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Flaws and All

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on February 7, 2017 at 9:45 AM Comments comments (0)

I cracked a coffee mug yesterday. Not just any mug but one I’ve had for over 25 years. One that has nurtured me on cold winter days and when my heart was heavy.

In Japan there is a technique to repair pottery called Kintsugi that mixes gold, silver or platinum dust with lacquer. The Japanese have expanded Kintsugi beyond a repair method into a philosophy that venerates repaired objects as ones having enhanced character and value. This viewpoint overlaps with another Japanese philosophy, wabi-sabi, that celebrates the flawed or imperfect. Both approaches value keeping an object around even after it has broken, highlighting the breaks and repairs as events in life, embracing cracks as part of existence.

In the human realm the acceptance of perceived flaws is difficult. We expect perfection. It’s hard to recognize that we are in any way flawed.

Many years ago while in graduate school, I took my lunch in a greenhouse next to our academic building. Entering one blustery winter day I was astonished by the size of the enormous coleus before me. These vigorous plants, I was told, were the ones that had survived an earlier power outage and the accompanying low temperatures. It seems that they had been hardened by their stress, a common process in the plant world.

Power outages in life take many forms; unemployment, financial issues, major illnesses -- whatever the experiences, we all have personal losses. We struggle through these difficulties but it is those who learn from challenges who are stronger -- much like coleus that survives harsh temperatures.

Our strength is even greater, in my opinion, when we recognize personal failings, the cracks so to speak, in our personal makeup. Recognition of imperfections moves us toward emotional maturity. It opens the door to empathy and modesty. Empathy, by way of awareness that we all share imperfections, like bad habits, addictions, feelings of inadequacies, etc., etc. Empathy in realizing that everyone else struggles as well, appearances to the contrary. Recognizing our flaws also fosters modesty regarding our own accomplishments. When complimenting friends, I often hear that they would not have been successful without their spouse and friends, an implicit awareness that personal inadequacies need assistance.

Recognition of personal flaws can be considered the first step. A second step toward maturity is the acceptance of those imperfections. Of course acceptance does not preclude efforts to overcome them. As humans we may never fully overcome our “cracks,” but the effort is worthwhile. Nevertheless, like the technique of Kintsugi, the first step is repair. Like the philosophy of wabi-sabi, the second step is acceptance, flaws and all.

When we recognize our imperfections, work to repair them and then accept our imperfections, we go a long way toward a comfort with the complex “pottery” that we are. Accepting the cracks and repairs is wonderful in a coffee cup. It’s even better when we do the same to ourselves. When we do, we can be as unique as the hardened and glorious coleus.

A Mindset of Kindness

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on January 12, 2017 at 9:15 PM Comments comments (0)



When I teach classes on happiness, I regularly give students homework after each class. Homework such as: give five new compliments daily for 7 consecutive days, record three different things each day for which you are grateful, write down accomplishments that make you most proud, etc. Pretty straight forward, but surprising how each assignment gives a little happiness bump when done on a consistent basis.


Perhaps the most beneficial homework is the assignment to give five acts of kindness every day beyond your usual kind acts. This assignment forces students to look around, searching for opportunities to be kind. It creates a mindset. What follows is quite simple: a compliment, a favor or a small inconvenience in order to help another. Additionally, the giver receives pleasure from having taken the time to be kind.


When the class members share their homework, they regularly comment on how pleasant the effort is. Most remark that it is somewhat unfamiliar territory to actively search for opportunities to give five additional kindnesses every day, even though everyone believes themself to be kind. When I counsel those who claim to have poor self-esteem, I often ask them to state their positive characteristics. Most who lack self-confidence struggle with the question. However, if I ask directly whether they are kind, virtually everyone answers yes. Apparently all of us believe we are kind. It seems a major insult to be perceived as unkind.


How often we perform kind acts can be a rough measure of our emotional state. Happy people are most apt to be kind. Those who are sad, less so, but still capable of kindness. For those who are mildly depressed, a kind act is less probable. And for those who are truly depressed, kindness is likely to be rare. It is not that depressed people are inherently less kind; it is simply that depression narrows a person’s focus to the dilemma that they feel. Their emotional energy is concentrated on their issues.


Ironically, being kind can reduce sadness. When we feel sad, it is beneficial to force ourselves to increase our kindness. Not only does it give us a sense of satisfaction, it also cements and expands our network of friends—valuable contributors to our well being. One way to increase kindness frequency is to think of kindness as a privilege, to be on the lookout for opportunities to be kind. Think of a time when you were truly able to make a difference in someone’s life with a kind act. What pleasure you likely provided both them and yourself! Such occasions are more probable if we create an attitude to make them happen.


The one caution I have is against thinking big. Small kindnesses are more readily available. Little opportunities occur most often. I suspect that most of us would rather be around those who fill our life with abundant kindnesses than with only the rare big kindness. As silly as it may first appear, prompting ourselves to be kind may be wise. We can become so absorbed with daily activities that we fail to address this pillar of well being. Look for kindness opportunities. Such a habit can sustain a wonderful emotional state for you and those around you.

The Pleasures of Aging

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on November 18, 2016 at 8:30 AM Comments comments (0)

Of course everyone wants to live to be old when given the alternative. But few consider the positive nature of becoming “mature.” In our youth-oriented society the old are often considered washed up, depleted and inferior. The young, with their beauty and vigor, seem an obvious preference.

But there are marvelous advantages to getting old -- things to look forward to. Developments that cause most older people to say, “This is the happiest time of my life. There is no way I would trade this time for my youth.”

Without a doubt there are burdens that come with the years, such as aches, pains and more limited movement, but even with these encumbrances, maturity has its advantages.

A story I was told many years ago illustrates some of the most important. Two men were talking about their childhoods when one mentioned that he was born very late in his parents’ lives. When he was in his early teens, his father was in his mid-sixties. “Good grief,” the other exclaimed. “You missed the whole father bonding experience. You never got to play catch with your dad.” “On the contrary,” the other man replied, “I got to really spend time with my dad. He was retired. He no longer felt the stress of his job and had time to spend with me. We walked, he listened, talked and he was really there when I needed him.”

Most older people are less tense and worried than the young. The quest to conquer the world has passed. Their spark isn’t necessarily gone, but it’s not as urgent as it used be. There is less to prove. Accomplishments tend not to be so tied up with ego. Not true for every retired person, but true for most.

There are other characteristic patterns found with passing years. Many contribute to the greater sense of happiness that social scientists have repeatedly documented in older people.

Reflect for a second on the following words: wisdom, patience, perspective, knowledge, understanding, worldliness and thoughtfulness. Quickly judge whether you’re more likely to assign each word to the young or the old. Not a perfect correlation, but I would wager most of these fine characteristics would land in the older category more often than the younger one.

Or take the following aphorisms: “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” “This too will pass.” Again, the same quiz. Quick, no consideration -- just your immediate reaction. Place it in the young or old category? If you’re like me, these philosophies are much more likely to be placed in the older pile.

In particular maturity nurtures perspective. The experiences of life provide lessons, lessons not yet learned by the young. Older people have endured more trials and tribulations and they have survived. They know the difference between inconveniences and catastrophes. They know about failure, sickness, sorrow, loss and grief. They’re not fun but the older have gotten through them and will again. They’ve seen a lot and it’s not quite so frightening.

Another heightened characteristic is gratitude, a pillar of the happiness formula. Many older people appear to excel in it. Perhaps they know that the end of their lives is nearer and this increases their appreciation of the pleasures they have. Perhaps a greater incidence of friends and relatives experiencing physical problems makes their own troubles less significant and helps them appreciate what they have. Maybe it’s just an increased sensitivity to small favors because the big pursuits are behind them. Whatever the cause, older people tend to pause and count their good fortune more often.

Friendships, too, often take on added value. Time with friends is chosen, not obligatory. The responsibilities of children are less. The pleasures of grandparenting are hugely more pleasurable for most than the full weight of raising children.

Yes, for these and a multitude of other privileges, most older people do not wish to trade their lot for youth.

Your Bucket List

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on November 3, 2016 at 5:05 PM Comments comments (0)

Many years ago I received a postcard I still treasure. It was from a woman traveling in Europe celebrating her wonderful time –- a woman I hardly knew, but it nevertheless touched my heart.

The woman, probably in her early seventies, had come to a presentation I gave on dealing with pain and living well. After the presentation she joined a group of attendees who asked questions, but she lingered so we could talk in private.

She told me that she had recently been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer and was uncertain how to spend her remaining time. I asked her if there was anything she regretted not doing in her life and, without hesitation, she said she had always wanted to travel to Europe.

My presentation had promoted the importance of taking care of yourself and that, when done with some consideration, it is not only the best thing that you can do for yourself, but those around you. The underlying message was clear: when you are happy you are most likely to be kind and generous to the people you love. Given that message, my response was firm. “By all means follow your dream. You’ve told me that you’ve wanted to go the Europe all your life but always put it off. This is the time to do it. Would you rather die at home or travelling in Europe with your husband?” She chose the latter. Two months later I received the postcard, “Thank you so very much.”

Her question seemed simple -- what to do with the rest of your life. But, of course, it doesn’t feel simple to most people. In her case she still had to consider what medications she would need, her stamina and the impact on those around her.

Choosing what to do with your life and how to do it is something many struggle with. Life coaches, commencement speakers and parents are quick to give inspirational recommendations. My suggestion is more mundane and perhaps more difficult. It is to periodically sit down and write out whatever comes to mind regarding your life desires and then take steps, even tiny ones, to reach those goals.

Here are some questions that can help you to think a little deeper on the subject. What do you most fear losing? Your fears, just as much as your desires, reveal what is most important in your life. If you fear being alone, or losing a loved one, you might want to think about taking action to cement your other relationships further. Set up a plan with specific actions and attack it just as conscientiously as you might set out to land a job, get an education or arrange your finances. Relationships are certainly as important as any of those.

What makes your heart beat with excitement? Sure, living on an exotic island, winning the lottery or other glamorous things, but those should be erased from your list. They are probably pretty much outside of your control. On the other hand, there may be some that are difficult to pull off, like the trip to Europe for this woman, but are still plausible. These should definitely be given thorough consideration. Maybe they’re not as impossible as you’ve previously thought.

Another useful exercise is to imagine yourself 5, 10 or 15 years older than you are now. What would you like to have accomplished in those years? What would you regret not having done? These, too, need to be given serious thought. Analyzing small steps that can move you toward your desired goal is a good way to start.

I’m a big fan of personal mission statements. I’ve written many, revising and returning to them periodically –- often during times of uncertainty. They have helped ground me, reminding me what is most important in my life. In that sense they have helped me to regroup, even energize me to return to long-term challenges. Choosing goals that resonate with your deepest personal values and talents, whether you succeed or not, are likely to be worth the effort.

No matter what your age, there are things that can be done. Even dying well, as Morrie Swartz of Tuesday With Morrie fame and others have shown us, can provide purpose. Bucket lists are fun in movies. They’re even better if they’re yours and you have given serious thought to fulfilling them.

You Can't Fall Out of a Hole

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on September 23, 2016 at 8:15 AM Comments comments (0)

There is probably no better way to appreciate what you now have than to recall when life seemed empty. There was a time in my life when I despaired that I would never find a suitable partner, a desirable job or get past my next paycheck. With my confidence low and my outlook gloomy, I wasn’t sure where to turn.

Then I heard a colleague say, “You can’t fall out of a hole.” It’s a thought I’ve since used in therapy sessions. When you’re in a hole, the reasonable place to look is up, but despair often causes some to look down, where they encounter only darkness. Not all people, of course, but most of us have had the experience at least once.

People coming to therapy often feel they have few options. They’re stuck in the proverbial hole. Happiness may not even be on the agenda although, obviously, that is what they want. To get some degree of happiness they may have to look not only at the source of their frustration (e.g., no job, partner, etc.) but also at the way they think about their difficulty.

Looking downward typically involves common characteristics: blaming others, yourself or circumstances that you can’t control. It may involve what psychologists call “mental filtering”, magnifying the negative and underplaying the positive. Each approach is a recipe for sadness, depression and anxiety.

Looking upward, getting out of a hole, requires constructive problem solving such as sharing issues with others, looking objectively at problems and being aware of what is and isn’t under your control. It means putting difficulties into perspective and getting the means to build a constructive ladder out of the hole.

Life’s challenges can range from a colicky baby to the sudden loss of a loved one. The associated emotions cover a panoply of feelings from depression, sadness, hopelessness, intense frustration, bewilderment and anxiety. Recall those feeling from one of your most stressful times. Recognize how overwhelmed you may have felt. Remember that you not only survived but also grew from the experience. Such a mental excursion should bring pleasure that you are not where you were before. Appreciate what you have gained in the process. For most of us we would not be the person we are today if we had not been “hardened” by the trials of life. Our ability to persist, to put things in perspective, and to value the truly important things in life is nurtured by the strife that we have overcome.

Take the time to write down those times in your life where you felt disheartened. Note how you felt at the time. Then give thanks that you are where you are now, enjoying the benefits of your hard work. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross summed it up well when she said: “The most beautiful people I've known are those who have known trials, have known struggles, have known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.” 

The Power of Well Placed Rewards

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on August 13, 2016 at 2:45 PM Comments comments (0)

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors gave me an interesting challenge. He had recently read B.F. Skinner’s book, The Behavior of Organisms, and, knowing of my interest in behavioral techniques, asked me to prove the practicality of Skinner’s research. I invited two other graduate students to work with me and we took up the challenge.

This was the late 1960’s and behavior modification methods had just entered the field of psychology. Consequently we wanted to demonstrate in no uncertain terms the power of these techniques. We choose the most challenging subjects and behaviors we could imagine for an experiment: permanently hospitalized back ward schizophrenic patients who were functionally mute. Functional mutism is where the patient still has the physical means of speaking but has behaviorally become mute. Our criteria were demanding -- records that demonstrated, categorically, that the subjects in our experiment were physically capable of speaking, but had not been heard to speak for a minimum of fifteen years.

Finding such well-documented patients was difficult, but in time we were able to locate 9 subjects, enough to examine three patients in an experimental group and three each in two control groups. Our measurement was the spoken word with all three groups beginning with the above stated zero words spoken in over fifteen years as our baseline.

In the subsequently published experiment, we systematically gave rewards (cigarettes, perceived to be ethically OK at the time) contingent upon a patient opening his mouth, pushing air out, uttering sounds and then words. Within three weeks our test group reached an average of 100 words spoken. Neither of the control groups spoke a word. One of the control groups was given the same number of cigarettes as the experimental group but not systematically dependent upon specific behaviors.

An interesting experiment, perhaps, but what does this have to do with happiness and well-being? A great deal if we take the time to examine our lives and analyze the reasons for our behaviors.

First of all, it’s important to note that we are hard-wired to seek pleasure and these pleasures or reinforcers come in many forms. Food, sex, attention and drink are obvious. But so are status, power and revenge. Behavioral psychologists assume that any well-ingrained behavior has a reinforcer, even if that behavior is maladaptive (e.g., excessive alcohol intake).

In the case of the mute patients in our experiment, not speaking was probably rewarded on their hospital ward. Speaking may have even felt punishing for the patients in question. By contrast, we provided a powerful reinforcer in the form of cigarettes given specifically for speaking. When the experiment ended and the reinforcers (i.e., cigarettes) were no longer given, the speaking behavior discontinued. We demonstrated the ability to modify an extremely well entrenched specific behavior -- functional mutism. To achieve full-fledged speaking in the hospital setting would require training the staff to apply behavioral techniques, a desirable aim but one beyond our means. Our goal was to persuade our professor and others and hopefully contribute to changing some of the practices within mental hospital settings.

Again, what does this have to do with happiness? Human behavior is obviously complex, consisting of a myriad of habits and patterns maintained by some form of reinforcer. Determining that reinforcer can be is tricky. In the experiment above it was easy to find a reinforcer. In the boring confines of a large mental institution, patients whiled away their time smoking, one of the few pleasures available. But what is the reinforcer for being polite, following traffic laws, voting? How about sending a birthday card, wearing particular clothes, trying something new?

Knowing your reinforcers is valuable self-knowledge. Not the simple reinforcers, like your favorite foods or drinks, but the more deep-seated motivators: a need to maintain a loving relationship, a drive for status, athletic superiority, praise from friends. An awareness of what “drives” you can be instrumental in guiding your life. The above research demonstrates the power of a strategically and systematically placed reinforcer. Self-knowledge that identifies your most powerful reinforcers can be invaluable in the choices you make.

Research shows that those who set life goals live happier lives. Taking the time to analyze and clarify what your basic motivators are and using that knowledge to structure your behaviors is one the wisest things you can do to maximize your happiness.

What Kind Of Glasses Do You Wear?

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on July 9, 2016 at 11:45 AM Comments comments (0)

Psychotherapy often requires clients to change the kind of glasses they wear. Not literally, of course, but as a metaphor for changing the way we “take in” in the world. Psychologists may call this “reframing” the problem but, whatever the descriptor; a new way of looking at an old issue is involved.

Changing your outlook is not easy. There are reasons we maintain the patterns we do. Most often the underlying reason is a belief, a benefit or a fear. Here are some simple examples where new glasses need to be prescribed. A client is working 90 hours a week and has over-committed on top of that. He is not enjoying life, feels overly stressed and has a number of generalized physical pains. His doctor says he’s killing himself working such outlandish hours, but he has a well-entrenched belief that he must work hard for the betterment of his family.

In therapy he reveals high perfectionist standards, beliefs that were developed in his upbringing by a very strict, demanding and critical father. Although that may be the origin of his personal standards, it is his current thinking patterns that are likely to be the focus of therapeutic attention –- that is, his particular kind of glasses. His present glasses provide the view, “My wife won’t love me unless I give her a beautiful home. I’m not a success unless I’m perfect the way my father expected me to be. I can only succeed if I work harder than everyone else.” Changing those glasses to allow for more imperfections, self-compassion and a mature identity would be a major but achievable goal.

His underlying fear of failure and his insatiable drive to succeed is camouflaged by a rationale concerning the betterment of his family. While his emotions are real, the patient’s personal sense of worthiness is based on satisfying his father’s standards, not his own and possibly not that of his wife. Changing the lenses through which he views reality would likely alter his behavior and his life.

Another common example involves glasses that deflect the positive and absorb the negative. This pattern is evident in those with poor self-esteem who focus on their deficits while underplaying their attributes. Such clients are virtually always capable, but their inability to acknowledge their positive qualities and to see only their perceived deficits is the real problem, not their lack of talent. Their glasses filter reality in a way that guarantees continued feelings of inadequacy.

Other clients permit a problem, be it a relationship or a temporary setback, to dominate their perspective. They allow themselves to become victims of circumstances. They forget previous life challenges they’ve overcome and become paralyzed by the problem at hand, overlooking the skills used in previous difficulties. Their emotional upset has fogged their lenses.

Still others believe that bad luck or people outside their control are dictating their lives. Their view underplays the portion of their problem that they can control and gives too much power to others. In each case, it is the perception through their glasses that is at the core of the difficulty.

Of course, problematic relatives, accidents and unhappy events can cause difficulties, but it is not the external issues alone that create our despair. It is how we view and manage these challenges.

When you’re angry, anxious, depressed or upset, you might want to check your glasses. Maybe it’s time to change your prescription.

Healthy Censorship

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on June 17, 2016 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (0)

Our household went without television for about 12 years and survived quite nicely, thank you. There were a few exceptions. We pulled a 12-inch portable TV out of the closet to watch the 9/11 tragedy after hearing about it on the radio. And we saw TV at airports, friends’ home, etc. How could we not? TV, even now in the age of the Internet, is ubiquitous.

Why would we do such an unorthodox thing? Our answer falls into the category of protecting what we put into our brains, the same way we are careful regarding what we eat. Before you assume that we are members of a cult, let me rush to say that we now own and watch TV regularly protected, at least in our minds, by modern technology such as DVRs that allow us to circumvent extreme violence and commercialism to a large degree.

Such choices are controversial from person to person and family to family. While I avoid a diet of gratuitous violence, I would not avoid literature or serious theater in which violence is woven into the plot. Because of my professional interest in the topic of pain, I have read extensively about torture throughout history that would curl your hair. But this academic interest does not translate into a routine of watching unwarranted violence on any media.

The analogy to food and diet is a good one. A survey of eating habits shows wide and particular expressions and nuances. Similarly, just as there are reasonable recommendations that cut across the wide population regarding food (eat a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats), there are, in my opinion, sensible guidelines regarding what you should allow to enter your brain. A reasonable recommendation is to monitor the type and quantity of information that potentially has a harmful effect upon your mental health.

Protecting yourself from harmful input takes some attention. Choosing to avoid extreme violence may be easy, but there may be other areas where the offending input may be difficult. For example, you may have friends or relatives whose time you may want to limit. Censoring harmful interactions from friends and relatives is every bit as important as limiting unhealthy input from the media. Your response to the following questions might indicate that some censorship may be in order.

Do you have friends or relatives that “make your blood boil” or who send you into a funk? Do these same people negatively linger in your brain after you have spent time with them?

Do you spend time wishing that you had responded differently to their conversation?

Do you spend time thinking about what you are going to say or how you are going to handle them before you encounter them?

Are you somewhat anxious when you know you are going to be speaking to them?

All of us can be annoying at times, but it is the deeply negative that I speak of. You may not be able to eliminate contact with those who are truly unpleasant, but you can certainly limit the time that you share in their toxic environment.

The idea, by the way, falls under another good rule of mental health -- control what you can control. Treat your mind with the care you treat your body. There is a saying that “you are what you eat.” My belief is that you are only as mentally healthy as what and who you allow to enter your brain and in what quantity.


Posted by robertpawlicki68 on May 14, 2016 at 2:00 PM Comments comments (0)

In David Eagleman’s fanciful book, Sum: Tales of the Afterlife, the reader relives all life experiences reshuffled and grouped together. For example, we might have six months of sex, sleep for 30 years, spend six days cutting our nails, two months driving in front of our house, two and a half years standing in line at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, as well as 15 months looking for things we’ve lost. It’s fun to look at the pleasures, but grouping the frustrations together –- whoa, that’s rough!

Both frustrations and pleasures typically don’t come all at once, but bunches can occur and, when we’ve had a “bad” day or week, frustrations certainly seem to occur unfairly.

Recently I drove my car to the dealership for a simple repair, having been assured that the ordered part was on hand. Upon arrival I learned that there had been a miscommunication between the service and the parts departments and, no, the car couldn’t be repaired that morning. Later that week our car broke down at the beginning of a long road trip, causing delays and alterations in our plans. In the big realm of things, not the end of the world, but imagine living through these inconveniences for months at a time.

Managing frustration is tough. What do we do with bumps in our life? Of course, we can throw a fit or have an outburst about other people’s incompetence. We can stew, allowing ourselves to focus on bad luck.

Some people allow frustration to linger longer than necessary. They blame others, which puts the responsibility for change outside of their control. Take the example of getting stuck in traffic. Of course, traffic jams are irritating and we can’t control how long they last, but ultimately how long we stay frustrated is up to each of us. When we smolder, we are often guilty of thinking that “these things shouldn’t happen” or are “always happening to me” –- tendencies that make the blood boil hotter and longer.

People who manage frustrations well think differently. They’re more likely to think; It’s not going on your permanent record, Tomorrow is another day, It’s not a problem, it’s an inconvenience, It is what it is -- thoughts that put daily frustrations into perspective. Perspective lessens the impact of frustration and encourages movement to other distractions and healthy behaviors.

So does balance. While frustrations are annoying, reminders of the positive experiences in life offset frustration’s power to bring us down. Most of us are incredibly fortunate to live the lives we do with all of the relationships and amenities we enjoy. To allow inconveniences to dominate those advantages for more than a short time is a personal failing that we can rectify. Reminding ourselves of the good things in our lives on a regular basis helps to do just that.

Those who handle frustrations well also tend not to generalize or exaggerate. They stay factual. Traffic jams happen. Cars break down. Technology fails. Frustrating problems are difficult enough. No need to magnify the challenge beyond the issue at hand.

It’s true that lousy things happen and sometimes even in bunches. Although it may feel differently at times, there is no exterior force that has picked us out to create havoc in our life. To believe otherwise is to give in to superstition and paranoia. If we learn to handle the everyday annoyances of life, we are well on our way to a greater degree of happiness. And I suspect we’re unlikely to feel like we’re spending one and one-half years standing in line at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Take Care of Yourself

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on April 14, 2016 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (0)

It’s been my experience that people are a bit schizophrenic when it comes to taking care of themselves. On the one hand, we work to avoid pain and to maximize happiness in the moment. Yet, on the other hand, in the big picture of life, many fail to take care of themselves.

Many years ago I had an office across from a family therapist. Among the various things he preached one stood out -- to take care of yourself first. His argument was that you are the only person who is guaranteed to be there for the rest of your life. And secondly, when you take care of yourself, you are in a stronger position to take care of those around you.

This seemingly logical position often met with vigorous resistance. “Do you mean to say that I should put myself before my children, my spouse and my parents?” My friend would answer with a resounding “Yes”. He advocated having priorities. Take care of yourself first, your spouse or partner second and your children third. At which point, you might hear some parent howl that they could never put their children’s welfare behind their own.

Parental resistance is particularly understandable since children are dependent upon others. Their vulnerability definitely requires attention and support. But this therapist was not speaking of neglecting those needs or the needs of vulnerable older parents, but focusing on doing what is best for yourself and others in the long term.

His argument is analogous to building a strong foundation for a home. Marriages and parenting are both most successful when there is a strong underpinning. When you are happy and confident, those around you are more likely to be happy and confident. Think, for a second, how many children are hindered when raised in a dysfunctional household. By contrast a strong, loving home is perhaps the greatest gift a mother and father can give to their children.

The resistance to my therapist friend’s point of view also comes from those who hear his message as not providing love. That is not the message. The message is to take care of yourself as the top priority and then sufficiently and lovingly care for others.

In my clinical work, I have most often come across individuals who go to the extreme of putting others excessively before their own well-being. Let me give you an example. Many years ago, while working in a pain clinic, a “little old lady” with serious back pain came to be treated. What was unusual was that her adult children carried her favorite chair as she walked down the hall and everywhere she went. Whenever she stopped, the chair was ready and she sat.

Her medical diagnosis was clear: severe muscular pain aggravated by inactivity and excessive time in this chair. Her treatment recommendations were clear as well: extensive graduated physical therapy including the removal of the chair so lovingly ministered by her children.

To these last recommendations the family revolted. “After all the years of love and attention provided by our devoted mother, you are telling us that we should stop caring for her?” they angrily responded. Our attempts to assuage their anger failed. They abruptly left the clinic.

This reaction was common in the family therapy classes that I facilitated for many years -- caretakers who excessively helped a family member to the point of personal burnout, some reaching a point of outright resentment. They, too, resisted taking care of themselves first, mistakenly believing we wished them to forsaken the care given to their loved one.

Excessive caretaking is just one example of not taking care of yourself, of not looking at the whole picture. Making sure you take care of your physical and mental health, as a top priority, is critical throughout life. I think my therapist friend, standing on his soapbox, was providing a valuable life lesson.


robert pawlicki