Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hardwired for Optimism Except....

I came across an article the other day that talks about how human beings are apparently hardwired for optimism. Humans Hardwired for Optimism

As I read the article, I found myself thinking: Yes, but what about people who are abused, especially if they are abused as children?

And then I read Dr. Vitelli’s post about wild children at Wild Children and I found myself putting them together.

I found myself thinking that perhaps abuse is one of the things that can short-circuit the hardwiring for optimism. Perhaps abuse causes a break in the pattern so that the expectation of things going wrong replaces the expectation that things will go right. (And studies show this does happen. The most recent one says that events such as trauma, loss of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, or a serious betrayal makes people less happy on a long term basis.) The result is individuals who may be afraid to take risks or do things their peers don’t hesitate to do—because those who were abused KNOW that things could go wrong.

So what does this have to do with wild children? Well, Dr. Vitelli cites research that seems to indicate there are critical periods that if missed mean a child cannot become socialized. I found myself wondering if perhaps something similar occurs when a child is subjected to abuse. There may be a similar effect to a lesser degree. But I also found myself wondering if it’s a critical period for acquiring the skill or a critical period for having sufficient motivation to be willing to learn the social skills.

This is a key distinction because if it is motivation then it might be possible to look at the situation differently and present motivation that would be different from what would work with a non-wild (or non-abused) child. It would mean looking for motivation that would be compelling in a way that would matter or make sense to the wild (or abused) child.

It’s also relevant for those who were abused as children because often social skills are a casualty of the abuse—both because of the abuse itself and because the family in which it occurs is likely to be lacking in coping and/or social skills (otherwise the adult would probably not need to abuse the child and the child would not be isolated and could find someone to tell who would stop the abuse). So many abused children don’t learn necessary skills as they are growing up AND lack the hardwiring optimism that would encourage them to try to learn those skills anyway.

I’ll freely admit that while I now tag myself as April_optimist, for much of my life that would not have been accurate. I thought people were cruel, Iexpected things to go wrong and had a hard time believing they wouldn’t, life was something simply to be endured.

I was just too blasted stubborn to give up.

So what does this all mean? Because you know I’m not going to present what seems like pessimistic information without having a solution! It means that we may need to consciously choose to be optimistic—even when it doesn’t feel natural or we have to work at feeling that way. It means perhaps choosing it as a strategy because studies show that it’s a useful approach to life and increases the odds of success and decreases the odds of depression.

It means choosing to never give up—no matter what the “experts” may say about the odds for a given person. It means we may need to consciously choose to acquire skills we didn’t get as children. And that means being willing to choose to go outside our comfort zones over and over again until we do acquire the social skills we didn’t learn as children.

That’s not easy. (I’ll spare you the descriptions of years of awful stumbles on my part as I learned.) But it can be done. IF we acknowledge that we need to learn these skills and don’t blame ourselves for not having the skills (or inclination) to begin with we can accomplish what seem like miracles.

It absolutely means being willing to stumble and make mistakes. It means finding ways to reward ourselves for trying. (There’s that issue of motivation again!) It means giving ourselves credit for what we do learn to do. It means loving ourselves as we are AND asking more for ourselves than we already have. It means having faith that we can learn the things we didn’t learn before. It means having faith that change is possible and having a clear sense of why we want to make those changes. It means allowing ourselves to feel the pain of what we don’t have so that the work it takes to get to where we want to be will feel worth doing.

Note: I am adamantly opposed to any method that involves purposely causing ourselves pain! I truly believe that is one of the most counterproductive things we can do. I strongly believe that the more we can build rewards and fun into any process of change, the more likely we are to follow through. (Just as I believe the optimal method for grounding ourselves in the present is to find things we are happy about that remind us this is NOW.)

The good news is that with each success—however small—IF we acknowledge that success, we gain motivation to keep going. We get proof that change is possible. We discover that things can be better than they were before. We begin to get addicted to being happy and having fun. We reprogram ourselves so that we regain much of the optimism that is hardwired into humans in the beginning and which got undone by the abuse—or even more recent painful setbacks such as a betrayal or loss of a loved one, etc.

As I said, I’m an example of someone who lacked so many skills and learned them. I’m an example of someone who went from being terrified of life to being optimistic. I’m an example someone who made lots of mistakes along the way. But I got here. I’m proof that it’s possible. And I share all this in hopes that my example will give hope to others that their lives can change for the better too.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Overcoming Fear

Marj at Survivors Can Thrive is hosting a Carnival Against Abuse for October and the topic this month is fear. That’s something everyone is familiar with. It’s what drives all conflict and keeps people from doing the things they want to do. Healthy fear protects us. It keeps us from being reckless. Unhealthy fear stifles us and becomes a prison as real and damaging as any metal bars and concrete buildings could be.

So the question becomes how to deal with fear that works against us. Many of our fears grow out of secret, deeply buried fears and sometimes the best way to go is to face those fears—but not alone. If we do this, we need someone we trust to help us through it. But there is an immense reward for taking that risk and facing those fears. What we run from gains power over us, what we are willing to stand and face often dissipates in the light of day and even when it doesn’t, we’re far better able to cope with it if we face it than if we try to run away.

But that’s the biggie. What about every day fears? On a more mundane level, how do we overcome, get past, get rid of, or otherwise keep fear from disabling us and preventing us from creating the lives we want to have?

You just knew I was going to mention lists, didn’t you? I am because I believe that lists can be concrete talismans that help us cope with fear and self-doubt. are some useful lists to make and other things to do to overcome fear:

1) Everything you’ve been able to accomplish in your life.

2) All your strengths and capabilities.

3) People you can turn to for support, knowledge, training, protection, etc.

4) 20 things you can do in 2 minutes or less (each). (On a day when you’re feeling scared or overwhelmed, do 3 things from the list right in a row, as fast as you can. You’ll be amazed how much better, stronger, and capable you feel.)

5) Go through your closets, jewelry boxes, etc. Put where you can easily find them those things you have worn when you felt strong, overcame a challenge, etc. (These are positive triggers that can enhance your courage when you need it most simply by wearing them.)

6) If you’re scared, see if you can separate the part of the fear that belongs to the reality of the situation NOW and what belongs to the past. If you can figure out how the situation resonates with the past and recognize that part of the fear, imagine boxing it up and putting it on a shelf in the closet (or in some way separating it from the fear that belongs to NOW).

7) Do what you’re scared of anyway. Often we build up the fear in our own minds but when we do what we’ve been fearing, we realize it wasn’t so hard or scary after all. We discover a new strength, skill, larger comfort zone, etc.

8) For any challenge you are going to undertake, set up a reward for after you’ve done it.

9) Celebrate the courage it takes to do something—even if that thing would be easy for someone else.

10) Visualize yourself successfully accomplishing whatever it is that scares you that you want or need to do.

11) Practice deep, quiet breathing. This is even more powerful if you can hold a peaceful, safe image in your mind as you do it.

12) Collect empowering music. This can be music that evokes a feeling of being strong and capable or it can be music that is so soothing it replaces fear with a feeling of safety and calm.

13) Find an affirmation that works for you. It could be something as simple as: NOW I am safe. It could be something as complex as: I can figure this out and if I can’t there are people who can help me do so. They key is to find something that gives you a feeling of strength and courage.

Gee, can you tell this is something I’ve thought a lot about? Hey, I’m a slow learner! I spent much of my life being terrified of pretty much everything. Didn’t stop me from doing a bunch of stuff but still, it wasn’t a pleasant feeling.

I don't think fear is uncommon for survivors of abuse. After all, if you're in a situation for years, especially growing up, where at any moment, someone might lash out at you or hurt you, it's hard not to be afraid. The good news is that we can undo that conditioning. These days I’m pretty happy and rarely find myself afraid. Thanks to the ideas listed above.

Wishing for all of you that you find what works for you and that you are able to overcome your deepest fears and create the lives you want to have.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs)))))))),


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Feeling Less Worthy...

This week I noticed a feeling I hadn’t realized was still hanging around: that I was less worthy than...everyone else.

I had to stop and track it back to where it began: everyone in the family getting more to eat than me (and being told that’s how it should be), having to wear hand-me-down boy’s things when my brothers (even my younger brother) got things new, hearing for years that if there wasn’t enough money, only my brothers would get to go to college (with the implicit threat that if I didn’t do what I was told, there wouldn’t be), being told to wait on my brothers, being told over and over that their feelings mattered but not that mine ever did, etc.

I suspect, in one form or another, many of you reading this have gone through something similar. In one way or another you were told you didn’t matter as much as others did.

I found myself thinking of it this week talking with my friend whose brother attacked her. She is one of the warmest, nicest, most intelligent women I know and yet she, too, carries that implicit feeling that she’s worth less than other people because that’s what her family drilled into her implicitly and explicitly all her life.

It’s an insidious feeling because it’s often under the surface and we don’t even notice that it’s governing our actions (and reactions). When someone criticizes us—for any reason!—we may hear it as confirmation of what we were told growing up. We may be afraid to stand up for ourselves in relationships because we can’t believe the other person really wants to be with us. We may be afraid to parent with authority because we may think we aren’t good enough to do so. We may be reluctant to trust friendships or even if we do to turn to friends when we could use help or support because on some level we’re afraid that this is going to turn out to be the time they tell us they’re too busy or they get fed up and end the friendship completely.

So many lies grow out of that first one—that we are not as worthy as others. So many consequences. To have the lives we want to have we MUST challenge this belief!

1) We can imagine telling the child we were that those were lies—that he or she mattered and continues to matter as much as anyone else.
2) We can make a list of all the things we like about ourselves.
3) We can make a list of evidence we have that other people do see us as worthy and/or like us and/or value what we say or do.
4) We can practice tolerance toward others who do things we don’t like. Note: I am NOT saying tolerate abuse! It’s good to be able to know when something is abusive and take steps to stop the person or at the very least remove ourselves and those we care about from that person’s vicinity. But I’m talking here about everyday mistakes. I’m talking about people truly meaning well but getting caught up in their own fears or hurt and doing something that in turn hurts us. I’m talking about little day to day forgetfulness or being late or...whatever. Again, we can—and should!—decide to step away when these things become a problem for us. At the same time, IF we can accept others even when they make mistakes, then we will find it easier to accept ourselves when WE make mistakes. We can say that it’s not healthy for us to be around someone AND understand that they are doing the best they can.

To reach a point where we realize we are as worthy of success and happiness as anyone else is one of the most empowering things we can do. And it's a process--it doesn't happen all at once. But it's important that we work on feeling worthy because if we don’t feel that way, we will hold ourselves back, not take chances because our fear of rejection is so strong, and never let ourselves truly enjoy any success or happiness we do achieve. But if we can recognize that we are deserving of love and happiness and success, then we increase to an amazing degree our ability to achieve those things.

All of you out there are worthy of being loved, being happy, having success. All of you are wonderful, amazing people and I’m blessed that you come here to read my blog.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),

PS Once again Mother Wintermoon and I seem to be synchronized. Here's her post on self-esteem .

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Smiley Face Over the Gas Gauge

I came across this a couple of days ago. Someone posted it on a loop I’m on. It’s from Esther Hicks and Abraham about how pretending to be happy when you’re not is like pasting a smiley face over the gas gauge. You don’t want to do that. You WANT to know if the gas tank is empty. In the same way, we want to know if we’re not happy because that’s how we know we need to DO SOMETHING.

I believe in focusing on what’s good in our lives. I also believe that discontent can be a gift IF we use it to make changes so that our lives become better.

I suppose it’s about balance. It’s about believing our lives can be good and celebrating the blessings in our lives AND recognizing when something needs to change.

It isn’t always easy to make changes. It isn’t always easy to accept that what we hoped for isn’t working out. It isn’t easy to take that leap of faith and let go of what we have not knowing what will replace it.

I’m not suggesting to run every time something goes wrong or to lightly throw away what may just need some renegotiating. What I’m saying is that if we go still and listen, then deep within us we know when it’s time to make a change. Deep within us, we can find answers IF we are doing so from a place of believing that we can and that one way or another, we’ll find a way to make our lives better.

Jumping in Puddles has posted on her blog about getting rid of deadwood and what struck me about her post is her strength and determination to be okay—no matter what.

It seems to me that the only way we get sufficient motivation to do the things that scare the heck out of us is by realizing how unhappy we’ll be if we don’t. The last thing in the world that we need in those moments is a smiley face over the gas gauge!

What’s often difficult is to be at that point where we feel discontent but we haven’t got a clue what we’re supposed to do about it. It can seem easier to cling to the smiley face or to the belief that life always feels this way than to sit with the discomfort and ask what it is we can do to make things better. Because if we don’t see a clear answer, we may believe we’re going to be stuck feeling this way forever and who wants that?

But I believe that if we can sit with the discontent and allow ourselves to acknowledge it AND at the same time trust that there is a way to make things better and that sooner or later we will figure it out then we are far more likely to find solutions.

I believe that each of us has within us the knowledge and the strength to make our lives better and better. I believe life is a process and that our best possible path is to keep growing and changing—and celebrate doing so.

There have been times when I pasted a smiley face over my gas gauge which was reading empty. Maybe that’s all I could do then but...I don’t ever want to take that way out again. Not now that I know how capable I am and that no matter what happens I will be able to come up with solutions to the challenges in my life. I bless the day I ripped the smiley face away.

So, if you’re pasting smiley faces over a gas gauge or two, you may want to ask yourself why and whether there is a way you could be happier and if so what steps you might take to get there.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle ((((((hugs))))))),

Saturday, October 13, 2007


I had an epiphany this week about clothes.

I always knew they were important. I knew we choose clothes to hide or reveal or to create illusions. I knew that often we aren’t even consciously aware of what we’re doing but that if we can become aware, clothes become a powerful tool to help ourselves heal, to protect ourselves, and to create an impact we want to create.

I would have said I understood all about clothes. This week I realized something I hadn’t realized before.

First, a little background. I'd been thinking that I might not need to buy any clothes this winter and that would be a blessing financially. And I was feeling just a little bit rebellious about that idea. Then I looked in my closet this morning and realized that some of the tops I felt so happy about when I bought them I now feel a bit blah about.

And then it hit me: Clothes are about (at least for me) possibilities. New clothes are about new possibilities.

After a while, clothes pick up associations for us. Those associations begin to outweigh the sense of new possibilities. That's why when life feels overwhelming or not good women often go shopping for new clothes. (And if we settle for what we don't really like in clothes then we're saying we'll settle for what we don't really like in life, too, right? If we make something ourselves and we hate how it looks, it feels like we'll hate what we make of our lives as well. If we like what we make, we have more of a sense that we can make what we want of our lives.)

I have a sense that a "cleansing" ritual for clothes I have might be a good thing.

I realize now why it's so important to get rid of clothes I don't like.

I realize why I'm holding onto clothes I've never or rarely worn that I love even though I almost never have a chance to wear them.

I always say that it’s the assumptions/associations we don’t realize we have that trip us up. Now that I’m aware of this connection for myself, I can consciously use it in a way that empowers me. Doesn’t mean I have to go out and buy new clothes. It does mean looking at them in a new way. It means remembering the sense of possibility I had when I acquired them. It means being really careful not to buy something just because it’s on sale but because I love how I feel when I put it on, I love how it looks on me.

Anyway, it may not be relevant to you but I toss my revelation out there just in case it brings some epiphany to you about how you feel about your wardrobe and what clothes mean to YOU.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Follow Up on Abuse

My friend is going to court today, facing her abuser. Her family will be standing with him. So I ask for your prayers that all goes well for her and that some kind of justice is served. Fortunately she has loving support to help her through this.

I understand the dynamics of people who stay in abusive situations. I understand the inability to believe things could be any different or any better. I understand the fear of being alone. And I weep for every person trapped by such fears.

Maybe that’s why I write this blog and give the workshops I do. Because I fiercely want others to know that things can be better. I fiercely want people to know that no matter how scared they are, there are ways to create the lives we want to have.

It doesn’t happen instantly and I’m not saying it’s easy. But it begins with that kernel of hope, that ability to begin to believe that things could be different, they could be better for the individual feeling trapped.

Saw a book the other day. Called The Hell I Can’t by Terry McBride. Now I haven’t read it so I don’t know if it’s any good or not. But I love the title. In a way, that’s been my life. People said I couldn’t do this or that and my instinctive reaction was: The hell I can’t! And I went on to do whatever it was they said I couldn’t do.

When I got counseling, I know the guy I worked with was afraid it couldn’t be done—that what had happened to me was so horrific there was no way to fully recover. Not that I asked. I didn’t want to hear the answer. Because I knew that no matter what he thought, I was darned well going to keep going until I got my life to where I wanted it to be. I knew it was possible to heal and I was going to do it no matter what any expert, no matter how much I trusted the person, said. And fortunately he trusted me enough not to try to impose his beliefs on me.

I don’t know where you are in your healing journey. I don’t know what words I could say that might be of the most help. I only know that I have to try. I have to keep presenting an image of what might be possible so that those who are still trapped in pain or fear might be able to grasp onto hope and find their way out of it.

So please keep my friend in your thoughts and prayers and I will keep all of you in mine.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs))))))),

Friday, October 05, 2007


I’ve always known it’s hard for survivors of abuse to see doctors. Some of the exams may throw a survivor into flashbacks of abuse. Just being there is a loss of control and that can feel scary to many survivors. But I had another insight this week....

I had to see the doctor. Nothing wrong, just a regular check up. So why couldn’t I sleep the night before? Why this sense of panic even though I like this doctor? Even after the visit, I couldn’t figure it out though I was of course calmer.

Then it hit me. A flash of memory of picking up on my mother’s fears about what the doctor might find, might notice, might realize when he examined me. The sense of terrible consequences if he did notice something wrong. The pressure to act as if everything was wonderful.

Mind you, things are pretty good now and I am healthy. There isn’t anything to hide. Which is what made the emotions so odd. And what finally made me realize I was having an emotional flashback. Not a memory of the experience but rather feeling the emotions all over again.

I suspect this isn’t uncommon. If we were abused as kids, there would have been adults who were worried about what the doctor might notice or suspect. There would have been pressure to say that everything was wonderful. There might have been threats about what would happen if we didn’t. And we may have emotional flashbacks to those feelings when we have to see a doctor.

I’m not sure why I didn’t make the connection before. Maybe because I don’t go to the doctor all that often. Or maybe because other reasons for the anxiety in the past were more obvious. At any rate, once I recognized the cause, any residual emotional flashback disappeared and I suspect doctor’s visits in the future will be much easier. So I share this with all of you in case any of you might have similar emotional flashbacks when you have to see a doctor.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle (((((((hugs)))))),

PS Motherwintermoon, In her blog posted also about the issue of dealing with health care professionals.

Enola wrote about it, too.

Please check out both blogs.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


A friend of mine was beaten up recently by her brother. And of course her mother and sisters are trying to say it was her fault and it wasn’t so bad. Never mind that he tried to choke her. Never mind that he gave her a black eye and broken ribs. Her family is angry that she caused trouble for her brother.

And it makes me angry. I’m not there. I can’t do anything to help except support her from a distance.

She’s standing her ground. She’s taking the steps she needs to take—both to try to protect her mother and to keep herself safe. Fortunately she has a husband and children who love her and friends who do as well. We know she’s an intelligent, courageous, wonderful woman even if her birth family will never say so.

It reminded me yet again of several things:

1) Dysfunctional abusive families blame the one who speaks the truth and try to silence that person.

2) Abusers try to denigrate whatever strengths the person has. If the person is intelligent they try to make the person believe he or she is stupid. If the person has a gift for music they try to claim the person doesn’t or that the talent is a bad thing.

3) Abusers will lie through their teeth and have no shame about doing so.

4) Victims of abuse can be so caught up in the cycle they will side with the abuser rather than the person who is trying to protect them.

My friend is going to be okay. She’s got a lot of people who are reassuring her that she is a brave and wonderful person, that she did nothing wrong, and that we are here for her if she needs us.

But I worry about the abuse victims who don’t have that support network, who believe the lies they are told. This is why each of us must speak the truth—so that we drown out the lies of abusers. This is why we must support each other—so that we all have the strength to heal and to stand up to bullies when we can.

The good thing about all of this is the reminder that many of us are breaking the cycle with our children. We ARE protecting them. We are standing up to bullies on their behalf. We are teaching them to believe in themselves and know they are loved.

Some of the strongest, kindest, gentlest, wisest people I know are survivors of abuse. My friend is one of them. And so are many of you.

Sending blessings and safe and gentle ((((((hugs)))))),