As we enter the season of great festivities, I realize once more that this is the time of year when my therapy clients begin to talk about loneliness, isolation, and grief. My first Christmas disappointment was getting a generic “Lovely Linda” doll instead of a Tiny Tears. The heartache (for a child)! I can clearly remember the sinking in my stomach when I realized I wasn’t getting the real thing. For too many people, that sinking feeling lasts from October through New Year’s Eve.
The image of your perfect holiday may have to do with childhood memories of special foods, tree decorating rituals, and beautifully wrapped presents under that tree (and Tiny Tears in one of those packages!). Glossy holiday images also tempt us in sentimental movies, TV commercials, and a barrage of magazine recipes for this year’s version of the new best food for the holidays.
Despite the focus on food and presents, the perfect holiday is most often about how we feel our relationships are going. Will there be anyone for me to spend the holiday with? Will they be the right people? If they are the right people (spouses, children and siblings and lifelong friends), how are we getting along?
You may also be familiar with the common autumn experience: energy wanes, connecting with others feels more effortful, thoughts about life turn dark. This autumn despair seems to arrive with the very first yellow leaf that drifts to the grass, a hint of wood smoke, or the appearance of tightly budded burgundy chrysanthemums instead of pink tulips at Costco. You may feel isolated, grieving, struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder; these autumn signs often trigger a hibernation response.
Despite the desire to do less (and maybe see less people), this is a really good time to think about creating and enhancing connection. In case you aren’t sold on the importance of connection for us humans, let me summarize recent research:
If this time of year reminds you that your circles of belonging are emptier than you wish, I invite you to use that longing to be inspired about filling them. It’s also a good time to take some starter steps toward more connection.
My question for you is “What is Your Poetry?” When we identify our poetry—that is something that we love to do—we have a foundation for growing our connections.
I am very fortunate to have some friends who let us spend a week at their lake home. This year one of them suggested that since she thinks I’m a good poet, I might want to write a poem about the experience. I felt both honored and nervous. Could I come through? Would she like what I wrote? Would I sense her disappointment that it wasn’t good? Sharing our poetry is scary. And by poetry, I mean our gifts—whatever they are.
My poetry is literally poetry—feeling inspired by a phrase, trusting that it’s going to lead somewhere, wrestling with words and blank white paper—and coming out with something that expresses some part of me that I’I want to show to people. Inspiration. Intention. Trust. Sharing. This is the creative process for me.
Your poetry doesn’t have to be literary. The other day I watched my sister finish a flower girl dress for our great niece to wear in her uncle’s wedding and I remembered the wedding dress (one), bridesmaid dresses (ten), flower girl dresses (three) that she made. It hit me then that sewing is one of her poetries. She is inspired by a vision of something beautiful, a wish to participate in something meaningful, and has the patience to make and remake the dresses until she is satisfied, plus the generosity to offer them to the world.
My brother’s poetry is cooking (his steak sonnets are great). My friend Susan is a poet of tea. She was inspired by two women she met in California who brewed and served tea at the public library every day because they wanted to share their love of the ritual of tea and cake. This experience started Susan on a journey that led her to study Japanese Tea Ceremony, to dream of opening a tea salon, to collect beautiful teapots, and to learn the long history and many types of tea. Right now, she and I are sitting in our friend’s lake home, wrapped in gratitude for this hospitality. She just poured us some All-Day Breakfast tea and as we sip, we talk about how tea is ceremony, is refreshment, is comfort, is restoration. And because of the knowledge she brought to our cups today and the love she feels for the tea experience, I feel all of that. This is communion.
You may wonder about these paragraphs—what do poetry, cooking, sewing, and tea have to do with connecting and how will it help me feel less lonely? Any of our likes can be the basis for enhancing connection. Another poetry of mine is shopping for clothes at thrift stores. I generally strike up a conversation with another bargain hunter and I’ve recently learned about a program called Dress for Success that can use my fashion eye and desire to dress my friends.
On the Isle of Wight, there is a program (Time and Tide) that offers older people an island-wide artistic program that includes creative workshops, museum visits, pop-up exhibitions, and touring collections to inspire and engage older people and reduce the likelihood of loneliness and social isolation. In the North of England, “The Company of Others Ensemble is a company of ten dancers over the age of 65 that celebrates age and provides a moving dance experience for audiences and performers alike. In 2018 the Ensemble will host monthly open workshops to encourage other people who feel isolated or lonely to dance with them and join the Ensemble.”
No matter what it is, find your poetry and share it. Don’t hoard your gifts and dreams, bring them out beyond your risk-tight boundaries and dare to stretch and belong.
Here is the poem I wrote for my friends:
Sharing this makes me feel vulnerable, risking connection makes us all vulnerable. But vulnerability is required if we want to be known, and being known is necessary if we want to have strong belonging.
What might we do to get braver? Brene Brown offers lots of encouragement for us to take this journey. “I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.” I would add we can choose courage, comfort, or familiar unhappiness
Step one in growing courage to connect is truly feeling our desire to be closer to people. What inspires you to allow that feeling? Belonging can feel dangerous if you’ve been abandoned and rejected by others. That danger is then predicted from the past. And unfortunately, the future then takes the shape of the past. If this is the case, the beginning of courage is just knowing that you want more than what you’ve had. This is a bigger step than it might sound. Too many disappointments can lead to going numb to wanting.
The next step is opening to the possibility that the future can be different. This takes a leap of imagination. In our Pathways to Resilience program, we offer a meditation that guides us to remember or imagine a scene where we felt a sense of belonging. Accessing a memory, however brief, or connecting with imagination can bring a felt sense of what it is like to be connected.
However, be aware of the cost of expectations—the belief that things have to be or look a certain way in order to be real. This is a real hazard when we want to grow community. Take a moment and ask yourself, “What are my expectations and how do they get in the way of my experiencing moments of connection?”
One obstacle might be dismissing small moments of connection. However, even a minute of feeling open and positive toward someone (the librarian, the woman who passes you a napkin to wipe up your coffee spill) contributes to physical wellbeing. However, it must be named and noticed. It doesn’t help if it happens and we don’t take it in. Can you open up to the possibility that connection doesn’t have to come in a certain package? If we are on the lookout for small experiences of the things we want more of, we can turn more and more in the direction of what we want.
Rick Hanson, the author of Buddha’s Brain and Taking in the Good suggests that naming and savoring are ways to bring the good into our lives. Name those small things. And savor them. Take 30 seconds to intentionally experience the sensations of belonging and then set an intention to notice them again.
Then, take that intention into a new situation you have identified as a likely place to find other people who share your interests, and risk speaking to someone. If speaking seems tike too big of a risk (and for many it is), can you just be in the place with those people? Can you go back again a few times until you have some calm while you’re there?
Let’s focus back on the holidays. Maybe you could make a list of the expectations or even requirements you have about the upcoming holidays. I remember the sad holidays when my elderly mother couldn’t find a way to enjoy herself. She was plagued by memories of the holidays she had directed, the dozens of turkeys she roasted, and the pride she felt for her central role in making these things happen. She was offered supporting role tasks, but she wanted to remain the star of the production. She could never find a way to value being an honored guest instead of the amazing host. It’s so easy to miss the good when you’re looking for the perfect.
I invite you to see how much of your expectation load you can put aside for the coming holidays. Then use that practice to launch into the new year creating new connections and sharing your precious poetry!
Sandra Kacher, LICSW Emeritus
After practicing for more than 35 years, Sandra has closed her psychotherapy practice. She would like to thank all of her former clients for the opportunity of working with them. It has been an inspiring journey! Along with Susan Bourgerie, Sandra co-founded Loring Psychotherapy and Mindfulness Center, and is a founding member of Partners in Resilience. She delivered Resilience Training at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing from 2006-2013, and from 2013-2017 she facilitated the highly-regarded Pathways to Resilience program at Partners in Resilience. She co-authored The Chemistry of Joy Workbook her three colleagues at PIR. She trained many professionals in the PIR resilience model. Sandra no longer sees clients for individual psychotherapy but is developing a longstanding interest in life coaching. She offers Resilience-based coaching and IFS (Internal Family Systems)-informed coaching. Contact Sandra at Partners in Resilience.
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