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Showing posts with label physical courage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label physical courage. Show all posts

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Running Plan B

Three weeks ago I was packing my bag and planning to head to New York City to run the ING NYC 2012 marathon. That is until Hurricane Sandy came to town and wreaked havoc on too many lives to count. I was one of 47,000 runners from around the world registered to run 26.2 miles through what is now considered one of the worst environmental disasters to hit the East Coast.

Unlike many residents along the marathon route and beyond, I didn’t lose power, access to clean drinking water, my home, family members, or my livelihood. When my friends starting texting and calling me a few hours before my departure, to notify me of the race cancellation, they were all sympathetic and guessed I would be disappointed. All I could think was that Mayor Bloomberg had made a difficult, but necessary, decision to channel much-needed supplies and human resources designated for the race to those who truly needed them.

One of my former coworkers has a beloved coffee mug that reads: “Life is all about how you handle Plan B.”  Before starting this blog about how to nurture courage in our children and ourselves as parents, I had honestly never thought about how important it is to frame some of life’s unexpected and challenging circumstances as “Plan B” to help boost our capacity for the six types of courage.  It now strikes me that much of human courage, and a truer measure of our success in life, has to do with how we handle adapting, often in a singular moment, to the unexpected and challenging circumstances of our individual lives.  In terms of parenting, since my kids were young I have had lots of conversations with them about differentiating life's “big stuff” (i.e. life-threatening illness) from the “small stuff” (i.e. not getting to push the elevator button).  When my son was about five years old, after one such conversation when he was upset about a playdate cancellation, he proclaimed: “You know Mommy, if you reeeeaaaalllly think about it the big stuff can just be smashed apart to make smaller stuff.  It's all just small stuff!!” (You can read about Jennifer’s perspective on  “Plan B” by clicking here. You can also read more about cognitive reframing in one of my former posts A Hurricane is Coming.)

Well, it didn’t take long for me to decide that I would lace up my sneakers and still run the marathon as scheduled--it would just have to be around my hometown instead. I figured I had done all my training and had collected some $3,000 in charitable donations for the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of my mother and uncle. I had all my gear ready. I was good to go!

Next, I cancelled my hotel reservation and diverted the refund to the Red Cross Relief fund for Hurricane Sandy. I wrote an email to all my sponsors who had so generously donated funds notifying them that I keep good on my promises. Not one of them asked for a refund! Instead, I received a flurry of supportive emails that strengthened my resolve to run. My husband and I then planned and drove a few possible 26.2 miler routes starting from our house. Some more hilly than others, through battlefields my ancestors had once fought on. I’m a little superstitious and also a big believer that everything happens for a reason; I figured running close to home on the same day, starting at the same time, from my own front porch instead of from the Hudson River’s edge on Staten Island, was what was meant to be. It always feels right and good when I’m living in the flow.

When I called my uncle to inform him that I was still going ahead with my run on my own, to honor his courage in facing down Alzheimer’s, his response: “Well, how like you. This means you'll win the race, of course!”

Starting out!
I started out at 10:30 a.m., with a hug from my daughter and a dear colleague. Halfway down the block I was surprised to find another dear friend outfitted to join me on my first six miles. My husband and son planned to be my loyal pit crew at various stops along the way.

I carried all the names of the family members my sponsors had honored through their donations. I read it out to myself and sent prayers for each of them at 13.1 miles and again towards the end of my run--when I really needed their strength and inspiration. I thought of the families struggling to recover and repair their lives after Hurricane Sandy, especially the mom from Staten Island whose two young children were torn from her arms by a giant wave and both of whom tragically died. A loss which I can only imagine must take the most courage any of us as parents can muster.

I reflected on how truly grateful I am to be healthy enough to run on behalf of such important causes. I also thought, “Girl, if you can give birth twice, you can do this!”

Around mile 16, I felt the presence of other runners coming up behind me. Being Canadian, I promptly apologized for hogging the narrow slip of road we were needing to share along my route, only to turn around and find two twin guardian angels—my son’s ex-girlfriend and her twin. They told me not to talk, good advice, and to just keep running. Not long after my mind went to an altered state and I just kept saying to myself “Just keep running, just keep running.” No deep insights. But maybe that's enough: just to keep moving, putting one foot in front of the other, staying VERY present, especially when you have to dig deep during tough times.

I had always minimized the legendary “Wall” that every marathoner talks about, around miles 20-24. That is until “The Wall” found me at mile 22. It became too much to take a drink, stomach any energy “goo,” and it became very evident that I was going to have to draw on something much stronger than myself to finish this particular race. Most marathoners would agree that at this stage of a 26.2 miler, the balance tips in favor or mind over matter. I kept counting down the blocks and kept with my plan to run and not stop—no matter what! At that point, if I had stopped I figured I would lose all momentum and fall face-first onto the pavement. I was really concerned about honoring my commitment to my sponsors. Everything became very simple.  Just breath, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and push just that little bit further than I think I can: the essence of physical courage.  The type of courage that Jennifer's friend Jane, a former professional ballerina, talks about in this post: Dancing Through Pain.

Almost across the finish line
A few blocks from home, I could hear a chorus of girls singing “She'll be coming around the block, when she comes…” Total relief! One final hill and I'd be home. I did my best, hunched over at this point, to challenge that hill, and was met at the top by my daughter and a group of her good friends. One of whom I overheard saying, “Your mom seriously looks like she's going to die.” Then followed a series of inspirational chalk sayings along our block, with my husband and son holding a make-shift finish line, fashioned from some spare rope from our garage, for me to cross some 4 hrs. and 25 mins. later—first, of course, as predicted! My twin angels clearly gracious enough to let me win this one!

My learning? In a nutshell:

• Disappointment gets in the way of decoding Plan B.

• Grace is accepting what happens as meant to be.

• Never underestimate good running shoes, hydrating, and regular re-fueling.

• Don't believe every thought that pops into your head—especially those at mile 22 that start "I can't..."

• Everyone needs a loyal pit crew. Treat them well! Give thanks!

• Stretching and being flexible can’t be underestimated, especially after 40.
• What we think is the big stuff can actually be broken into smaller, more manageable, stuff—especially when we focus on what’s truly important in life. Which, in my opinion, is to love and be loved.  It takes all six types of courage to live this value!

Across the finish line with my twin guardian angels!
Care to share one of your "Plan B" stories?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

My Year of Living Fearlessly!

When we know who we are, we can overcome our fears and insecurities. We surpass our smaller selves who suffer the slings and arrows of our conditioned reality, and we move to the unconditional truth of our larger selves. The answers to the questions of what to do, what to say, whom to let in, and whom to keep out become a clear and simple matter of listening to our hearts. That inner voice helps us align with our purpose, because each of us has a purpose, even if we judge it to be insignificant the voice is there. We just need to listen to it. When we do that, we live in fearlessness.” – Arianna Huffington, excerpted from On Becoming Fearless in Love, Work, and Life

Since my last blog post, I’ve been busy crossing things of my list of “Fears to Conquer and Dreams to Live,” as part of my intention to live fearlessly in 2012!

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about my decision not to make a list of New Year’s resolutions in my post What Would You Do if You Weren't Afraid? Instead, I decided to embrace the idea that by striving to live fearlessly, an even more authentic and courageous self may emerge. The thing about fear is that it limits full self-expression while keeping us fearfully, anxiously captive. Perfectionism, the underlying culprit behind many New Year’s resolutions, is fear’s evil twin (I’ve written about it in Making Failure Okay). Therefore, I also made a commitment to embrace the belief  “I’m already enough.”

We seek to help our kids to conquer their fears every day, and the best place to start is with ourselves!

The first thing I did after writing my New Year’s post was to make a list of my fears. I was pleasantly surprised to find that none of the classic phobias were on the list. I’m not afraid of spiders, snakes, heights, public speaking, or flying. Of course, when I see a snake on the side of the road on one of my long distance runs, I still jump. That type of fear is biologically-based, instinctual, and the kind of self-protective response we need for survival. Pure fear, instead of anxious “fright,” can be a powerful protector and teacher. In 2012, however, I wanted to coax the monsters from out under my bed, rid old skeletons in my closet. Simply riding more roller coasters wasn’t going to do the trick.

So, here’s where things got interesting. Once I was willing to commit to living fearlessly, I found that every single fear I may have avoided, stuffed, or otherwise denied, when given permission to be expressed, written down on paper, or otherwise invited to show its ugly face, did just that! Around about January 15th, it looked like Halloween in my own head!  Therefore, as I became willing to face my fears, it became very important to identify specific goals and steps to take to conquer those fears. The fastest anxiety-busting technique I know is to take ACTION! As the old adage reminds us: “The only way out is through.” No matter how small the steps you take through fear, it just matters that you keep taking those steps. For every fear on my list, I came up with a fear-busting goal.

Here's a sample of some of the fears from my January 1st, 2012 list:

"I'm afraid of becoming blind." So, I promptly booked an appointment with an optometrist who reassured me I had neither a fatal brain tumor nor impending blindness. Instead, she prescribed a cheap pair of readers and told me “You have excellent vision, but you're in your forties.  The good news is that your forties aren't fatal! Your eye strain isn’t a tumor, you just need readers.” Phew!  One fear down, nine to go!

"I'm afraid of not having friends and family for support during tough times." So, I started reaching out to old and new friends and hosting more social gatherings, whether my house is clean or not, and repaired my heart and upped my happiness a little more in the process.  I booked flights for myself and my family home to Canada for a much-needed family and friends fill-up after a two year absence. I’ve reconnected with old friends and estranged family members. I’ve learned to sit in the discomfort of misunderstandings and past hurts without needing to be right, but instead seeking to forgive and cultivate peace.

A few of the fears on my list involved overcoming previous experiences that had evoked survival responses of fear, like my fear of snorkeling after getting caught off a coral reef a few years ago in the Caribbean (read about that by clicking here). But most of my fears were more existential in nature. Fears that, upon reflection, I realized were holding me back in my relationships and career. Those fears were the ones rooted deep in childhood experiences that required some careful uprooting. Previous hurts in relationships still haunted me in the form of a fear of making mistakes, being unlovable, or being judged. The imposter syndrome was on the list. And like many others, the bag lady fear also made my list—minus the house full of cats.

Looking at my list of fears, it struck me that I had inherited most of my fears from my parents and that, almost by osmosis, I had absorbed many from our culture primarily through fear-based media messaging. Fears like: losing everything and becoming homeless, being a bad parent, and getting sick and old.

Many of my underlying fears I know I share with others. As a therapist I have the unique opportunity and privilege to listen as children, adolescents, and adults in my office peel back the layers to reveal the underlying fears that keep them unhappy and afraid in life. Our materialist society capitalizes on these very fears to sell stuff. “If you buy this cream, you’ll look young and stay lovable.” “If you buy this insurance, you won’t get sick, grow old, and die alone.” But life is unpredictable. Until we learn to live more fully in the present and take action, instead of worrying needlessly about future “what if’s,” we leave ourselves vulnerable to fear’s tight grip. It’s not as if anti-aging face creams, insurance policies, and saving for a rainy day are bad ideas. But I’ve found that when fear motivates my decisions, my goals are less aligned with being authentic and courageous and more about avoiding some kind of possible pain.

After writing down my fears, my next step was to use the surest, quickest way I’ve found to release oneself from fear: author Byron Katie’s Four Questions method. Her method helps folks to reveal how irrational most fears are and to discover what it might be like to live life without fearful thought.

Here are her Four Questions:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it's true?
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
Source: www.thework.com

The four questions have helped me to discover that most all fears are irrational. I also found that once I identified key fears to conquer, more than enough opportunities presented themselves to help me overcome them! Don't say I didn't warn you! My responses to question 4 also helped me generate my list of dreams to live this year.

For example, if I wasn’t afraid of being lost in New York City (which resulted in a mild panic attack a few years ago on Ellis Island), then I would sign up for the 2012 ING NYC marathon and run through all the city’s boroughs. So, I promptly signed myself up.  On November 4th I will be completing my first marathon in fifteen years. It turns out that at age 45 I do have to stretch more, and my first few long runs were painful.  But otherwise the optometrist is right, our forties aren't fatal!

"I’m afraid of asking others for help" was also on my list of fears to conquer.  Plenty of opportunities there when I put my ego aside and open myself up to others' help and what they have to teach me!  I'm now fundraising and asking friends and family for money for the Alzheimer’s Association on behalf of my mother and uncle who have been recently been diagnosed with this devastating disease. Instead of running from my genetic heritage, I’m running towards a cure before anyone else in my family is afflicted! Here’s my fundraising page, in case any of you are interested and/or would like more information on behalf of your own family.

Thus far in 2012, I’ve flown in an open helicopter with my daughter (who was afraid of flying, as some of you may remember from reading Fear of Flying: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Feeling). I got back into the ocean and snorkeled in Cuba. I’ve completed five months of marathon training and two half-marathons in preparation for November 4th. I’ve made sure to focus more on all the good in others, instead of looking for something to judge—thus, effectively curtailing my own fear of others judging me!

I catch myself when I’m worrying and remind myself what I’ve taught my own children since they were little: “A change in your thoughts, leads directly to a change in your feelings.” So, I pick a different thought. A kinder thought that evokes faith and peace, instead of worry.

I completed Kathy Freston’s Quantum Wellness 21-day cleanse as a way to kick start healthier habits, get in better shape for the marathon, and genuinely feel more at ease in the present moment.

I listen more—especially to my kids who’ve felt free to give me feedback on what it is like to have a therapist for a mom who looks too often for problems to solve and advice to give! Once they hit adolescence, I started asking if they wanted to hear my thoughts. Surprisingly, more often than not, they do still want to hear what I have to say especially now that they have a choice.

I’ve made sure to do at least one thing that makes me happy every day. Subsequently, I've cultivated a much more grateful heart.

And after completing all my mental health therapist licensure requirements after moving five years ago from Canada to the U.S., I'm finally listening to that wise inner voice Arianna Huffington's quote refers to and gave notice at my job a few weeks ago.  I will be devoting much more time in 2013 to pursuing a higher purpose and integrity in my professional life, which includes making Lion’s Whiskers into a book.

As I conquer the last few fears on my list, I notice that I’m trusting myself, others, and the Universe a lot more. I’m back to laughing a lot more, stressing less, and generally being a much more relaxed parent.  Fear is no longer a foe, but more a scaredy-cat I'm making friends with—cause let's face it, everyone could use a little more friendship in their lives!

My daughter crossing the finish line with me at my recent half-marathon!

The truth of the matter is that these past ten months I've been most inspired by my own children and those I work with therapeutically to learn what it is to live life fearlessly. I wholeheartedly believe kids have a lot to teach us about courage. It's in everything they do!

I also know that as parents we could be much more aware of how we project our fears onto our children. By trusting our children—instead of letting worry get in our own way and theirs—we intentionally uproot fear's tenacious roots before they grow too deep, thus encouraging our children to develop trust in themselves. But more on that topic in upcoming posts!

Feel free to enjoy the follow-up chapter to this particular story by clicking here: Running Plan B

Care to share a fear of yours and what action you might take to conquer it!?

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Death of Edith Cavell

A number of years ago I encountered the story of Edith Cavell for the first time and was strongly tempted to write a book about her.  The book plan got sidelined, but the story has stayed with me.  Edith Cavell was an English nurse at the turn of the 20th century.  Professional nursing was still relatively new, and trained nurses and nursing schools were few and far between.  Because Cavell had spent time in Belgium in her younger days, she was invited to go there to help start that country's first professional nursing school.

It was while she was engaged in this project that World War I began, and it wasn't long before her nursing school was recruited as a full-fledged hospital for Allied soldiers.  Belgium, sitting between Germany and France, was the scene of heavy fighting as the German army advanced.  Cavell's hospital was soon filled with wounded English soldiers, and when they recovered sufficiently, Cavell smuggled them to neutral Netherlands so they could return safely to their units, or to England.  Over 200 soldiers evaded capture by the German army through her efforts.

For this "crime," Cavell was eventually arrested by the Germans and tried for treason - and executed by firing squad, despite frantic, international, diplomatic efforts to prevent her sentence from being carried out.

Before facing the firing squad, Cavell famously said, "Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." 

Looking back through 100 years, we can speculate about the types of courage that may have motivated Nurse Cavell in her choices.  Becoming a nurse at all in that day was a risky move - it wasn't something "nice girls" did.  But she did.   Then simultaneously running a hospital and a smuggling operation would have required a degree of fortitude and executive management that somewhat boggles the mind.  Intellectual courage would have enabled focus and adaptability.  We know that she was a devout member of the Anglican church, and it seems fair to say that spiritual courage - that which fortifies us with a sense of purpose and meaning and makes forgiveness possible - was a significant part of her makeup.  (She was the daughter of a vicar, and raised with an ethic of sharing). Moral courage was clearly there, as well as the physical courage that nursing requires, especially wartime nursing.  She must also have had a very strong internal locus of control to believe that she was capable of effecting change amid the chaos of war, and to act so purposefully in on that conviction.

Much beyond that is difficult to surmise.  She was known as a private woman, reserved and formal toward her students and patients.  During her court-martial she made no attempt to disavow her activities, and she reportedly went to the firing squad with composure.  She was clearly a woman of great courage.

It is important to us on Lion's Whiskers, however, to make it clear that courageous action is not limited to life-and-death risks such as the ones Edith Cavell took.  We have every reason to admire her courage, but we can't let it convince us that because we haven't done anything like this and faced a firing squad, we have not shown courage.  We are all capable of courage, because the risks we face are proportionate to our capacities and our circumstances.   If a teen speaks out against a popular bully and risks ostracism, it is no less courageous because there's no firing squad in the offing.  A social "firing squad" can be devastating, and the number of teens who commit suicide because of it are tragic evidence.  

So let Edith Cavell inspire, but not intimidate. 

You can read more about Edith Cavell here on the website dedicated to her memory.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Art of Misdirection

A skilled magician is a usually a master of misdirection.  While keeping the audience's attention focused on something that seems important but isn't, the magician is accomplishing a clever deception just to the side.  The cognitive bias known as "inattentional blindness" or "perceptual blindness" causes our brains to ignore vast quantities of sensory information.  If we are vigilantly focused on one thing, this inattentional blindness can be even stronger.  (I like to this this is why an almost-13-year-old with a paintbrush in her hand doesn't hear my voice saying it's time to set the table for dinner).

Inattentional blindness is a characteristic of the human brain that storytelling and storytellers can really use to advantage, and parents often do it quite naturally.  In fact, most parents will quickly develop a whole bag of tricks for distracting a child's attention from something that is happening or just about to happen.  From bright noisy toys to the spell-binding "Once upon a time," misdirection tends to narrow the focal range and shut out the rest of the world - for a while.

And yet while the attention is focused, the world is still there.  It doesn't actually go away, and we may absorb those sensory inputs without being aware.  Here is a story my mother told me once that made a deep impression on me.   Because time is part of the our physical experience, patience is associated with physical courage.  So, here's a story combining physical courage and the art of misdirection.

Long ago in China, a young man set his heart on becoming a master jade carver.  Fired with enthusiasm, he went to the greatest jade carver in the land and asked to become his student.  The master agreed, and placed a piece of jade in the young man's hand.  "Please sit, we can begin right away."

The young man eagerly sat with the stone in his hand, his gaze on the teacher.  "Please tell me everything you know about jade."

Nodding, the old man began to tell a long and rambling story about his own youth, and the student waited patiently for the lesson to begin.  The story was actually a bit boring in parts, and the student clenched the jade in his hand to curb his impatience while the old man went on and on.  At last, the master said, "Oh, it is late.  You must come back tomorrow."

The next day the student came again, and the master handed him another piece of jade.  "Here, take a seat.  Let us begin."  Now I will learn everything about jade! the student said to himself.  But to his great disappointment, the master carver launched into another long story.  The student tried very hard to focus on this story, sure that at any moment it was going to get to the point.  But again, the master interrupted his own story and said, "Oh dear.  It's time for dinner.  Come back tomorrow."

Day after day this went on, with the teacher handing the student yet another piece of stone.  Every day the student listened with his whole heart, trying to understand how these stories were teaching him everything about jade while he held one stone after another in his hands.  He grew discouraged, thinking he had made a terrible mistake.  At last, after this had gone on for many months, he arrived at his teacher's house and said, "Master, forgive me, but when will you teach me about jade?"

The jade carver picked up yet another piece of stone and tossed it to the young man, who caught it deftly in two hands.  "Now, this piece of jade -" the master began.

"This is not jade," said the student, who had not even opened his hands to look at the stone.

The teacher nodded.  "Ah, I see I have now taught you everything I know."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Making Failure Okay

A couple of years ago, Jennifer, my husband and I took our kids to a ropes course called Adirondack Extreme. It is described as an “Aerial Tree Top Adventure” which includes a complex ropes course suspended between trees at 10 to 60 feet off the ground. It promised to be a fun physical courage challenge. Little did I know that it would be more of an emotional and social courage challenge for me. The labyrinth of ropes wouldn’t prove to be my biggest adversary, but untangling myself from my own perfectionism would be.

Jennifer did not climb due to an old injury, but she supervised our daughters on the kids’ course. My husband, our son, and I challenged the adult course. We attended a brief instruction on how to put on our harness, how to securely hook and unhook ourselves along the course, and how to ask for help—if push came to shove and we decided we were done at some point along the increasingly challenging course. I paid pretty close attention to the introductory talk, but only half-listened to the “asking for help” part. As I’ve written about previously in my post “Quitters, Campers, and Climbers,” I’m not much of a quitter. I’m a climber who, I'm embarrassed to admit, even sometimes secretly feels superior to quitters.

By the time I reached mid-course, my then 12-year old son was lapping me. He seemed recklessly, blissfully unaware of all the risks that I was quickly becoming aware of as I looked down from the tree tops to the ground twenty, then fifty, feet below. He just kept saying “Mom, this is SO much fun. It’s easy!”

I can assure you this course was NOT easy! And I was so over the idea of this being fun. The more joyless and humorless I became, the more rigid my body became.  My joyful son, on the other hand, had the agility of a monkey; while I swung precariously, holding on for dear life with increasingly sweaty palms, between the various rope mazes. He was fearless, while I was quickly becoming fearful.

One of the big differences between kids and adults in terms of risk assessment is the cognitive tricks that our minds begin to play with us as we develop. According to child psychologist Dr. Tamar Chansky (2004), in her book Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical solutions to Overcome Your Child’s Fears, Worries, and Phobias, we feel anxious when we begin to confuse the possibility of occurrence with the probability of it actually occurring. Dr. Chansky writes that the “Anxious Response= Overestimation of Threat + Underestimation of Ability to Cope.” So, while I was focusing on whether or not the ropes were strong enough to hold me, the possibility of falling, how painful it would be to hang upside down for an extended period of time waiting for help, whether or not my children (who I no longer had in sight) were okay or not, and how embarrassing it would be to quit; my son was enjoying each new obstacle on the course while feeling totally secure in his crotch harness and physical ability.

At the second to last level, all alone now on the course, I was officially scared. But quit? OMG, no way! Quitting = Failure, to the perfectionist mind.  Which is, as Jennifer wrote in her last post Failure is Always an Option, “tantamount to total annihilation.” At the very least, annihilation of the ego. Success for me, at times, can be deeply intertwined with trying to prove that I’m lovable and valuable. In short, I wasn’t a kid who learned that her success in life is based on who she is, not on how she looks or what or how well she does. A perfectionist places more value on how she appears to the world than on who she is on the inside.  This misplacement of her inherent value creates a fragile ego swinging precariously from one success to the next, desperately trying to avoid the identity-crisis pitfalls that mistakes, and especially failure, threaten.  It's also what makes perfectionists highly competitive and probably not all that relaxing to be around sometimes. Needless to say, this aspect of my personality is not particularly healthy--nor is feeling secretly superior to quitters, for that matter! These are not personality characteristics I wish to pass along to my children. Instead, I parent my kids in ways that focus on their inherent value.  I focus less on how they look and what grades they get, but more on the core qualities they are developing as kind, loving human beings.  I encourage them to listen to their limits and feelings, to focus on their successes, to identify goals that are truly important to them (not society at large), to do their best because there is no such thing as perfect, and to be gentle with themselves when they make mistakes.  I’ve coached them to develop an internal locus of control (you can read my parenting tips here: Are You an Inny or an Outy?) And I'm known for saying "I love who you are, and who you are becoming."  Let’s be honest, embracing this kind of unconditional acceptance of both ourselves and our children is kind of radical—especially today in our culture of overachievement! Dr. Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection is a great resource for anyone interested in understanding and letting go perfectionism!

One of the many gifts of being a parent, in my opinion, is that we get the chance to teach (and learn from) our kids what we, too, need to learn in life.  In essence, parenting has given me the opportunity to release myself from perfectionism's uncomfortable grip and develop the kind of self-acceptance and love that my kids seem to instinctively possess.  And now I was about to model that it's sometimes okay to quit!

When I reached the next tree post, I found myself hugging and not wanting to let go of that tree with the kind of intense love usually reserved for extreme environmentalists. I was done! It was suddenly much more important to me to listen to my body’s limits and find my kids on the course than to prove to myself and others that I could finish. Suddenly, quitting was not only an option, but it was okay. I couldn’t remember the code word the guide had told me to yell if I needed to be rescued, but in any situation screaming “HELP!” usually works.  I started with a timid “Helloooooo. Guide?!” which quickly progressed to screaming above the treetops “HELP! I need to get down now.” 

In a matter of minutes, a very kind and capable young man arrived on the scene to lower me from the towering heights of my new BFF. I told him I was okay and felt surprisingly calm.  I wanted to reassure him that I wasn’t going to cling to him like a crazy lady when he finally reached me.  He, in turn, reassured me that this kind of thing happens every day.  That made me feel a lot better!  I found myself laughing, recalling my high-pitched screams for help above the tree tops, and relaxing as he lowered us to the ground. I was amazed not to be embarrassed. The earth did not open up to swallow me whole when my feet reached terra firma. Throngs of people weren’t waiting on the ground to laugh, jeer, and otherwise poke fun at my failure. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep perfectionism well-fed, by the way, and keep us from trying things that might mean risking failure in some way, shape, or form. In fact, I felt kind of proud of myself. I had actually asked for help and received it! Trust me when I say, it took more emotional courage for me to quit, ask for help and trust that it would arrive, and social courage to risk embarrassment amongst my peers and family, than the physical courage to force myself to finish the course.

I could have focused on my failure and spiraled down into an abyss of low self-esteem, but I made my failure okay by focusing instead on what I was able to accomplish. I made it okay to quit by untangling who I am as a person from my perfectionist expectations.  I discovered that the belief that you are already “good enough,” no matter what you are able to accomplish, is perfectionism's personal kryptonite. Adopting a new respect for quitting has also freed me up to be willing to climb again! 

By honoring the type of courage I actually needed to develop, I was able to reframe my perceived physical courage “failure” as an emotional courage accomplishment. We can do this for our kids, too, by helping them to recognize the gains they make everyday, by breaking apart difficult tasks into smaller more manageable and achievable ones, and by celebrating their successes. We can help them identify which of the six types of courage they are developing, and are capable of, in everything they do!

As I was writing this post, I asked my daughter to define failure.  Her answer: “There is no such thing as failure Mom. Whatever you are able to do is okay.”  When I also asked if she'd like to try the adult course with me again this summer, now that she's almost 12, she said: “Probably not.  I'm not a big fan of heights.”

You can read more about coaching kids to face challenges in my previous post: Discourage/Encourage: What’s a Parent to Do?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Dancing Through the Pain, Part II

Last week, in the first part of this interview with former professional ballet dancer, Jane Haugh, we discussed what can make a person willing to tolerate pain. Here, in Part II, we continue to explore pain as a voluntary experience, and as an involuntary experience. Jane now lives with her husband and three children in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Pain (as opposed to suffering, which is mental or emotional) is in the body, and thus is the risk associated with physical courage.

Haugh: In the end, Jen, what I did in order to be a professional dancer in terms of dancing on stress fractures and soft corns with such unbelievable pain – I don’t know how healthy that was. I do question my decision to do that. I think that it wasn’t emotionally and psychologically really healthy to get to the point where you could disengage your nerve centers from your feet so you didn’t feel your feet anymore. That’s not me. That’s not part of my body. That doesn’t hurt. To the point where I would sometimes bang my feet against something because that hurt so much that my brain shut that down and I could pretend it wasn’t there. So a little pain can be more difficult than a lot of pain. And I don’t think that’s so good! I think that’s kind of sick!

Armstrong: So you’re in this culture of never mind the pain, keep going. Were there techniques or mental processes or gimmicks that were part of that culture, were there stories, did you remind yourself of such and such dancer where she did this and –

Haugh: Sure! Stories about Melissa Hayden dancing on a broken foot, stories about Darcy Kistler when she broke her elbow and finished "Swan Lake." We had these stories of famous people who performed through amazing things. Darcy I think seriously injured her elbow for life, and never did Swan Lake again – or only did Dying Swan – I don’t remember what the whole thing was – but it wasn’t good! But if you’re at the New York State Theater and you’re in Act I and you’ve got two more acts to do, what are you going to do? So you do it and then you go to the emergency room later I guess!

Armstrong: Okay, so I want to go in a different direction now. When your parents died and your sister was very badly injured [in a car wreck], you were 17, and so you were already a very dedicated dancer. So your sister was very badly injured for a long time, am I right?

Haugh: Yes, she was operated on a couple of times. You know, we did this weird thing. She had a plate in her arm, and she also had a brain injury, and deep into the fall they x-rayed her arm, and no healing had begun. The accident was in July and this was in September. And this bone was really brittle and they were very upset about it because the plate was not an ideal way to hold the bones together and it was kind of shocking that there had been no healing. And so they wanted us to rent this machine that was really really expensive and we didn’t have any health insurance, and my aunt [their guardian] was really upset about this, and I remember having a conversation with my sister where I said to her: “You have to concentrate on healing this bone. You have to think about it. You have to concentrate on it.” I don’t think if I wasn’t a dancer I would have thought of it that way. But I already understood that my body responded, to some extent, through the control of my mind. And I really did think that it was possible that if she concentrated on healing her arm that it would start to heal. And then we wouldn’t have to get this expensive machine and do all this stuff – and it did! They said they’d set up a four-week assessment and if no healing had begun she’d have to go up to Columbia regularly for electro-stim or something, and four weeks later there was quite a bit of new healing when they took an x-ray, or whatever they did. I don’t know whether that helped, but I definitely remember having this conversation with her. I remember – like taking a bath, and something really hurting, and just lying there and trying to relax my mind into that pain and trying to get the blood flowing there and I would start to feel – I mean I am not a big believer in that stuff. But…

Armstrong: Most Americans, probably, live pretty cut off from their bodies, right? Would you agree? So you had a much more intimate relationship with your body. So you understood a lot more about what the body can do, and what its limitations are. What I wonder is, did you ever evaluate or compare the pain that you endured willingly with the pain she had to endure unwillingly?

Haugh: No. I think one of the things that I learned from dancing is that everybody’s pain threshold is really different. And I started to understand that I actually experienced quite a bit of pain, especially for somebody who was a professional dancer, and that a lot of people around me were not experiencing quite that level of pain. So we would do the same thing, have the same number of blisters, and I felt like I could really barely walk, and I spent all night icing my feet, and the other person was out dancing. And I thought, well they are obviously not in as much pain! Or they’re managing it so differently. I mean, I see in my kids – there’s a huge difference in Z.’s and M’s pain thresholds, and then another huge leap to T.’s. Z. will hurt herself and she’ll get a bump somewhere, a black and blue mark, and a week later – not complaining, but she’ll say this thing still hurts, should I take some more arnica, or should I ice it ? And M. will have the same kind of injury and two days later she’ll have forgotten about it. I think her body experiences less pain. Her body recovers from pain more quickly. She recovers from emotional upset more quickly. She recovers from loud noises more quickly. Her physiological self recovers faster from things. But I think T. [her son] – I don’t know how much pain he experiences but he rebounds very quickly partly because he doesn’t want to stop in order to feel that pain. So he can have a huge knot on his head and I think it’s got to hurt, but if I go to touch it he’ll shy away and it does hurt him, but he doesn’t want to stop. So that’s a different way to overcome pain, is to be so focused on what you want to do that the pain is secondary. So with my sister, I learned early on not to project any kind of pain I was feeling onto anyone else’s situation because it so often just doesn’t work. I’d be all sympathetic [to a fellow dancer] and they’d be like “What?” I’d say, “Your feet are a mess!” but it wasn’t bothering them.

Armstrong: Okay, so here’s something about pain, and that’s that pain has a lot to do with what we think about. What is the story we’re telling ourselves about the pain – am I doing myself an injury, what’s going to happen? The story we’re telling ourselves about what’s happening to our body… I mean, pain only happens when you notice it right?

Haugh: Right, so when you go on stage you don’t feel the pain in your feet because you have all this adrenaline, so you’re not noticing it.

Armstrong: It’s like taking the kids to the doctor to get a shot. There’s all this suffering, this storytelling. So, and this is my projection, I would think that if I’m a dancer, my world, everything I do, involves my body, right? So if I break my ankle then I won’t be able to work. So I’m curious about the role of storytelling in this. Stories that you tell yourself to keep going, or stories that limit you.

Haugh: Part of the story of dancing is being tough, of saying this hurts but I’m strong enough and I can overcome this, or this hurts and I might hurt myself but the director is there and I really want this part so I’m going to do this anyway, because I see myself as that person who will overcome this pain. And then he’ll see me as that person and then I’ll get the part. Or I’ll get to go on tour. So there’s some part of talking yourself into doing things because of the way you see yourself: as a strong person who can overcome things that normal people would stop at. You say, well, maybe someone else would stop, but that’s not me. I’m not that person and I’m going to keep going.

But I also think there’s storytelling with our kids, when our kids hurt themselves. There are two different things. There’s where people say, “you’re okay you’re okay you’re okay,” but the kid isn’t okay, and the kid is upset and doesn’t feel okay. And then there are people who say, “Oh no, you’re hurt! You’re bleeding, you’re not okay!” But there’s something in the middle where you can say, “Let me see what happened. I need to see what happened.” I think all three of my kids think of me as a very competent person to deal with whatever hurts them. They bring me their hurts. I say we need to calm down so we can see what happened so that we can deal with whatever that is. I think it’s really important for them to realize that you can get sick or you can get hurt and then your body does this amazing thing, it heals you, it heals your cut, you get a scab and then there’s nothing there anymore. What an amazing thing! So this is an opportunity to say, “You’ve hurt yourself, but you’re going to get better, because your body is this amazing thing that knows how to heal itself. How awesome is that! And then there’s this feeling of resiliency, this feeling of ow – I really hurt myself ! – but I know I’m going to be okay.

Please feel free to share your thoughts about physical courage and the risk of pain, either from your own experience or from watching your children.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Physical Courage and the Redheaded Child

If you are a redhead, you may already know - or at least suspect - that your relationship to pain is a bit different from your blonde or dark-haired friends. And if you are the parent of a redheaded child, but are not a redhead yourself, you may have wondered why your little carrot top seems very sensitive.

For years, it was recognized by anesthesiologists that redheads require more pain-killers than others. Eventually, researchers heeded what was common knowledge among the anesthesiologists and began to investigate. It turns out that the gene associated with red hair is also linked to endorphin production. There is also some evidence that topical anesthesia (such as Novocaine) is less effective on redheads, making them especially anxious about visits to the dentist. And yet it's more complicated than merely being more sensitive to certain kinds of pain, because there's also evidence that redheads are less sensitive to other kinds of pain.

Physical courage, as we have said on this blog many times, is related to one's willingness to tolerate pain - or the risk of pain. Thus if you are the parent of a natural redhead, it may be useful to you to read about some of the research about redheads and pain. Your child's path to develop physical courage may be easier if you have some familiarity with this information. Go here to read WebMD's page on pain tolerance, go here to read Discover magazine on the Secrets of Redheads, go here to read the New York Times on The Pain of Being a Redhead.


Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dancing Through the Pain, Part I

Over the winter I sat down with my good friend, Jane Haugh, a former professional ballet dancer, to talk about physical courage. Specifically, I had questions for her about her experience with and understanding of pain, and how it relates to her role as a mother of three. Our conversation was a long one covering three distinct topics relating to pain and physical courage, so I'll offer the adaptation of our dialogue in three parts. To avoid confusing our first names (Jane and Jen) I'll refer to us by our last names, Haugh and Armstrong.

I began by asking her about when she started ballet, what it entailed, and when she knew she wanted to become a professional dancer, despite direct experience of the pain that would involve.

Haugh: I was very little when I started ballet class, maybe six or seven, and I was 12 when I decided I was very serious about it. This involved lots and lots of class and going on pointe, which is painful.
-->There was an aesthetic, there was a dream of something which made getting blisters on your feet okay. There were a bunch of different components. One was that you had graduated to a point where you could wear these very special shoes and then the fact that they hurt was – the mystique around them was enough to keep you going. Then the other part was that there was a bit of a culture around, “How many blisters do you have? I have four.” “Oh, I only have two.” It’s like when you learn to play violin when you’re very young and you get blisters on your fingers – those kids are also talking about it as a badge of achievement. “I worked so hard that I have more blisters than you do.” I think that there was a point at which blisters hurt and there were coping mechanisms for that – things you could put on your feet, things you could wear in your shoes to try and help that. And there was this other pain that had to with fatiguing your muscles and getting to the point where you worked yourself so hard that the next day you were very sore. Or you pulled something slightly – not enough to stop but enough to know that you hurt.     -->You weren’t a serious dancer unless you were having some pain.

Armstrong: Did you ever have a conversation with an adult about that? Like the teacher or your parents?

Haugh: -->There were two different conversations. One conversation was with the teacher: “Oh my feet really hurt,” and the teacher said, “Everybody’s feet hurt and if you don’t want to do this you should go do some mundane job, like maybe you could go become a secretary, dear.” So there was this subtle put-down that this is what it’s about: either you tough it out and keep going or you step out because someone else will take your place. When I had conversations with my parents about it they would say, “Stop! If it hurts so much you should stop.” But I really wanted to be that dancer, that person on stage wearing that costume. And so them saying “stop” wasn’t a solution for me. I wanted someone to make it stop hurting and nobody could do that. So there has to be a goal, and that goal has to be so important that even though you have these conversations – like my parents kept saying that’s not okay that your feet are bleeding, stop. But   -->it was entirely up to me. My parents said, this is crazy, you should stop, but then when Tuesday came around I went to class. Or I said I wanted to go to class, and they would ask didn’t my feet hurt and I would either lie and say they didn’t, or say they did but I still wanted to go.

Armstrong: -->So, as a parent, looking back on that, what do you think about that? Because after all you did end up with this career, with achieving this dream of becoming a professional dancer, so if you were in a position to counsel your parents in that moment, would you say “make her stop,” or would you say “yes, it’s painful and maybe she’ll hurt herself but this is really important to her dream, her goal.”

Haugh: -->I didn’t let Z. [her elder daughter] do ballet but I think it’s probably for other reasons. There certainly are things about neoclassical ballet that are bad for your body, like arthritis in your hips and stress fractures in your feet, but mostly I didn’t want the competitiveness and aesthetic stringency and criticalness of that world. I didn’t want that for her. But the physical stuff – I think that’s okay. I think it depends on the culture within which that physical stuff happens. I think ballet culture specifically is slightly ill, and therefore not healthy and not something I wanted for my daughter, but I think mountain-climbing culture is not ill, or not in that same way, and so when you take your kids on a hike and they start complaining, they’re tired and their feet hurt, getting to the top of the mountain is still a worthwhile goal, and the things that you learn by making yourself or making your children get to the top of the mountain are so worthwhile. I’ve talked to Z. about it a little bit: the things I learned as a dancer had to do with how far you can go and even though it hurts you’ll be okay the next day.

-->: Let’s talk about being a mom. You’re raising three kids in an environment that we could call very physical [High Peaks region of the Adirondack Mountains]. Lots of outdoor activities, a very cold winter climate. What decisions have you made about when you know your child is cold, or tired, or uncomfortable, and yet it’s – this is our lifestyle, this is what we do.

-->Right, and we’re not all going to stop. There are a couple of things that I think I learned dancing that I’ve tried to teach my kids. One of them has to do with being tired. When you’re really tired, and you’re on a hike, and you’re not there yet, but you’re close enough that if you really put on a push you could get there – what I know about being tired from dancing is that if you pretend not to be tired for a couple of minutes, you will find more energy. It’s a phenomenon that we learned in the studio. You’re really tired and you’ve run the thing fifteen times and the rehearsal master says we’re going to do it one more time and everything in you says “oh god, no!” but you know you are going to have to do it again. You go back in your corner. You take a deep breath, and when the music starts you come out with 150%, because if you can gather that and put it out there it will carry you through. You’ll make it and be okay. You’ll find the energy. And that’s something that I don’t think most people – most adults – don’t know. That they can do that. When we go on hikes and we get to that point I say, “Okay, we’re going to stand here, and I’m going to count to three, and then we’re going to run. I know you can. We’re going to run, and we’re going to yell as we run, and we’re going to run up this mountain.” And you find that if you can get them over that hump and they yell and they run they’re laughing and then they’re walking again, and then when you get to the top of the mountain you can say, “See!? This is where we got to! And you guys were so tired and that was twenty minutes ago!”
We have a rule at the mountain because it’s often very cold at Whiteface and yet we all like to ski. You’re not allowed to talk about being cold. You can stay inside. But don’t complain. Don’t say the word “cold.” We all get in the gondola, and we can say “Wow, what’s the temperature!?” but saying “my feet are so cold!” No. I say, “then go in.” But don’t ski and complain. You can choose to ski, or you can choose to go in. And a lot of times when they were littler they would choose to go in. M. [younger daughter] especially would choose to go in. But then she’d see us come down, and we’d be laughing and skiing and she’d come back out again and she’d ski longer than I thought she would.

Please join us in for the second part of this interview on dancing through the pain, an apt metaphor for much of life by clicking here: /2012/05/dancing-through-pain-part-ii.html And please feel free to share your thoughts about pain, physical courage, and how you feel about your kids doing physical activities that may hurt them.