a mental state of calmness and composure”. I like the sounds of that because right now I struggle to feel calmness and composure. I search for news that will bring me reassurance that life will be okay.

Through all the negativity of Covid 19 I have seen some significant positives. There is a huge support for our front line medical workers. I see politicians who historically have been quite partisan become non-partisan. I see communities rally together to support those that are not able to help themselves. I have had people call me to check in that never did before. Their excuse is that they are checking on the elderly. I will take that if it means having conversations. I see myself doing things never having been considered before. I have seen myself step outside of my comfort zone all in an effort to survive. It has worked.

Recently there was an article in the Free Press, which I didn’t read but I liked the headline; “ As World Slows, Mother Earth Takes a Breath”. I suspect the article focuses on our environment which is good but not a debate I want to get into now. I think that headline also contains a message for life in general.

As our world slows around us, as we do what we can to survive, let’s not forget about what we have learned during this time. There is more to life than the rat race we were in. Let’s use this time to step back, breathe, readjust our priorities and remember all those precious things, including life itself, that can so quickly be taken from us. My hope is that when the world returns to some semblance of equilibrium many of the positive things we see and do now will remain. Make it a good one.

“When we come close to those things that break us down, we touch those things that also break us open. And in that breaking open, we uncover our true nature.” Wayne Muller