Are You in Need of Spring?

I love the spring.

I have lived all my life in the Midwest. Summer, fall, winter, spring. Summer, fall, winter, spring. Seasons are distinct. I am grateful for the contrast between them.

Winter is cold, snowy, sometimes muddy, and often grey. Generally by the end of winter, my body, mind and spirit are longing for the first signs of spring.

There is a patch of landscaping twenty feet outside my front door that is packed full of perennials. As the temperatures rise and as the sun begins to consistently show itself, my eyes are drawn to that patch of landscape when I walk past it. I scan the dirt, looking for spikes of green to poke up through the ground. I have confidence that it will come. The new life will eventually emerge, I am certain. It always does.

But as I look for sign of new life, I do not know when it will appear…I just know that it will. It eventually does…after every winter. So I keep looking. And the first time I spot the tiniest spike of green, I am grateful. It’s like the weight of the winter begins to fade at the sight of spring as I take in the hope of what’s to come.

I have experienced many winters in my life. Literal winters. Figurative ones. Times where all I can see is the cold, the muddy, the mess, and the grey. Experiences that have felt lonely, dark, filled with sadness and crushed hope.

I have friends and family who are currently feeling the impact of winter. They have experienced death. They have experienced loss. Disease has stolen from them. Broken promises have left their hearts shattered. They’re experiencing uncertainty. They are weary of the grey. Their energy is gone. They are tired but they can’t rest.  

They are in desperate need of spring.

It’s okay to hope for spring. It’s okay to look for it’s signs. In the dead of winter, we may feel as if the grey will never end. That the bitter cold will linger and linger and linger. But of this I am certain…the winter will not last forever. It never has.

Recently, God has been reminding me that he doesn’t waste a thing.

Not one tear.

Not one hurt.

Not one winter in my life.

And with that knowledge, I am looking for the signs of spring. I am looking for new life. I am looking for the sun to shine. I am trusting that the God who makes the green things grow, does not desire to leave us abandoned in the greyness of winter. I am trusting that the God who makes beautiful things out of dust and pulls us up out of the ashes, is more than able to do it over and over again in all of our lives.  

 

‘I give you all the credit, God – you got me out of that mess, you didn’t let my foes gloat. God, my God, I yelled for help and you put me together. God, you pulled me out of the grave, gave me another chance at life when I was down-and-out. God, my God, I yelled for help and you put me together. you did it; you changed wild lament into whirling dance; You ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I’m about to burst with song; I can’t keep quiet about you. God, my God, I can’t thank you enough.’ Psalm 30:1-3, 11-12 (MSG)

A Message to Teachers at Christmas Break

Oh Dear Teachers –

You are almost there. We know you are weary. You have every reason to be. Keep hanging on. We see you and recognize there are a million and one reasons these days before break probably each feel like their own marathon. Know that there are so many of us cheering for you.

As I have engaged with more and more teachers over the years, I have only grown increasingly fond of you…as individuals and as a collective group. You have much to be proud of. You are shaping the minds of our future generations. Educating our future world changers. Planting seeds. Shaping dreams and paths of life. You are calling forth what is good and valuable in our children and encouraging those things to shine. You are modeling relationships and teaching about love and tolerance and forgiveness. You are providing a place that is safe and consistent. It is like a second home to our children.

You are like a mother, like a father, like another family to them. Your hearts are for them. All. Of. Them.

I see the way you want to provide the best for your students. You are fighting on their behalf. All of the budgeting of resources, of time, of money is for their benefit. A constant quest for what is best for them. A longing to ignite their minds while caring for their physical and emotional being.

I see the way you carry the worries of your students. While I know the struggles of one of your students (my own) and a handful of others, you know the struggles of an entire classroom and sometimes a good portion of the school. It must feel so heavy at times.

You’ve heard about mom’s illness. You’re pretty sure the cancer has come back with a vengeance. You make special efforts to make eye contact with your student and remind them that they are not alone.

You’ve heard about the yelling and fighting. You’ve learned that your student is staying with grandma “for a few days”. One of their siblings is with another family member. You greet them by name every time they comes into your room and remind them that the class just wouldn’t be the same without them.

You know about all of the appointments. All of the tests. You make arrangements to gather the assignments and help your student understand what they may be missing when they are gone. You wonder and wait for answers as to why the symptoms keep coming back. You do what you can to help them feel like a part of your class even though they are gone so often.

You see the little guy who walks into the classroom late most mornings. You know there are reasons. It disrupts the flow of your routine. You see him staring at the ground when he walks in. You know he is embarrassed and wished he could be on time like everyone else. You resist showing your frustration because you know that there are a multitude of factors outside of his control. You smile at him and tell him you’re glad he’s joined you.

You’ve read about the factory closing in town. The little guy whose dad works there sits in your front row. He tells you he’s sad because his dad no longer has a job and his mom is worried about their bills. You tell him that you’re sorry and attempt to convince him that parents always have a way of figuring things out.

You see the little gal whose joy has turned to sadness. You know how she used to practically dance as she walked down your hallways. You know something has changed but no one has shared with you the why. You wonder. You share jokes with her here and there in a quest to bring out the laughter you once heard from her.

You are teachers. You chose this profession years ago because you wanted to change the world…one child at a time. You are doing it. And sometimes changing the world in the ways you do, must feel really hard.

We see your hearts. You have loved them well. Thank you doesn’t seem quite adequate.

Now rest. It’s okay to let it go. To release the worries that you have carried for these children that you have poured into day after day. It’s okay to release yourself from their struggles. It means no less of the compassion you hold for them. As you leave for the holidays, it is okay to close the door to your classroom….literally and figuratively.

That you might be able to let go.

And. Find. Rest.

And. Seek. Peace.

In the stillness of the morning.

In the laughter o your home.

In the beauty of the snowfall.

In the familiar melodies.

In the connection with those you love.

In the story we celebrate.

And in the quiet of the night.

Stop Believing that Grief Doesn’t Change You

I have experienced deep loss. I have mourned alongside friends, family and clients who have also experienced deep loss.

Through the journey, I have heard these words repeatedly…

“I just feel like I am so different than I was before my loss.”

I have heard these words pour from the mouths of friends, and I have heard these words pour from my own mouth.

For those of you that have walked your own grief journey, you know that these words can often be laced with shame and the idea that we need to get back to the person we were before our world was shaken.

No one should be expected to rise up out of the ashes looking the same as they did before the fire.

And yet, we often place that expectation on ourselves.

When we struggle to accept that grief changes us, we can often go into emotional or physical hiding, believing that the changes are unacceptable to us and assuming they will be unacceptable to others. We may believe that our people will not love us with our bumps and bruises or that they will grow weary of our tears.

Buying into these beliefs typically lead to emotional numbing, hopelessness, deep depression, or prolonged isolation from others.

I remember many years ago, following the loss of my daughter, I began to hesitantly express to friends that I felt like a different person since her death. I was scared to tell them…maybe I assumed they’d agree and point out all of the flawed ways I had in fact changed.

Of course, they didn’t.

The reality is…my people are good. They are loving. They saw my heart. They saw my pain. And they knew that I was rising up out of the ashes. They actually didn’t expect me to be the same as before her death.

They told me that I was okay…

needing more alone time.

being less productive.

needing more sleep.

crying at random times.

excusing myself from overwhelming conversations and situations.

feeling things that they didn’t understand.

They helped give me permission to accept that grief was messy and that this was okay. They helped me believe that finding my “new normal” didn’t need to be a smooth process. They helped me trust that I didn’t need to hide the scars of my loss.

And the more I believed this, the more grace I extended to myself as I continued to walk the journey. The more I accepted the grace available along the journey, the more I could find the strength to keep leaning into the healing offered and the more I could trust that something good and acceptable could emerge from the ashes.

If you are the mourner and you have yet to take the risk of sharing with your people the ways loss is changing you, I encourage you to consider that your people might want to know you, bumps, bruises, scars and all.

When we let our people see us, we allow our people to love us.

Thoughts on Leaving an Emotional Inheritance

Most of us are familiar with the idea of receiving an inheritance. Most often, an inheritance refers to what is passed along from our parents. The inheritance generally comes from our parents’ abundance. It may be in the form of land, money, collectibles, family heirlooms, etc. In some situations, the inheritance may come in less desirable forms such as debt or storage sheds of unattended-to chaos.

In the counseling world, I see evidence of a different type of inheritance that is passed along from one generation to the next… the emotional inheritance.

 When a parent does not deal appropriately with their emotions, the “responsibility” (of dealing with the emotions) generally gets picked up by someone else within the family, typically a child. Children recognize when the family is out of balance and desire peace just like we do.

Here is where the difficulty lies…the child is not equipped to deal with the emotions because they likely have not been appropriately trained to do so AND because the emotions do not actually belong to them. Therefore, accomplishing the task of achieving the desired state of peace becomes one that often feels out-of-reach. Even if the child does accomplish the task of momentarily manufacturing peace, it certainly feels unstable to them…sort of like placing masking tape over the hole in the bottom of a boat, feeling confident for a moment, and then wondering when the water is going to come flooding back in, once again disrupting the peace of the passengers.

 While an emotional inheritance could be any emotion on the spectrum of emotions, I most often observe it in the forms of anxiety, anger, and persistent unhappiness.

If you are reading this article through the lens of being a parent, I want to pause you before you get lost in a shame spiral believing you have permanently damaged your children. These thoughts are unhelpful and will likely just lead you to a deeper place of believing you are incapable of appropriately dealing with your emotions. Remember that children are amazingly resilient and full of grace and that our brains are miraculously capable of learning new patterns of seeing and responding to situations.

While I am certain to talk more about learning to appropriately cope with emotions in future articles, I want to at least boldly clarify that we as parents are not expected to be perfect. In actuality, our children do not need to possess the expectation that perfection is the goal. There’s a whole slew of other problems that come from this line of thinking! What our children do need is for us as parents to take ownership for what is ours. For me, this means that when I am grieving, I let my children know that I am having a hard day thinking about my father. I let my boys know that it’s okay that I am grieving, that I would love a hug, but that they do not need to feel responsible for making the grief go away. And then…I do the personal work to deal with my grief.

For me, it also means that when I am feeling anxiety over facing a new situation, and my children pick up on my shortened patience or my distracted presence, I let them know that there is a new experience that is creating some anxiety for me. I let them know that sometimes this happens when we face challenges and that I am working to remind myself of my value regardless of the outcome of the situation. And then, I do the work to actually do just that.

Having these types of conversations remind our children that we are responsible for our emotions just like we expect them to become responsible for their own emotions.

If you are reading this article not through the lens of being a parent but through the lens of being the child, I want to pause you before you get lost in a resentment spiral of thinking your parents have permanently wrecked your life. This line of thinking is also unhelpful and leads to feeling powerless. If in fact, you have already received an emotional inheritance that is undesirable, let’s face the facts that you unknowingly accepted it and that now it is your responsibility to find ways to appropriately deal with the emotions or figuratively (or quite literally) give the task back to the person to whom it originally belonged. Doing so frees you so that you might be equipped to pass along a new emotional inheritance to the future generations.

When we lean into the process of facing our stuff, there is such healing that awaits. Let’s not lose sight of this. While we are capable of passing along an undesirable emotional inheritance, we are just as capable of passing along an emotional inheritance full of beauty and life. I see this evidence as I look at my own children.

My oldest is incredibly confident and excited about life. My youngest is full of humor and loves people deeply. These aspects are part of the desirable emotional inheritance. The undesirable items…they are there as well…and we are a family in process…working to take back the unattended to stuff that is actually ours…sort of like the storage shed of chaos that deserves our attention before our children believe it’s theirs to bring back into order.

Our Influence on Our Children’s Internal Dialogue

Some time ago, I had the insight that as I interact with my children, I am significantly influencing the voice they will hear in their mind as they grow and experience life. Particularly, as they struggle, my voice, even when I am not physically present, will be one that they hear.

Wow! Sit with that for a moment. The influence we have as parents is intense and it oh so humbling.

If you are doubting that we have as much influence as I am suggesting, pause for a moment and think about what it’s like when you are stressed. Think about the messages that are firing off in your mind. Try tracing them back. Try thinking about who else speaks in a similar manner. It’s more than likely someone you knew early in your life.

Obviously, there are the other voices that factor into one’s internal dialogue mash-up…the other parent, caregivers, peers, teachers, grandparents, coaches, one’s relationship with God, etc. But how our voice is represented…that is what we have the most power to influence.

If we lived and chose our words with our children today like we knew that our words will some day become a part of their internal dialogue, would we speak with a different tone and would we choose different words?

Let me be real for a moment. I am not a perfect parent. There, I said it.

Some time ago, when I had the realization that my voice is one my sons will hear when they struggle, it was because I heard my words come out of their mouths. For one child, it happened when he was working on a preschool assignment of writing his alphabet. “These aren’t good enough”, he said. And he’d erase them…over and over again. And then, it morphed into expressions that he would never complete the task but somehow needed to hurry to get it done. I recognize I am providing an example that may seem insignificant, but writing assignments for preschoolers are the types of challenges they face. I’ve also seen it play out as my kids have struggled through piano lessons, soccer games, homework projects, and relationships.

Before you go down the road of self-shaming and thinking you have already messed up as a parent in an unrepairable way, I want you to hear some really good news.

It is NEVER too late to ask for forgiveness.

We are wired for forgiveness.

I see evidence repeatedly as I interact with friends and as I engage with clients. The change when forgiveness occurs is observable. Crossing over the threshold of forgiveness leads us to peace and unity. It is a deeply emotional and spiritual process. I’ll talk more about forgiveness in the future, but for now, hear me say that forgiveness has intense healing power. Healing power that can even repair damaging internal dialogue.

So let me keep going with more good news. Even though asking for forgiveness is humbling and can feel fairly uncomfortable at times, it doesn’t have to be complicated!

When we mess up as a parent, when our words have been too harsh, too anxious, too critical, or too angry, admit it. Be specific. I have shared with my children that when I feel stressed, I can become impatient and hurried. I have shared that sometimes I do not offer myself the grace for things to be ‘good enough’. I tell them that I am sorry that I have spoken with the words and the tone relaying these messages to them. I give them a better option…reminding them what offering encouragement and compassion and kindness to myself sounds like. I ask for their forgiveness and 100% of the time they offer it.

I walk away more empowered to speak to myself with encouragement and compassion and kindness… because it’s more likely to pour out of me if I’m pouring it in.

And those words, that tone…that’s what I want them to offer themselves when they struggle.

Adjusting the Eyes of the Beholder

What if I told you that you could change the image you see in the mirror without a single application of the newest beauty product or without a single dose of the most recently released line of supplements?

Remember the quote that most of us have heard hundreds of times in our lives…“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

And who is the beholder when your reflection stares back at you in the mirror? It’s you! You are the beholder! Your eyes are the judge.

In my career, I have sat across from individuals of, quite literally, all sizes, height, skin tone, hair color, and complexion. They have been tall, small, curvy, average and stick straight. Their hair has been blonde, brown, black, red, grey or some other manufactured color that is not in anyone’s genetic phenotype. Some have had no hair at all. They’ve had green eyes, blue eyes, brown eyes, hazel eyes or some combination of the four.

Over and over and over again, they doubt their beauty.

The number of heart-breaking reasons could easily fill a thousand pages. Sometimes the interpretation of their beauty was delivered through a well-intending adult in their life. Sometimes the interpretation is delivered through their own repetitive act of comparing them self to some photoshopped, filtered, or airbrushed image posed on a screen. Sometimes the interpretation was delivered directly through trauma…through someone who intended to harm them.

The list makes me weep. While the cause may be unique, the impact is similar…distorted eyes for the “beholders”.

Oh and trust me, dear ones, my eyes are distorted as well.

What if today, we determined that we would see through eyes of kindness, through eyes that love and search for value? What if today, we agreed to look at ourself until we recognized our beauty? What if today, instead of judging our worth based on wrinkles, scars, hairs out-of-place, or against images of what we think we are supposed to be, we choose to not judge ourself at all? What if we choose to accept that our beauty is not something that is coming once we enhance our appearance, meet some goal, or purchase some product, but that it already exists? Truly…right now…we’d believe that it is already in existence.

It doesn’t take a dime, but it does take courage and it does take compassion to admit that your beholder’s eyes are wrong. Let’s do it together. Today. Let’s adjust our view, take on new eyes and look deep until we see our beauty.

Our Need for COMFORT

Can we talk for a moment about comfort? You know, your need to be comforted, and my need to be comforted, and any human’s basic need for comfort. Recently, light bulbs have been turning on in my mind as I have listened to myself, clients, friends, and family communicate different struggles in life. Deaths. Disappointments. Physical pain. Broken dreams. Unfulfilled desires.

We ALL need comfort. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. US.

As I have sat with different individuals, I have noticed a theme that while we all NEED comfort, many of us resist being comforted…myself included. We tell ourselves that needing comfort is for the weak, that it makes us bad or somehow inadequate. And so we secretly stifle our need to be comforted, paint on our strong, unaffected faces, and carry on. And then…we secretly seek to fulfill our need for comfort elsewhere…because even though we pretend to stifle the need, it doesn’t actually go away. So, we numb. We drink. We binge. We sleep. We scroll. We click. We attempt to find comfort….but it escapes us before we even find it.

Admitting our need for legitimate comfort takes courage. Allowing ourselves to receive the comfort offered takes humility and surrender…it is the act of letting others see and respond when we feel undone.

I love Jesus’ words when He speaks to the crowds through what has been labeled “The Sermon on the Mount”. In Matthew 5:4, Jesus specifically says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” BLESSED are those who mourn. He doesn’t say WEAK are those who mourn. He does not say INADEQUATE are those who mourn. And He does not say A BURDEN are those who mourn. He calls mourners blessed. How are they blessed….through receiving comfort.

Is it possible that until we recognize that our need for comforting is acceptable, we will continue to feel as if we are drowning in our shame? Is it possible that unless we recognize that our need for comforting is reasonable, we will keep running back to the things that leave us feeling empty? Is it possible that in not accepting our need for comforting, we actually push away a fulfilling relationship with God and with our closest people?

Some of us are great at comforting…that is beautiful. But let us also seek to be people who believe our personal need for comforting is not only acceptable but good.

Paralyzed by Compassion

In my experience as a therapist, anxiety can, at times, overwhelm even the most functional individuals. It can lead to feeling hopeless….like there is no way out. It can lead to feeling helpless…like there is nothing you can do. Anxiety can lead to a physical and cognitive sense of paralysis. If you’ve experienced significant anxiety, you know exactly what I mean.

Over the past days, as I have looked through articles and horrifying images of the chemical weapons attack in Syria, I have ridden quite the pendulum of emotions.

I have felt deep sadness. As I looked at the devastated man holding his dead 9-month-old twins, I experienced flashes of my own story. I have wept tears for him and for the other men and women who have watched their children and family members die in an unbearably heinous way.

I have felt that anxiety that I initially spoke of. The kind that overwhelms and paralyzes. I have had to look away and catch my breath because the words and images were too much for my heart to take in.

We SHOULD be affected when we see others hurting. We SHOULD feel deeply for them. This is empathy. Empathy leads to compassion. Compassion leads to action.

But sometimes we don’t get through that full equation. Sometimes the taunting of the anxiety stops us in our tracks before we move to action. It tells us, “There’s no hope. There’s no helping. There’s nothing you can do about it.” That’s where the paralysis sets in and numbing your emotions or avoiding feeling it all again seems like the quickest and least painful way out. Here is what I have noticed, sometimes inaction is not just a product of not caring but it can also be a product of feeling overwhelmed by caring.

Because I have experienced anxiety in my life and because I have sat with dozens of individuals who experience anxiety on a regular basis, I want to gently whisper these words to you. Focus on taking just one step. And know that it is good.

Contrary to what the anxiety may be telling you, you do not have to have the perfect solution. Your compassionate actions do not have to be THE answer. Take just ONE step. Focus on doing ONE thing. ONE action. When the anxiety tells you there is nothing you can do, do ONE thing. When the anxiety convinces you we are all doomed, do ONE thing. When the anxiety makes you think you are insignificant, do ONE thing. And know that it is good.