Friday, December 31, 2010


Is there a long-lasting grudge or estrangement between you and someone you once loved?

Maybe it's a family member. Or a long-time friend. Or a co-worker with whom you have differed.

Today may be a perfect time -- end of the old year, beginning of the new -- to reach out and start to heal the hurt feelings or anger or cool distance between you.

What's holding you back? Feeling you've been wronged and are owed an apology? Start the healing by making the first gesture toward reconciliation. Maybe what drove you apart happened so long ago, who was wronged doesn't much matter anymore.  Maybe the pain of losing this person in your daily life supersedes the pain that caused the estrangement. Maybe the burden of maintaining distance has become an obstacle to your own happiness and peace.

Today is a perfect time to take a step toward peace.

In many instances, it's so much harder to say "I love you" or "I miss you" than it is to express angry righteousness or blame.  In therapy, clients are most likely to break into tears when expressing love. The tears mean so many things -- relief, grief over lost time, tenderness, joy.  

It's very hard to say "I'm sorry" and the old chestnut about "Love means never having to say you're sorry" is so wrong.  Being the first to say "I'm sorry" is loving and brave.  It's much easier to sit back and wait for another to make everything right again. But you can wait forever.

So do the brave and loving thing today.  It may be more personally rewarding than you can imagine -- and a great way to wrap up this year and start the new on a positive note of reconciliation, hope and peace.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Holiday Depression: Why It Happens and What to Do About It

It's as predictable as Black Friday: as soon as holiday decorations appear in the mall and carols are piped over the sound system at the gym, Bob's mood plummets for reasons he can't really explain except to say that he finds the holidays depressing.

Some people, like Sally. have specific reasons for holiday melancholia: this will be the first Christmas without her beloved mother who passed away this past summer.  And Maureen finds the holidays depressing "because they never measure up to my expectations and fantasies. I imagine these warm and wonderful family times together and then either people don't show up or do show up and act tortured for having to spend some time together or actually fight and ruin everything. Why do I keep forgetting all this reality and keep expecting things to be different this year? But every year, I do...and I'm always disappointed."

If any of this sounds familiar to you, what can you do?

Try positive self-talk.  If you keep telling yourself "I hate the holidays" or "I'm always disappointed with family celebrations." try altering this pattern with a new perspective.  Instead, try telling yourself: "This year I'm keeping myself open to a pleasant surprise" or "I enjoy the decorations and music" or "However my family reacts to the holidays, I will enjoy myself."  Telling yourself that this holiday season is special and that your enjoyment is not dependent on anyone else's frees you to get into the spirit of the season whatever dark vibes may be swirling around you.

Take time to grieve,  find joy in remembering past holidays and create new traditions.  Especially if this holiday season is your first without a loved one, it's normal to feel grief and longing and to remember the good times you once shared with this person.  Letting yourself feel the grief is part of the process of letting go to what was and letting yourself be warmed by loving memories is an important part of recapturing the joy of the season.  Creating new traditions for yourself can help a great deal. My friend Chuck had two horrific losses during the holidays some years back: in 1987, his only sibling, his brother Fred, was killed in a helicopter accident only a few days before Christmas. Three years later, his mother suffered a fatal heart attack as they drove to Mass on Christmas Eve.  He can't help but remember this pain as the holidays approach. But he has reclaimed joy by making Christmas a celebration with friends some years and traveling to warm, tropical destinations other years -- and in each location, either home or the tropics -- he finds joy both in memories and in shared experiences with his life partner David and special friends. And my friend Carol, whose mother died of a heart attack during Christmas Eve services two years ago, is looking forward to holidays in a whole new setting: at her brother's new home in the red rock canyons of Sedona, AZ where she'll celebrate the holidays with her new grandson.

Revise your expectations about family festivities.   Think realistically about last year. Is there any chance that anyone in last year's family fiasco will change?  Given the personalities involved, is there anything that can be done to decrease friction? Meet in a neutral place -- like another relative's or a restaurant? Divide your holiday into a "must-do" family get-together and an anticipated celebration with people -- perhaps some family, perhaps dear friends -- who make your spirits soar? Whatever the outcome of either, tell yourself that you're responsible for your own happy holiday, as are all the people attending your festivities. 

You can make a choice when holidays come around: to follow the usual pattern of misery and strife or to have a different kind of holiday this year -- one where you choose to be happy and to find joy in your own way no matter what is roiling around you. So what if family members don't show up or are determined to have as rotten a holiday as usual with each other? So what if circumstances dictate more modest celebrations than in years past? You can find joy in the music, in the lights, in a spirit in the air as you walk down the street. You can find joy in seeking the company of people who love the holidays.
You can find joy in celebrating who you are now and remembering the best holidays of your past, not with sadness, but with gratitude for the richness of your life experience. You can find joy in this season.  It's your choice!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Three Tips for Coping with FIPS (Formerly Important Person Syndrome)

I had a dream last night that Oprah called.

It's not quite as delusional as it sounds. Some years ago, I appeared regularly on national television to discuss my books or issues related to teenagers or the psychology of daily living. I actually did appear on OPRAH twice, one of those times with my friend Chuck. In my dream, Chuck and I were invited back on the show as Oprah was winding down this year and revisiting as many of her previous guests as possible.

But the dream is still unlikely. It has been some time since I've been on national television or written an article for a national magazine -- all events that were commonplace for me at one time. The cooling of my once hot career has been slow but relentless and now my former life seems...well, a bit like a dream.

Just yesterday, someone identified me as "the person who hunkers down in the back row of Zumba so no one can see her."  That would be me.

Our friends Linda and Jay, who live two doors down from us, introduced us to the concept of FIPS or Formerly Important Person Syndrome as we discussed "who are we now?" over dinner not long ago.

We're the same people we always were, of course, regardless of what we do and where we live. But some transitions are harder than others.  There are former executives facing retirement -- forced or chosen -- feeling suddenly lost. There are people who fill the gaps left by careers that have crashed or simply run their course with frantic activities -- or who rule political action groups or community organizations with fierce dedication. There are those who look back longingly at the past shrugging off the present as time to be endured not enjoyed. There are those who think back with nostalgia at the time their sullen teenagers or opinionated young adult children were once wide-eyed toddlers who thought Mom and Dad knew everything.

If you feel symptoms of FIPS creeping up on you, what can you do?

Concentrate on now, not then.  Our rich histories, both personal and professional, are an important part of our lives. But today is equally important. Today is a gift, an opportunity. What will you do with it?
If you're looking back at what once was, you'll miss the wonder of today.

When I think of my life today, I can't remember a time when I felt so happy and so at peace. When I look back honestly at past years when I was sort of, almost famous, I remember feelings of stress, the anguish of battling a weight problem that was all too evident on camera, the loneliness of constant travel. I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I could have. All of those things are nice to have done. But being right here, now, is thrilling. I love having more control over my time. I love having the opportunity to get to know my neighbors. I love having the chance to spend more time, at last, with my husband Bob and time to play with my three cats. I remember Aunt Molly telling me that she greeted every day -- after she left her long-time government speech-writing position -- with joy and the sentiment: "Today is mine!"  It's quite a different mindset from those hectic times of feeling, correctly or incorrectly, that bosses or editors or deadlines or circumstances owned me.

Total up what you've learned from your life and career transitions.  We grow from all of our experiences, the highs and the lows.  You can grow in patience and wisdom as you struggle with your ornery teenager. You can gain perspective from painful, scary experiences like losing a job or struggling, as so many do today, with finances.  Obviously, none of us would volunteer quickly for such hard lessons. But when you're in the middle of personal trials, it can help to think about what this can teach you and how your growth through this experience can help life to be different. If, like many, you find yourself underemployed and taking a career step-down, it can be an important move toward differentiating between who you really are and what you do.  

No matter what your age or life stage, make a distinction between who you are and what you do -- or have done.  When your career defines you and your value as a human being, the loss of this can be devastating. In the same way, building an identity around being a mother can put you on shaky ground when the kids leave the nest. Valuing yourself as a person, seeing your kindness, resourcefulness, generosity and other good qualities as your defining traits, can give you a lifelong identity that is independent of career or other life achievements. Life circumstances can and most certainly will change as we grow through middle age and beyond. Children grow up. Careers peak and dwindle. Strength and abilities change with age,  always leading to a new turn in your life path. When you have a strong sense of and appreciation for the unique person you are, whatever your current career or life circumstances, you never lose your essence.  

Today is yours!

Today is mine -- a joyful, rewarding gift of a day -- whether or not Oprah ever calls.