Exercise: 4 Life Lessons

fitness-1677212_1280When I signed up for membership at a new gym a year ago (two months before it opened), I wanted, but wasn’t certain I had the motivation, to get in good shape. If you asked me five years ago about regular exercise, I would have scoffed at the idea. When I showed up on the second day after the gym opened, a trainer showed me around, explaining what was offered. And then … he asked me to fill out a form, putting on paper my goals. After I shared what I wanted to accomplish, he worked his magic spell on me and pressured encouraged me to sign up for personal training. I fell for it, signing up for two sessions per month for nine months, an hour later kicking myself for spending the extra money. But a strange phenomenon has occurred – more than my physical health improved. (I know. Y’all already knew that and I’m just behind. Better late than never, right?) Imagine that. In addition to my own mental and emotional health benefits, I have learned some life lessons that have also improved how I relate to and serve my clients. I knew, deep down, that there were numerous benefits to exercise. It took my own experience, applying the concepts I attempt to  pass on to my clients, to improve and impact my own life and theirs.

So…here are the lessons I have learned from this experience.

  1. Making myself accountable to something or someone keeps me focused and motivated to change. Because I was paying for training that was not cheap (but definitely worth it), I wasn’t about to waste my money, so showing up for those sessions was imperative. That was all fine and good, but it also meant, I’d better follow the trainer’s exercise program before meeting with him again, or my hard-earned dollars were wasted when I didn’t see any results. In addition, I was able to encourage my clients to apply this same concept to their sobriety by purposefully making themselves accountable to family members or sponsors, from expressing their long term goals to sharing specific daily schedules. It is uncomfortable at first, given our human nature of thinking, “I am an adult and my own boss. Why would I give someone else permission to nag me.” But. It. Works.
  2. Individual personal training and group exercise classes have related but different benefits. The individual attention I got from personal training was very important because I had no idea what I was doing, and prefer not to hurt myself. I’m too old for that! My trainer started by assessing what I could do, what my limitations were, and what I wanted to accomplish, then giving me a variety of exercises to get me to those goals. (No, I don’t want to be a body-building contestant!) He worked from where I was, helping me gain strength. When my sessions recently ended, I felt strong enough to again try the group classes offered. However, the first time in the class was a little overwhelming, comparing myself to other members who had been attending the classes for a while. It’s the same way with individual and group counseling sessions. They have different goals, but both are beneficial, and typically compliment each other. Individual sessions can dig down to deeper content because the individual can be more comfortable to share. Group sessions are about understanding that participants are not alone in their struggles, but without specific comparison. That leads to my next point.
  3. Comparing myself to others is not only futile, but detrimental to my own success, as well as selfish. It took a couple of group classes, watching the other members do more reps, lift more weight, or finish in a shorter time to make me feel like it wasn’t for me. (No member made me feel that way. They were all either doing what they came to do or encouraging me to keep trying.) After about the third class, which took extra time due to my getting VERY sore, that it dawned on me that each member is at a different place, whether because of their age, how long they had been participating, or just their body makeup. Again, this applies to the work of dealing with substance abuse or life in general. Comparing ourselves to others is not the point, because each person is at a different place in life or even in addiction to the exact same substance. If I’m going to compare, I need to compare where I am today in relation to where I was yesterday. Some days will see improvement by leaps, some will be seen as progress because we didn’t move backwards, and then some will need to be about not moving backwards again tomorrow.
  4. Exercise/physical activity is a huge stress reliever when circumstances are overwhelming, frustrating, or just busy. I can say I have finally discovered what the hype is all about regarding exercise. On days I have been: overwhelmed (when a client shared extreme emotional trauma); angry and disappointed  (when I found out my job in a program I LOVED was ending); sad (realizing more people in need would not have the same opportunity); afraid (hearing “we decided to go with someone else” after more than one interview, despite the desire to trust God); undecided (when there was an offer on the table but it didn’t feel right); or relieved (when I declined that “bird in the hand” offer and within an hour received a “two in the bush” offer from the agency I felt sure was the right place, where God wanted me);…exercise was THE BEST MEDICINE for physical, emotional, and mental health.

Even if you can’t get to the gym or don’t have the funds to spend, grab a friend (or allow one to ask you what you are going to do or what you did for the day), and start moving. A walk. A run. A skate. A swim. A basketball. Something. There will be pain. But it feels SO good when you’re done. It’s time to love yourself healthy. You won’t regret it and your family will love you for taking care of yourself. Physically, emotionally, and mentally.

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Invitation to Your Life

Today I had the privilege of speaking to a group of more than 50 men who have worked hard to complete a substance abuse treatment program inside the local jail, 14 of whom were my direct clients. Many would wash their hands of the chemically-dependent, writing them off as the lowest of society. However, they are sons, brothers, and fathers, and I’m honored to hear their stories and help them see there is hope for a different future. This is what I said to them:

“I am currently reading a book called Love Does by Bob Goff. He writes short anecdotal stories that he relates to the action of love rather than love as a feeling.

One story was particularly interesting to me as I read it and thought of you all and the work you’ve been doing to change. He calls the chapter, There’s More Room, and says, “I used to think I needed an invitation to get into most places, but now I know I’m already invited.”

The shortened version goes like this:

He explains that he has been to the White House to visit on numerous occasions, especially around Easter because of the “swanky” Easter egg hunt happening on the White House lawn, but has never been invited to it. His family would show up and hide eggs along the fence that separates those on the “inside” from the rest of us. They’d dress up and pretend to be part of the “distinguished gathering.” He was always tempted to roll an egg under the fence to see if guys in suits might tackle him and talk into their sleeves. They would use a small area to hide eggs, so they were easy to spot, but his kids were young and probably just thought they were experts at finding eggs. He wanted them to know they were included in important things, that they belonged, that they were invited.

There are lots of events he never got invited to – the Oscars, Paul McCartney’s birthday party, or a space shuttle launch. If he did get one, even to the White House Easter egg hunt, he would definitely go. There is nothing like feeling included. He says there is only one invitation it would kill him to refuse, yet is tempted to turn down regularly. All of us get the invitation every morning to wake up and actually live a life of complete engagement, of whimsy, a life where love does. The invitation doesn’t come in an envelope. It’s ushered in by the sunrise, the sound of a bird, or the smell of coffee. It’s the invitation to actually live, to fully participate in this amazing life every day. Nobody turns down an invitation to the White House, but plenty of you have been turning down the invitation to truly live.

Turning down this invitation looks different to all of us. It could be using a chemical substance or any other number of addictive actions to numb some painful experience or memory. Someone called us a name or put a label on us, and we believe we aren’t worthy of the invitation. It could be distracting ourselves from seeing what isn’t normal because we have not been prepared to deal with it appropriately. It can also look like refusing to forgive or not being grateful for what we have or being chained to fear or envy. It could be fear of reconnecting with a friend because it’s been too long and we are ashamed to have allowed so much time to come between us. It could be that our friends have been participating for years and we’re ashamed to show up late.

We receive an invitation to live each day and sometimes we forget to show up because we’re just tired or have convinced ourselves that we weren’t invited. But we are invited. Every day. Over and over again. When you don’t show up, others will. And yet there is still room for you.

Two things happen when we accept the invitation to participate in life.

  1. Obstacles and hurdles that seem insurmountable aren’t. Things we believe disqualify us don’t.
  2. It’s contagious. Others watch and see that life is amazing, and start believing the invitation is open to them as well. There IS room for them, too.

So, you’ve spent about 18 weeks here, clearing your mind and your body of chemicals that are capable of damaging your body. Understanding that the choices you made are not who you are. Opening your eyes to the opportunities that are yours. This place is not a place to live your life. But this is a place to start again. This is your invitation to truly live a life of engagement. To fully participate in the work of showing up. Time to show up for the real party called life. Welcome to your amazing life.”

In reality, these words were not only for the graduates. Much of the content was also directed at me, as a reminder that I need not wait around for the perfect storm to put things in motion. I must get moving, taking each small step after another to create the life I want.

Goff, B. (2012). Love does: Discover a secretly incredible life in an ordinary world. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Universality: Strength in Numbers

love-in-any-language-is-the-same…Often it’s the smallest little detail shared that makes me realize I’m not alone in my struggles, nor can I overcome or move through them single-handedly. In this post from nearly a year ago, I wrote about stories – everyone has one, and all should be heard before instead of passing judgment. Stories are a significant part of keeping us connected with other human beings, reminding us that lessons can be learned from everything experienced in life. But relating to others’ stories is not the end-all for learning life lessons and feeling supported.

I provide my clients with a worksheet about the benefits and concepts of group work, because that is primarily the venue that is used in my position as a counselor. (It seems like group work was originally promoted for it’s financial benefit of serving more clients by using fewer resources. However, the more I facilitate groups, the more I see the other benefits as the most critical.) The worksheet lists various terms that are familiar to the average person, such as hope, tolerance, feedback, and imitation, and explains their meaning related to group work. Other words are not as familiar – insight, cohesiveness, altruism, catharsis, and universality. Universality is a big word, and some struggle to even say it, but it has a very down-to-earth meaning. The worksheet’s definition – “others have my problem.” There it is. That simple. Others have my problem.

One of the reasons we struggle with a problem so much is that our thoughts lead us to believe we’re alone. Isn’t that special? I’m so unique that I’m the only one with this problem? I could be famous, maybe, because no one else in the history of mankind has ever experienced this problem? Maybe they’ll make a movie about me? But then no one would understand it and no one could play my part, except for me. Why do we struggle and isolate, thinking that we will somehow gain kudos for handling a problem all by ourselves? Will someone really believe we’re less of a person, whiny, or weak because we share our challenges? I drill this concept into my clients, having them share their stories, and watching as walls of pain and judgment come down. When a friend or a client shares their situation with me, I don’t judge them. And yet, I hold back and feel alone because someone would think I’m crazy for the feelings I have about a challenging situation.

This week, I had a conversation with a forever-friend, and realized there are similarities in a specific struggle going on in our lives. As I felt comfortable to share and relate, my friend was free to share as well. I saw so clearly this lesson I work to help my clients understand. Others have my problem. The details are different, but the underlying issue is significantly similar and warrants the emotional stress it causes. And sharing it, getting it out, gave relief and a very personal understanding of what universality means. Someone else in my world understands from experience what this is like. (What a relief that I’m not crazy.) I would never wish similar problems on an enemy, much less a friend, but discovering that this is the case gave me a boost that I needed, as I hope it did to my friend.

I am not alone. I have friends all over the world and coworkers close by who lift me up and understand when issues are overwhelming. I am fortunate. I am blessed. I can get through the tough times, because I know someone understands what this feels like.

And knowing that helps me believe that others also have faith and hope and respect and kindness . . . and LOVE.

 

Comfort: A right or a privilege?

I’m not sure why, but every time I hear a certain commercial, I feel some frustration. I’m sure you’ve heard it. A famous actress comments on a well-known brand of furniture by imploring the listener to “live life comfortably.” Something about the tone of the ad just comes across like there should be an expectation of comfort. So that we’re clear, I’m not against comfort. I like my comfortable bed, my recliner, my sofa. I appreciate having a comfortable, adjustable chair to sit in at work. I even enjoy a level of comfort in the vehicle I drive, despite its age. But I think there is a difference in wanting those things and expecting them.

Maybe it’s the month I spent in Papua New Guinea back in 1982. Seeing people satisfied with the very little earthly possessions they owned changed me. The way the people sang with uninhibited strength was energizing, to say the least. People walk for miles to get to a church service or carry heavy loads of produce or wares to care for their families. I watched a nurse clean and bandage the burned belly of an infant who had rolled into the fire kept going the majority of the day for cooking. As a layer of skin peeled off in her hands, I made an effort to hold back the tears. Then she told me that the child would most likely have serious scars due to the parent’s not understanding the need for changing bandages to prevent infection, as well as the lack of clean supplies.

Maybe it was the trip to a remote village in Alaska with a group of teenagers. It was clear that I take so much for granted when we were required to refrain from flushing any paper down the two toilets to which our group of 21 had access. And the only showers were a quarter mile down the road. They were coin operated and we tried to get two or three people rotated through on the $1.50/10 minute sessions. (Quite an interesting planning maneuver that was! I learned a lot from those teenagers and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.)

Or maybe it’s the occasional trips I get to make back to the place I call home. Seeing how simply people live and the strength they show by being satisfied with what they have gives me perspective.

I am not preaching here. I’m not saying you must turn your back on all things comfortable. I’m sharing my own new desire to live more simply. To not be drawn in by “stuff.” To always appreciate what I have and the wonderful people in my life who touch, move, and inspire me to be better each day. To even appreciate the people who have made me uncomfortable enough to grow and not be satisfied with anything less than my best.