‘Bad’ habits

I once read in one of Mr Iyengar’s book something like this: thoughts become actions and actions become habits. I think my paraphrase is way too short, but that is the part of the quote that stroke me the most. It was in the context of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras and the importance of gaining awareness of our own thinking processes. Ever since then, I try to observe my own habits. It is fascinating to see how many of them are created without intention! Especially the habits that are behind conscious or unconscious ideas of myself and those around me. My behaviour becomes a ‘bad’ habit in certain situations as a result of an idea I have of myself and/or the other person.

Unconscious and bad habits are not always easy to discover, I must confess, and I am always amazed when I do. Like this weekend. My husband and I don’t buy wine very often, but yesterday, we both felt like having some red wine. Here in Norway, you can’t buy wine – or any alcohol except for beer- at the grocery store, you have to go to something called Vinmonopolet (the Wine Monopoly). Therefore, it requires a bit more effort to get it. So Saturday morning, we went downtown to run some errands, and we bought ourselves a bottle of red wine.

We went home. I had some things I wanted to get done, and Arve had his. At some point late in the evening, I was sewing some patches on a blanket when Arve got up from the couch, opened the bottle and served himself a glass of ‘our’ wine. He sat back on the couch with his computer on his lap and the glass of wine in one hand. He looked so content. I felt offended. Trying to be as diplomatic and constructive as I could, I made a remark about it, and he replied something like: well, you seem always so busy, I just didn’t want to bother you. I seem busy?! He has ‘always’ the computer on his lap! Again, I tried my best to find a way to lead this conversation to a space of openness instead of conflict (which is not always my strength, if I am honest).

It turns out, he’s right. Every single evening, I talk about all the things I ‘have to do’. I don’t always end up doing them, but I do talk about them. So, all my husband can do is to grab his computer and do his own thing. So, I have the habit of thinking that he is not interested in spending time with me. That he prefers to do something else.

Added to this ‘bad’ habit of mine is the unconscious expectation that my husband ‘shows interest’ in me, and this has to happen of course as I imagine it. It is as if I kind of expect to get an invitation from him instead of saying clearly that I miss spending time with him and that I would like to enjoy a glass of wine together.

After our chat, he did invite me to watch a movie that he had been wanting to watch. It was nice even though I didn’t make it awake all the way to the end of the movie. Not because of the movie. Certainly not because of my husband. It has just been a hectic week, and with the wine… I am happy I gathered the courage to have this conversation without being confrontational. We had fallen into a habit of thought. I thought my husband was not interested in spending time with me during the evenings because he sits with his laptop on the couch. He thought I was too busy to want to do anything with him. We fell into the habit of believing what the other is thinking instead of talking about both wanting to spend some time together.

A similar eye opener happened some years ago when we were going through a difficult situation. It was tough for both of us, and I started resenting my husband because I felt that he wasn’t giving me much emotional support through this. So, in addition to struggle with the difficult moment, I was being resentful towards him. Acting passive-aggressively. When I finally gathered the courage to have the difficult conversation, it turned out he felt I was pushing him away. I was acting as if I had full control over my emotions and didn’t need his support. It was, of course, a way to keep the pain away because I knew that if I showed vulnerability, I would have to face my own emotions and I wasn’t ready for it. So, the easiest was to keep my attention on something else, namely what I thought was my husband’s inability to show empathy. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time I felt like this, but I had never dared to talk about it with openness. It had always ended up in a bunch of complaints and accusations from my side. We had fallen into a bad habit that none of us had had the ability to see even less break, and I believe this bad habit was the result of my own and my husband’s unaware thinking processes. It is often the idea we have of ourselves and others that stands in the way for our interactions with others.

What am I feeling and learning this week?

Since last week, I keep oscillating between overwhelmed, tired and annoyed, and serene and optimistic. One day, it feels like I will never get all my tasks done, and the next one I tell myself that I just need to do one thing at a time and things will fall into place.

One minute I am able to show compassion and understanding to the people I mingle daily with, and the next one, I am acting passive-aggressively because what I see as their shortcomings are ‘unforgivable’.

In between moods, I observe and I reflect. I can’t help but wonder why when I feel stressed and overwhelmed, I get so annoyed at other people? Is it because seeing other people’s flaws moves the attention outwards and gives me ‘good reasons’ to be annoyed? Or is it because I usually let people step over my boundaries too much? Am I keeping the peace usually by not saying anything or am I missing the opportunity to be assertive when things are calm and moving dangerously into conflict when I’m tired and overwhelmed? The problem and advantage at the same time are that I know very well my moods, and I know that going into conflict will make me feel worse, so I keep the frustration in, and instead act passive-aggressively which adds on to the already quite dark mood.

Do I feed into the feeling of being overloaded and overwhelmed with my own expectations? Can I simplify? Can I postpone some things? Can I not do others? Can I focus on one thing at a time and let the rest be? Why do I believe that if I’m not in control of certain things, the world will fall apart? Do I even believe that? Not really, so why not let go of control? Delegate. Ask for help. To ask for help, especially in the house is not to nag. Why do I keep thinking that asking for help will make me sound like a nagging wife? Mum? Maybe because of the tone in which I ask for help and maybe the tone appears when I have waited too long to ask for help…

At the end of the day, I keep coming back to the same teachings from Yoga: take responsibility for my own well-being and let the world be what it needs to be. Do what I can do in the roles I have to play but let go of the need to make everything about me. Stop and take a break when I need it. Say no when needed. Don’t get overwhelmed by my dark mood, because like everything else in life, this too will pass.

Having someone to talk with also helps. I am lucky to have a some good colleagues and friends that are willing to listen, show empathy (maybe the most important when I feel overwhelmed), and give advice. I am thankful for them.

Lost and found

I went for a hike in the forest with two colleagues the other day. Both of them grew up experiencing nature like we do in Norway, hiking, camping, sometimes walking in the mountains for days. At some point during our hike, one of them said that she finds it exciting to sometimes get lost in nature to then find the way back. She told a story from her childhood where she and her family were hiking somewhere in Mali and got lost. They had to walk in the dark back to the cabin they were staying at. My colleague’s mum had to focus on her white shoes to not stumble as she had bad sight. It was fun, she said. In Mali. A family of five, lost in the mountains.

Her story inspired me because I don’t think I would remember as fun getting lost in nature as a kid, maybe not even now as an adult. I can imagine me getting scared, worried and maybe even angry and blaming it on my husband, as I often do. My kids complaining and blaming it on both of us.

Maybe I’m exaggerating or maybe not, but I found this story inspiring because my colleague’s family chose to have an attitude of adventure and playfulness in a moment that I most probably would have perceived as annoying and even dangerous. It brought me back to a reflection that has been coming and going in the last few years about the power of staying calm in all situations. This ability to stay calm comes with being able to take a step back from a situation and see solutions, but I also think it has to do with faith.

Observing my mind and my actions, I have noticed that I have had a tendency to get overwhelmed and almost panic in situations where things don’t go as expected. I have been afraid of challenges, problems and conflicts with people. Partly because I dread the unpleasant moments, but partly because I am worried about my ability to deal with difficulty. I don’t really trust myself. So I often have chosen to stay in my comfort zone, or to escape from the discomfort often making things worse because I don’t necessarily physically run away, I try to escape by acting impulsively, out of fear turing the situation messier than it originally was.

Since I became aware of this, I have been trying to work with it. I am trying to calm my mind down in moments of stress, distress or emotional pain, and instead of reacting impulsively, I try to take a mental step back and observe. It is an interesting exercise, to learn to give myself the space to feel scared, hurt or annoyed but not feed into the emotion. Take a deep breath and see possibilities, see options, and act -or not- from a space of calmness. Stay with the feeling without fighting it.

Life is like that, it has its ups and its downs. We instinctively seek for the ups and dread the downs. That is our nature, but lately, I have been reflecting in the beauty of going through the downs with a calm mind too. Experiencing whatever life is offering with an attitude of faith in ourselves, the process and the teachings they bring. Get lost, and find myself again. I believe that when we find our way back, we often continue slightly changed, mostly for the better.

The truth is that we all are born with this immense strength, we can overcome anything because that is our instinct. The key is the mental attitude. The teachings we draw from each situation. The energy we spend on them. The way we take care of ourselves and others in the process.

I share here one of my favourite poems from David Wagoner that I feel talk about what I just wrote.

Lost by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Saving our children from painful situations

A friend and I were talking the other day about our sons who are the same age and soon will have to choose what kind of studies they want to do for high school. Here in Norway, they can choose to go the ‘regular’ pathway that can lead them to university, or they can choose to learn a profession and come out being able to work. The latter is, of course, less prestigious than acquiring a university degree, but a good option to those who either have a clear idea or know well their skills, or who are tired of so much theory at school and want to do more practical work throughout the three years of high school.

My husband and I believe that, if our son chooses to choose a profession oriented pathway, we will support him. She is of the idea that her son (and our son) should choose the pathway that allows them to go to university. She has good arguments, and I don’t disagree with her, but what triggered this post was what she said at some point:

‘I want my son to make choices that will allow him to do something with his life in a way that is as painless as possible.’

Or something like that. Her argument is that, if they choose the profession pathway, and they change their minds in some years and want to go to university, it might be too late for them to study for and pass the exams required for those who don’t follow the ‘regular’ pathway. Valid arguments.

Can we really prevent our kids from experiencing pain?, and maybe most importantly, should we prevent our kids from experiencing pain?

The answer, is of course neither yes nor no. It is our instinct and to a certain degree our duty as parents to protect our children as much as we can, but lately, I keep thinking that this well-meant attitude might harm our children more than help them, and what is more, will exhaust us, because lets face it, no matter how much I try to keep pain away from my kids, pain will reach them at some point. Pain is part of life.

How can we harm our children by protecting them from pain? Well, it is through the experience of pain that we learn resilience, patience and perseverance. It is through painful situations that we often grow because we are pushed to take a self-check, to evaluate our situation, to learn and move forward. Maybe the key is not to spend most of our time and energy preventing our kids from making mistakes, but rather create a relationship of trust so when they make mistakes, when life gets tough, they know they can get through it by their own strength, and/or get our support if they need it to gain the strength to stand up on their own feet again.

Don’t misunderstand me, I do want my son to make choices that allow him to live a happy and meaningful life, and I do say my opinion whenever he is about to make a choice, but I also try very hard to remind myself to let go of the need to control him. I have to accept that he needs to make his own choices and deal with the consequences. I just hope that the day he makes a mistake or a choice that brings pain to his life, we will be able to support him in a way that helps him reflect, grow and move on.

I see it as a teacher too. I am thankful that I teach in times where we have a lot of focus on students’ social and emotional well-being, but I also feel that sometimes we feel obliged to micro-mange them to avoid emotional distress. If football games during playtime get too rough, we ban them. Parents contact us often when their child has had a conflict with another child often with the expectation that we will ‘fix it’ without the kids being involved to ‘avoid the distress’ caused by heaving to deal with the situation.

Although I understand the intentions behind this kind of expectations, I think that kids need to experience all sorts of emotions and learn how to deal with them. Both their own emotions and other people’s emotions. Maybe instead of banning the football game, we can have the necessary conversations – over and over again – to help them reflect on what went right and what went wrong, and more importantly, how they can do better next time. We help the students better by creating the space for them to talk and find common ground, and understand how they feel and how their peers feel. Maybe sometimes kids need to find their own solutions without adult involvement.

If you’ve been around for more than twenty years, you would agree that in life, we go through phases, some phases are more painful than others, but often, the most painful ones bring also a lot of growth. I teach students between 13 and 16 years old, and many changes happen during those years. Some teenagers go through tough periods trying to figure out who they are and what they want. It is painful for them, and often even more for their parents. The parents that suffer the most are those who try very hard to steer their children into a specific direction believing that that is the right direction. Or being overly worried about their child’s confusion. What I often observe from the outside is that the kids that have been raised with a set of clear values, that have parents that are present and available, manage to go through and beyond phases of confusion and pain and grow from them. It requires patience, resilience and perseverance from both themselves and their parents.

Reflecting about this, I have made myself some mental guidelines as a mum and as a teacher that I try to follow:

  • Walk the talk. Live my life as much in line as possible with what I believe in. Accept my mistakes and grow from them. Reflect with my children about them. I don’t need to pretend that I am perfect, or devoid from emotion.
  • Be mindful of how I react when my children make a mistake. Try to show understanding and be open for discussion instead of being judgemental.
  • When appropriate, share my views or opinion on something, explain why I think like I do, but make it clear that the choice is theirs (and hope for the best).
  • Remember that each one of my kids is an individual with their own path to walk. Be supportive, be present, but not controlling.
  • Help them go through difficult emotions. Explore and accept the pain to then let go and learn from it.
  • Keep learning together with my kids how to better support them in their own path. After all, parenting is all about learning by doing.

Whose expectations?

My husband and I are what we would like to call low-maintenance. We enjoy holidays and special occasions, but we don’t feel like we need to make what we call a ‘big fuss’ out of them to enjoy our time. (I sometimes suspect it is more laziness than low-maintenance, but who cares as long as we both are happy?).

The challenge to this attitude came almost twelve years ago when our youngest daughter was born. She has high expectations, especially for birthdays, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Norway’s national day. I understand and I try to balance between complying to her wishes and keeping things to what I think is reasonable both when it comes to our economy, the environment and our energy.

During the last few years, as she is getting older, I am trying to be more sporty and supportive when she has big ideas trying to encourage her to take some of the responsibility to run them through. She doesn’t always only think about herself, she also plans how to surprise friends or her siblings for their birthdays, which I think is a nice way to show that she cares.

The interesting part is that, often the more I agree, the more she gets things her way the more she wants. As a mum, I am trying to figure out whether this is good or not. I don’t want to kill her personality, but at the same time, I feel I have to remind her about how important it is to focus on the positive and be thankful for what we have instead of focusing on what we feel we lack.

Like today, for example. It is Norway’s national day, and it is a BIG deal for children. Usually, there is a big parade downtown where all schools take part, and many celebrations with friends and family throughout the day. Because of the pandemic, the last two years, the parade has been cancelled for most students, and the celebrations have been restricted.

Traditionally, our little family eats dinner with a couple of friends and their son who are like part of our extended family, so my husband and I were happy we could keep this plan. My youngest had, of course, other plans. She decided to plan a picnic with her classmates, since it is allowed to meet outdoors in bigger groups if one keeps distance, especially if it is part of your daily cohort.

Yesterday evening, we baked cookies and muffins for the picnic, and this morning, I agreed to follow her to the park for a couple of hours. The weather was decent, and most of her classmates showed up. They played games, ate their lunch, and had what seemed like fun from where I was standing chatting with the other parents.

When it was time to leave, we all picked our stuff up, said goodbye and the girls and I walked to the bus stop. On the way, my youngest told me that one of her classmates had ice cream for breakfast, and that he is allowed to eat as many ice creams as he wants all day today. We have a daughter with PWS, so this kind of attitude towards food is not what we want to encourage at home. So, I said that I didn’t feel one needs to eat ten ice creams to have a good day. This was enough for her to be angry for the rest of the trip home and for a long while.

I must say that I find this very challenging, and I am working very hard with myself not to lecture her every time it happens. I feel that she knows what I stand for, she is allowed to disagree, but I can’t help but thinking that she is being ungrateful, and that my role as a mum is to teach her to be grateful.

Or, is it? One thing is her attitude, and the other is how I interpret it and transform it into my problem. “I have complied to this and that, and she’s still not satisfied?!”. Aha! The ego, comes through. I think. And I love it because this kind of situation teaches me over and over again what I can summarise into three main points:

  1. Be clear about what I stand for and act accordingly.
  2. Never do something with the attitude of ‘sacrifice’. Better say clearly ‘no’ and go through the unpleasant moment than to say ‘yes’ without meaning it and going into the martyr role when I don’t get a positive response for my ‘efforts’.
  3. Good enough is good enough and let other people’s expectations (even my sweet daughter’s) be their own problem.

The good thing is that, like many kids her age, after some time being back home and playing some board games before leaving for our dinner party, she had already forgotten her ‘disillusion’.

Before going to bed today, she said: It was a fun day mamma. I didn’t think it would be because of the pandemic, but it was.

My little cute teacher. Good lesson to remember as I am dreading a meeting tomorrow where I feel I will be confronted to the exact same problem. Expectations vs the reality of what I can provide. May I be wise enough to remember today while I’m in the middle of it.

PS I do talk with her from time to time about how we create the world around us by choosing where we want to focus our attention.