Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What Do You Value?

What Do You Value?
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

I want you to stop reading right now, go get a pen and several sheets of paper. Then I want you to turn off your judgments, thoughts and fears. Close your eyes and go inward to a quiet place inside you, to a calm feeling of wisdom, a place that just “knows” what is best for you. And from that place, answer the following three questions.
1) What would you have to do or accomplish between now, May 2000, and the year you are 99 years old, in order for you to sit back and say “Ah, that was a good life” ?
2) What would you like your friends to say at your eulogy? What do you want them to remember about you?
3) If you only had six months to live (active and healthy for all that time), how would you spend it?
This is an exercise I often give to my clients. It helps us clarify what is important to us, what are our values, what our goals are. Most people have specific goals in mind. They want to have satisfying careers and fulfilling relationships. Some know that they want to get married and have children. Many want to make the world a better place, to help others. Almost all want their friends to remember them as being generous, loving, caring, kind, a good listener, fun, having a sense of humor. For the last six months of their life, most would travel, take risks, have fun, spend time with loving friends and family.
In the 14 years that I have been treating women with eating disorders, not once did a client say: “I want to be on the cover of Cosmo*. I want my friends to remember I wore a size 2, and I’d spend the last six months of my life over-exercising and starving myself.” But to look at how we live our lives, that is what appears to be important, what we value most.
Usually these things become important because we’ve never stopped to think about what we value, deep inside. When we sacrifice our “selves” to please others we often lose a sense of purpose, meaning and direction in life. When we reclaim our sense of self, we can live each day according to our own beliefs, values and with a direction to achieve what is important to us.
When I was in the midst of my eating disorder, I had no idea who I was, what I wanted, what I liked or valued. I based my behavior on who was around me, often feeling like a chameleon, changing to fit my surroundings. My lack of direction made me feel out of control, at the fate of those around me. Because I felt so empty inside, I invested a lot of energy in my appearance, what I ate, how thin I could be.
During my recovery, I had to rediscover who I was, what I believed in. It was through this inner discovery process that I realized that I was good at helping others and I wanted to make a difference in the world. When I reclaimed these parts of myself, I felt my life had a direction and a purpose. I could then live my life mindfully, emphasizing what was really important to me. Rather than starving myself, I reminded myself that feeding my body was important so that it could do the things I needed to do in order to accomplish my goals. Instead of filling my mind with calculations of fat grams, calories or exercise reps, I filled my mind with knowledge about the things I valued. In place of worrying about whether I was the fattest or thinnest woman in the room, I decided to stop “competing”. I concentrated on talking to others on a genuine human-to-human level.
Look at what you wrote. How can you live your life according to your values on a daily basis? What can you do to become mindful of what is really important to you in the long run? What thoughts do you need to replace because they are not conducive to achieving your goals?
I encourage you to live each day to the fullest, mindful of what is really important to you.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Four Stages of Learning

The Four Stages of Learning 
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

One night in the Tuesday ANAD support group, a member excitedly talked about something she learned in her business class: The 4 Stages of Learning: 1) Unconscious Incompetence, 2) Conscious Incompetence, 3) Conscious Competence, and 4) Unconscious Competence. The first, “Unconscious Incompetence”, was described as being “blissful”. In this stage you can’t do something, but you are unaware that you can’t do it. Imagine a very small child happily playing a “song” on a piano. Then you move into the second stage “Conscious Incompetence” which is the most painful. It is the stage where you know you can’t do something, but don’t know how to fix it. Remember your first piano lesson and how awful you knew you sounded? The third stage “Conscious Competence” lasts the longest. You have to consciously work on the problem, deliberately choosing tools, making mindful effort everyday. Everything you do feels awkward and unnatural. This is like practicing the piano hour after hour on a difficult passage of music. The fourth and final stage is “Unconscious Competence”. This is where you can do something effortlessly and without thinking about it. It has become natural and second nature to you. A pianist playing a familiar piece of music from memory would be an example of this stage. A person would occasionally move back into the third stage, work on a problem consciously, then move back into the fourth stage. The group realized that the minute they realized they had a problem they were in the Conscious Incompetence stage, and they found this stage very painful and frustrating. Some who were farther along in their recovery felt that they were in the Conscious Competence stage, that everything was awkward and unnatural and had to be deliberately worked on. It was hopeful to also point out that the women who were in the group the longest said that they felt they had one foot in the last stage, Unconscious Competence, some of the parts of recovery were beginning to feel second nature and they didn’t have to think about it so much. The group discussed some of the skills necessary to recover and how hard it was to keep working mindfully and consciously in the “Conscious Competence” stage. Many acknowledged how hard it was to not give up when things didn’t feel natural after a short while. We realized that since we tended to be perfectionistic it was hard to stick to doing something that didn’t come naturally. We may have the best of intentions, but after the initial excitement of trying something new wore off many gave up after 3 to 5 days. Everyone started thinking of new possibilities when I told them that it took 21 days to make or break a habit. Maybe if they kept that timeframe in mind it would help them to stick to something, even though it didn’t feel comfortable or natural. I reminded them not to overwhelm themselves and try to take on too much at once. Sometimes we need to work on just one thing at a time. So we decided to make it a challenge, to pick one thing and to do it consistently for 21 days. It could be something very simple such as “I am going to repeat an affirmation every morning”. Or it could be risky and scary, such as “I will eat breakfast every morning, no matter what I’ve done the night before.” A little harder one might be “I will ask my critical part to talk to me like I would talk to a friend.” In the next newsletter I will let you know the results of our experiment. (If you want to try along with us, please remember to make your challenge something that you need to stretch to get to, but within a realistic reach.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

From Critic to Ally

From Critic to Ally
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

In my last article, “ABCD and Dirty Coffee Filters” (Jan. ‘98) I mentioned that we need to turn our internal critic “into an ally, like a friendly coach or manager who will work with us instead of against us”. I realized, by the comments I got that I might as well have been telling you to sprout wings and fly. “How do you turn the critic into an ally? . . . All I get from my critic is a constant stream of verbal abuse - it’s as far from a friendly manager as I can get.” 
I am going to attempt to outline the steps that I use to help my clients work with their critic to sort out a cooperative, more productive relationship. (I urge you to work with a therapist to do this, because if the critical part feels threatened it may become even more extreme in its negative behavior.)  Before we can change our relationship with the critic, we have to stop wanting to get rid of it. I ask the client to imagine what would happen if the critic ceased to be, if there were absolutely no criticisms in her head. The first reaction is usually a feeling of relief, freedom, or lightness. My next question is “What would go haywire if your critic were gone?” “I would be a slug. I’d never amount to anything. I would be rude and not care about others” are common answers. By establishing that we need our critic, and are not going to get rid of it, our critic will not feel threatened and will be more likely to cooperate with us. 
So our first step is to quiet down and listen to the critic in a non-judgmental, impartial way. When I suggest this my clients often look very surprised! “You want me to listen to the critic?!” That’s exactly what they have not wanted to do for a long time. I work with the premise that all of our parts have a positive intention for us: deep down inside all of our parts really want something good for us. But, often the ways they act out these positive intentions cause negative outcomes. By listening and trying to uncover the critic’s positive intention for us, we are attempting to change the relationship we have with our critic.
After listening to the critic, I instruct my client to ask the critic what it is trying to accomplish for her (the client). I have my client imitate the critic’s voice and inflection. At first, the critic’s voice is harsh and loud, “I have to keep harping on her over and over so she won’t screw up so much.” (Sound familiar?) I will repeatedly ask, “But what are you trying to do for her?” I usually will get a pattern of answers like, “I don’t want her to make so many mistakes ......I’m trying to make her more productive.......I’m trying to help her become a better person......I just want her to be happy.” With each progressive question and answer the critic’s voice usually becomes softer, gentler, and more nurturing. I explain to the client that it wasn’t what the critic was trying to say that felt so bad, it was how it was saying it. Often our critic spoke to us in this manner because it was how we were spoken to when we were younger, it was the only way the critic learned how to speak to us. It continued to speak to us in this way, because often we wouldn’t listen to it when it spoke to us in any other way. Over time it adapted a more and more extremely negative voice in order to get our attention.
When we have uncovered the critic’s positive intention, to be happy, then I ask the client if she wants that too. Almost always, the answer is yes. That’s when I suggest to both the client and her critic that they work together to accomplish their common goal, rather than continue to fight each other. “What you’re doing isn’t working, so why not try something different?” 
We try to approach it as a “Science Experiment”, for an amount of time, and if it doesn’t work, she and the critic can always go back to their old pattern. Sometimes when it doesn’t feel so permanent, it seems easier to try something new.
We set up an agreement between the client and the critic: the critic is to speak to the client in the soft, gentler, nurturing voice and the client will listen and consider what the critic has said. If the critic slips and speaks in the loud and harsh manner, the client is to gently remind the critic of their agreement. If the client doesn’t listen to the critic when it is soft, gentle and nurturing, it is allowed to “call her on it”.
The critic needs to learn to use language that is rational, rather than the distorted thinking patterns that can be so abusive. I recommend reading Feeling Good by David Burns. By practicing daily the exercises in the book, speaking to yourself in a calm and rational manner will become second nature over time. 
Imagine, a new, productive, and cooperative relationship with your critic. Your critic would be like a manager urging you to move forward in your life, and you would feel like you were making progress towards your life’s goals. You would be able to go about your life doing the best you could without constantly running yourself down about not being “perfect”. If you did slip up, the critic would gently reprimand you in a way that would enhance learning from your mistake, so you would be less likely to repeat it. Your fear of making mistakes would be almost non-existent. The critic would feel less harried and more satisfied because real progress would be made. You can do it! Keep working at it! You’re worth it!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Changing "The Game"

Changing "The Game" 
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

"Whenever I talk to her, my mom turns every conversation into something about herself. I feel so unimportant, like I'm not good enough."
"I hate it when my dad drinks. He gets so sarcastic, it makes me feel so bad. I avoid going home at all costs, and when I do I'm so uptight that I end up eating too much."
As a therapist I am often asked by my clients how they can stop someone from saying or doing certain things that make them feel bad about themselves. I usually recommend Harriet Lerner's book The Dance of Anger, in which, as I mentioned in the last newsletter, she describes relationships as circular dances, where each person's dance steps perpetuates and reinforces the other person's dance steps. By changing our own dance steps we can change the whole dance.
Deep inside, I know that isn't what they really want. Essentially they are asking me how to change or control the other person. It is very difficult for us to accept that we really, truly cannot change other people, nor can we control anything that they do or say. But, on a lighter note, there is something that we can do to protect ourselves from other people's peculiarities, problems or character traits; what I call "quirks". A long time ago, I invented "The Game" to cope with my family while I was recovering. Everytime I visited my family, I was on guard the whole time, waiting to fend off what I felt was the onslaught of "barbs". Little things everyone did or said drove me crazy, made me feel bad about myself and usually, I ended up turning to some kind of negative behavior on my part. Somewhere in my recovery I decided that I needed to accept the fact that I could not change or control these people. I needed to separate my self and my self-esteem from their quirks. And so, "The Game" was born. When I recently taught "The Game" to one of the groups at The Awakening Center, many of the women were laughing hysterically as I described it to them. The game can be as low key or dramatic as you want to in your mind. You can imagine a game show host and an announcer who may say "Our next contes tant is Mary Smith from Chicago, Illinois!" Then the crowd applauds as you step onto a brightly lit stage with flashing lights and buzzers. The object of the game is to accurately predict in advance what certain members of your family will do; not what you would like them to do or what you think they "should" do, but what you know deep down they really will do. For example, if your father always gets sarcastic if he drinks, your prediction may be that he will make a negative comment after you arrive. Or if your mother turns every conversation into something about herself, you may predict that she changes the subject when you bring up a topic. So before each visit you sit down and list your predictions of what you think will actually happen.
Next, you need to pick a prize if you predicted correctly. It can be something funny such as a trip to Paris, a years supply of pantyhose or a refrigerator/freezer. Or you may choose something nurturing like a long novel. One client paid herself money for each prediction which she then saved up for a massage when she got home.
Now for the "hard part", when you are in the midst of the family visit: you need to remind yourself of "The Game" and of your predictions. It helps to be more objective if you can picture the stage, the lights, the voice of the announcer etc. As the game begins, you anticipate with excitement for your predictions to happen. When your father answers the door with a negative remark, you hear the audience break into applause while bells and buzzers ring to let you know you scored a point in "round one". Instead of dreading your dad's attitude, you can say "Yes! I won a bubble bath!" Rather than being on guard because your mom will talk only about herself, you can actually look forward to it so that you can collect your next prize. (No fair cheating! Offering your father a drink or asking your mom a question about herself is not fair!)
A lot of times people give me real strange looks right about now. "Why would I look forward to my mother's incessant talk about herself? Why should I anticipate my father's attitude?" Because since we have no control over what they say or do, and in reality you know they are going to do it anyway, we can only change how we feel about it rather than let it in and hurt us. We are separating our selves and our self-esteem from their quirks. Eventually you will be able to take these quirks for granted as part of them, not as a reflection of your worth as a person. If my mother talks only about herself, that says something about her, not me. If my father drinks too much, that's his problem, not mine.
By separating from their quirks, you are giving their quirks back to them and not blaming yourself. Their quirks are not your fault, they are not your problem to solve or control, just as their height or their hair color is not your fault or your problem.
The by-product of playing this game is that you accept them as the people they really are, not spend wasted energy blaming them for who they aren't and never will be. You also let go of your own guilt that it somehow is your fault, or that you are to blame.
As their quirks lose their "barbs", you may find as I have that your visits can become more enjoyable. My parents and I have the best relationship now than we ever had. I do not take their quirks personally. And because I have stopped reacting as I did in the past, (as I changed my dance steps and therefore the dance) they don't do their quirks as often and some have even been eliminated. Some quirks I actually find humorous and amusing now. Thus, by changing my own attitude towards their quirks, I accomplished what I wanted in the beginning, a pleasant and meaningful relationship with my parents.