What is “the flow” anyway?

I’ve been pretty open about my constant desire to control things around me, including *embarassingly* other people. I believe this is a reflection of my insecurity, fear of uncertainty, refusal to acknowledge my own faults, and general self-preservation. I hate surprises and find it difficult to go with the flow. My default belief is that everyone would be better off if they just listened to me, dammit!

Recognizing that this is self-aggrandizing hogwash I’ve been making a concerted effort to go with the flow when I catch myself in those micro-managing moments.

A few months ago, a medical appointment was cancelled last minute by my doctors’ office. I was annoyed because it had taken some time to coordinate the time off work. I was not looking forward to another round of juggling to reschedule. On the day that I was supposed to be out of office to attend this appointment, I was approached by my boss to take an extra ticket to an event with some key customers: a limo ride and box seats at a baseball game. In the past, living with an addict, I would have declined fearing what would have happened if I had not been at home, as planned, caretaking. In the past I wouldn’t have been able to alter my plans last minute without an enormous and crushing amount of stress.

On that day, I said “yes” and relaxed into it. I didn’t worry about the house burning down, people making bad choices without me there to intervene, or that I would be tired for work the next day. I have to tell you, if you ever get the opportunity to have a similar experience, doooo it! There was more swag than I’d ever imagined, amazing food (beyond the regular $13 hot dogs) and I got to spend an interesting evening with people that wouldn’t have normally entered my orbit.  I’d never had such an upscale sporting experience and I have to tell you, I’m now ruined for the cheap seats.

The next day, rising with little sleep, I prepared myself for a meeting that I had been dreading with someone that usually has my blood boiling in seconds and struggling to remain professional. Overtired, I did not struggle with any impatience or anger. I showed up, was professional, and left without the usual fireworks and resentments.

If you’re curious about that appointment, there happened to be an opening when I was in the doctor’s office picking up an unrelated item the following week. I didn’t have to take any additional time off work or go to any inconvenience of rescheduling. It just worked out.

A series of unrelated and unexpected events that in the past would have sent me into an incredible stress spiral and would have made everything more difficult and traumatic. This time, being open, showing up, and going with the flow altered my experience in unexpected and positive ways.

I hear you, those clichés like “everything happens for a reason” and “go with the flow” sound like total crap. I understand it seems impossible sometimes to surrender and trust that everything is going to be ok. I am the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers; but, I do know that as I learn what is “my part” and what isn’t and trust that things will work out life is getting easier.

I’m glad that I’m learning to release my iron grip on my expectations so I can appreciate and experience the things that I could have never imagined and wouldn’t have made space for in the past.

Fight, Flight, or…

You may stumble across references to the “fight or flight response”. This is the common name for a theory first introduced by the American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon who took advantage of the lax animal rights laws of his time to develop several famous theories that scientists still use as the basis for our understanding of the sympathetic nervous system (or crap your body does without you asking).

His theory describes a series of chemical reactions that happen in the body in response to stress; specifically an event which threatens survival. Some of these changes, include: increased blood flow to muscles, increased blood pressure, blood clotting speeding up, and muscle tension increasing. Cognitively, the animal has an increased perception of control (this is not actual control, just the belief that they have it) and distortion of their social processing which leads to two basic emotional states: anxiety or aggression. As the name suggests, these changes occur as the body and mind prepare to fight an attacker or turn tail and run.

Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, it is believed that this response was designed to help the animal respond to acute stress. For example, running the heck away from a hungry lion which presumably will be an intense but short ordeal. This response was not designed to be a steady or constant state and perhaps given the description I’ve provided it’s easy to see how spending a long period of time in an environment which promotes constant stress could impact physical and emotional health.

When I first started researching this theory I thought about dog fighting. In order to prepare a dog for the ring, handlers do not allow them to live normal lives. They chain them in place, often near but out of reach of other dogs. They are forced to exercise, are beaten, starved, traumatized and antagonized. They train them to tear apart bait animals, taunt them with objects to encourage them to bite and yank, and deprive them of affection and healthy socialization. With no trust and affection dogs will either become aggressive to the point that they fight or they are deemed unfit and often neglected or killed. A wall and a hard place.

It’s a totally barbaric and I’m glad an outlawed “sport” in many areas, but it shows us that in the absence of love, support, and socialization and with the addition of trauma and stress the dog develops chronic aggression or anxiety; stuck in fight or flight, 24/7.

I have a rescue mutt. She is of uncertain origin, adopted as an adult. I know very little about her except that she was captured running wild in the backwoods of Ohio. When  she came home with us, it was clear she’d been through some things. When we would walk her through the neighbourhood she would lunge at other dogs snarling and barking. She was also skiddish if anything or anyone was behind her and would attempt to run away.

Nothing we tried stopped her from being a Tasmanian devil of snarling fury or a panicked rabbit darting away from a loud noise.

It was clear that on the leash she felt trapped and threatened, any dog that approached was out to get her. As a last ditch effort, I decided to take her to an off-leash dog park. My local park is not fenced and runs along a highway. It is also popular and almost always packed with dogs. It was sink or swim; I had visions of her running onto the road or getting into a bloody fight with another dog.

Neither of those things happened.

She didn’t revert to fight or flight. She acted like a dog: sniffed butts, played chase and didn’t run off. I trusted her and I guess she decided to trust me back.

Such a small thing, but so significant. Truthfully, she is still not perfect on a leash, she pulls and yanks me around although she is no longer aggressive. She is also still prone to flight if someone she doesn’t trust is behind her.  But, to me, she represents hope of change; that although she is fundamentally altered by her experiences it is possible to evolve beyond basic instinct.

So, what does this have to do with codependency and recovery?

Anxiety and aggression are both responses to fear. Many people with codependent traits grew up in dysfunctional families, some with addiction, abuse or neglect. Living in a constant state of fight or flight has conditioned us to fear (among other things) rejection, criticism, conflict, failure, vulnerability, and lack of control. We live in readiness, anxiety, and/or aggression because that’s our “normal”. We subconsciously expect the attacks and abuse to continue and maybe even believe we deserve it.

Anxiety leads to overthinking and drawing away from reality. It can cause us to get caught in those “what ifs”, which causes us to magnify and distort what is actually happening in our lives. And because we are used to bad things happening we probably don’t even realize we are stuck and out of touch. We have learned not to value our feelings and repress them which also helps to increase our anxiety, sticking us more firmly in the loop of fight or flight.

But, like my dog, we can learn to override our basic programming. We don’t have to keep doing those things that we had to do to survive. We can change. It is important to remember that as hopeless and stuck as we feel, there are choices beyond kill and cower. We can choose another path by working a program that helps us relax, restores our confidence, and teaches us to trust and let it go.

Simple, not easy, but priceless and worth the effort.

Gratitude

Some days just suck.

I burn the toast. The dog saves all her farts for the long winter car ride. Flat tires, computer issues, dropped my phone in the toilet, milks gone bad, who ate the last cookie?!?

The universe appears to give me an enthusiastic middle finger as I wallow in a sea of small annoyances and disappointments. Or if I’m especially unlucky, large seemingly insurmountable problems surface to drown me in suck.

As cheesy as it sounds, on those days I’m starting to put more energy into exploring gratitude; expressing appreciation for what I have, not what I want or think I need. I work at eliminating phrases like “I’ll be ok if…”, “I’ll feel better when…” because more often than not, these “if’s” and “when’s” involve events beyond my control.

The last few weeks have been especially trying. I’m working on answering a question involving a large life change which has no clear answer. Both the “yes” and the “no” have very heavy and very different pros and cons. I am confident that either way I will be able to forge ahead and neither outcome will be fatal, but I’ve never been that great at uncertainty.

Gratitude starts with an acknowledgement that life is good and rewarding. I remind myself that I live in one of the safest and most affluent countries in the world. That I have great friends and family. That I have a job, free time, a lovely canine companion. I have enough to eat and opportunities that a lot of the rest of the world does not. And – well, I’m alive, so there’s still time to change the things I’m not crazy about. That’s pretty rad.

I try to mix it up. I journal about gratitude. I speak it aloud to myself in the car. I’m social about it: I tell good friends about what I’m thankful for; especially if that is thanking them for their support.

When I take these moments, I find that it does work. I generally have less lows, I sleep better, I find it easier to practice compassion and kindness, and I feel healthier. I’m also able to rationally approach my problems and have constructive conversations about them where I am not defensive.

For the last week, as I’ve been wrestling with that life question, I have been kicking gratitude up a notch with some trust. I wake up with the exclamation that “everything I need will be provided today” and I repeat this to myself at intervals when doubt starts to creep in. I’ve even set myself a reminder that displays that message to me in the afternoon as a reality check.

Although I still don’t have an answer to my question I am confident that it will be revealed to me in the fullness of time. Until then, I know that I will get what I need, even if it doesn’t look like what I want or what I think I need.

Try not to worry, time cures all and is one of the few things in life that is totally reliable.

Learning to be Present

I’ve touched on this idea in a few of my previous posts, but I feel like it deserves some more cowbell.

Up until recently I would have identified my predominant traits as cynical, jaded, and salty. My natural reflex when looking at any challenge or situation is to speculate on all the things that can go wrong, obsess and worry about them, then try to come up with a million different ways to “solve” any potential outcomes. I’m so good at thinking the worst that my current job involves a heavy risk management component: I get paid to imagine disaster and try to avoid it in order to save my employer the expense of having to pay for those losses.

There is a quote floating around from Lao Tzu I’m sure you’ve encountered. It has been made into about 5 million memes:

If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.

It doesn’t matter how many times I run into this quote it always hits me with the same intensity. Tzu was a really smart dude and I totally agree with this assessment of mood and time.

The past can be depressing for a lot of us because of how we relate to it. Often looking backwards means yearning for things that are gone or wanting to change things we have no control over. Of course that’s depressing, it’s impossible to change it or get it back! Further, if you are living back there, it’s really tough to see what’s right in front of you right now. The fat lady has sung, we need to let it go.

The future can cause anxiety because we are looking into an abyss of possibility and the unknown. There is no way to guarantee that anything you are doing right now will work out the way you want it to. You might not get that promotion, you might not get a second date with that really cute person you like, and you might have a heart attack tomorrow on your morning jog. Trying to control the future or grasp for guarantees is a trap, it’s an impossible task that will almost inevitably end in disappointment and shame. Holding on so tightly to anything doesn’t mean you get to keep it. Darling, you have no control over anything but your own actions, thoughts, and feelings. Let it go.

Right now is literally all that we have. It’s concrete and interactive: you can touch it, smell it, feel it, taste it. Everything is right here, a buffet for your enjoyment! Your relationship with the present is paramount because what you are choosing to do right now has an impact you can experience on all levels. If you are living in this moment, you are really living. This is where you can feel genuine, authentic, and fulfilled.

I’m still working on developing the skill of being present. It takes time and it is normal to not be perfect. I imagine even the Dalai Lama, in his expansive mindfulness, has moments when he slips into one of those past or future traps. It is normal to be nostalgic and also to hope and work towards good things in the future. Neither of these things means that you are doing something wrong, it just means you are human. And let’s be real, it’s hard to accomplish things if you don’t plan or acknowledge the consequences of your actions.

There are a few things I’ve found help drag me into the here and now when I’m feeling depressed and/or anxious.

First, I’m trying to develop a better relationship with my past. Instead of being depressed, shamed, or yearning I try to be grateful and look at things as a lesson. With all the bad that’s happened came good. I try to focus on the good and also try to accept the bad and explore what I learned and how I can use it to work towards something better. I respect the actions that got me this far but I understand that growth needs adaptation and flexibility. I try to own my mistakes, make amends, and let it go. I try to be gentle and understanding with myself during this process. Some days I do better at this than others, and I understand that’s ok too.

Second, I try to keep worrying about the future for work. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have goals or that I blindly accept risk but I try not to get obsessive about it. I work at gratitude for where I am right now. I understand that even if I’m not where I want to be there is beauty and satisfaction in laying a strong foundation. Limbo isn’t popular, but it’s where we build and regenerate, it’s 10,000% necessary to spend time here to get somewhere different. There is happiness in the potential of a clean slate and a fresh start. I work at trying to do the best I can right now and trust that things will work out as they should, even if that’s not exactly what I think I want and it doesn’t look like what anyone else has.

Mostly I just try to stay present. I try to appreciate the interactions I have because I am fortunate enough to be having them. I work at sucking all the detail out of whatever I am participating in and I try to lighten up and be the best version of myself in the moment. I  work at trying to forgive myself quickly when I don’t do as well as I think I should or I can’t help but shrink into anxiety or sadness. I know that eventually it really is going to be ok if I believe that to be true.

But most of all I try to be my own best advocate, live and let live, let go, and trust the process. I understand that the key is to believe and trust in what I can’t yet see or imagine, as cliché as it sounds, that’s where the magic happens.

* * *

Today’s soundtrack comes from Pearl Jam.  In recovery following years of drug addiction and one of the last surviving great grunge frontmen, I can’t think of many people who would be able to capture this week’s theme like Eddie Vedder.

You can spend your time alone redigesting past regrets
Or you can come to terms and realize you’re the only one who can’t forgive yourself
Makes much more sense to live in the present tense