A Paradigm Shift

The following is a talk I gave for a series called Doing Discomfort With Dignity:  Overcoming Stress and Anxiety

I’ll just tell you a little bit about myself.  Up until 12 years ago, I had no idea that I was creating my own unhappiness. In my late teens and early 20’s I struggled with an eating disorder which basically means I thought about food 24/7, how I would get it, eat it, hide it, purge it. I compulsively exercised and thought my self-worth was directly connected to the number on the scale.  I knew the calorie count of everything that went in my mouth as well as everyone else’s mouth.  I remember thinking I would never wish this on my worst enemy.

Then I found OA, Overeaters Anonymous, and that gave me relief from the food and the weight obsession. But I was still thinking about food all the time, weighing and measuring my food and making all of our family get togethers revolve around what and when I could eat.  I still had on the glasses that food and my weight define me.

Then I got married and struggled with feeling connected. It was like I was always craving something my husband couldn’t give me and I didn’t have the clarity to express what I wanted, I just know I wanted more of something I wasn’t getting. I wanted to be intimate, but would get insulted, feel rejected and disengage to protect myself.

Within a few years, we had a small brood of overly active, highly independent and one that gave us a run for our money. I felt like the worst mother, always angry, always yelling, always unhappy, always overwhelmed and out of control. I was stressed out, overly anxious about how my kids were going to turn out or how my marriage was going to save me.

It’s actually a gift that cell phones, Facebook and Instagram didn’t exist then because I’m sure I would have been addicted to that as my escape from my life. I felt like a victim, like I don’t remember signing up for marriage and family to be so hard. The chaos, the fighting, the disobedience, the mess. I just wanted out.

I was a bit of a self help junky and had tried most everything out there. 12 steps, the Forum, love and logic parenting, the nurtured heart approach, not to mention every book on middos development, emunah and mussar. I started Rabbi Aryeh Nivin on his path to helping women find their purpose. Did I mention I’m a social worker and a trained life coach? Talk about the shoemaker who doesn’t have shoes.

Peace of mind, I just wanted some peace of mind and it eluded me. Until about 12 years ago when I came across a psychological paradigm that has a spiritual component to it, so it suited me. For the first time, I was able to see that I wasn’t a victim and that I was actually innocently creating a lot of my stress, anxiety and unhappiness.

I would really like to share with you this radical paradigm shift because it helped me shift the way I related to uncomfortable feelings, like stress and anxiety, but also boredom, disappointment, frustration or anger, and I lived in all of it most of the time.

What’s a paradigm shift? Well a paradigm is when I view something in a particular way, maybe I’ve thought about it, maybe I haven’t, but I never really questioned that particular way, I just view it that way. For instance, do you view having a lot to juggle as stress producing? Do you view illness as horrible? Do you view your husband’s not helping around the house or not taking out the garbage as insensitive? Do you view having nothing to do as a problem? Do you believe your self-worth comes from being productive or thin? Do you believe being vulnerable is scary? Do you view feeling out of control as wrong?

Now a paradigm shift is when we gain a perspective that we didn’t have before and from that vantage point, everything looks different.   For instance, look at this picture (it’s a famous picture of a young girl and an old lady at the same time) Do you see a young lady? Do you see an old woman? The first paradigm, the first look, is obvious. It jumps right out at you. If you look closely though, there is another perspective, another way to see it.  For some that new perspective jumps right off the page. For others it takes some time and pointing out to see.

I’m going to spend a few minutes talking about a paradigm that I think most of the world believes and never had any reason to question it. Belief: my feelings of discomfort, uncomfortable feelings, stress, anxiety, come from the world around me, from my circumstances, from my past, from my “personality”, from something that happened to me.

So if I put on my young girl glasses, I see the young girl (It doesn’t seem like my glasses have anything to do with what I’m seeing.  I assume there is a picture and I am seeing reality. I assume my perspective is an objective and accurate expression of what I am seeing. Yet, the old lady is there.  So too, if I put on my old lady glasses, I see an old lady (and I wouldn’t even know that what I see is based on the glasses I am wearing).

So the paradigm is that life is happening to me and I’m just observing it. My husband doesn’t take out the garbage and I’m just observing that it’s insensitive (especially since I shopped, cut, cooked, cleaned up and washed the dishes). It doesn’t look to me like I have on a pair of insensitive glasses and therefore whatever I see will look insensitive (even though sensitive may be there too).

The paradigm shift I want to share with you tonight is that there is something else going on when it comes to uncomfortable feelings. There’s another perspective, viewpoint from which to see where uncomfortable feelings come from and when you understand that, you will not only have more freedom of choice, you will be able to handle and react to them with dignity.

So what are thoughts and feelings?  From the old paradigm, the one where life is coming at me, my thoughts and feelings seem like something I have to deal with because they are coming at am and as a victim I have to ward them off and if I can’t do that, then at least I could try to change them.
From this other paradigm, there is a shift is the way we view thoughts and feelings.  Thoughts and feelings are not something we have to deal with.  They are just something we get to experience. They are not something we need to change, manage, get on top of. They come through us and we are designed to let them flow through us, like water in a river flows or energy through a socket flows.

We are not our thinking. We are not our feelings. Thoughts and feelings are something we have and if we don’t get too bent out of shape about them, we could feel them and rebound from them. We could experience the resilience within us with which we were built.

So what if the glasses I wear point me inward instead of outward? What if the experience and feelings I have moment to moment are really just temporary thought creations that don’t have any power but for my belief in them or my lack of awareness that they even exist?

For example, I was driving home with my husband from Philly in the pouring rain the other day and I was feeling so stressed and anxious. It kind of felt like I was driving with my son who just got his permit. My body was feeling so tense. At one point, I closed my eyes. I noticed in that moment that the tension passed.

Well how is that possible? If my stress is coming from the rain and glare, then how could I, even for a moment, not feel the tension? Because for that moment I wasn’t focused on it, I wasn’t thinking about it, I wasn’t looking outward blaming my tension on the rain.  Now I get someone could jump in and we could have a whole conversation about denial, but we will save that for another time.

For now, the point is just that I am feeling a temporary thought created experience, thinking  and stressing about the rain and an accident,  but the moment I closed my eyes, I had a more peaceful feeling because I wasn’t thinking about the rain. Now for sure, if I kept thinking about the rain, I would have continued to feel tension even with my eyes closed and I probably would have continued to believe the paradigm that my uncomfortable feelings were coming from outside of me, from the circumstance of the rain, from the past car accident I had in the rain, from my anxiety.

The new paradigm is coming to say that the only way I could feel any stress, tension or peace is because of thought in the moment. Every moment I am viewing life via glasses that are made up of thought and we don’t always see it.

Not knowing this could trip you up. Why? Because we end up limiting ourselves out of fear and think the fear is real rather than a temporary thought experience creating limitation in this moment, but not necessarily in the next moment.

I think there are certain beliefs that we have bought into and never bothered to question and therefore we don’t see how those beliefs may be the cause of our stress, anxiety or discomfort. They are the glasses from which we are looking out at life and creating our experience of it. We just fall into believing that the distress is coming from our difficult life.

For instance, the belief people have in their inability to handle uncomfortable feelings.  The message constantly being reverberated is “I don’t want to feel this way!”  and” I’ll do anything to get away from it.” “I can’t handle it” is another popular refrain. “It shouldn’t be this way.” “It’s not fair.”

My colleague says the definition of suffering is wanting to be somewhere I’m not.  It’s that simple. If I think it shouldn’t be this way, I create a tremendous amount of upset that has nothing to do with what actually is.

For example, the weather.  It just is. But when I get caught in thinking, it shouldn’t be raining, it’s so inconvenient, no one is going to show up, I hate driving in the rain, I can’t handle any more rain, I have no innocently added unnecessary distress to my situation.  So much distress becomes more optional and less required.

So let’s stop and ask ourselves, what is the problem with uncomfortable feelings? Why do we need to escape them? Why are we afraid to feel? What will happen to us if we actually acknowledge and allow those feelings to flow through us? What are we protecting ourselves from by trying to avoid feeling?  
The paradox is that what we resist persists, so the more we try to avoid specific feelings that we deemed unhelpful, unnecessary or uncomfortable, the more we actually find ourselves feeling them. But who said they are unhelpful, unnecessary or uncomfortable?

This question may make me sound nuts, but what if uncomfortable feelings like stress, anxiety, boredom weren’t a problem? What if the only thing that makes them into a problem is the idea, the belief, the thought, that those feelings should be off limits? But for that thought, I could feel anything and be ok.
Meaning, someone got the idea that feeling bad is a problem and packaged to the world how important it is to be happy, to feel good, to have peace of mind. And we bought it.  In truth, if you were never sold the idea that feeling bad was a problem, you would actually bounce back and find yourself happier, feeling better and more peaceful.

The main reason is because you were designed by G-d to be resilient.  It’s part of your neshama’s DNA. But we bought the party line and we innocently override our natural ability to be able to handle distress, naturally be able to get over it and then find ourselves naturally happier.

Your belief in your resilience is what makes you resilient. Your belief that feeling bad is a problem is what makes uncomfortable feelings a problem.

When we think about something or someone we tend to believe that what we are feeling is coming from what we are thinking about, not from what we are thinking. The slightest insight into the truth of this statement shifts the entire paradigm through which we see life. When that happens, we are empowered to take responsibility for our experience instead of blame others. We go from victim to freedom.

When I can own my experience, I can flow with it with dignity. When I am blaming something else for my experience, I feel disempowered and usually look pretty frazzled.

So the take away is to notice, which glasses am I wearing? Which paradigm am I looking at my life through? If you find yourself complaining or blaming, it’s a helpful red flag that you may be in an old victim paradigm.

Just asking myself, “who said?” was really helpful for me to create some space between me and my beliefs long enough to realize I am not seeing the truth, but rather a reflection of my beliefs in that moment. Over time, as my relationship to my thinking changed, my beliefs about feeling uncomfortable, stress and anxiety, shifted and then my experience of uncomfortable feelings, stress and anxiety actually changed as well. I know you can have that experience as well.

One thought on “A Paradigm Shift”

  1. Rachel Leah Stanger says:

    Also love reading your exposes. So true. We have to constantly drive our minds to that place.

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