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The Good Life

I’ve written two books on stress, and the latest one I boldly entitled The End of Stress.  Now when I’m out on book tours, or presenting keynotes and seminars people ask me if I’ve ended stress in my life, once and for all.

The truth is we end stress in the present moment—right here, right now—not once and for all. We either end stress by choosing to be undaunted and at peace the moment a stressor raises its head … or we don’t. Peace is the polar opposite of stress and anxiety. It instills a calmer, clearer perspective that in turn generates much better brain function.

More often than not, becoming stress-free is a correction we make to be at peace, after we’ve allowed a stressor to grow into a mental storm, like I did one Saturday morning cleaning the house. The way I was going about my chores was stressful to the point of making me edgy and negative. I started out fighting with a broken appliance I had to fix and feeling irritated with one of the screws that wouldn’t unscrew. It was as if a trickster god was tightening the screw as I was trying to loosen it.

Next, I was annoyed at having to unload the dishwasher. As I went about cleaning the rooms, it seemed there was ten times more work than usual. I felt victimized that there was no one to help me, and I was wishing I had the money to afford a housekeeper, the lack of which intensified my bad mood.

Then, mercifully, I caught myself in the middle of an unhappy string of self-pitying, resentful thoughts. I stopped with the chores for a moment and practiced not believing any of the thoughts my bad mood was thinking. I managed to let go of thinking altogether, and gave my mind the chance to quiet down. I made the conscious choice to be at peace with whatever chores I had left. As I made this commitment, lines I’d memorized years ago from a poem by D. H. Lawrence came to mind:

As we live, we are transmitters of life.
And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us.
Give, and it shall be given unto you
is still the truth about life. . . .
It means kindling the life-quality where it was not,
even if it’s only in the whiteness of a washed pocket-handkerchief.

As I recited the lines, my attitude shifted. At that very moment, a cloud blocking the sun passed and the sunlight poured through the windows and lit up the room. All at once, everything was OK. I was calm and my mind was much happier. I felt alive and awake, as bright as the sunlight. It surprised me, as it always does when I rediscover how vibrant inner peace actually makes a human being. Peace is not just a sweet sentiment on a holiday card; it’s the quality that makes the mind dynamic and expansive (the complete opposite of what stress does to the mind).

I looked around to see what chores still remained, and set upon them. Work flowed like a dance. As I was raking the last of the leaves in front of the house, a bird flying by caught my eye, and I watched it land in the Japanese maple tree across the street.

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It was autumn and the maple leaves had all turned scarlet red. Some of the leaves had shed, creating a velvet blanket of red on the sidewalk.  I looked down the street and noticed that the sycamores had shed half of their leaves. Their network of dull gray branches were now exposed that the autumn light turned silver in places. From where I stood, the street gradually sloped down to the avenue, and across the avenue was a large field covered in brown decaying grass with shoots of new green grass emerging from the decay. Overhead a falcon, fluttering in midair, scanned the field for prey. And above this small but beautiful corner of the world was a pale blue autumn sky. For a moment, I felt at one with the world.

As I turned to go back inside the house, I thought if I hadn’t shifted my attitude, I would never have experienced that moment of splendor. I thought of Carl Rogers, the great American psychologist, and his idea of the good life, by which he simply meant being well, then doing well on your way to flourishing. For Rogers, the good life emanated first and foremost from “being well.” This is what the research on happiness shows. Only 10% of what makes us happy is attributable to our circumstances. A positive, peaceful attitude is four times more likely to achieve the good life. It’s has a bigger impact on our quality of life than making more money, getting a better job, or, as in my case that day, being able to afford a housekeeper.

The more we make the correction to peace, the more it becomes our attitude, and the better our life goes. The good life is not so much a set of circumstances or even a fixed state of mind as it is the direction in which our attitude is pointed. To quote Ernest Holmes:

“If everyday things are a little better, a little more harmonious, a little more health giving and joyous; if each day we are expressing more life, then we are going in the right direction.”

Quieting the Crtitical Inner Voice that Shames You

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from my article in the Huffington Post

Imagine making a mistake that holds the threat of negative consequences for your family or your work. As you sit there alone, aware that it’s your mistake, and it must be disclosed, what is your internal dialogue? What are the words you’re likely to call yourself?

If you’re like most people, the words you’ll direct at yourself will be condemning. These harsh words spring from shame, which is the moral condemnation that guilt becomes when you believe something you did wrong means something is wrong with you.

Shame is at the bottom of that critical voice in your head that follows you everywhere, waiting for the chance to berate, criticize, and blame you, whispering its insults in your ear or shouting them in your face. This voice grows out of all the times when the people who were supposed to love and encourage you, or teach and mentor you, admonished your efforts instead.

But don’t despair; there’s a cure to shame and it’s simpler than you might think.

I’ll get to the cure in a moment, but first let’s briefly look at the problem.

Freud defined shame as the fear of loss of love,[1] which leads to being controlled by what others think and say about you. “[It’s] the fear of disconnection,” says Dr. Brené Brown, “… of being perceived as flawed and unworthy of acceptance or belonging.”[2]

And it’s very stressful. Margaret Kemeny’s research found that “stress caused by how others view you is extremely powerful, as much or more so than [that] caused from . . . working too hard.” [3] Her research found that “acute threats to our social self increase stress hormones and proinflammatory cytokine activity occurring in concert with shame.” [4]

In short, shame is a condition that can seriously compromise the brain function that enables you to succeed and  the immune function that keeps you healthy.

Albert Ellis, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, found that there are two shame-based sentences that people tell themselves.

(1) The first sentence is I made a mistake; I made an error, and I got it wrong. This may invoke feelings of guilt or frustration, but if we were to stop here, the crisis would only represent an error to correct or a lesson to learn, extending the opportunity to grow or advance.

(2) The second sentence is This mistake I made . . . This event that turned out badly . . . This thing I got wrong . . . This way I behaved . . . it means that there’s something wrong with me. This is guilt or frustration becoming shame. It has us saying to ourselves I’m not good enough; I’m not smart enough; I’m not worthy enough; all of which calcify into the belief that I deserve whatever punishment is coming. And it’s this sentence – this belief – that does the damage.” [5]

Shame is psychologically painful, which makes us afraid to make a mistake, more because of the emotional punishment we inflict on ourselves than for anything the world might do to us. Eventually, a shame-based mind represses its mistakes to avoid feeling bad, preventing the possibility of learning from a mistake, which only increases the likelihood of repeating the blunder. Thus, mistakes can’t teach us anything. We become afraid to take risks, which limits our growth.

The problem with repression is that it isn’t selective. We can’t numb ourselves to difficult feelings, such as shame, without numbing ourselves to empowering feelings, like joy, passion, and peace, and this lessens our sense of self. We form facades and pretenses to compensate, which of course makes us feel even more inauthentic. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. Research shows that people struggle at naming a few good points about themselves, but easily fill two pages of things they perceive as faults. [6]

So, here’s the cure.

The cure is found in the words of Carl Rogers, arguably one of America’s greatest psychologists.  Rogers said, “What you are is good enough if you would only be it openly.” Does that sound too simple and too small to effect something as large as shame.

Becoming good enough begins with the simple step of accepting yourself exactly as you are, which is not easy, at least at first. It entails closing the gap between “I am” and “I should be;” which is the gap between the authentic you that’s true and realizable, and the ideal self that’s illusion. The ideal self is the image of the person you think you should be that is always out of reach, imposing an unrealistic  standard you can never meet. It becomes a measuring stick that says you’re failing in some way, even when you’re doing well.

Transcending the ideal self begins with awareness. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses your ideal self fabricates, so you can let them go. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses, so you can let them go. It’s understanding that it doesn’t help to act one way on the outside when you actually feel another way inside. It doesn’t help to pretend to know the answer when you don’t.

It’s being open to your experience, listening to yourself with acceptance. It’s learning to identify clearly what you’re feeling. The more you’re able to experience all of your feelings, the less you’re afraid of any of your feelings, including shame.

This facilitates the courage to accept that you’re not perfect or infallible; that you make mistakes, that you don’t always function in the best way or always achieve the best result. No one does. Ironically, the courage to be imperfect opens the way to experiencing the whole of you. The critical voice of shame no longer negates the better angels of your nature or blocks your strengths and talent. This quality of undefended openness is what leads to the realization that what you are is good enough.

In this way, your experience gradually becomes your authority. Other people’s ideas, judgments, and perceptions, while considered, cease to over-rule or control you. By definition, that’s personal power. Your relationships also become more meaningful and alive because your deepening sense of connection with yourself increases your regard and empathy for others.

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[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: Norton, 2005), 123–24.
[2] Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough,” (New York: Gotham Books, 2007), Kindle edition, Kindle location: 638–39.
[3] Amy Maxmen, “Secret Shame: Do You Fear What Others Think of You? How Shame Can Hurt Your Health,” Psychology Today, October 26, 2007, http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200710/secret-shame
[4] S. Dickerson, T. Gruenewald, and M. Kemeny, “Shame, Physiology, and Health,” Journal of Personality 72, no. 6 (December 2004): 1191–1210.
[5] “Albert Ellis—On Guilt and Shame—RARE 1960 recording, part 2,” uploaded by ProfessorMystic to YouTube, June 4, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuNWeI_l0F4.
[6] Herbert Arthur Otto, A Guide to Developing Your Potential (North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Book Co., 1977), 172.