Beverly Schwartz and Mr. Rogers and The Importance of Self-Care

Beverly Schwartz and Mr. Rogers and the Importance of Self-Care

By Monica A. Ross, LPC

We had a great class last night. The energy of class flows better some nights than others. I smile a little as I look at the tired and weary faces of my colleagues and then glance at my own image on screen, also looking a little tired and weary. Many of us have full-time jobs in addition to attending class. It’s a lot we’re tackling here—this business of changing the world. 

Last night the discussion went from Beverly Schwartz to Mr. Rogers to seed funding. Beverly wrote a book called Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World. In one of her lectures, which we watched outside of class, she talks about the stickiness of past experience—“for each of these entrepreneurs there was something with their past that collided with their present and set their future in motion—the problem sought them out and stuck to them by virtue of their past experience.”
 
It’s the stickiness of past experience that has brought my colleagues and me here. For some of us that past experience starts in childhood. There was an influential event or an influential person in our lives that caused us to take the actions that we took that led us here today. We saw problems that made it easy for us to see because we’ve experienced them in some way ourselves.

I was thinking yesterday about choices—the choices we make in life. How we make choices based on values. True to my INFP nature, I put a high value on education and on meaning-making.

Different people, different choices. If I do a values-based exercise with a client, I’m truly wanting to know—what are your values and how will you make choices based on those values? I wouldn’t attempt to give guidance to someone else based on my own value system. 

There’s not a universal book on the laws of humanity that I’m going to pull down from any shelf and say “well actually according to law number, you should do this…” while others have tried. That book, if it existed, would be the book that my clients write. All of these psychological tools that are available are there to promote the free and responsible search for one’s own truth and meaning. 

There have been people I have come across who have commented on the commitment I’m making to student loan debt to complete this program. Yes, it’s quite a commitment. If I had put a higher value on other things in life they would have led to other choices, outside of an advanced education, no doubt.

Schwartz throws out another great quote, this one comes from a friend of hers—“When you invest in human value there are never any taxes and you come out richer no matter what happens and when you speak from your soul you speak from a universal language that everyone can understand.” I liked that one too. 

I have made a commitment to human value. I’m doing my best to speak from my soul. Mr. Rogers? He comes into play because there is the new documentary coming out soon. He spoke before the Senate in 1969 to defend federal funding of public programs like his own. In this clip of his testimony found here, he read the poem below.

The Mad that You Feel

What do you do with the mad that you feel? This thinking is very much in line with Viktor Frankl and with existential psychotherapy—stimulus versus response. Between every situation or every stimulus and every response, there is a space. That space is the power to choose. What I sometimes tell clients is that we can register our feelings about a situation very quickly—within milliseconds.

The limbic or primitive portion of our brain that is also connected to the amygdala, or our fear center, makes it hard sometimes not to react immediately, especially when registering an event as threatening in some way. This actually happened to me the other day at a social gathering. Ugh. It happens to us all, right?

We let some snarky comment get to us before we even know what happened. Snarky comments can feel threatening. And before you know it, you can get caught in a kind of back and forth tit for tat.

To be able to work on the ability to handle things tactfully when that happens is a real skill and so hard when our systems are down—when we’re stressed out to the max—and all the more reason to implement acts of self-care.

Advice From a Close Relative

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

I got some recent relationship advice from a relative, an aunt actually. We were speaking on the phone, but I could envision her turning towards me in real life, staring me down in a “Hey look, I’ve known you your whole life. At some point, accept some of the feedback I’m giving here” kind of way. 

Getting feedback from someone isn’t always a pleasant thing.

It’s not to say that it can’t be a pleasant thing. And I think there are times certainly when we’re more open to feedback than at other times. This time though I was intently listening...hanging on every word and desperately hoping that the advice given would resonate with me and save me from impending disaster. 

This is a person in my life who for the better part of my life I avoided taking advice from because I was determined to live out my life very differently than she. So for me to stop and pay attention suggests that the time had truly come to seek out alternative options. 

My aunt has maintained a romantic relationship with the love of her life for virtually her whole life. The relationship started in her 20s and she is now with this same person over 40 years later. So I ponied up and with ears intent asked, what is it you have to teach me about relationships?

Granted, I have a degree in psychology and I could pull a book by John Gottman or Stan Tatkin down from the shelf. But here was a unique opportunity from someone who in some ways shirked all of that or perhaps came to some of the same wisdom via an alternative route.

Her advice? I’ll summarize it here and add some thoughts of my own.

#1 Do not, and I repeat, do not ask “What’s next for us?” from anyone you want to continue to see but have known for less than 6 months. It’s a tendency that can be hard to fight against because you meet someone new and you think right away this person is incredible! You immediately want to know, where is this going or where could this go? 

The impulse to ask stems likely from being hurt over and over again—and the desire to prevent that happening yet again. To do that though can put pressure on the new connection, let’s not even call it a relationship at this point, while it’s in its infancy stage of exploration and play. 

It’s like introducing this dark cloud of doubt right from the very beginning—calling into question the legitimacy of what might not have a “next” but is at the same time just as valid, just as important perhaps as those relationships that do.

#2 Do not take anything anybody says literally. Every word that comes out of a person’s mouth should be taken with a measure of skepticism, she explains. At first glance this seems a bit cynical—like the point being made is that people on the whole aren’t honest. But that’s not the point being made.

People may very well be honest when they tell you how they feel and what they think. But people don’t always often know themselves very well, do they? So their being honest is really an attempt at being honest, at best. It’s a way of characterizing how they feel, which at any moment can also change as the person gathers new information.

#3 Resist the urge to fill up space for other people with the fear that if you don’t fill it up they will find someone else who will. This really stems from a fear of losing them. But space is a good thing. 

It’s one of those paradoxes of life in that you would think it would be the opposite—spend as much time as possible with this person and they won’t have time to think about anything else. But often in those moments when they are doing other things and they’re mind is focused elsewhere, their thoughts drift back to you. We all, I think, can attest to experiencing that.

It’s the “not everyone in our lives can fill every role for us, nor should they,” philosophy.

#4 The only thing that leads to the next level in a relationship is TIME. Don’t be afraid of that either. The closer we get towards the later parts of our years, the more the tendency to want to conserve and preserve time. 

There is the fear that time is running out. But truly we never know how much time we have. We assume in our younger years that we have plenty of time ahead of us, but then I think of those I knew from my youth who passed away at a young age. So, no. We don’t know any of us, how much time exactly we have on this earth.

#5 There are times when you don’t need to do anything. This is an important one. I’ve mentioned this one myself elsewhere. Sometimes simply doing nothing can be very effective. For one, it gives everyone a break and the time and space to think. Again—time. Space.

#6 Keep the connection fun and keep as much as possible from emotional reasoning. That’s another one covered in an earlier post and it is a hard one to learn for those of us tagged as highly sensitive or intense.

When I’ve had couples in my office, I’ve witnessed emotional shifts in energy taking place between two people firsthand. It’s an interesting thing to observe happening via body language, tone of voice, word choice. 

One person appears to be pushing and the other is pulling or vice versa. When that happens it’s as though the couple has entered into Plan B Mode. We want to avoid stepping into Plan B Mode. Plan B is when fun ceases because anxiety and worry and doubt are introduced. 

Things start to feel all around uncomfortable for both parties. There is a disconnect. And you know it and can feel it as a couple when you’re in that mode.

#7 Intimacy does not always mean commitment. You can achieve intimacy with someone with whom you are not in a committed relationship. Let’s go back to the definition of “intimacy” or “intimate.” 

Privacy, closeness, familiar experience, personal connection, warm friendship.

Some people think that commitment is a means to achieving intimacy because it fosters feelings of security and safety. But I suppose the opposite could be true—intimacy fosters commitment. At any rate, you can have one without the other. The two are not permanently linked.

So take it for what it’s worth. I’m just passing along wisdom that was passed along to me. This isn’t an academic discussion by any means. This is just a testament to a close relative’s personal experience on the topic of connection.

Zen versus Fear

by Monica Ross

I’ve observed this about some people, including myself. We might be going through several life stressors and then maybe just a couple rise to the surface as say the top two.  Maybe we lost a job and so being able to pay the mortgage is of primary concern. Maybe a loved one, like a caregiver came down with a terminal illness and so the primary concern is spending as much time as we can with that person in their last days.  Maybe the concern is meeting a new friend who lives long distance and whether or not there is anyway to make the friendship work.  Maybe there was a breakup and then the concern becomes how to move on and find a new best friend.

What I see is that there is a lot of work and effort and mental energy at times spent on making the thing that we don’t want to have happen from happening. We don’t want to lose our homes as a result of job loss, or lose that caregiver or friend, or former lover.

It’s like a dichotomy becomes set in our brains—that which we hope will happen and that which we fear and dread. Sometimes it helps to back off from all that thinking and look at it like this...even if the dreaded thing happened--that thing that signals some kind of downfall or demise, even if that thing happened--you, me, we’re all going to be okay.

It’s hard in the moment or thick of it to shift perspective, but it’s so true. There really is absolutely nothing to fear because whatever that thing is—we can handle it. So that even something that looks on the surface like failure is really just something that moves us further along and makes us stronger.

This shift in perspective relieves pressure and makes all that time spent in between events much more pleasant.  It's amazing the amount of time people will spend clenching fists or teeth or digging heels and living in anxiety, as if all the worrying itself is a way of working on or through things.

I agree that the worrying and mental space that thoughts sometimes take up make as feel as though we're working on or through something.  And I'm a firm believer in problem solving, but there is a difference between problem solving and rumination which is getting stuck thinking about the causes and consequences of events and the what if's instead of the what to do about it.

If we didn’t make mistakes, we’d have no experiences to learn from. I see most people as really just trying to do their best in life. And at each moment we’re acting within our level of awareness and consciousness at the time that we’re making a decision--whatever that decision may be.  And so we can also forgive ourselves for making bad decisions.

Sometimes we think we won’t be able to sit with whatever uncomfortable feelings we’re going through—the anxiety, but we actually can. I had a close friend once, a professor who I rented a room from in San Diego for several years in my 20s.  He taught Sociology at San Diego State University and was a family friend.

Every morning he sat for at least 30 minutes and meditated.  Which I know is every stereotypical thing you might think of a Southern Californian.  But there was a koan that he liked. And it's stuck with me over all these years.

A koan is basically a Zen riddle or puzzle to reflect on. It goes like this...

“The story I’m about to tell you, originally told by the Buddha in a sutra, concerns a Zen Master who, while out walking one day, is confronted by a ferocious, man-eating tiger. He slowly backs away from the animal, only to find that he is trapped at the edge of a high cliff; the tiger snarls with hunger, and pursues the Master. His only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss by holding onto a vine that grows at its edge. As the Master dangles from the cliff, two mice – one white and one black – begin to gnaw on the vine he is clutching on. If he climbs back up, the tiger will surely devour him, if he stays then there is the certain death of a long fall onto the jagged rocks. The slender vine begins to give way, and death is imminent. Just then the precariously suspended Zen Master notices a lovely ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. He plucks the succulent berry and pops it into his mouth. He is heard to say: “This lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.”

It’s a great metaphor for life. In those moments where we may feel like we’re caught between disaster and death, look around and reach out for the strawberries.  Life is too short really for anything else.