Joy and I took a little “holiday” from blogging at the end of 2016.  We were busy enjoying a family visit together in the Northwest filled with snow shoeing, aerial yoga with our girls (including Roja!), and ringing in the new year at “pretend midnight” for the kids and then official midnight for the adults.

Photo Description: Scenic winter picture of our family snow shoeing.

Image may contain: 8 people, people smiling, mountain, sky, snow, outdoor and nature

Photo Description: Aerial yoga swings hanging from the ceiling with red mats underneath.  Roja is laying on a red yoga mat in the left corner of the picture.

Fast forward to January.  The egg nog is long gone, the holiday decor packed away, and it’s back to the routines of daily life.  In many ways it feels refreshing.  A new year offers new beginnings, and yet old habits often follow us into new years. I’m choosing to share one of my on-going challenges knowing that many of us struggle with our inner critic.  I invite you to try some self-compassion exercises along with me as a step towards a healthy 2017.

This “self-compassion lesson” begins with a story followed by some self-compassion exercises.

The sun streamed brightly through the trees, illuminating the large piles of crisp white snow as I rushed out the front  door.  I chatted distractedly with Joy on my cell while grabbing the long blue sled from the front porch and tossing my son’s after school snacks and snow gear onto it before zipping off.  Joy and I finished up our conversation as I walked the 1/2 mile to Benny’s preschool.  I quickly plucked his lunch box from the sled to prepare for his famished after school snack requests, and discovered that the bag of snow gear I had packed him was no longer in the sled.  I’ll just retrace my steps and find it on the way home, I thought, and signed Benny out of school.  I knew finding a white plastic grocery bag against white snow would be challenging, but Benny is a good little helper and I figured we’d stumble on it eventually.  But soon we were home with no bag of snow gear.  My husband. who works from home most days, had just started his lunch break and offered to take the car out and look for the missing gear.

Meanwhile, I started making lunch, but was so distracted with texting friends and neighbors about the missing items, that I forgot about the sauce simmering and burnt it to a crisp.  My husband used his entire one hour lunch break searching for the items with no luck.  I felt defeated as I recalled how much money snow gear costs, especially the brand new high quality Burton mittens that just arrived from Amazon the day before.  I could feel the tight knots in my empty stomach as I scrounged around the fridge, trying to put together a new lunch, and I snapped at my husband when he asked me a question.  He retreated back to his home office, likely relieved to escape the presence of his edgy wife.  Tears started rolling down my cheek as I thought about how much I had screwed up that day.

My pity party was interrupted by my phone ringing.  It was my Uncle Mark calling.  Joy has written about our uncle in previous posts.  He calls each day from his room at the nursing home to read us the AA prayer of the day.  Though Mark’s developmental disability keeps his mind at the age of an adolescent, his intuition often exceeds his mental capabilities.

I sniffled as I picked up the phone. “Hi, Uncle Mark.  I’m kind of having a bad day.”

I proceeded to tell him about my lost items, burnt lunch, and cranky behavior..

“I’m sorry you burnt lunch.” he stated in a flat tone.

“Thanks,” More sniffles.

“I’m sorry you lost your son’s snow pants.” he continued, still mono-tone.

A few more tears rolled down my cheek as I muttered another “thanks” into the phone.

“I’m sorry you lost your son’s hat.” he offered.  Oh man, is he going to say sorry for every damn item I lost?
I wondered to myself, feeling grumpier by the second.

“I’m sorry you lost your son’s new mittens.” he added.

I was about to mutter another bland thank you when I heard him say, “But you’re still a good mom.”  Now the hot salty tears came flooding out of my eyes as I sobbed,”Thank you, Uncle Mark! I really needed to hear that right now.”

Uncle Mark’s words cut right to the heart of why I was crying.  I wasn’t shedding tears over lost stuff, or martial tension, or burnt lunch.  I was feeling inadequate as a mom, and I was beating myself up over my mistakes.  Mark’s simple affirmation caused me to remember all that I have learned about the importance of self-compassion.  I first learned this concept from Brene Brown and Kristen Neff, and was able to put it into practice at the Daring Sisters women’s retreat last summer.  For yesterday’s fiasco, I chose to write myself a self-compassion letter, which is far less complicated and hokey than it may sound.  Other times, I’ve chosen a guided meditation.  There are lots of great tools to choose from on Dr. Neff’s website. 

Below is a step by step guide to writing a self-compassion letter that I found on Berkeley’s Greater Good In Action site.

Time Required:15 minutes. Try to do this practice once per week, or at least once per month

First, identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough. It could be something related to your personality, behavior, abilities, relationships, or any other part of your life.

Once you identify something, write it down and describe how it makes you feel. Sad? Embarrassed? Angry? Try to be as honest as possible, keeping in mind that no one but you will see what you write.

The next step is to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance for the part of yourself that you dislike.

As you write, follow these guidelines:

  1. Imagine that there is someone who loves and accepts you unconditionally for who you are. What would that person say to you about this part of yourself?
  2. Remind yourself that everyone has things about themselves that they don’t like, and that no one is without flaws. Think about how many other people in the world are struggling with the same thing that you’re struggling with.
  3. Consider the ways in which events that have happened in your life, the family environment you grew up in, or even your genes may have contributed to this negative aspect of yourself.
  4. In a compassionate way, ask yourself whether there are things that you could do to improve or better cope with this negative aspect. Focus on how constructive changes could make you feel happier, healthier, or more fulfilled, and avoid judging yourself.
  5. After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back to it later and read it again. It may be especially helpful to read it whenever you’re feeling bad about this aspect of yourself, as a reminder to be more self-compassionate.
 Another tip I learned from Dr. Neff is to add “I love you. I love you. I love you.” at the bottom of your letter.

Many of us spend the final weeks of the year in a whirlwind of plans, often leading to stress.  And after shouting “Happy New Year!”, we let out a long sigh, in an attempt to release the stress from the previous year.  We take a deep breath, and hope to breathe in a new sense of purpose, balance, and joy.  

Some of us make new year’s resolutions, and join a gym, or throw out all the crappy food from the pantry.  While others write down goals, hopes, and dreams for the coming year.

Most years, this is my pattern, too.  I try to “get through” the holidays, and then regroup in January.  But this December, I did things a little out of order.  I still bought Christmas presents for my loved ones, attended holiday gatherings, and watched endless Christmas movies while wrapping gifts.  But just when my busy month was getting started, and I began feeling anxiety between sips of eggnog, I made a conscious decision to carve out daily me time.   Continue reading

This is a pretty specific gift idea and it’s only for ladies who are blind or visually-impaired.  Sorry to be exclusive on this one, but once you read more, you’ll understand.

In lieu of exchanging presents this year, Joy and I have decided to give each other the gifts of travel, mental health, and personal growth all rolled into one.  Merry Christmas!!! Continue reading

Last summer I had the idea to start a legacy story-telling business that would help capture people’s life stories through video, audio and print. I bought 3 different domain names because I couldn’t come to a final decision, and the name I really wanted (Legacy Storytellers) was already taken. I worked on my web content, read and researched everything related to personal storytelling, met with experts in the industry, interviewed possible videographers, and began making plans to attend “The Association of Personal Historians” annual conference. I talked incessantly about my budding career plans, announcing to family and friends my goals for the year.

And then I took a little sip of air, often referred to as a breath.

And I exhaled for the next several months, wondering if this is the right time to start such an endeavor and feeling kind of embarrassed that I opened my mouth to so many people about it. Continue reading

bedtime stories

Jenelle and I telling our kids bedtime stories on a recent shared vacation

My twin sister and I have always had a strong connection despite years of people comparing us to those Sweet Valley High books we grew up reading (yes, I’m clearly the nerdy journalist, Elizabeth, and she is the popular cheerleader, Jessica).

People have always asked us whether we have ESP or any shared twin language. While for the most part, the answer is no, I did awake with strong stomach pains in the middle of the night without knowing that she was going into labor 2,000 miles away and sat straight up in bed the moment she had her second child, on the shared birthday of my older child. Beyond that, we have no known twin quirks. Continue reading

 According to many surveys, going blind is something people fear most, right behind cancer.  I’ve written plenty of posts related to fear and grief and challenges.  But I’ve seldom touched on all the fringe benefits of blindness.
Some readers may think I’m joking, but honestly there are parts of my life that have turned out to be pretty great because of low vision.  So I put together these top 10 reasons blind people lead the best lives: Continue reading

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Winter funk first hit me a few weeks ago (no, not that scary, Australian super-virus though the threat of it definitely adds to the funk). Like many Midwesterners with cabin fever, I tried escaping it by going on a short girls’ getaway (though we couldn’t afford anywhere warm!). And that sufficed while I was away, but the day-to-day was still waiting for me when I returned.  Continue reading

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I once tried to use the word “coldth” in a Creative Writing class in high school. My teacher crossed it out in large, red letters and wrote “Not a word!”, which annoyed me because, duh, I know it’s not a real word, but I was trying to be “creative” and make up a new word that would describe a cold feeling that is actually comforting. Obviously, I failed. So here’s another attempt:

Living just outside Chicago, everyone dreads our icy winters. Being that I walk everywhere, I don’t exactly look forward to spending 20 minutes bundling up the kids and myself and then maneuvering the stroller around snowbanks, slush puddles and irresponsible neighbors’ un-shoveled driveways (okay, fine, it’s usually our snowy driveway!)

But even with the dread of a cold, long winter ahead, I must admit that I felt a little giddy the first time the temperatures dipped down in the 30s in November. While I loved our frequent trips to the park this warm December and first week of January, I feel a nervous excitement over the recent falling temps. Some of you will stop reading now because you are so irritated that I would even hint at appreciating freezing weather. But I just have to say it.

Sometimes cold temperatures bring warmth to a home in the same way that hard times bring families together.

It’s an excuse to crank up the heat, light a fire, drink hot tea, snuggle closer…

It takes a good freeze to kill the pests, such as ants, and for some reason my house always seems cleaner in the winter when there’s no moisture or humidity in the air. And even thought I know people tend to get sicker in the winter, a good freeze seems to kill some of the germs floating around, which could be the reason influenza and stomach bugs have been rampant this winter in the Midwest, according to many healthcare professionals. And I truly have enjoyed bopping around town without a coat nor icy sidewalks these past couple months. But it’s time to freeze off a few germs.

It’s also time for some brisk walks– the kind that wake us out of our sluggish, January slumber. “Blue Monday” is coming up on the 21st. Apparently, psychologists have come up with a formula based on the amount of days after Christmas, the weather, the amount of sun, etc. that designates the 21st as the most depressing day of 2013 for people. So, knowing that I have the potential to be at my lowest on this day, I know that fresh air and exercise are remedies for me.

And there’s really nothing like frosty air to cool me off when I am heated up over something. Like yesterday, when everything seemed to be going wring, leading to a frustrating climax in which I encountered a difficult phone representative while trying to file an insurance claim. The conversation left me with hot, angry tears by the end of it, and since it was time to pick my youngest up from preschool a few blocks away, I had to wipe my tears away and pull myself together. It had been such a draining day in general that I really worried I wouldn’t be able to get out of my angry, sad funk. But as soon as my feet met cold pavement and my lungs inhaled arctic air, I felt my insides relax. The air cooled the heat of my anger, and I felt refreshed, heavy coat, mittens and all. A spring, summer or autumn day could not have revived me the way this winter one did. While I’m glad it’s not winter all the time, I welcome it for now.

It’s Sunday night, and I”m tired.  But it’s a good tired.  Ben and I played a lot with the kids today.  And we put on rain boots and jackets and went splashing through puddles as we walked to Lou Malnati’s for pizza in the pouring rain.

And I was reminded today, as I was throughout this whole past week, how life reverses both ways.  From perfect, sunny days that turn rainy all the way back to rainy days that turn out to be fun despite the puddles.  Or perhaps, because of the puddles.

To give you the end of last Friday’s story, Lucy continued to cry all the way home.  When she continued to sob at home, I got desparate for something to calm her and went up to my closet where I store future Christmas gifts (yes, I know it’s only August, and I’m ridiculous for starting already, but I pretty much am a single-parent the month of December since my husband is in ministry, so I like to just get it done early).  Anyways, I went in the bin and grabbed the one thing she has been asking for the past year that I finally found on ebay– a retro Rainbow Brite doll (yup, that’s what I get for thinking I’m a sly, early shopper– the best gift is already ruined!)

And as I’m handing it to her, an even larger feeling of guilt sweeps over me as I realize that I’m instilling a materialistic comfort habit that will probably lead to her becoming an emotional shopaholic one day. (honestly when I told my husband about everything, he was completely understanding about the stroller accident, as something similar happened with him and Lucy and a bike a couple years ago, but he was really upset that I pulled the doll out!)

It did the temproary job of calming her down, however, and reassured me that the crying (which ceased immediately) was dragging on more out of fear than pain.

But as quickly as her tears vanished, mine appeared. An old friend had stopped by to see our new house, and as I was showing her the upstairs, I felt my voice break and I couldn’t compose myself. She, of course, told me that I was being too hard on myself and that she had done so many similar things when her boys were young.

And you know what?  Throughout the entire past week, I received comments and e-mails from people, sharing their “guilt stories” of ways their kids were injured on their account.  And while a couple of the stories honestly disturbed me, they really did help.  A couple of them even made me laugh and smile to myself.

And as my week progressed, I realized that there are a ton of reversals that occur in the span of a week, or even a day for that matter.  And sometimes life seems to reverse on its own when we give it a moment…..like when Lucy was pouting on Wednesday because there was a toy she wanted that I wouldn’t get her at the store. She ran into her room and shut the door, and I was too frustrated to try to reason with her, so I just sat on my bed and read with Elli, feeling like I had created this material=hungry little blonde monster.  But to my surprise, a few minutes later, she came hopping up on my lap and thrust a handmade card in my face that said, “I’m sorry mom.  I love you, daddy, and Elli more than things.” followed by a great, big bear hug.

And while I beamed and hugged her on Wednesday, I found myself feeling irritated on Thursday when both girls were whining and kept begging to watch tv all afternoon.  I kept waiting for the day to reverse on its own– for the girls to come prancing up to me with handmade cards again that said “We will never whine again and we don’t even care about tv!”  But the cards never came.  And I kept thinking, “Why does it take so much to make them happy?”

And it was then that I realized that it was my frame of mind that needed a reversal– not my day. I got out some play doh and sat on the porch with Lucy while Elli took a little snooze in her stroller near us.  We sat and chatted and played, and it seemed like just that hour of one-on-one attention turned the whole rest of the day around.  She frolicked around the house the rest of the night, singing little songs.

And I kept thinking, “wow, it takes so little to make kids happy.”

So I guess this is just how life is– one reversal after another.   And while it often takes so little to turn it around, it does take something.  

Whether a pause.  A prayer.  A deep breath.  An empathetic ear.  A shift in consciousness.  A brief moment of reflection is worth the likelihood that the day– or week or month or year– will turn around.