Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Seeing Things Differently

Wikipedia says that experiencing betrayal can produce similar feelings as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – called betrayal trauma. It gives examples of situations that can give rise to this phenomenon: discrimination, bullying, hazing and false arrest. As someone who works in hazing prevention, this hit home to me on a professional level. Being betrayed by someone in whom we have placed our trust can be emotionally devastating, leaving deep wounds and trust issues in its wake.

I have experienced these types of betrayals a few times in my life, and the feelings that come with them are deeply seared into my psyche – shock first, then disbelief, anger, upset, hurt. It is natural to replay events for signs you may have missed that your trust was misplaced. We often blame ourselves in some way, allowing feelings of unworthiness to take hold and make us believe we deserved it somehow. We always blame the betrayer, allowing our righteous anger to shun the offender and carry us through what might otherwise be unbearable despair. Making someone else wrong means we get to be right, and “right” feels morally superior to “duped.”

Over the past seven months or so, I have been participating in programs offered by Landmark Education that along with previous work such as A Course in Miracles and the work of Byron Katie, have opened up to me a new way of being that literally allows me to see things differently. The basic premise being that we cause most of the despair in our lives by how we perceive an event, and that perception is molded by all the situations we have dealt with in our past. Something happens to us and we make up a story about what it means, and then we apply those stories to new events as they occur. This is human nature. It is a survival mechanism.

While these “stories” help us make sense of situations that cause us trauma or grief, they don’t serve our higher purpose. They allow us to get stuck in the story, wallow in self-pity, and make others wrong in order to feel right. We can literally transform ourselves by choosing to see things differently. It is not easy. It takes practice and sometimes coaching from someone who is not as attached to the situation as you are. Byron Katie’s work is helpful because she offers four questions you can walk yourself through for any situation in order to see what’s really true underneath the stories we have piled on.

Those of us who have experienced cancer, know all about survival as a concept, as do people who have been assaulted in some way. "Surviving" seems like a great goal at the time that you are faced with something traumatic, and being a survivor is a badge of honor that we proudly wear. However, the new way of seeing things I describe below will help move you beyond simply surviving to thriving and opening yourself up to new ways of being that you didn't think were possible before.

I recently had a chance to practice this in a situation that previously would have caused me weeks of depression, despair, judging, anger, processing, drama and beating myself up. I allowed myself to be swallowed up by it for a time – but for hours, not days. With the help of some good coaching and personal reflection, I was able to turn it around in less than 48 hours, forgive the betrayer and myself, take responsibility for my role in the scenario (probably the hardest part for most of us), and come out the other side feeling not just ok, but euphoric.

It is difficult to describe the power that comes with taking responsibility. When you can literally transform even the most harrowing of experiences by choosing to see them differently, you are no longer the victim, but the victor. You have control of every situation, relationship and experience and the power to either transform it into what you would like it to be or to let it go so it no longer has the power to hurt you. I still can’t quite believe I am able to do this. It is a miracle to me.

If you want to try transformation as a practice, I recommend the resources above, but you can also do it on your own by simple practicing these steps in the moment of despair, anger, hurt, frustration, worry, etc.

1. Sit still somewhere and center yourself with deep breaths, breathe evenly.

2. Meditate or pray and simply ask to see it differently. Over and over if necessary. This doesn’t usually come quickly.

3. Rather than placing blame, look for something you can take responsibility for – far from making you feel weak as someone who “gives in,” taking responsibility gives you the power to transform the experience for you.

4. Look for the “story” you have been telling yourself about the situation or about yourself or others involved. This is often based on past experience – “this always happens to me,” “I am so stupid,” “no one is ever going to love me,” etc. This can be a difficult step because our stories are our reality – they are the lens through which we view the world. They are such a part of us that they can be difficult to see. This is where an objective coach with some training might be helpful.

5. Be generous – what are the positives about this experience or person that you are currently struggling with? What opportunities is this experience opening up for you? How can your life be different as a result?

6. It might help to journal or write a letter to the person or organization. Whether or not you send it, writing often helps us identify our own feelings so we can make sense of them.

7. Be authentic. This isn’t about ego or saving face or being right. It isn’t about making the other person wrong. Work through these elements in your writing or thought process – how you’re feeling (I statements), what you’re taking responsibility for, and perhaps what you request in order to heal and move forward.

8. Let go of any attachment to the outcome, especially in relation to the other person. Your request may go unfulfilled or even completely unheard. That doesn’t matter. You can still forgive and let go even if the other party doesn’t feel or show remorse, admit responsibility or even receive the communication. This process is about transforming the experience for YOU alone.

I truly hope you will give transformation a try. I can’t even begin to describe the positive impact it has had on my life to be able to see things differently.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Love in a Bag

Every year, I volunteer for a local Denver service called Project Valentine. On or around Valentine’s Day, a team of drivers fans out across the metro area to deliver Valentine’s goodie bags to chemo patients – 600 this year. The annual project was founded by Colleen Anderson, an ovarian cancer patient – like me – who had her first chemo treatment on Valentine’s Day 2001. Though Colleen succumbed to her cancer in 2007, her project lives on, and brings smiles to cancer patients each February.

When you have a needle in your arm or a port on your chest and you’re attached to an IV bag dripping poisonous chemicals into your body for several hours, it’s amazing how little it takes to bring a smile to your face. I would revel in the friends who came to sit with me during treatment, take-out lunch delivered to my chemo chair, the hand-knit hats and scarves made by volunteers, and even the cheesy song accompanied by balloons performed by the staff for each patient’s last treatment.

Of course, it’s great to deliver goodie bags, see the smiles on patient’s faces, receive the hugs and thank yous, but so many people work hard year-round to make this project possible. Fundraising, seeking product donations, craft days, stuffing, sorting and picking up the bags for delivery all have to get done as well. There are countless volunteers who organize and work hard behind the scenes with little thanks or recognition. That is why I’m taking the opportunity of my column to thank them for all that they do to make this program possible. I am hoping their work will inspire you to do something great in your own community.

The Obamas have done a great job of encouraging service on Martin Luther King Day, as so many past presidents have also highlighted service as one of the best contributions American’s can make. Jimmy Carter has played a large role in the work of Habitat for Humanity. George Bush Sr. emphasized the Thousand Points of Light, which inspired the foundation of the same name, now merged with the Hands On Network. Bill Clinton founded the Clinton Global Initiative, whose mission is to encourage investment, grow the economy and create jobs through private-public partnership.

Martin Luther King said, “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” There is something each of us can do to brighten someone’s day, and God knows there is so much to be done. You don’t have to be president to do something great. Look at Colleen. From founding your own non-profit, to volunteering with one in your community or just writing a check to a cause you support, you can serve in whatever way is best for you. Charities are really suffering in this economy, and anything you can give will be gratefully received. Out of work? How about donating some of your now abundant free time to a good cause. Jim Pancero said, “Doing something for nothing is better than doing nothing for nothing.”

I used to make it a point to send valentines to all of my single friends. V-Day, or “Singles Awareness Day” if you prefer, is tough on those without partners. Imagine how tough it is to be single AND have cancer. Yikes! That’s why one of my goals this year is to expand Project Valentine to send goody bags to single cancer patients around the country. I’m not quite sure yet how I’ll pull this off, but I plan to partner with some great organizations that are already doing good work such as Chemo Angels, I’m Too Young For This and Imerman Angels. If you have ideas about how to identify single cancer patients or make this project work, please share them with me, or feel free to share ideas you have for a project of your own. Thanks for what you do to make your community a better place.