Tag Archives: Weekly Lessons

Illness as Avoidance

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Sometimes a headache isn’t just a headache… This is something I’ve pondered in recent months as I’ve considered how often I suffer from migraines.

Could it be possible that my headaches serve another purpose beyond causing me extreme pain and discomfort?  My thoughts and realizations on this subject will be the focus of today’s post.

Inconvenient Migraines & Other Such Ailments

Last summer and fall, I attended classes three nights per week.  Every two or three weeks, we would have a project to complete and hand in for course credit.  We would usually be given one class period to use as a “work night” for our projects.  After a few months of class, I noticed that I would almost invariably have a migraine on each project night.  Was this just a mere coincidence, or was something else behind it?

As I considered my project night migraines, I noticed that I would also get migraines on days or nights on which I had certain other commitments, such as a Toastmasters speech or a social function to attend.  It is highly unlikely that my migraines on all of these days happened by chance, so perhaps there were other forces at play…

I’ve also begun to notice that my other health issues have a tendency to come to the forefront at certain critical junctures in my life.   My digestive problems, sore throat and swallowing issues, neck and chest pains, and various other ailments often crop up under times of stress or discomfort.

Avoiding Commitments

Sometimes my headaches or other health challenges allow me to escape commitments in my life.  After all, if I am writhing in pain, who would expect me to attend a party or give a speech?  I am able to “bow out” of certain obligations by claiming illness without suffering the wrath of others or other such consequences.  I don’t consciously create the illnesses, but whenever there is a glaring pattern being displayed, it is worthwhile to examine the situation and any potential “payoffs” therein.

“Payoffs” of Illness

It may be strange to consider the “payoffs” of a migraine, digestive distress, or any other seriously uncomfortable condition.  After all, I am not exactly swinging from the chandeliers and celebrating when I am afflicted with such maladies.  But truth be told, I am getting a payoff from being sick.   I “get” to avoid a commitment that I have perhaps been dreading on either a conscious or subconscious level.  But at what cost?   Is it really better to be at home suffering in my body than to be in a situation with which I am not fully comfortable?  This is something I never really considered until recently…

Shifting Focus

Another “payoff” for me in my physical maladies is that my focus shifts from other problems or concerns to the illness at hand.  I no longer have to think about what else is bothering me; all of my attention moves to my body and its discomfort.  This was the case on my class project nights.  I was worried about doing a good job on my projects, about measuring up to the teacher’s standards and impressing my classmates.  Once the migraine would appear on the scene, however, it was all I could do to stay in class and work on the task at hand.  I didn’t have the energy to worry about my fears of not being good enough, so I just did my best on the project and let that be that.

The Lesser of Two Evils…

Do I like being in physical pain?  Of course not, but that pain is easier for me to bear – and more familiar – than any emotional pain which I may be feeling.  I don’t know what to do with the emotional pain; the possibilities are seemingly endless.  Plus, it isn’t socially acceptable to talk about our psychological pain, yet the discussion of health problems has no such taboos.  How many people will tell their co-workers about an appointment with a physician, yet guard a counseling appointment as a secret from all but their closest confidantes?

Awareness Leads to Choice

Realizing the ways in which my illnesses serve as vehicles of avoidance has helped me to change the ways in which I interact with my infirmities – and with other people. I now give myself permission to say no to commitments I don’t wish to fulfill.  If I don’t want to do something (and it isn’t necessary for my work, relationships, or life), I decline to commit, and I don’t allow any feelings of guilt to enter my consciousness.  If I don’t commit in the first place, I don’t need to create an illness in order to avoid doing something which I’m dreading.

However, if I have already agreed to do something and the time is at hand, I no longer use existing physical complaints as excuses for not honoring my commitments.  Only on a very rare occasion will I now cancel an obligation due to a health issue.  In almost all cases, I do what I have committed to do.  If I am in pain, I do my best not to show it and instead strive to move past it as best as I can.  What I’ve found is that I often end up feeling better once I get out of the house and am engaging with others at a social or business function.  The reason for my ailment (the avoidance) is no longer needed, so the pain gradually dissipates.

A Powerful Decision

I have made a decision not to let my physical pain stop me in life.  If I have decided to do certain activities on a given day, I will do them, pain or no pain.  Unless the pain is downright excruciating, I am not going to let it sideline me.  Pain isn’t going to stop me from living – and enjoying – my life!

I don’t believe that all of my aches and pains (or anyone else’s, for that matter) are means of avoiding commitments or thinking about uncomfortable situations.  But I’ve come to understand that some of my pain serves the purpose of avoidance.

My awareness of the subconscious functions of my pain has helped me to fight back and prevail.  I am no longer a helpless victim to my seemingly endless list of physical complaints.  I can be at choice in my life, and I choose to live each day to the fullest!

Something to Consider…

The next time you get a headache or some other type of pain, stop and consider what might be brewing beneath the surface.  Could it be that you have created your physical pain in order to prevent or avoid potential psychological discomfort?  If so, how would it be for you to face the  challenges at hand and not let your ailments stop you?  Perhaps if our ailments no longer serve a purpose in our lives, they will gradually fade away, and we will be free!

Facing Our Fears

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Irrational Fears…

Most of us have fears which could be considered irrational.  We can be deathly afraid of things which really cannot hurt us.  Some of these fears impact us in fairly minor ways.  For example, if you’re afraid of clowns, you may avoid the circus, but this fear likely won’t impact you to any large degree.  Likewise, if you are terrified of thunder but live in an area where it rarely even rains, you won’t have to face your fear on a regular basis.

Fear Makes Our Lives Smaller

Other fears really do have the effect of greatly limiting our life experience.  Our lives can become dramatically smaller as a result of our fears, whether rational or irrational.  Many people are horrified at the thought of public speaking.  In fact, this fear often places above the fear of death in many surveys.   There was a ring of truth to Jerry Seinfeld’s joke that most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy at a funeral!  While it’s true that we can all flub a presentation and appear foolish as a result, is this really a fate worse than death?

I’ve been a member of Toastmasters for six years and I have seen the look of abject terror on the faces of guests and new members when they have to get up and speak for the first time, even to just say their names and answer a simple opening question.  Some of these people are able to overcome their speaking fears, while others let those worries stop them and we no longer see them at meetings.

I used to work with a woman who remained stuck in a dead-end job because moving to the next level would involve her giving presentations.  She was so terrified at the thought of speaking in front of others that she preferred to remain in a job which gave her little joy or fulfillment.

Lying to Ourselves

We often tell ourselves that our fears aren’t that big of a deal.  We lie to ourselves and say that these worries aren’t really limiting our lives.  Yet if we really look within, we may realize that we are indeed avoiding situations and opportunities so that we don’t have to face that which we fear.

Facing My Irrational Fear

I recently decided to face a fear which is not only irrational; it’s so ridiculous that I am embarrassed to write about it and thus “out” myself for being so silly.  Yet this blog is about healing myself and helping others to heal, so I will banish my embarrassment in service of the lesson!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I suffered from eating disorders for much of my life and was dangerously underweight on and off for a number of years. I used to be victim to the tyranny of the scale and would weigh myself on a daily basis (or even several times a day).  I would allow the number revealed by this electronic device to dictate my moods and emotions and would make it mean significant things about my character.  If the number was low, I was a strong, disciplined, and acceptable person.  If the number was high, I was weak and disgusting by comparison.

How a Win Became a Fear

As I recovered from anorexia, I gave up weighing myself because I found it difficult not to attribute meaning to the three digit number displayed by the scale.  I considered my abandonment of scales to be a great win and a powerful sign of my healing.  However, over the years, I actually developed a deep fear of the scale and would steer clear of weighing myself at virtually all costs.  I would even avoid going to the doctor for fear that I would be asked to step on the dreaded scale.  When I absolutely needed to visit a physician, I would either ask not to be weighed or I’d weigh backwards and request that they not tell me the number.

I recently realized that I had become just as much a victim of the scale by fearing it than when I used to step on it habitually.  I had again let this otherwise benign device dictate my moods and my behavior!  I had let a number – or the fear of a number – mean something about my worth as a human being.   Rationally, I know that I am so much more than a number, that I am a person of infinite worth, as we all are.  I also know that my weight is my weight regardless of whether or not I know the number.  Avoiding what’s so doesn’t make it not so…

A Powerful Decision

I decided a little over a week ago that this had to stop!   I decided to face my fear and weigh myself, something I hadn’t done in close to 2.5 years… As I prepared to step on the scale last week, I found myself shaking and filled with trepidation.  But you know what?  Even though I wasn’t thrilled with the number, the experience wasn’t as horrible as I thought it would be.  I actually felt much better about myself for facing a fear and my life expanded a bit from the act of doing something which scared me. I know that the next time I weigh myself, it will be easier, and eventually it will hold no more fear for me than brushing my teeth!

Do That Which You Fear

It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

  • How much more aliveness would we experience if we heeded the words of this wise woman?
  • How much bigger would our lives be if we no longer allowed our fears, rational or irrational, to stop us?

Here’s something to try… Make a list of everything that scares you.  Write down the big things and the small things, the significant and the trivial.  Then decide which fears you are ready to wipe out.  If tackling one fear each day seems like too much, how about one per week or one per month?

By starting “The Healing Project,” I set the intention to heal myself and my life in one year.  I now understand that a big part of my healing lies in facing my fears, in exercising my strength and my power. I am stronger than I think I am – we are all stronger than we think we are!

Closing Quotes

I will close this post with three powerful quotes, the first of which I’m sure you’ve seen before (but which bears repeating!):

  • “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Marianne Williamson
  • “Ultimately we know deeply that the other side of every fear is freedom.” Marilyn Ferguson
  • “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it.  I want to have lived the width of it as well.” Diane Ackerman

Compulsive Behaviors

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Last week, I wrote the post “Overspending,” about a recent shopping trip that resulted in my spending too much money and feeling that I had acted in a compulsive manner.  Although there were important lessons inherent in that individual experience, it also raised the issue of compulsive behavior in general.

This post is geared toward examining compulsive behavior, getting to the root of why we engage in such destructive actions, and looking at what we can do to begin to turn it around.

Compulsiveness Takes Many Forms…

I shared about my shopping and spending issues, but these are far from the only forms of compulsive behaviors with which I’ve struggled.  I’ve also engaged in compulsive overeating, dieting, and exercising, and spending too much time working or surfing the internet, among other things.   You may have grappled with similar issues, or you may have had problems with drinking, drugs, gambling, sex, or any number of other maladaptive behaviors.  It doesn’t matter which of these behaviors has plagued you, the problem is usually rooted in the same causes.

Years ago, I wanted to write a book called “It’s Not About the Food,” about eating disorders and compulsive overeating.  Unfortunately, someone else used this brilliant title before I could, but that won’t stop me from sharing my thoughts on the issue.  From my early teens until the very recent past, I struggled with pretty much every eating disorder which a person could have.  I was anorexic, bulimic, an obsessive exerciser, and a compulsive overeater.  I have been seriously underweight, overweight, and every weight in between, yet my pain was always the same.  It was never about the number on the scale or what I did or didn’t do around food.  It was always about something else, and the same is true for all other forms of compulsive behavior.

Escaping Pain

My overeating, under eating, shopping, and other compulsive behaviors have served both as coping mechanisms and means of escape from the pain which I was experiencing in my life.  As much pain as these behaviors caused me, and that pain has been intense, the pain which was being masked by my compulsivity was far greater.  There was something, or multiple things, which I just didn’t want to look at, so I ate, dieted, or shopped.  I would then lament my weight gain, food obsession, or credit card bills instead of dealing with what was really wrong in my life.

  • What was it that I didn’t want to feel?
  • What is it that you don’t want to feel that is being buried under your compulsive behaviors?

Getting to the Root of Things

While I can’t possibly know the answer for anyone else, I can share what I believe it was – and is – for me.  I have always felt like an outsider and as if I didn’t really “belong.”  I never felt like I was “good enough,” but I thought that if I could somehow be thin enough, maybe I would measure up.  Or I thought that if I could be pretty enough (which relates to the hair obsession which I shared in my last post, “Perspective and Appreciation”) or dress well enough, maybe I would fit in and be on par with others.  That was part of it…

As I’ve shared in previous posts, I’ve long struggled to achieve the societal vision of success in terms of my career.  While I know that I am intelligent and capable, I have experienced only limited financial success over the course of my working life.  I have difficulty maintaining a passion for a single occupation and thus have switched careers a number of times over the years.  Now, at age 43, I feel insecure at my current career status and feel that I should be much farther along the path of success at this point in my life.  While I think about this often, I frequently feel stuck and powerless, and I sometimes plummet into feelings of despair and hopelessness when I find that I don’t have the answers.

Comfortably Numb?

What do people do when they feel desperate and hopeless?  They often do whatever they can to numb those feelings, using whatever they have at their disposal at the time.  I don’t consciously think, “I feel bad, so I think I’ll go shopping and numb myself out,” but that is virtually what I do.  The shopping gives me a high that serves to mitigate the lows I was feeling about my career woes or whatever else was troubling me.  I know this is true because the items which I buy often sit in my closet for weeks or even months with the tags still on them.

If it really was about my being greedy or truly wanting certain items of clothing, wouldn’t I be rushing to wear them?  The feeling I get from shopping and buying clothes is similar to what I used to feel when I would eat a pile of sweets.   The pain is numbed and replaced with a high, and I have escaped my negative feelings, albeit only temporarily.   That pain returns shortly thereafter and the feelings of guilt and shame resulting from my compulsive behavior add insult to injury and I end up feeling much worse.  It’s a vicious cycle and a very difficult one to stop, but there is hope…

The Place of Power

I’ve often heard it said that the place of power is in the space between stimulus and response.  Most people merely react to what’s going on in their lives; they do what they have always done even when it doesn’t serve them.  There is virtually no gap between their feelings (stimulus) and their compulsive behavior (response).  A person feels bad, and then they eat, drink, or do something else to numb the pain.  But there is another way -and it starts with awareness…  The awareness of your compulsive behavior and what it is costing you is what creates a small space between your negative feelings and what has become an automatic reaction.  That small space is the seat of powerful action, as opposed to disempowered reaction.

An Example & Key Questions to Ask

An example can help to illustrate this important point… Let’s say that I just checked my email and have learned that I didn’t get a much hoped for work project.  I feel anxious and that anxiety leads to some serious worries about my future career prospects, as well as fears that I may never have a “successful career.”  Without even thinking about it, I walk to the kitchen and start riffling through the cupboards for something sweet to eat.  In the past, I would have stuffed my face with food until I felt numb, but this time, I pause. I ask myself these key questions:

  1. Am I physically hungry?
  2. What do I really need in this moment?
  3. What small step can I take to give myself what I really need?

The pause that I have taken has allowed me to act instead of react.  Even if I still choose to eat, I have removed the automatic nature of this behavior, which is what makes it compulsive.   The same questions can be asked when faced with other types of compulsive behavior.  Simply construct an alternate first question (i.e. “Do I really need that pair of shoes?”) to fit your specific behavior challenge and use the same second and third questions as above.

There is Hope!

I am not promising that you will eliminate your compulsive behavior overnight, but if you are able to pause and allow yourself to examine what’s really going on beneath the behavior, you are on the path toward healing.  It often takes time to overcome long-term behaviors which have served as effective (albeit self-destructive) coping mechanisms.  As I’ve revealed, I still struggle with shopping and spending too much money, but it happens less often and I can more readily “course-correct,” as I did last week.   I was able to realize what was going on, turn it around (by returning the unnecessary purchases) and learn from the experience.  That is my hope for you as well…

Perspective and Appreciation

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Most of us have things about ourselves which we don’t like or even hate, and we often waste a lot of time and energy resisting or fighting these things.  For most of my life, one of my “hates” has been my hair.   I have very thick hair, so thick that hairstylists have often commented that I had enough hair for two or three people.  In addition, my hair is naturally wavy and predisposed to frizz, tendencies which are intensified by the humid Southern California weather.

My God-given hair was not the type of hair I wanted.  I wanted the straight, sleek hair of a Scandinavian girl – or Jennifer Aniston.  I have been fighting my hair texture for as long as I can remember with countless hair products, daily flat-ironing, and a multitude of chemical processes.  None of these armaments ever worked to my satisfaction, so I continually searched for the next best thing.

Magic Bullet or Nightmare?

This past November, I thought I had found it.  I spent about four hours and over $300 at the hair salon getting what is known as a “keratin smoothing treatment.”  The result was not the nirvana I had anticipated; instead it has been a nightmare which I couldn’t have imagined.  I experienced some serious breathing problems from the formaldehyde released by the chemical process, and since the product was bonded into my hair, I was unable to remove it despite repeated washings.  Consequently, I opted to cut off close to half of my hair in order to minimize the deleterious effects.

Just when I thought I was past the worst of my nightmare, a delayed side effect occurred.  I started to lose large amounts of hair on a daily basis.  By the time I realized what was going on, I had lost so much hair that I could see parts of my scalp at my hairline and my ponytail diameter was only about half of what it used to be.   Fortunately, I think the hair loss has subsided at this point, and because I had so much hair to begin with, it is not as noticeable as might be expected.  However, I am still planning to see a dermatologist to make sure I am able to salvage my hair.

Two Key Lessons…

This is surprisingly difficult for me to write about and I am not sharing this experience to garner sympathy.  I have learned a great deal from this particular struggle and the point of this post is to share my insights.  I have titled this post “Perspective and Appreciation” because those are the two key lessons I’ve gained from my hair experience.

I would love to be able to turn back the clock such that I had never gotten the so-called keratin smoothing treatment, but I have come to understand that I needed this experience to learn what I needed to learn.  The Universe has been trying to teach me the lesson of appreciation and self-acceptance for many years.  Instead of appreciating what I had, I continued to fight it and wish for something different.

Taking Things for Granted

My hair is only one aspect of myself which I would berate and negate. While I would often receive compliments on my thick and lustrous hair, I would never take them in.  I was filled with hatred for my hair because it wouldn’t bend to my will.  Because my hair wasn’t sleek and straight, I didn’t show any love or appreciation for it; all of the energy I gave to my hair was negative.

Now that my hair is no longer long, thick or lustrous, I have been given the gift of perspective.  How true it is that we often don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone.

How often do we take things – and people – for granted until they are no longer in our lives?

Declaring a Truce

I am declaring a truce in the war against my hair.  I am now treating my hair more lovingly and am showing appreciation for the hair that is left on my head.  I am affirming throughout the day, “I love and appreciate my hair.”  I believe that this love and appreciation will help me to save my hair.  It was not only the chemicals which destroyed my hair; it was also my negativity and distain.

How many of us treat ourselves worse than we would treat our worst enemy?  How many of us are our own worst enemy?  How much would we thrive if we were to begin to treat ourselves the way we treat our treasured pets or children?

New and Empowering Vows

From this moment on, I vow to treat myself with much more love and appreciation.  I vow to start looking more at what’s right about me instead of what’s wrong.  I know that I will stumble along the way, as old habits are hard to break.  However, the perspective I have gained from my hair trauma has shown me that I must break those old habits.  It’s time to stop beating myself up and start appreciating all of the wonderful characteristics which I know I possess.

Will you join me in my new and empowering vows?  Many of us wish and pray for peace in the world, but peace begins from within.   Stop fighting yourself and choose to love yourself instead.  I know it’s hard, but we can help each other to live a more peaceful and loving existence!