Judy O'Neill

Helping people get unstuck....

How Anger Can Help Us Be Happy

Our society can shame us for having anger. It is often deemed unsightly, not loving, and certainly not spiritual.

This kind of belief can lead many of us to deny our anger, and much research tells us that denying or suppressing anger can be bad for our health. Anger can be a wake-up call that we are allowing someone to treat us badly. Anger can let us know that it is time to set a firm limit or get support to change a pattern.

Say you see your husband, Sam, at a party complaining to his friends about something you did. He was rolling his eyes in exasperation at “the old ball and chain.” You might respond in several ways. See for yourself which one feels most familiar and which feels most useful…

1. You go into denial that it bothered you. You aren’t consciously aware of any problem. When you wake up the next morning, your back is out. You end up spending the next few weeks completely stressed and occupied with pain relief, doctors’ visits, and coping. Your well-meaning subconscious has protectively tucked this disappointing piece of truth about your relationship away underground.

2. Or you lock yourself in your host’s bathroom and sob, feeling victimized, and trapped in the relationship. You then pull yourself together and put on a pleasant face. When you get home, you initiate love making to feel close again. Later you proceed to take it out on yourself by eating three pieces of cake and a whole carton of ice cream. You feel depressed.

3. Or maybe you simmer with resentment for days, acting icy, highly irritable, running late to meet him at an important business dinner. You are being really passive-aggressive – trying to get him to feel your anger. You don’t directly tell him what upset you. You complain to your friends about what an ass he is.

4. Or after the party you lose it – screaming at him and shaming him for being such a terrible, flawed husband. You end up feeling ashamed that you treated him like that.
Or…

5. You see his eye rolling and public complaining about you, and you feel anger arise inside. You think to yourself, “Oh that is so not OK.”

You approach him, “Hey Sam. Could I talk to you a second?”
Once you are away from the party: “What the heck! That was so not acceptable. I love you and I’m pissed!”

“I don’t want you to ever show disdain for me in public. It is disrespectful. If you have an issue with something I have done or said, bring it to me privately so that I can address it.”

So what went right with #5?

You were aware of Sam’s behavior and the anger that arose inside you.
You didn’t go to blame or shame. Instead you stayed with what is true for you and made a direct request. And you kept it about his particular action and didn’t go to drama about who he is as a husband.

You leaned into the relationship with sharing your feelings rather than pulling away.

You channeled the anger into empowerment. You took care of yourself by setting a clear boundary and expectation of respect. You raised the bar for the relationship.

The irony is that Sam isn’t to blame. It’s not really about blame – it’s more about choice and preference. Because we have free will, we get to choose what behaviors we will tolerate in life and which we won’t. .

Anger can be profound. I know it is so not always easy, but anger offers us a gift. It gives us guidance on how to navigate a life where we can thrive.

Best wishes,
Judy

HEALTHY COMPLAINING

We all know people who complain too much.  But do you know people who complain too little?  The word has such negative connotations in our culture.  I wonder if it might sometimes be a healthy, honest thing to do.

My friend Evan’s brother, who is quite reserved, described their dad’s experience of terminal cancer by saying, “He was a perfect stoic. He didn’t complain at all.”

Evan is someone who is pretty comfortable being real and open with people.  He too visited their dying father who confided in Evan, “Son, cancer is a hell of a son-of-a-bitch!  This is really rough.” Then Evan and his dad ended up having an extremely real, open-hearted, and important time together.  The both shed tears and also laughed a lot together that day.

We all can judge ourselves or others for “losing it” or “having a melt-down” when things are stressful or painful.  If getting emotional is a “melt”-down, then is not allowing yourself to get emotional mean that a part stays frozen?

It seems that people think that if they complain, they are being weak or ungrateful.  Just because we let ourselves be open about the difficulty we are experiencing doesn’t mean that we aren’t also grateful for all our blessings or that we don’t enjoy many pieces of life deeply.

If your goal is making sure everyone around you thinks you have your poop together and are always composed, then sharing the whole truth about how you are might not be recommended.  But if your goal is to live an open-hearted life that gives yourself and others permission to be real, then maybe intentionally complaining to someone you trust, could be on track.

So the next time someone you trust asks you how you are, perhaps the response of “Can’t complain.” Or “It’s all good” might not be the best invitation for connecting human to human.

Judy O’Neill, MSW is a social worker in private practice as a health and relationship coach.  She can be reached at judy@wellnesscoachcolorado.com or by phone (303) 819-2099.

The Dangers of Safety

We all crave security and stability – some of us more than others.  Human beings are like geese – we mate for life (or at least plan to).  And we are pack animals like wolves and gorillas – we form tribes, societies, and groups to belong.

Security can look like a steady job, being in a long-term relationship, having a growing 401K, staying in the same town or church, having the approval of those whose opinions matter to us, and more….  

But safety doesn’t make us happy all on its’ own.  We all have varying degrees of needs for….

·         Finding meaning in our days and lives

·         Fun or enjoyment

·         Love and authentic connection with others

·         Good health

·         Adventure

·         Rest

·         To be respected for who we truly are

I feel best when I honor all of these – in their own time.  When I walk the dog of my friend who just had surgery, I honor my need for meaningful contribution and connection.  When my husband and I sit on the couch and watch Wanda Sykes, it’s not terribly meaningful – but her outrageous humor makes me laugh so hard I cry.  Or when I go to get scraped at the dentist next week, it isn’t fun, but it honors my need for good health.

We all sacrifice and deny these various needs as a price for security. And our wise bodies and emotions will send signals that we are off-track from heading toward our best lives.

·         You might notice that the longer you stay in that well-paying, unfulfilling job, the more depressed you get.

·         Maybe you sacrifice a healthy weight for security.  As you try to not upset your spouse who gets angry when he drinks too much, anxiety and emotional eating grows.

·         Or you’ve noticed a correlation between back pain and visiting critical in-laws.

·         Perhaps you aren’t going on a dream trip to Alaska because you want to be a “good son” and your mom doesn’t want to hire any help even though she can afford it.

·         Or you find yourself irritable each time you see the kids’ principal and realize it’s because you really don’t want to volunteer for the PTA fundraisers anymore.

So here’s the question to ask ourselves regularly: “Today, where might I be squashing my needs or wishes in order to protect the status quo or to not lose others’ approval?”

The great news is that we don’t have to do anything drastic - don’t have to blow up our lives - in order to start tending more to our non-security needs.  Maybe you trim that trip to your mother-in-law’s from 4 nights to 3.  Or you start opening up to a trusted friend about your husband’s drinking.  Perhaps you experiment with not signing up to volunteer at next month’s event at the kids’ school and see how that feels.

Choices That Work

I woke up this morning feeling kind of heavy, a bit depressed, and not particularly excited about my nicely planned yet spacious Saturday.  Then I felt an extra layer of disappointment that I wasn’t feeling good on such a nice day.  I spent some time trying to get clear on why I was feeling low – and clarity didn’t come.  

What did arrive via UPS was my new silk tapestry purse which I (a non-fashionista) am inordinately excited about.  The gorgeous fabric is like art.  The image arose of my putting my disappointing mood in a purse and inviting it to come along with me into my day.  This helped to bust up the sense of my feelings being the ruiner of my day.  I found myself feeling less struggle, feeling lighter. I became more able to enjoy my husband’s outrageously funny remarks about something at work, more able to enjoy how soft our Molly’s fur is. (Doggie, not child, by the way.)

What else needs an invitation to be included in my day?  What other feelings need some tenderness?  I am going on an international trip in 6 weeks and could admit to myself that I’m not just excited – I’m nervous!  That fence between excitement and nervousness is awfully narrow to walk on.  I prefer to be excited – but it might make me feel best if I push down the protective fence and allow both.

I once heard that expanding the size of your personal world is stressful.  That stress might look like difficulty making decisions, being fussy or irritable (I prefer the non-pathologizing word “fussy”), or simply a physical, shaky feeling of anxiety.  

I didn’t make the decision to go on the trip just by listening to my heart and gut feelings.  I also asked myself three questions:

·         What was the joy per dollar ratio?  This would be fulfilling a lifetime wish of mine and Michael’s.  It was a risk, but we think we could have an enriching, hugely fun time.  It could be a very high joy per dollar ratio.

·         “What works?” is a question I ask myself daily when I am choosing how to spend my time, money, and energy. “Does the trip work right now to make my life happier?” At this particular time, could the cost create enough long-term stress that might outweigh the joy of going?  After a realistic look at finances and checking in with our nervous systems, we concluded that the trip worked.   Michael and I committed to going to Africa.  

·         Another question that helps me step back and see the big picture is “Would I truly regret not going this year?” The answer was yes.

So with my nervousness, excitement, and now-faded low mood, I step forward into my day feeling a bit more whole.

The Trickiness of Trust and Gratitude

If you looked at two people – one who is feeling angry, and one who looks peaceful and tells you they feel so much trust in life, who do you think has the happier life?

It depends.  

Sometimes the effort to trust or to be grateful for all that is going right in our lives can push other feelings underground.  Trust and gratitude are more pleasant an experience than letting one’s self feel grief or fear or anger.  

As we grow up, we learn to label sadness, fear, and anger as “negative.”  They are to be resisted or avoided.  We are taught that they can decrease our happiness. We are trained to think that anger isn’t spiritual – that we should always be loving thy neighbor, right?  But the reality is that when we don’t let ourselves feel these basic human feelings, we can get depressed or anxious.  And it takes a lot of effort to keep the feelings away.  This creates stress, which can eventually contribute to health problems.

One characteristic of happy people is that they feel their feelings fully.  Happy people don’t censor raw emotion, deny feelings or run from pain as many of us do. (Foster and Hicks (2004) How We Choose to be Happy)  If there is loss or disappointment, they feel grief, if they are afraid, they feel fear.  Not that they follow terrible stories of suffering (“Why me?” “This shouldn’t be this way.”  “This is all ____’s fault.”)  They simply feel the bodily sensations of that emotion as it shows up in the moment.  Many intense emotions come through in 90 second waves - maybe test this out for yourself.  Many of us resist feelings because we are afraid we might get stuck in them, but the real truth is that they pass.  

We learn that trust and gratitude are gateways to being more connected with God or the divine - that they are very spiritual states of being.  But maybe they aren’t the only gateways.  Have you ever experienced a wave of huge sadness and crying that left you feeling washed clean, relaxed, and so present with the moment?  Sometimes feeling feelings can be very spiritual.

So somewhere there is a line.  Perhaps the practice many have of keeping a Gratitude Journal could be accompanied by keeping a What the Heck am I Feeling Journal.  It is a place where I can ask myself, “What am I feeling now?” Some mornings I wake up in a bad mood and am not feeling grateful – that’s just not where I am.  

It is absolutely true that I have much to be grateful for, but maybe the more palpable truth that morning, underneath the bad mood, is that I’m ticked off at someone.  I might write about it, talk with my husband or a friend, or simply take a moment to sit with the feelings.  Allowing the anger to be there in my body, and choosing what action I might need to take or what I might need to say, could be the doorway to being more available to feel a bit happier as I go about my day.

Warmly,
Judy O'Neill








From clients…

“Judy has helped me to address my harsh beliefs about my being a weight-loss failure. I have kept off 15 pounds, and have lost my resistance to finding time for exercise. I’m thrilled.”

- M.T., Boulder, CO

“I cannot recommend Judy’s coaching enough. She teaches me how to question the “have to’s” in my life and to find the “choose to’s.” Her tools have helped me calm my previously powerful worries and anxiety. I now feel like I’m not just coping, I’m living.”

- W.L., Portland, OR

“I can't believe that I - who was so very stuck - am now in a job I love and am happier than I've been in decades.”

- L.O., Louisville, CO