Lessons on Boundaries

Growing up with parents who both lost their parents while they were still young had a few advantages and many disadvantages. Both parents admitted parental roles didn’t come naturally to them, though they wanted children. It’s no wonder they struggled; they hadn’t witnessed much parenting and what they did see varied wildly. On the other hand, their challenged youth brought wonderful additions to the household: aunties and uncles and cousins, some by blood and others by choice, many of whom had provided mom or dad respite, in addition to folks my father randomly encountered. He seemed to collect stray people, so the notion of boundaries didn’t dare step foot on the property my dad considered his own.

The father I knew really never knew his father. His dad abandoned him and his mom when dad was an infant and died when dad was three. My grandmother struggled to survive as a live-in housekeeper and cook, so dad bounced between friends’ and relatives’ homes as a child. He seemed to have spent a lot of time with older adults or by himself. A gifted storyteller, he truly relaxed in taverns and small local bars, considered anyone who drank with him a friend, and brought home fellow-drinkers from all walks of life, cultures, races, and educational levels. The door also remained open to all his family and family-ish folks, with never a need to call first.

My mother, on the other hand, lived in poverty, knew her violent dad, and lost both parents by age 9. From that age until she finished high school, she lived in orphanages with strict rules. She slept in congregate quarters with lots of other children. She craved privacy and found strict rules comforting. Had she been given the power, I suspect she would have constructed a moat to keep the house inaccessible and hired assassins to sit on the roof to make sure nobody but immediate family (and perhaps a few selected others) stepped on the grounds, let alone inside the house.

The lessons I learned about boundaries as a child, laced with the popular value Children are to be seen and not heard, included two contradictory rules. Rule #1: good people let everybody in all the time for any reason and live as if mi casa es su casa (my house is your house), holding no expectation of reciprocation. Rule #2: good people refuse to let anyone into their homes or lives unless they have been properly vetted and sworn to follow house rules (no using the bathroom, no snooping, no borrowing, and with one or two designated exceptions, no spontaneous visits).

Because mom ruled the house weekdays, not even school friends who lived nearby could stop by to play. Instead we would meet in the alley and entertain ourselves behind cover. Because dad ruled the house weekends, impromptu parties erupted with clusters of guests as varied as fund-raising priests from Northern Ireland, motorcycle club members, and professional wrestlers on tour (dad loved to share Haystack Calhoun and Pepper Gomez allegedly stepped foot in his house)(I slept through the visit so cannot corroborate).

No wonder I had such difficulty creating and holding boundaries in my life, flopping between social butterfly and wannabe-hermit. Taking in abandoned animals/strangers and then adopting creatures back out when neighbors or landlords complained. Feeling guilty for sandwiching 5-minute beach visits in the midst of back-to-back meetings on long work days as if time to breathe seemed frivolous.

Lessons arrive in many guises. Two memorable teachable moments pop into my mind.

The scene: shopping alone after work in a K-Mart store in rural Arizona, a single mom picking up items for somebody’s school project. Focused on a quick in-and-out, I didn’t give attention to anything but the task at hand. My cart pulled to the side, I surveyed a display of merchandise. In the middle of the aisle, a red-faced scruffy man in a not-so-white t-shirt and jeans that barely stayed up, bumped his cart head-on into mine, blocking my passage up the aisle with his cart and belligerence. He looked at me with disgust. Startled, I waited. About three feet behind him I saw a woman. She stopped, avoided eye contact, and didn’t speak. The man observed, quite loudly, “They shouldn’t allow fat women like you in this store. You take up too much room in the aisles!” I cannot remember the remainder of his rant, but he continued for a short while. I had not blocked the aisle in any way, hadn’t noticed him, never met him before. Eventually he shook his head, moved his cart, and stormed away.

As he left, I wished I had thought of something to say to him. My dad would have bought him a drink. My mom would have fled, quickly, leaving the cart behind, complaining to the manager on her way out the door. I finished my shopping. On my way home I thought about it, feeling hurt and then feeling angry. What made him think I wanted his opinion?! A quote from a Wayne Dyer book I’d read returned to me: What other people think of me is none of my business. I repeated, Your opinion of me is none of my business. It helped me calm myself and I realized the stranger’s behavior violated a few of my values related to judging people and to manners. I began to think about boundaries.

As a single parent working full-time, attending college classes at night, I kept a roof over our heads. We had vacations every year and did a lot of weekend family activities. Neither perfect nor wealthy, I handled things well enough. I used your opinion of me is none of my business often until random folks quit offering their opinions to me. I introduced the word “No” into my vocabulary to reduce my stress. My lesson: know my values and boundaries ahead of time.

The second lesson in boundaries arrived when a friend’s breast cancer returned. She wanted to talk about death and dying. Her spouse, she said, refused to listen, and even after her doctor offered a grim prognosis and suggested she get her affairs in order, the doctor also encouraged her to stay positive through treatment. She remembered one night, before her first diagnosis, when our families got together to play board games and eat. I had quoted something I read about death and dying by Dr Bernie S Siegel. I regretted my enthusiasm about the book and I really did not want to talk with this woman who was near my age about dying. But she needed to talk, and my friend-boundary said Listen.

You would think that hanging out with someone who felt death hovered nearby might feel sad. Instead, it freed us both in many ways. She said it gave her blessed relief. For me, once death was on the table, no topic was off the table. The change in her amazed me. Some days she’d call me, too tired and sick to move, and I’d go visit and read to her from Love, Medicine and Miracles (her choice, not mine). When her spouse found out, he told me to never return. Still, she called and informed me I would not abandon her. How could I? Normally restrained, she disappeared at a street fair we attended together. I found her dancing under a tree as a mariachi group played nearby. She shouted in my direction, “I LOVE mariachi music!” I laughed. I didn’t know that! At another event I lost track of her when she followed a small Mardi Gras parade, gathering strings of beads and hooting at the musicians. The last weekend she phoned and told me she needed time outdoors and asked me to pick her up right away. A storm dumped buckets of rain as far as we could see, but she hopped in the car and we headed for a memorial to a fallen war chief. She talked about her parents (her white mom as the formidable one, her Apache dad as the kind and quiet one). We commanded the rain to stop (it did) so we could search for the warrior’s hidden grave (didn’t find it, of course, but a rainbow convinced us we might be close). She shared obnoxious observations like “You take on too much and expect too little from other people in your life.” I did not even consider telling her that her opinion was none of my business.

At her funeral I had zero regrets. I’m crying right now, but I still celebrate that time together and our talks about life, magic, prayer, God, the human spirit, and death. I remain so thankful I didn’t let fear create a boundary.

That’s the thing about boundaries. They need to reflect our values and matter to us.

You have a right to set and hold boundaries around general expectations as well as some responsibility to be clear about them with others. By general expectations I mean things like requesting a significant other contact you if they’re running late, regarding raised voices (I grew up amid passionate arguments so I don’t mind raised voices, but some people find them very aggressive), sarcasm, personal insults, assisting with household or common-area work tasks (yes, please!), tipping (please don’t be cheap), violence (no, including threats), and any topic that matters to you.

Speaking of things that matter, a friend of mine has a 300-question guide he uses to size up potential relationships. While I laughed about it, I also applauded him for taking time to figure out if others’ values mesh with his. We all need to acknowledge our values, know what’s not flexible, and recognize changes as time passes. Lifelong learning is important to me. I love travel and learning other languages. My views of the “isms” (like Racism, Sexism, Ageism, Size-ism) aren’t very negotiable. Knowing what’s important to you should matter to others in your life. Politics. Money. Credit cards? Family. Social media time. Education? Reading. Religion and spirituality. Ambition? Fortune-tellers. Sports. Holidays?

My dad referred to New Year’s Eve as “amateur night for budding alcoholics,” so he always turned in early that evening. For me, it’s a time to reflect on one year and welcome the new with hope and joy.

Value and the associated boundaries may change over time. I worried about spoiling my children. My grandkids? So few worries. Growing up, my dad shut down certain discussions, including professional sports, during family gatherings because they resulted in insults and angry exchanges. In my world, Super Bowl Sunday exists for eating, laughing, and talking smack about opposing teams. Never witnessed food policing or a temper flare, even for a minute.

Some time ago I watched a video with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. He refrains from violence, of course, but he told a story. A pesky mosquito comes to visit us.  We wave it away. And wave it away. And wave it away. And without thinking, whack. An act of violence against the mosquito. He chuckled and made a comment about all of us doing our best and moving forward. Amen to that.

For tips on maintaining boundaries, check out this article.[i]

Will be back next week.  Until then, may you be healthy, happy, safe, and strong.

Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions, my experiences, nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[ii]  If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[iii] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.

Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020

[i] https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-people-cross-your-boundaries/

[ii] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[iii] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

Employing Intuition

The holidays are fast approaching and, in case you haven’t noticed, in their wake as the new year dawns, we will be assaulted by piles of guilt-inducing debris so vast and insidiously negative that we will most likely find ourselves mired in the rubbish. In this case, the rubbish, crafted by what many refer to as Diet Culture, will bring with it a generally-unproven but heartily accept belief that fatness is the worst that can happen to a human being while dieting is the cure. Further, Diet Culture implies that fat bodies are the result of laziness and other horrible personal attributes or lack of character that result in a host of disastrous circumstances, from personal ill health to societal economic hardship.

In contrast, throughout December we’ll be nudged toward temptingly sweet confections of every possible type, pushed into the arms of a loving and generous rotund chief elf (Santa Claus), and encouraged to partake in a significant amount of food- and alcohol-inspired jolliness. As January dawns, however, brace yourself! We’ll find ourselves clobbered with ads insisting our health and habits need significant retooling via some type of membership: gym, dance or other fitness center, diet centers (by whatever name they call themselves), food restricting programs, fasting, and ads running nearly nonstop hawking low-calorie options that hostesses in December would have considered an affront to their guests’ palates.

All this, based on solid science, right?

Uh, maybe not so much.

What’s a very fat, older woman to do? My plan: Practice self-care, educate myself, use joyful movement and gentle nutrition, and consciously avoid the media glut.

This year I’ve enjoyed re-reading some of the books I consider classics in this field: Intuitive Eating (I have the 3rd edition and the workbook; the 4th edition was released during 2020) and Health at Every Size. Other personal favorites include Body of Truth and The Diet Myth. I could list another half-dozen titles that I love because I began to take this self-care and self-education commitment seriously after decades of “successful” diets left me fatter. And fatter. And beating myself up. So much wasted time.

The book I’m focusing on today is one that hit the book sellers in December 2019. Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, written by Christy Harrison, MPH, RD.

The first part of the book focuses on Diet Culture itself, the $72 Billion a year selling machine that has a lot to gain by making people feel insecure enough to re-engage repeatedly with various hopefully-miraculous food restriction and/or workout regimens. This section also addresses fallacies about the effectiveness of weight-loss surgery and over-exercise as well as how restrictive eating impacts our glorious bodies as they work to keep us alive, even through self-inflicted famines (“diets”).

The second part of this well-written and intelligent book looks at a researched alternative: intuitive eating. (Please be cautious. Intuitive Eating is often twisted for resale into what is really a diet plan. Intuitive Eating is a multi-step process involving listening to our body and responding to our needs.)

Anti-Diet is a fresh 180-degree turn away from the diet-drivel that bombards us each year. Skip the published works hawking “new” (but oh-so-familiar) diets, food plans, lifestyle changes, and other terms that still mean restricting food in order to lose weight. Send that little rebel inside you to explore an alternative view and exercise your choice to look beyond the shameful and commonly accepted myths. I confess. I love those folks who dare to thoughtfully question the status quo (consider the work of a carpenter from Nazareth) and seek the truth (read about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment[i]), the ones who color outside the lines and inspire us to think differently (RIP RBG), if only for a moment.

Throughout Anti-Diet, rather than demonizing fat, the author addresses people in larger bodies and higher-weight people. As she points out, for most of human history we have been more concerned about getting enough to eat, but throughout history indications pop up that people in larger bodies received negative attention in some cultures while receiving acceptance in others.

In the US during the colonial period, those arriving in the Americas from Europe believed their way of eating superior to that of both the indigenous folks and the enslaved people brought from Africa. In a sense, diet culture seems born in ignorance to me. By the 1800s, when Europe moved away from enslaving people, Americans seemed to seek a rationale for retaining the economic advantage provided by the enslavement of human beings. Folks tapped into Darwin’s work, among others, to decide via their own mental manipulations that Anglo-Saxon northern European men were the most highly evolved of the human species, followed by northern European women, Southern Europeans (men first, of course), and other cultures progressively lower on the scale until they reached those they called savages: indigenous people and Africans. Fair-skinned, tall, naturally slender people were awarded what we might call today privilege, worth, or moral value. Their slender physiques became associated with goodness, strength, and intelligence. (See Chapter 1 for much more info and less of my interpretation.)

Of course, different body shapes have enjoyed moments of popularity, from full-figured Mae West to lean teenager Twiggy. In the general population, ideas about weight changed as well. Anti-Diet notes In the 1950s about 7% of men and 14% of women reported they were trying to lose weight. By the 1990s, 29% of men and 44% of women reported the same. Though the percentage of adults who dieted tripled, during that time the average weight changed little. Still, outrage grew in the 1980s and 1990s, centered on a set of numbers a task force that was funded by pharmaceutical companies came up with. As the author notes, “The “obesity epidemic” is really a moral panic that has a lot more to do with diet culture’s skewed beliefs about weight than with any actual threat to public health.” (Anti-Diet, page 47)  Fatphobia and weight stigma, it seems, may contribute more to poor health outcomes than high weight. (Chapter 5 has an excellent explanation of this.)

What have scientists learned in the century of studies? **Large scale studies show intentional weight loss rarely succeeds long-term. For example, a 2015 study (278,000 people) showed 95% to 98% of participants regained all their lost weight within 5 years. (Page 89) **A review of data from weight loss studies in 2007 showed one-third to two-thirds of those who lost weight gained back more weight than they lost. (Page 91) **What about allegedly-weak-willed dieters who end up in food binges? “And when you’re restricted or deprived of food, your body turns up the food-seeking signals because it wants you to survive.” (Page 95) That means binges following diets (remember, our bodies recognize these as famine) don’t mean we’re weak-willed. They mean our bodies are working hard to protect us.

What do we do about this Diet Culture that’s more about making money than helping people? The second part of the book dives into moving beyond diet culture and toward developing a different mindset about food (sorry, no more good vs. evil foods), intuitive eating, seeking health and body liberation, social justice, and relying on the power of a supportive community. In short, it’s all about what does work, with a focus on living fully and practicing excellent self-care…at any and every size.

The book wraps up with pages of citations supporting the material, a multi-page list of amazing resources, and, most importantly, a call toward reclaiming our lives, dismantling diet culture, and working toward social justice. Rather than include a sales pitch, author and registered dietician Christy Harrison[ii] challenges us to question the status quo and consider the cost of continuing to live in a culture that insists thin=good and fat=bad when the evidence does not support that judgment.

In my life, I’m still focused on the last of the IE principles (Movement-Feel the Difference and Honor Your Health – Gentle Nutrition)[iii] It’s tricky. Movement: Since my local happy place (the Y swimming pools) closed because of the pandemic, I have struggled to find a consistent joyful movement practice. I do some crank-up-the-tunes silly-dancing, some playing with my grandkids, enjoy a weekly online easy yoga class, and a periodic online karate warm-up I found (searching for a kata for the grandsons, I clicked on the wrong-right thing and there was a sensei in Texas via YouTube – can’t explain why I like it, but I do). However, nothing feels as blissful to me as time in the water.  Nutrition: Lucky for me, I love fruits and vegetables, don’t particularly care for meat, and have a diagnosed digestive challenge that makes some foods (mostly ones I’ve grown to despise) poor choices for me. Don’t have any answers for anyone, though, and have grown to feel nauseous upon exposure to “food plans” of any sort, so I’m committed to adding more of the plants I love, listening to my body, and will see where it goes from here.

The book is a grand reminder that we all have a responsibility to challenge potentially dangerous beliefs – our own and those of others – and the best way to do that is often to start with some research and focus on ourselves.

Next week, back to a more general focus on self-care, though look for book reviews about once a month in the future.

Until then, may you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.

Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions, my experiences, nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[iv]  If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[v] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.

Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020

[i] During WWII healthy men volunteered to reduce their normal daily calorie count from around 3,200 per day to approximately 1,550 per day. See the Wikipedia summary for more info:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Starvation_Experiment.

[ii] For more about and from Christy, visit https://christyharrison.com/

[iii] https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/

[iv] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[v] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

Feeling Deeply

Growing up includes some challenges for everyone, I expect. For me, life often felt huge and confusing, living in a farming community amid a fairly large and loud Portuguese and Hispanic family with generations-deep blood ties to the Azores and a sort of grandiose pride in clinging to European roots while also grasping for The American Way. The closest family members belligerently professed  connections to conservative politics in public in order to “blend in,” while behind closed doors they retained a rebellious devotion to more progressive candidates and ideas. (Under questioning, they encouraged 8-year-old-me to never vote by political party affiliation but by candidates’ character.) Both my parents lost their fathers while they were still young and lived unstable lives. They came from a generation that survived the Great Depression and a World War. They didn’t talk about feelings.

Drama flourished within the community of my youth, though. Booze launched family gatherings, with cousins spilling out back doors and aunties organizing food while uncles bickered. Then arguments grew louder until somebody walked off, red-faced, or took a swing at someone else. Kids and women would scatter until things calmed down. Over food, jokes that I rarely understood drew guffaws and eased tensions until a few folks dusted off their favorite funny stories to share and share again. And then, whew. Sometimes we headed home. Other times, the wine from dinner urged someone to play fado, sad music featuring, most often, a heart-broken woman singing in Portuguese, or non-English versions of songs like Ave Maria. My mom, who spoke only English, and any nearby children, all of us forbidden to speak Portuguese or Spanish, would brace ourselves when those tunes started. We waited, amazed, until the big bossy manly men wept, blew their noses on cloth handkerchiefs, and ran out of energy. The evening wrapped up with folks patting shoulders and heading quietly home. That’s the closest we ever came to disclosure of feelings.

No surprise, I grew up with a limited ability to identify emotional states. I knew about four that I would have named as Fearful, Angry, Happy, and Sad. I read a lot and tried to figure out how to control emotional states and where they originated, but eventually I set the whole thing aside because of conflicting information. A few decades later I found a chart of emotions that helped me to understand some nuance so I could say, “That talk left me feeling content, hopeful, inspired” instead of “That was good.” Still, it felt as if feelings primarily mattered to me.   

Several books inspired me, starting with HeartMath (the book helped me consider the importance of the heart and offered techniques to feel calm), the books Blue Zones and Thrive (helped me view emotional and physical health through a cultural and holistic lens), and the book I want to talk about, Permission to Feel: The Power of Emotional Intelligence to Achieve Well-being and Success by Marc Brackett, Ph.D.

This book came to my attention during a podcast, and I picked it up because I want to improve my own skills and hoped to help my grandsons identify emotions beyond the common 4 I knew as a child. Along with engaging and well-written text, the book contains opportunities to pause and consider how we’re feeling or to practice a technique. There are 3 sections to the book. The first is more background information. The second section covers the method in more detail. The third is about applying the method. Because I’m looking for tools to help in the real-world I inhabit, the opportunity to engage with the material inspired me and initial trials have boosted my appreciation for the material.

Though the book warns against judging others’ feelings, I’ve used some observed encounters to build my own vocabulary. Because I completely acknowledge we’re often not as skilled as we think, I also take opportunities when it’s safe to do so to reality-check my observations with friends/family. I wondered how often my grandkids feel irritated, frustrated, and disappointed but hold in their feelings until they’re ready to burst.

Last spring, when schools were wrapping up for the year and before I’d read Permission to Feel, the grandchildren and I started a related discussion. We began learning about the brain, focusing primarily on the pre-frontal cortex (the Wise One), the hippocampus (the Library), and the amygdala (the Guard Dog) based on the Hawn Foundation MindUp Curriculum: Brain-Focused Strategies for Learning—and Living[i].  I hoped by teaching the grandsons brain-basics, they would better understand feelings, recognize anger and fear are designed to protect them, and develop ways to regulate emotions. We had fun discussing parts of the brain and how our Guard Dogs go berserk.

We only finished two lessons, though, before schools closed and our household schedules were upended by other changes. We haven’t yet gotten back in the groove and in online school the children checked in with their teachers on feelings with a simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or thumbs-sideways.

In contrast, Permission to Feel provides a 100-word feelings chart (for adults) in full color with 4 sectors divided from high-energy to low energy and low pleasantness to high pleasantness. For example, “enraged”=high energy/low pleasantness, “ecstatic”=high energy/high pleasantness, “serene”=low energy/high pleasantness, and “despairing”=low pleasantness/low energy. The method includes steps we can take to guide ourselves away from being a feelings-judge. These steps are abbreviated as RULER (Recognize feelings, Understand the causes and consequences, Label emotions correctly, Express emotion(s), Regulate emotions).

Two of the many very helpful ideas for me include suggestions about how to question children regarding feelings and a technique called “Meta-Moment.” Please note that this book overflows with useful information. This is a glimpse and, hopefully, encouragement for you to read this yourself.[ii]

Questioning children. Asking children simple questions after they’ve had an outburst or seem upset sounded like straightforward advice. The author provided some sample questions that I remember as WHY. What happened? How did you feel (when that happened)? Why do you think you felt that way?  In brief practical experience, I’ve discovered waiting too long to bring up the feelings may give the memory time to clear from a child’s memory. Ask too soon and it can restart a tantrum.

One day I just didn’t know what else to say when my youngest grandson seemed angry and revving up.  He raised his fist as if he planned to hit me. Normally I talk about hitting as an inappropriate response that can cause more problems than it solves, then suggest deep breathing. He always refuses the breathing suggestion. Instead, this time I said, “I feel soooo frustrated right now. I love you so much and want to figure out what’s happening. I feel disappointed in myself because what I usually do doesn’t help you and I feel sad because I don’t know what to do to help you feel calm.”

By movie-moment standards, his response registered as far from miraculous. He looked at me, lowered his fist, and emphatically responded, “I feel frustrated, too!” And I said, “Isn’t it awful to feel snarled up like this? I need to take a break.” He nodded and walked away to take a break of his own. Later I tried to open the discussion about feelings, but he seemed to have moved on to more interesting topics.

The following morning, though, he came to me and said, “When I was little, (so-and-so) pushed me and bit me and hit me and it hurt.” I told him I felt really mad that someone would do that to him, told him it was mean and not fair to him. “You deserve to feel safe and be treated with love.” He simply said, “Thank you” and walked away. No happily-ever-after, but a good start.

Though he seems to have some trauma-based anger to deal with, we’re working on small things. The next time I noticed his frustration escalating (while completing homework), instead of asking him to pay attention, I mentioned he seemed really stressed and asked how I could help. He wasn’t quite sure, but I made a few suggestions and he accepted one. Quickly, we returned to task.

There have been some failed attempts. When we’re tired or haven’t eaten, things can go off the rails fairly quickly. I’m learning to ask about his feelings sooner. To be frank, re-reading the book sounds helpful, too, since it’s packed with so much information that I barely offer a glimpse. 

Meta-Moment. This suggestion, with multiple emotion-regulation techniques, spoke to me. Normally I can react semi-intelligently, but things have been stressful lately. The pool (my “happy place”) I depended on for exercise is closed and I’ve failed rather spectacularly at substitute endeavors, my schedule has been chaotic, the political and social climates have been erratic and sometimes scary, and we’re currently socially distant from friends and family. I’m destined to practice this technique a lot.

In most basic terms, it’s about taking a brief time-out when life feels overwhelming to the point we’re ready to act out. Instead, the book suggests: Take a deep breath (or a few). Clock it (sense the shift). Stop it (pause). See your Best Self in the situation. Consider options and take the road that helps close the gap between your “triggered” self and your Best Self.

Again, this book has a lot to offer if you’re someone who wants to dig in and try some techniques to better recognize and regulate your emotions. Whether you’re curious or you really want to learn ways to integrate emotional openness into your life, consider inviting Permission to Feel into your world. 

Next week, book 3 of my recent (for me) top 3 “self-help” books.

Until then, may you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.

Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions, my experiences, nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[iii]  If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[iv] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.

Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020

[i] Visit www.mindup.org for more info and https://mindup.org/mindup-for-teachers/ for additional materials, including links to free training videos. The curriculum can be purchased on Amazon or at other book retailers.

[ii] If you’re on a budget, check with your local library or see if you can borrow from a friend! My current income is limited and my bookshelf is full, so I understand!

[iii] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[iv] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

Chasing Happiness

Before I dive in, I have a favor to ask. Please remember that my opinions, my experiences, and resources I mention are not meant as cures or treatment. If you’re in a moment of your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[i]  If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline.[ii] You deserve support and to know someone has your back.

When Autumn arrives, somehow it feels as if the world takes a pause and starts to look back, tentatively, and forward, expectantly, full of hope for the future and often with a touch of regret about the imperfection of the past three-quarters of a year that slipped through our fingers. By New Years Eve, a lot of us will have a list of things we want to accomplish in the next year, though most of us suspect,  based on statistics and our previous history, we won’t attack our “resolutions” as vigorously as we imagined we would.

Thanksgiving decorations have started appearing and it reminds me the holiday (in the U.S.) originated to encourage appreciation for one another and our history. Whether we imagine a history as simple and flawless as the stories taught in our early school years or hold to a more realistic and imperfect version that many have grown to accept,[iii] the present seems the perfect time to re-envision our personal future. Every adjustment we make now, will change what we feel when we look back next Fall or Winter. In a sense, each moment of the present gives us a chance to write a new history, a little at a time. To help along the way, I’m bringing into the conversation three books, one per week, that I’ve found extra-helpful in my self-care journey.

The first book, in plenty of time to request it from the local library or to order from your favorite retailer and dig in soon, is The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky. This book wandered into my life a few years ago during a course called “The Science of Happiness” that I completed (twice) online through www.edx.org. I picked the book back up for a second read recently, and I’m so glad I did.

The happiness myths I grew up sorting through seem alive and well today, decades later. I thought when I found the right person, got the great job, and made enough money, happiness would find me, or I’d find it. If I didn’t find it, I thought, it was because it resided outside my circumstances or my genetics. The book addresses these myths with science and clear explanations. The author points out about 50% of our happiness seems tied to a “set point” that appears genetic (we used to call this “hard wired”). Another 10% relates to life circumstances. However, a whopping 40% can be changed through intentional activity. 

With all the self-care materials on the planet, this book really delivered a lot of info and some excellent tools. This book offers a good explanation of the theoretical framework and then provides a lot of tools. Not only are there options, they can be based on just picking ones that click for you or you can select recommended options that seem most in sync with your values by completing the included 12-question Oxford Happiness Questionnaire. (To complete the Questionnaire without the book, go to this link.[iv])

The tools, called “happiness activities” in the book, cover 12 areas and offer different options within each area. The general areas are Expressing gratitude, Cultivating optimism, Avoiding comparison and overthinking, Practicing acts of kindness, Nurturing relationships, Developing strategies for coping, Learning to forgive, Increasing “flow” experiences, Savoring joy, Committing to goals, Practicing Spirituality, and Taking care of your body. The Questionnaire helps score and select areas of focus.

Per the Questionnaire, Expressing gratitude scored as one of my highest-interest areas. Since I’m already using a tool related to gratitude and consider it quite important, I’m impressed with the questionnaire. In addition, it helped me narrow down my broad interests to a few options. And though I feel I’ve progressed a lot with gratitude, from the book I learned more about ways to cultivate an optimistic attitude. Honestly, I hadn’t linked the two.

Growing up among adults who often outdid one another to the point if one had a “cold coming on” the other self-diagnosed with pneumonia, I witnessed a lot of negative thinking. My personalized definition of optimism in my teenage years included having the ability to recognize when something awful happened (friendship fell apart), accept any role I had in the disaster (didn’t pick up the cues someone was deceiving me), and acknowledging other circumstances (intentional cover-up by folks who knew what was happening). To my surprise, the book’s definition of “optimistic” states a person who relegates their failures to causes “that were external, transient, and specific” as opposed to causes that are internal and long-lasting. Suddenly, I felt a bit more like Pollyanna.

The tool I felt most drawn to in the section on cultivating optimism suggests writing about “your best possible selves.” This involves pondering deeply important goals and picturing them as achieved, then writing about that. It’s suitable for people of all ages and employs my imagination.

To find a second example, I closed my eyes and opened the book to a random page. Well, perhaps it wasn’t quite so random. The pages I opened to nestled in the section entitled “Managing Stress, Hardship and Trauma” and the tool was “Learning to Forgive.” Yikes! Although this wasn’t one of my top scoring areas, I realized almost everyone I know (including myself) has gotten bogged down at some time after we have been wronged or perceived we have been. The page I opened to has two activities/tools. One is to “Imagine forgiveness.” The other is “Write a letter of forgiveness.”

  • Imagine forgiveness suggests thinking of a particular person “you blame for mistreating or offending you.” You then imagine feeling empathy for the person, take time to consider their perspective, view them as a complete human being, and forgive them. Note that this does not mean excusing or putting up with poor behavior! It’s about letting go of the pain around the incident(s) and weaving through it thoughtfully and completely, imaging what you would say, how you would feel, and, in the end, reducing your stress.
  • Write a letter of forgiveness seeks to help us let go of anger and resentment by writing out our feelings in a letter, but not sending the letter (so it doesn’t matter if this person lives next-door or is no longer alive).  The activity suggest one method is to write about the offense, how it hurt you, how it still hurts you, what you wish they would have done, and ending with a clear statement of forgiveness. Again, this is not meant to be sent/mailed to anyone, but to help you find some peace and, perhaps, understanding.

While these may not resonate with you at all (and that’s absolutely fine), there are many other great examples in the book that might interest you. I consider the book one of those that touched me in a most lovely and uplifting way. To be clear, my preference is for information that wraps itself into or around practical tips – things I can use in my own life. The How of Happiness does that so well that I have to add it to my small personal library (and remove a book to make room for it because I have limited space).

Above all else, the book reminded me that we all have the power to make our lives happier, not by magic, but through chasing happiness in the right way: with an internal focus. To me, the potential life-long happiness upgrade makes it well worth the attempt.

Next week, book 2 of my top 3 “self-care” books. Until then, may you be happy, healthy, safe, and strong.

Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020

[i] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[ii] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

[i] Most areas in the U.S. offer a “2-1-1” service that can provide information about local resources. In addition, one website (there are many) with info about finding an affordable therapist is Open Counseling at www.opencounseling.com .

[ii] National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255; to reach the Crisis Text Line in the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808.

[iii] For U.S. history, as a start consider Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi or sources that respect the perspective of indigenous people and those kidnapped humans who were brought to this country enslaved. For me, loving a country means knowing the country’s authentic ups and downs, accepting the past, and working toward a more equitable future.

[iv] If you’re waiting for the book and would like to try the Happiness Questionnaire, here’s an article that includes the questionnaire along with guidance: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/nov/03/take-the-oxford-happiness-questionnaire

Giving Attention

So many things compete for our attention these days. Interacting with family and friends. Opportunities to engage with one another. Commitments to work, whether paid or volunteer. Making sure we meet our financial obligations. Focusing on caring for our bodies, preparing food, taking time for movement. Keeping up with current events and staying informed. Leaning in toward new opportunities. Keeping up with lifelong learning. And we live in a time with many entertainment options. Given all the competition, it’s no wonder so many of us struggle to make time for ourselves.

Several years ago I realized that when I completed two simple activities, my days went much more smoothly. For me, that still stands. I feel far calmer, happier, and far less likely to become irritated with others on days when I take as little as 15 minutes a day for some meditation and give myself some time – from 2 minutes to 2 hours – to write (whether a journal entry or crafting stories, but excluding emails and work-related tasks).

On days when I traveled for work or had other unusual time-sucks to deal with, these soothing timeouts sometimes didn’t happen. What I learned from this, thanks to the obvious difference in my stress level during days when I rushed around feeling frazzled, was to take time to pay attention. In my rush to care for family, do my best at work, and move through the day as efficiently as possible, changing my focus from the task-orientation to something a bit softer did not come easily to me. I learned a little at a time.

During the Greater Good Science Center class, “The Science of Happiness,” the instructors discussed the power of spending time in nature, engaging in simple walks in a park or even a minute or two looking at a tree (or other large green growing plant). Not one to accept such advice without trying it out, on a particularly difficult day at work, I stepped outside, walked to the back of the building where a large tree towered over a neighboring office. I stared at the tree for a minute or two, daring it to make a difference. Frankly, I found it difficult to direct any frustration toward the tree. It stood, firmly rooted, leaves rustling in a light breeze, apparently unconcerned about the humidity or the temperature or cranky clients or a complaining coworker. In spite of doubts, I stood watching the tree, breathing, and felt my tension slip away.

Surprised that a tree, however beautiful, had any impact, I vowed to remember that simple tool. And to try out more things.

Through the “Happiness” class[i] I experimented with a few different ways of paying attention to gratitude. One was to write 3 things daily for which I felt grateful. Another was to write 3 things on 3 different days each week. The final technique I tried involved gratitude writing once a week, stating 5 things for which I felt grateful and adding a sentence or two about what impact each had or why I felt so thankful.

A few years later, I’m still using the third technique. Someone gifted me with a lovely journal and though I resisted writing in it – who desecrates such beautiful works of art?! – I finally gave in and started a gratitude journey. This weekend I realized I’m nearly out of pages. I’m not ashamed to disclose I’ve missed weeks and picked up where I left off. I’ve also stared at the page a few times, after jarring weeks, slowly pulling something up from deep inside myself for which I could honestly claim I felt grateful. Most of the time, though, I strive to give little premeditated thought to the process. Instead, I go with the flow. I write the numbers 1 to 5 on 5 lines, then quickly jot something down, something that generates gratitude in my heart. After that, I give myself more space to write a 2 to 3 lines about each of the 5.

My entries will never win any prizes, and they often mention people – family, friends, coworkers, the stranger who bought me coffee. They also mention the weather, a spectacular sunset or full moon, a story that touched me, a sushi combination that surprised me, the roof over my head, the public library, the midnight blue color of the night sky, my health, access to healthcare, charming places, beautiful noise, services (like food delivery or my CSA), animals and birds, flowers and trees, easy trails. Several years of those weekly notes live in one journal that I rarely examine unless I want to remember.

Both of these simple practices – taking time outdoors to appreciate nature and developing a gratitude habit – can tweak a perspective enough to inspire more positive changes. Start slow. Stay consistent. Try different things.

This week I’m re-reading The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a book I learned about through The Science of Happiness class. I plan to write more about that book next time. For now, though, I’m wishing you some relaxing time in nature and hoping you find a rewarding gratitude practice that lifts you and keeps you mindful of all you have.

May you be healthy, be happy, be strong, and be safe.

[i] The Science of Happiness class is offered at low- to no-cost online through www.edX.org and additional information about positive psychology can be found at https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/


Like many children, my youthful escape hatch typically involved books, stories, and my imagination. When things felt challenging at home – whether my parents argued about family trips (my dad preferred  spontaneous adventures and my mom vehemently opposed voyages lacking meticulous planning) or my siblings squabbled (about everything from who got the last cookie in the jar to the best football team) – at some point I learned to move away from the fray and toward my own peaceful place. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, good self-care requires making choices about when to invest energy in others’ battles and when to let things go.

As a young mother in a precarious marriage with a sour-tempered man, I eventually found my way out. Initially I sought escape, after the kids fell asleep and while my spouse worked nights or drank with friends, by diving into any good story filled with loving characters and a bit of humor. That often got me through, but after my spouse physically assaulted me, I opted to take action and reached out to a domestic violence hotline. Through that connection, I had the opportunity to work with a therapist and, with some help from my imagination, to assess and change my situation.

During the same time, I had written a few articles for a small local newspaper. In order to jot down inspiration, I stashed a small notepad and pen in my pocket and they accompanied me everywhere. In the days before smartphones, these rustic and affordable devices served me well. One day, after my spouse had an outburst, threatening to throw me down the stairs, I waited for him to exhaust himself and walk away. Taking a breath, I pulled out my notebook and wrote out some notes as if I were an observer stating facts without interpretation. When I presented that information to my therapist, we established a behavioral pattern and later those notes showed the behavior intensified.

Though I wish I could state I immediately fled, I did not. In fact, I could barely imagine a different way of living until two great things happened. My spouse accepted an opportunity to travel for his work. His absence for several months brought so much peace into the home that neither the children nor I could ignore the calm. To help make ends meet during my spouse’s absence, I found a better paying job and enrolled in a university class. Nothing earth-shattering, but in the workplace, I met people who called me brilliant, reliable, and competent. In my class, I met people with dreams and goals that inspired me.

This colorful bouquet of new people in my life helped me understand that asking for advice and help did not indicate weakness, but strength. Their support meant a lot, though my biggest lesson was that it’s hard to physically step outside any situation until we can imagine something different. And I had a great imagination. I just needed to exercise it.

Here are some ways I employed that creative spark:

I heard a story about a famous psychologist who worked with couples and asked them, at the start of a marriage-encounter type weekend, to go to their rooms and turn the toilet paper roll around. If it normally fell off the front, switch it to fall off the back, and vice versa. In his case, if folks admitted they didn’t do this, he refunded their money and sent them home. He pointed out it was a very small inconvenience and if they weren’t willing to do that, he questioned their readiness for change. I switched the toilet paper roll. It sounds odd, but I still do that now and then to help me notice something I largely ignore (unless it’s gone 😊) and to realize that feeling upset at a “backwards” toilet tissue roll is actually quite silly. The same holds true for lots of other small inconveniences.

My commute to work felt so boring. One day I took a different route. Literally. All those years ago, I noticed changing my route kept me more mindful. If you use public transportation (good job, you!) change your routine so instead of reading a book, speak with someone or listen to music or anything that is, for you, a change. If you absolutely cannot change those things, imagine the last time you traveled. During your commute to work or the market or church or school, look at the world around you as if you’ve never seen it before. I call it seeing through new eyes, waking up imagination.

When you find yourself in a situation that troubles you and you feel stuck, consider looking beyond your immediate resources for help.

  1. Though working with a professional may sound scary, and finding the right person may not happen immediately, having someone who will listen can make a huge difference. There are affordable resources if you can’t afford a licensed psychologist or therapist, including pastors, school counselors, and students who are finishing advanced degrees in mental health counseling or social work. The website www.opencounseling.com has some articles with good tips and can connect you to someone in the US. In addition, for mental health resources as well as medical and more, visit www.auntbertha.com.
  2. It might be that you just need someone who gets you and isn’t going to lie to you. For me, my great aunts – wise and very outspoken women – were folks I could turn to. If friends or family won’t work, perhaps a friend will loan you their aunt or cousin who has a gift for helping people.
  3. There are also online groups, including anonymous ones, that offer very low cost or free services. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (please don’t let the name scare you off) has an article and a listing of some online groups. To learn more, visit: https://nami.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360024615074-Are-there-any-online-resources-for-therapy-support-groups-or-mental-health-apps-.

Once upon a time I used my imagination to write down a plan for times when I feel stressed and can’t quite get myself to that logical, rational person I am. My plan is a handy list of what works for me and when it’s time to pull out the plan. If you make a plan, suggest you include:

  1. Your Tells: the signs that you’re super-stressed or otherwise challenged. Over-stressed me gets clumsy, my throat feels tight, I feel antsy and tired at the same time, I don’t concentrate well.
  2. Coping: Ask yourself: Hungry? (Eat). Angry? (Take a Break). Tired? (Nap). Lonely? (Reach out). Undecided? (Breathe). When you need more, go for a distraction.
  3. Distractions: I like funny movies, sudoku puzzles, journaling, walking, listening to happy or soothing tunes, and baking. Try to come up with at least 20 so you have options to choose from.
  4. Connections: Name people who will be there for you to listen and offer support. Include their contact info. These folks can be anyone meaningful to you who has your back.
  5. The Big Guns: These are professionals such as your physician, your therapist or other mental health helper if you have one, your pastor or other religious elder, and a hotline or two.

More in-depth plans are often suggested for people who are considering suicide. If you are thinking about ending your life, please tell your doctor, go to a hospital, call a suicide hotline, or call 911 / the emergency services line in your area. The info I share here I have on stand-by for my own self-care when I don’t know where to start.

Imagination sometimes gets a bad rap, but it can elevate us when we feel ourselves sinking. Tapping into that power can help us re-envision our world and our future. Einstein said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” May your imagination take you to great places!

May you be healthy, happy, safe, and strong.

Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020

[i] “Gaslighting is an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their judgment, their perception, and even their sanity. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth.” (From Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/gaslighting)


Autumn arrived last week, the season that most folks (in the Northern Hemisphere) imagine as bursts of colorful leaves that usher in the cold days of winter. Fall makes a more minimal entrance here in the areas fringing the biggest metro sections of Southern California. In my childhood, autumn in Central California brought some colorful foliage and the tulle fog that caused a lot of mayhem on the highways and streets. Where I live now, the only significant gatherings of autumn leaves erupt briefly, mostly in parks, and late in the year: after Thanksgiving. The trees quickly shrug off the old, rushing to try on their Spring wardrobe.

Though it doesn’t feel like autumn weather, at the local market I couldn’t resist picking up a beautiful pumpkin. When I got it home my grandsons started talking about carving it. More practical, I suggested cooking it. They countered with the idea of painting it. And then carving it.

We clearly see things from a different perspective, yet we all expect some compromises at home. It makes sense, given the combination of different personalities and moods crisscrossing paths in one relatively confined space. Because of the lingering heat of summer and heatwaves that have flitted through the southern half of California, we lost our usual suburban refuge: the back yard. We all get downright cranky some days.

The life issues contributing to that crankiness, I’ve realized, cross age boundaries. Our challenges include some lack of physical activity, lingering awkwardness related to a new way of living during a pandemic, a fluctuating level of anxiety because of external events like wildfires that impact air quality, and lapses into ineffective communication. In simpler terms, we all stress out.

Humor, when used at the right time, can lighten up potential emotional explosions. For example, when the 5-year-old in my life becomes really frustrated about house rules that limit television or playing video games, name-calling is a go-to response. It usually goes something like this:

A miffed kindergartener looks at me and announces, “You’re a doodoo head!”

Me: “What?! I have doodoo on my head?!” I start touching my head. “Where is it?! Help me get if off! Where is it?!”

My kindergartener struggles to glare but we laugh. Then we talk, and we’re back on track.

In grown-up world, the situations are often more nuanced and sometimes humor fails. While there are many tools I use, I’m sharing one I learned about a few years ago but just started practicing in the last few months. I use this when something is bothering me, but I’ve got conflicting emotions and/or I feel muddled by anxiety or fear. When I feel stuck, I’ve become a fan of RAIN.

To start, keep in mind this is just my experience and not a recommendation. You know what works for you, so you do you! I’m not a professional with a certification for teaching this technique (I’m not even sure if there is a certification!), so after you hear about my experience if you want to walk through this yourself, look for the link I’ll share to a video with Tara Brach (a genuine expert and awesome teacher). In the video, she walks folks through RAIN.

For me, recently two activities converged. I began posting more often on Facebook, and a friend I have known for decades started sharing a lot of posts I found offensive and racist. Since I didn’t think of this person as racist, I made an “Ah, c’mon” comment that I thought would seem non-judgmental and light-hearted. It did not go well, and I received some unexpected and mean backlash. When I went back to review previous posts from this person, it was clear that we have a big difference of opinion regarding race. Because I felt awful and had a hard time just letting this go, I used the RAIN technique.

The acronym RAIN, coined more than 20 years ago by Michelle McDonald, has been popularized by Tara Brach, PhD. The acronym stands for: Recognize what is happening; Allow the experience; Investigate with interest; Nurture with self-compassion.

Recognize requires taking time to look at the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For me, the thought that repeated: I thought we were friends and I do not even know this person. I felt anxious, perplexed, abused, and embarrassed. How did I get this so wrong?

Allowing, for me, involved letting the experience just percolate, not beating myself up or making excuses for others. In just sitting quietly with the event, I realized my online comments resulted in a response of fury and disgust that I felt also held some sense of smug superiority.

To Investigate, I gave myself time by taking a few deep belly breaths and sat quietly to see what bubbled up. First, I acknowledged, offending someone else was never my intention. Then I reminded myself, I did the best I could at the time. What happened next surprised me. Just sitting calmly, old remarks and reactions from this person popped into my mind from decades ago. I remembered their best friend as an unabashed racist. I remembered the last time our paths had crossed, this person and their spouse gossiped about and made fun of other friends we had known while I sat uncomfortably, saying little. As other memories came to me, I realized this individual had not ever been a friend to me and most likely connected with me to feed information to my abusive ex-. Many other pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Initially I wondered How could I have missed that?! Rather than going down that rabbit hole, I moved on to offering myself compassion.

Nurturing myself, I repeated my go-to self-talk. I counted my blessings and repeated May I be safe, be healthy, be happy, be strong. I added the line from Brené Brown, I am here to get it right, not to be right. And, from Desiderata, the lines I recall most. Like the moon and the stars, I have a right to be here. Whether or not it is clear to me, the Universe is unfolding as it should.

In the end, I realized if I had it to do over, I might have approached this individual differently. I could have asked by private message about their posts and why they felt committed to their philosophies. I would have had a chance to try to understand why they believed what I understand as false stereotypes that, in the end, seemed likely to hurt them as well as others. I realized where my feelings came from and feel confident that I can move forward with a new understanding of the old relationship. I want to speak and honor the truth, so I will add that this experience helped me see this individual as unkind and not a good time investment for me right now; I’m taking a break that may become a permanent fracture.

To me, knowledge is power. RAIN is an effective self-care/self-compassion tool that helps me reach a deeper understanding, find some peace, and develop insight. I plan to use this when I’m having one of Those Days, feeling frustrated and, at some level, anxious, overwhelmed, or confused.

In the hope of inspiring others, I’m sharing what works for me. Take time to explore what works for you.   To learn more about the RAIN technique, use this video to walk through the technique with an expert, Tara Brach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8e_tAEM80k

Next week I’ll share more about some of my other favorite tools and how they’ve worked for me. In the meantime, follow health guidelines, get some sunshine if you’re able to do so safely, move as well as you’re able, laugh often, and remember to be kind to yourself.

May you be healthy, be happy, be strong, be safe, and live a life of ease.

Gut Punched

This week I’m concerned about a lot of things with the potential to impact many lives. These include politics, poverty, and privilege. I’m feeling as if I’ve been punched in the stomach – the Sucker-Punch type that’s unexpected – my gut refuses to relax, my shallow breathing and spinning head make it worse.

You would think in our culture in the U.S.A. it would be humbling to learn of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an extraordinary woman who touched so many lives in such significant ways. I would think that we would all respect the loss. That we would take time to quit in-fighting and come together to talk about how she made things better for all people, but particularly women. I would think we’d find ways to work together to keep from slipping into either totalitarianism or anarchy (depending on one’s political perspective).

Somehow, that is not happening. Some people cackle in joy (believing, mistakenly, Justice Ginsburg conjured up Roe v. Wade to terrorize some faith-folks) while others weep inconsolably (believing the court and democracy will be irreparably broken with a patriarchal-loving replacement). The volume is cranked up so high we can’t hear one another. Frankly, that’s probably a good thing: I’m sick of the lies, name-calling, and back-biting.

We’re better off financially and educationally and in many other ways than most of the world’s population, yet we bickered ourselves into a vicious corner.

In so doing, we changed the culture. Scientists and even smart kids suddenly aren’t respected as they once were. Belligerence and conspiracy theories out-shout reason. Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color face the same challenges they have struggled with for over 400 years – and some people rejoice in that disgrace. Economies, from the personal to our national, flounder. People who believe in the “right to life” often neglect to cherish the lives of those locked up at our borders, death row inmates, children living in poverty, and people without health insurance. Even if you don’t work part-time as a crisis counselor, you know our shared pain, so I’ll stop with those reminders.

We have to face it, though. Life today carries a lot of extra stress on top of the daily stressors we always juggled.  We’ve all been gut-punched, some harder than others.

Fat people face even more stigma. (By the way, I prefer the word “fat” to other terms and define this group of people to include those who, in CDC language, “are overweight” and those “with obesity.” Fat folks make up more than two-thirds of the population in the USA.) (Yes, we are the majority.) Dedicated health professionals and journalists tie “obesity” repeatedly to Covid-19, though I haven’t found well documented studies or hard data to explain why this is so.[i]  Our national assumption that fat kills, I assume, plays into this.[ii]

After a quick glance at the numbers online, my very rough guess is that up to 70% of us in the U.S. have at least one risk factor while many have more.[iii]  While that may sound upsetting, and while I acknowledge the numbers are very rough estimates, it’s clear we’re all in this together. We need to start behaving as if we understand this.

And to get through this dilemma, we all need to practice rigorous self-care. I can name a half-dozen ways I’ve ignored self-care this past week. Skipping meals. Sleeping less. Blowing off morning meditation. Not responding to friends. Not asking for help. Not taking breaks. My problem, once I quit focusing on my needs, is that things spiral out of control. When things get out of hand, I go Lizard-Brain.

For me, that means collapsing too frequently into that flight-flight-freeze zone (hello, amygdala!) that served our ancestors so well but doesn’t make for effective civilized interaction. I participated in a melt-down with a 7-year-old over homework (as if the sky will fall because of dilly-dallying) and burst into tears when a 5-year-old told me to move out (the comment accidentally pushed an old trauma-related button). I started to catastrophize. I’m so good at it I could give Stephen King and Dean Koontz advice about worst case scenarios! 😉

The thing about this?  I know this happens when I don’t care for myself. I knew I wasn’t caring for myself. Duh. My go-to move when I’m drifting into catastrophizing has been to stop and recite my gratitude list (I’m grateful for a bed to sleep in, the color of the late night sky outside my window…) or to repeat I am safe. I am healthy, happy, and strong. I am at ease. Last week I shrugged them off. Each day that passed, I kicked myself and added a bit more to my To-Do list instead of kicking back and taking things off the list. And, as expected, each day felt more challenging.

From age 2 until I married and moved out, my parents reminded me every day my job was to take care of and protect my younger brother. And from there, it was such an easy step into taking care of lots of others, most of whom behaved badly. Just before he died (at age 38), my brother told me, “You know, it was never your job to take care of me. I always knew, but I don’t know if you did.” I cried buckets. Before his funeral, my mom remarked, “I don’t know why you always thought it was your job to take care of him.” I glared at her, shocked, and she shrugged and chuckled. “Oh,” she said, “I guess we let you think it was your job.”

Those two huge messages were heard, but their enormity didn’t move me to slow my care-taking.

Fast forward too-many years, during which time I learned the high price I pay for ignoring self-care. It took some pain, recognizing that taking time for myself and meeting my own needs is not selfish, and making those choices. In fact, self-care leaves me feeling healthier, more authentic, and, coincidentally, I seem to take better care of those around me without behaving like a doormat.

Unsolicited Advice: Figure out what you need and want, then do your best to give it to yourself. Start with the basics.

Eat as if you know your body is smart and important. For me, Intuitive Eating gave me skills and a solid foundation that work for me. I recognize hunger and satisfaction, know ignoring my body around these works against me because doing so in the past always ended in an eating make-up session. (When it does happen, it’s okay. These days make-up sessions fall far short of binges and make sense to me.) IE is not about feeling like a failure when something seems to go wrong. Analyze. Adjust. Move forward.

Get enough sleep. From the book Say Good Night to Insomnia, I learned that my goal of 8 hours of sleep each night probably isn’t realistic. From 7 to 9 hours are “average,” but people who get 7 hours of sleep actually outlive people who sleep 8 hours. The research (thanks to my local public library!) helped me re-set my goal to increase my normal 6-ish hours to work toward 7 most nights.

Keep learning. Since childhood I’ve been curious and therefore committed to lifelong learning. Now I’m focused on anti-racism since it’s critically important to developing the kind of safe, inclusive, fair society I’d like my grandsons to grow up in. The free training, a 30-day challenge (2 hours/day) is through www.theantiracisttable.com.

Make space for growth and healing. For me, taking time outside daily soothes; watching movies (generally, comedies because I’m needing upbeat endings) relaxes me; learning new things energizes me; time in a pool or near large bodies of water invigorates me; exercising silliness with my grandsons uplifts me; travel opens me; and reading informs and entertains me. Know what works for you and take time for yourself.[iv]


It’s hard being a human in this world right now. There’s a lot to worry about. Take time for yourself first. Everyone uses the old in-flight oxygen-mask safety briefing to make this point because it’s true. You can’t give to others (or save their lives by putting on their masks) if you don’t first take care of yourself. Mask-up and enjoy the week!

Copyright D.R. deLuis 2020

[i] The CDC website does mention obesity as a factor, though it didn’t, the last time I checked, note any studies that implicated obesity. Note that obesity is considered by the CDC to be a “disease” since the AMA declared it so. The AMA decision went against the recommendations of the panel of experts who studied the measure, but gave carte blanche to bill for “treatment” during office visits and moved expensive bariatric surgery from the “elective surgery” category to billable to insurance companies.

[ii] Studies do show that stigma kills. Some studies also report that fat people avoid medical care or wait until symptoms are more serious before seeking medical attention because they’re so disillusioned about the way they were treated in the past based on negative/moralistic judgments assigned to size.

[iii] By the time you add up BIPOC  (25.5% of the population, including Black, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Biracial, and people claiming “Other” race), elders (ages 65 and better)(16.4%), fat people (31.8% overweight and 39.8% “have obesity”), those living in poverty (10.5%), people living without health insurance (9.4%), and people with coronary heart disease (~5%, this excludes the 24% with high blood pressure) or diabetes (6%). Even considering a generous portion of these categories may overlap, 70% is not unreasonable. (Data sources for these facts are: data.census.gov, hopkinsmedicine.org, and cdc.gov).

[iv] Currently reading Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, Say Good Night to Insomnia by Gregg D. Jacobs, PhD, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett, PhD, and on my Kindle just downloaded The Old Girls’ Network by Janet Leigh. Variety is good.

Taking a Deep Breath

Growing up in the Olden Days (that is, after malt shops faded away but while cruising Main Street held popular appeal for teens), good parenting seemed defined using very different standards. For example, I cannot remember a single time when my parents – or anyone’s parents I knew – offered praise. The most familiar comment I recall erupting from the mouths of the large gaggle of family members who showed up and interrupted my reading was “Children are to be seen and not heard.” Normally this came moments before we were all – my brother, me, our cousins – shoved out the door to play for hours where we would be neither seen nor heard.

Not complaining, but it does explain a bit about why, as one kind woman told me, I’m good at “troubleshooting.” What she meant was that I can identify what’s wrong with just about any situation if I take a look. And I did look, though I rarely wondered why, beyond insatiable curiosity, I took the time, for example, to figure out why the engine in the old Studebaker sounded off before I mentioned it to my dad. (I decided the old V-8 was missing on one of the cylinders before I reported it to my dad. He went outside, listened, nodded, and correctly identified which plug to pull.)

When it came to my own life, given all the children I knew received significant feedback related to what we did wrong and not a peep about what anything we did well, I developed a habit of avoiding negative feedback as much as possible by looking for what could go wrong. When I knew what could cause trouble, I avoided it. Blaming others after the fact, a sibling’s go-to response, offended my sense of moral outrage, so I didn’t do that. My first thought focused on my own actions and how to avoid negative reactions from adults. From triple-checking homework as a child I moved to investing one minute to writing a brief email and 15 minutes to over-thinking and editing it.

And with that perspective of staying out of trouble, I attended “lifestyle” workshop 3. The formal topic: breaking down “bad” habits and replacing them with “good” ones. Of course, introducing more moralistic judgment (who gets to decide the basis for what’s “bad” and what’s “good”?) into my life left me feeling queasy. “Bad” habits: slumping, sitting too much, shallow breathing, unplanned snacking, “unhealthy” snacks, drinking soda/pop. “Good” habits: straight posture, cardio 5 days a week for 30 minutes, planned meals and snacks. I disagreed in theory but refrained from arguing.

My positive take-aways from the class:

  • Instead of setting a 30-minute a day goal for joyful activity (without swimming I flounder to even get close to a half-hour), take 10-minute activity breaks instead, building up gradually by adding 10-minute spurts.
  • For each goal/intention in life, write down 3 reasons the goal is personally important. (I use a gratitude journaling technique that includes stating a 1 or more reasons I’m grateful as well.)
  • To avoid feeling winded when engaging in movement, breathe intentionally feeling the inhale through the nose, through the throat and chest and into the belly with the belly soft. Exhale intentionally, from the belly up, contracting muscles from the belly up to help expel the breath.
  • In any area of life, rather than focusing on what’s not-working, claim what is working and build on that instead.

To be honest, the last month of IE, focusing on gentle nutrition and not forbidding any foods, I appear (via a borrowed scale) to have lost enough weight that it’s not a one-day water-weight drop. The realization shook me because, in true style, I’m worried about falling into the negative, the Delusion of Diet Culture. Logically, I’ve avoided Diet-Driven behaviors that seem unlikely to last a lifetime (such as weighing portions, counting calories, and eliminating “bad” foods or food groups). However, I paused to take stock, worried that stepping that close to Diet-World is enough to rattle my good sense.

After a quick check-in, I think I’m okay. Activity is something I added, including some therapeutic knee exercises, a 60-minute easy (no-sweating) yoga class, and 10-minute bursts of joyful exercise 4 or 5 times a week. The short daily knee workout and the weekly yoga (soon to be 2 times a week yoga) are both about helping with specific health challenges. The activity bursts with my grandsons often occur spontaneously and involve launching short happy playlists and looking goofy while sweating, dancing, and singing along.  Gratitude journal notes also help me stay calm and on track.

My morning meditation sputters and lacks a steady routine due to the periodic late nights and the necessity of engaging with young children early in the morning. However, I wedge a minute or several minutes in for a heart-focused pause. My water intake could use a boost, the doctor says, so working to increase that modestly by paying attention, carrying around a stainless-steel refillable cup, and sipping a bit more.  

As for sleep, I know what to do but could aptly name my nighttime routine Struggle. Having a schedule works and makes sense, but sometimes while I’m studying or writing I fall into an unscheduled groove (psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call it “flow”) during which time disappears. When I re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, I feel energized and have accomplished a lot, but realize it is hours past lights-out. Whoops. I lowered my caffeine intake, keep a sleep log, and strive to do better with sleep since it has such a big impact on my life.

What keeps me up nights? Compelling books like Stamped from the Beginning (a history of racism in the US by Ibram Kendi). And I’ve been hooked a few times by novels from authors Alice Hoffman or Barbara O’Neal. I take free and nearly-free classes or workshops to learn about a variety of topics (cooking, feng shui, and sleep are recent ones). Almost a week ago, I enrolled in a 30-Day Anti-Racist Table Challenge with lessons and journal entries to complete each day. I’ve also enjoyed classes through http://www.edx.org and www.Udemy.com, one offers classes for audit (edX) though both are low-cost. Also stay up investigating topics of interest.

One topic that bubbled up: digestive disorders (because they seem more common in my family). I’m certainly no expert and claim zero medical expertise. However, I learned some researchers have expressed concerns about the relationship between gut health/gut diseases (like GERD) and disordered eating of the sort that’s championed in diets (such as eating a lot of extra fiber or forbidding any food with sugar or eliminating groups of foods like “carbs” or “processed” foods). One study stated about 15% of the general population is considered to have digestive disorders but among people with eating disorders research shows up to 90% have digestive disorders. Fascinating! Early research seems to point to a relationship between eating disorders or disordered eating and functional gut disorders. The research also indicates a more diverse diet leads to a healthier gut/microbiome. Good to know! (For a bit of info related to the gut/microbiome, suggest the easy-to-read book Gut by Giulia Enders and episode 175 of the podcast Food Psych featuring Marci Evans: the truth about digestion and gut health (visit: https://christyharrison.com/foodpsych/6/the-truth-about-digestion-and-gut-health-with-marci-evans).)

Clearly, I haven’t climbed aboard a bullet-train toward having all the answers when it comes to eating. For me, Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size (HAES) provide the most promising path to follow. We’ll all know when the culture reaches that station, though, because the people we’ll admire and see in prominent places will come in all shapes, sizes, ages, ability-levels, sexual-identities, and hues.

Two Steps Back

Mashing up contradictions feels like locking feuding family members into a small space to work out their differences. Without a referee it seems unlikely useful dialogue will flow. In this case, striving to satisfy my medical provider’s nudge into a “lifestyle program” (diet group) for health reasons (“obesity is linked to diabetes, heart disease, Covid-19”) while holding onto my well-researched belief that the Intuitive Eating/HAES path best complements my values and sticks with basic science (as we currently know it), I opted to merge two paths. Sometimes stepping back hones perspective, so that’s what I did.

The doc and I have the same overall goal: good health. The word “health” carries some sticky connotations, though. Ironically, “healthcare” organizations don’t have consistent definitions and many of those demonize fat humans without providing science to support their bias. For me, achieving a state of overall improved health means (1) gaining strength and stamina so I eliminate painful knee days (I can live pain-free with OTC medication in limited doses, but prefer not to use these), (2) Getting back to some basic hiking or at least periodic oceanside walks or garden strolls, (3) Improving my evolving self-care practices around stress (less) and sleep (more), and (4) Paying more attention to gentle nutrition so my blood-test related health markers remain “normal.”

While a mashup of programs sounded easy enough, I discovered I had some bumps to iron out when I attended the “lifestyle program” orientation two weeks ago. I don’t expect this journey to flow like a mountain stream in spring. I expect obstacles and realize where the “lifestyle program” and Intuitive Eating/HAES guidelines diverge. Back to that in a minute. First, here’s how the orientation went.

Virtual attendees were congratulated for connecting with the “lifestyle program” and the moderators described their credentials. I noted the folks who moderated included a registered nurse, a registered dietician, and a licensed social worker. All had more than 5 years of experience and, in general, seemed pleasant and enthusiastic.

During the opening a moderator noted “many people” in this “program” lost 30 to 50 pounds during their year-long participation. The “lifestyle program” components included improving daily habits, healthy eating, and increasing physical activity. In theory, these fit my goals as well. I took the time to write out my personal goals related to the daily habits and physical activity components. For healthy eating, I’d already decided to gently implement the Healthy Plate.[i] The “program” also uses this model.

“This program is not about dieting but making a lifestyle change,” the primary moderator said a dozen times during the presentation, though the rest of the dialogue seemed a hodgepodge of typical Diet Culture advice laced with a few “program” components. For example, the list of forbidden foods like sugar, juice, and alcohol. The Great Success Story featured someone who finished the “lifestyle program” a few months ago and kept the weight off for several months, so far. No data is kept on the success of the program in helping participants retain weight loss. This isn’t unusual. Long term weight loss retention (even as long as 2 to 5 years) is rarely tracked because it discourages participants.[ii] Study after study shows dieting (by any name) has a very poor success rate.[iii]

Sample contradictory comments from my notes: “This is not a diet. No measuring or weighing of foods. Does that sound like a diet? No.” “However, measuring is required the first few months” or if people run into problems (I assume slowing weight loss). And, again, “This is not a diet. This is a lifestyle change.” Then, the “program requires keeping a food log and eating 3 meals and 2 snacks” at specific intervals. Other requirements: using small plates, limiting sugar free beverages except water, and a specific number of specific-sized servings of protein, starch, fruit, vegetables, water, fat, and dairy products daily in order to stay within “the calorie limits per day” based on gender and height. Again, “this is not a diet.”

Out of curiosity I did a quick online search for “healthy eating.” Of course, every self-proclaimed “expert” has opinions, but the WHO website notes “Evidence shows the benefits of a diet high in fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and grains, but lower in salt, free sugars and fats, particularly saturated and trans fats.”[iv] What struck me as absent: the protein and dairy food categories that obsess us in the USA.

In the end, the program goal (“each participant will lose 5% to 7% of their body weight”) and my personal goal differ since I have no goal related to a number on a scale. Another “program goal” for each participant involves attending weekly sessions for several months and then engaging with program staff periodically for coaching after the training.

The wrap up lacked a positive tone. The speaker asked, “Why did you gain weight?” I wrote in my notes: Set point trashed by too many diets? I waited to share and crickets in responsetold me folks took this as a rhetorical question. The speaker commented, “Quite a few of you – I know your names – are back because you didn’t have a plan to retain your weight loss.” Two things struck me: the audacity of not even considering for a moment that the program could be the problem, and the cruelty inherent in fat-shaming people who showed up. The moderator offered a quick reminder that the program required eating every 4 hours. I understand the diet-culture rationale for doing that, but I’ve eaten by-the-clock and adherence kept me out of touch with my body while it strengthened the notion the brain should rule the heart and gut with reason and discipline instead of working in a partnership. Since I’ve gotten really good at recognizing hunger before I’m ravenous – a real improvement for me – I don’t want to sacrifice that. When I respond to hunger by eating, I easily stop when I’m satisfied. When I wait for a specific time, I’m often ravenous and end up over-full.

The final component introduced: daily weight logging at home with a mandatory weekly check-in of weight or weight loss and exercise minutes completed. Many things are reported to the referring MD and noted in the patient chart, including failure to check-in with weight, failure to attend training, and I’m guessing other potential failures that remain unstated at this time.

After the orientation, I signed up for the rest of the series. In the 2 weeks before the next workshop, I completed two workshops on improving sleep and a stress reduction workshop. I took advantage of an opportunity (through my volunteer work) to sign up for the Headspace app and, through my medical insurance, to sign up for CALM. Both apps help me in different areas. Headspace meditations work for me. CALM has some nature sound tracks that I find very soothing. I also started a yoga for stress relief class and bookmarked two short trainings related to flexibility and strength training.

And where is the time for these activities coming from? So far, a combination of less focus on social media (I took Facebook off my smartphone) and a big reduction in time spent on the news (from checking 6 news sources to 2). It’s a process, a transition, and though it’s a leap of faith, I have a sense it’s going to work out even when it feels a bit like 2 steps back. Blazing a new trail is worth the effort.

[i] For more info, visit https://www.choosemyplate.gov/ but keep in mind that the CDC updates the guidelines about every 5 years and a new “healthy eating” document is due in Dec 2020.

[ii] Take some time to search weight loss retention statistics. I couldn’t find a program that kept weight loss and retention data beyond 52 weeks (1 year). Some keep limited info on limited populations but the final statistic (based on all who entered the program) doesn’t appear. In a VA “MOVE” study, 45-50% of participants dropped out after the first meeting. Across commercial weight loss groups, ~40-50% seems average. Accurate statistics require looking at every person who starts the program, not just those who finish.

[iii] For one easy-to-read summary, look at Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison, MPH, RD (pages 85-90)

[iv] https://www.who.int/health-topics/healthy-diet#tab=tab_1