Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year, New You?

How to make the most of a fresh start.
Originally published January 1, 2010.

It wasn't always that way for me. I used to downplay New Year's Eve to myself and others, and we used to be in bed by 12:01am, or worse, even earlier. I also used to avoid dancing at all costs. This had nothing to do with dancing ability, though. It had everything to do with my discomfort in my own skin. I always figured that I'd have to develop into someone else in order to truly let go and dance. Like so many this time of year, I'd have to believe the promise of the magazine covers: You Can Become the New You!

Every family therapist knows that there is one week that produces more new referrals than any other time throughout the year. Can you guess which week?
If you guessed the third week in January, you'd be right. This is because just a month prior most everyone spent a very trying holiday time with their immediate and extended family, usually in close quarters, and are still feeling the repercussions. Also, by the third week most folks have seen their credit card bills from the holidays and that always produces stress and anxiety within the family. And, of course, it takes about three weeks for everyone to start failing on their New Year's Resolutions.

See, by that third week, the "New You" has started losing out to the Old You, and you not only find yourself back to square one, you feel even worse. You feel less capable of creating the changes you really crave in your life. And the failure of the grand effort to change for good has actually made it more difficult to actually make the change later. Yes, it's true. Regained weight is actually harder to lose than the original fat. The principle is the same in relationships. After relationships begin to improve there is renewed hope among all parties. But whenever that same old behavior returns, whenever that same old argument resurfaces, it casts doubt on whether any change actually took place, or whether change is even possible.

The simple truth is that we all usually mistake change for growth. Change is not growth; change is only one aspect of growth. Growth is actually Change plus Stability. Change only becomes positive, only becomes true growth toward maturity, when it is also paired with stability. That's right, as paradoxical as it sounds, change must be accompanied by stability–something has to remain the same or it's not really change at all. If everything changes, there's no change at all–just vacillation. Like vacillation from a overweight sloth to a health freak. Or vacillating from a self-medicating smoker to a non-smoker in need of no medication at all for life's anxieties. Or vacillating from a screaming, reactive parent to a ScreamFree one.

There is no such thing as a New You. There is only the Real You, wanting to come out.

I mentioned earlier that I used to avoid dancing at all costs. But then I decided to quit my two jobs and start writing ScreamFree Parenting. Many of you have heard the story about how that began. It was actually Jenny, my wife, who offered the strongest kick-in-the-pants encouragement with one simple question: "When are you going to say Yes to ScreamFree?" This was in reference to the material I had been presenting in workshops, about which I would always dream of "turning into a book one day." What she was really asking, however, was "When are you going to say Yes to you, Hal?"

When was I going to say Yes to my strongest desires to make a large difference in the world?

Well, I have said Yes, and I am saying Yes, and because of that we are looking forward to an amazing year. Around here we are celebrating the new year because, in many ways, this year promises to be a really new year for ScreamFree. While the ten thousand of you reading this obviously know about ScreamFree Parenting, and tens of thousands have read ScreamFree Parenting, the whole world does not yet know what it's missing. And with the help of Broadway Books, Waterbrook Press, and Random House, we're going to make that happen.

In the meantime, my saying Yes has obviously made a significant difference in my ability to celebrate New Year's Eve. To occasionally be the life of the party. I'm not sure exactly why, but I think it has something to do with finally allowing myself to pursue what I truly wanted to do, instead of pursuing what I thought I should, or needed to do.

So often we are told that failure is the result of pursuing what we want to do instead of what we need to do. You can desire idyllic dreams when you're young, but when you're married with kids and a mortgage, it's time to lay aside desires and accept responsibilities. But that's just plain wrong. Failure in life is not the result of neglecting what we need to do. Failure has nothing to do with needs at all.

Failure in life occurs whenever we neglect what we want most for what we want right now.

We always get in trouble whenever we choose to do what we want right now–eating a Swiss Cake Roll, and thus neglect what we want most–to develop a stronger, healthier body. Or picking up after your children now, just to avoid the battle, thereby making it harder for them to learn to pick up after themselves later.

So it would make sense that what we need to do most is figure out what we want most–and pursue that above all else.

Now, I can already hear the objections, because I hear them strongest in my own head. "Hal, if everyone just started paying attention to all their wants, then no one would do the right thing! No one would think of others, just themselves! No one would ever do any work, any charity, anything unpleasant."

I couldn't disagree more. What I strongly believe is that when you open yourself up to what you truly want most, selfishness and a lack of responsibility are nowhere to be found. This is because usually, what you want most are great relationships. With your kids. Your spouse. Your family. Your God.

Whether or not you believe me, here's a challenge for you. Instead of making a list of New Year's Resolutions (which are usually doomed to fail and land you in a therapist's office), make a different list this year. Make a list of what you want this year. Put down anything and everything you want, regardless of how silly or unrealistic it may be. You want to win the lottery? Put it down. You want to buy a Lexus? Put it down. (That one's definitely on my list). You want a Middle East Accord that forever brings stability to the region, the elimination of nuclear hopes in Iran, and brings all the troops home from Iraq? Regardless of how improbable, put it down.

And keep at it. Here's what will happen: the more things you list, the more of your most precious desires will come out. Like a more friendly and mutually respectful relationship with your spouse. Or a more appreciative attitude from your kids. Or perhaps a stronger capability of handling the normal chaos of life.

Just keep writing until you can tap into those deepest desires, and you will begin to see two automatic processes. First, you'll see that a lot of our desires compete with one another. Like the Swiss Cake Roll and the health plan, the new Lexus competes with the desire to build long-term wealth. That's why our toughest choices in life are not between right and wrong–it's between what we want most and what we want right now. The more we choose the latter, however, the more we live the life we've truly craved.

Secondly, and even more importantly, you'll begin to see that you don't need a New You; you just need to say Yes to the you that's already in there. The You whom God knows and loves and, dare I say it, even likes.

I have no idea what that You looks and acts like, but I hope you can be as happy as I looked New Year's Eve. I hope you can dance like that. Well, I hope you can dance, let's just say that.

Side note: Notice that even in the midst of my revelry, I'm still so dedicated to the ScreamFree cause that I have my cell phone saddled right on my belt. Yeah, right. No one would ever confuse me with a workaholic. I'm more the work-avoidant-type who feels guilty the whole time he's avoiding work. Seriously, I think that was my Finger-Phone on my belt that night. You know, the call-me-if-my-kid-blows-his-finger-off-with-fireworks phone. Thankfully, the phone never rang.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Grinch That Stole Mommy

Originally posted  December 1, 2009 
Avoiding the Grinch spirit at Christmas and embracing the real spirit of the season.
I hate the Christmas season. Ok, maybe hate is too strong a word. That's the problem with being a writer. Everyone pays really close attention to your words and if you're not careful, they come back to haunt you in one way or another. So which word really pinpoints my feelings about Christmas? Bitterness? Melancholy? Cynicism? Dread? Hmm…that has a nice ring to it. Yes, I think that just might be it. I dread Christmas.

Sad, but true. I dread “the most wonderful time of the year.” I should be traipsing around town spreading cheer and drinking Peppermint Lattes, but I just can’t. To tell you the truth, I feel more like curling up into the fetal position and trying to sleep my way through the craziness. There is just something panic-inducing about the month of December. I have never sat down to try and outline what makes me so anxious whenever I hear Bing Crosby dreaming of a White Christmas, but with another yuletide quickly approaching, it’s high time I did just that.

Maybe it’s the catalogs that arrive before I’ve even finished sneaking the KitKats out of my kids’ Halloween bags. Those things are relentless. The catalogs, I mean. They clog my mailbox daily, promising lifetime guarantees on “gift solutions that make life easier.” Let’s think about that for a moment. Does a chocolate fondue fountain really make my life easier? What about a hand-held gnome that repeats phrases you give it in a “gnome accent?" You know what would really make my life easier? Not getting any more catalogs! Maybe it’s the supermarkets. I went to the grocery store on November 1st this year to do my weekly shopping. I expected the Halloween candy to be on sale and I knew Thanksgiving trimmings would greet me at the door—stacks of cranberry sauce, perhaps even rows of Indian corn. What I didn’t expect was to be hit in the face by Christmas. Literally. A gigantic inflatable Santa smacked me in the head just as I walked down the greeting card aisle. On November 1st! The clerk hauling Jolly St. Nick to his appointed spot apologized profusely, saying that she didn’t see me around the corner, but I know better. I saw the look on Santa’s face as they headed down aisle 14 to meet up with the candy canes. He was definitely smirking.

Maybe it’s the magazines lining the checkout counters. While I’m wrestling my kids away from the Skittles (and remembering that one of them hasn’t had a dentist appointment in ages), I’m faced with photos of darling children in precious Christmas sweaters making their own ornaments and baking cookies while Mom is scrapbooking the moment as it happens. AUGH!!!!

And then it hits me. I don’t really dread Christmas itself. It’s the pressure of the Holidays that make me woozy. All the glitz and glitter that the stores and commercials try to sell us has left me feeling empty and small. Real holidays, at least the holidays I’ve experienced, usually involve hurt feelings and awkward conversations. The catalogs, stores, and magazines don’t show you that side of things. They show the plastic side of Christmas.

It’s not the decorations or shopping that make me crazy, it’s the expectations that I’ve attached to those things. I’ve been listening to my inner “Should” without even recognizing it. This voice tells me what I’m supposed to do, how I’m supposed to look, how my children are supposed to behave. Apparently, it doesn’t stop there, though. It also tells me what the Holidays are supposed to be like. It tells me that I should bake cookies and put up Christmas lights. I should get the perfect gifts for my kids’ teachers, crossing guards, and coaches (not to mention friends and family). I should decorate the house and create a warm, cozy environment. I should write the perfect holiday letter and take the perfect holiday photo. I should catch up with all my long lost friends who send those same perfect letters and photos to me. I should record all these fantastic moments for eternity with pictures and videos. And I MUST do it all in precious Christmas sweaters.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it all. I am paralyzed by the sheer volume of things that need to be done. What am I doing to myself? To my family? This is Christmas, not the Mommy Olympics. Although sometimes it feels like it, there is no one watching my every move and waiting to give me a score, The loud echo of The Should doesn’t have to govern my actions and attitudes

No more! I am a smart, successful woman. I have the power and ability to overcome the lure of The Should and start enjoying the winter wonderland along with the best of them. From now on, I will listen to a new voice in my head. One that is a little more gentle, a little more wise and a lot more sane. I will call this my Maya Angelou voice. She sits on a windowsill in my mind waiting to comfort me with a smile and a nod. When I feel the urge to deck something other than the halls, I will hear her say to me in her warm, buttery voice,
“It’s ok to say no. You don’t need to attend all those parties and volunteer for every activity.”
“Put your feet up and take care of you for a change. When’s the last time you had some peace and quiet?”

“You are not alone. Just about everyone gets stressed around the holidays.”

“Be creative. There is not one right way to do everything. Revel in your unique approach.”

“Work smarter, not harder. Figure out what you’re not great at and let someone who is lend you a hand.”

“Enjoy the little moments. You will one day miss the way your child furrows her brow when writing to Santa.”

“Be gentle with yourself and with others. That is a gift worth giving.”
My inner Angelou. She makes me feel better already. There’s one problem with my plan. The Should won’t go away easily. It’s comfortable in my head. It’s been there for a long time and if I’m not careful, it will choke out Maya at the first sign of stress. I’ve got to think up a way to take that annoyingly persistent whine out of my head before it ruins yet another Christmas.

An epiphany! I know what I will do. I will order the Talking Gnome. I can give my Should another home and this time, instead of sounding like me, it will have a “silly gnome accent”. Maybe that Gnome really will make my life easier, after all.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Holiday Survival Guide Part II

By Hal Runkel
Originally published October 9, 2009

Now that you have read Part I and you've sucessfully regained your calm, you can put the following structures in place to create the kind of holiday you’ll be happy to remember.

1. Slow Down

We learned this one from our daughter Hannah when she was about 6 years old. On that Christmas morning, everyone started tearing into their presents. There were at least 15 people there and it was complete pandemonium. As I scanned the room with the video camera, I caught sight of my daughter tenderly holding a stuffed dog and shushing it. It was the first present that she had opened that morning and she hadn’t touched the rest of her huge stack. The grandparents caught sight of it as well and they began pressuring her to open the rest of her gifts. She was enjoying her dog and she saw no reason to hurry along. She was overloaded by all of the chaos and she realized something that we hadn’t: by rushing through the opening of gifts, we were actually cheaping the activity. Now, our family takes its cue from her and opens presents one person at a time, one gift at a time. Sure it takes a while, but that’s the fun part. It reduces stimulus overload, it gives time for pictures, it builds lasting memories.

2. Speed Up

The old aphorism is true: fish and visitors smell in 3 days. Keep your family “trips” short and sweet. It’s always better to leave on a good note than to overstay your welcome. If you do find yourself staying longer than you’d like, remember this fact: just because you’re staying at someone’s house, doesn’t mean you should spend all of your time together. That’s just too much pressure on everyone involved. We shouldn't be shocked one family member lets off steam – that’s what pressure cookers do. So, build in pressure release valves in the form of one on one time with each of your kids. Let them vent. Empathize with them if they are annoyed by a cousin or if they miss their friends. By simply giving them a safe place to talk, you'll be creating lasting memories and building relationships. If you struggle with listening (a difficult skill, to be sure), remember the three best words you can use to get kids talking: “Tell me more.”

3. Idle

Take care of yourself during these most stressful of days. Take a really long shower – go see a movie – take a walk – go and get some coffee. Recharge and renew. If you can take mini-retreats away from it all – even in the midst of it all, you’ll be better equipped to be calm, cool, and connected when you return

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Holiday Survival Guide Part I

Do more than just "make it through" another holiday season.
Originally published on October 9, 2009.

When Andy Williams sang the lyric, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”, he must have been joking. What with presents to buy, parties to attend, and cheer to spread, we often find ourselves wondering what the heck is so happy about the holidays. If that describes you at all, it’s time for a little ScreamFree in your life. Here are three principles to guide you through the holidays with your sanity in tact.

1. Our kids are going to reflect our own attitudes and emotions.

If they are anxious, they are that up from us; if they are ungrateful, it’s because we’ve trained them to be that way; if they are unruly, it’s because we’ve allowed the craziness of the holiday to override their need for structure. Just the other day, I saw a bumper sticker that perfectly illustrates this concept. It read: My kids think I’m an ATM machine. This begs the question…Where did they get that crazy idea?

A common complaint that I get around the holidays is that kids are acting greedy when the holiday is supposed to be about giving. By recognizing the fact that kids are feeding off of our energy way more than we can ever imagine, we can start to see that we train our kids to be greedy by giving them far too much – it’s not the other way around.

If you find yourself frustrated with your children around the holidays, stop for a moment and take a look at what messages you are sending out.

2. Family vacation is an oxymoron.

Jerry Seinfeld said it best when he declared, “There is no such thing as fun for the whole family.” You don’t vacation with your children to see your family. You travel. Few things are more taxing than packing up the kids and braving the airport or the highways during the holiday season. If we kept that in mind, we might be able to keep our cool a bit better. But, when we either travel to be with our loved ones or they travel to be with us, we tend to forget how hard it is and we put far too much pressure on ourselves and those around us to have a “happy holiday”. We idealize the holiday season and begin to look for it to make up for the difficult things inherent in any family unit. In short, we expect the holidays to be the salve of the year.

With so much riding on this “vacation”, we tend to put an enormous amount of pressure on ourselves and everyone else to have a wonderful time. We set our expectations unrealistically high and feel like failures when reality falls short.

So, if Jerry was right, what can we do? There are two things you can do to release some of that pressure before it even begins to build:

• Find a middle ground between Norman Rockwell and Norman Bates. If we temper our expectations with a healthy dose of reality and perspective, the chances of actually having a fun family holiday increase dramatically. A simple phrase to remember might be, “It won’t be the worst holiday ever unless I try to make it the best.”

• Live in the present. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.” And starting right after Halloween, retail stores, commercials, and radio stations start pushing you towards those perfect holiday plans before you can even steal the last KitKat from your child’s candy stash. This may sound strange, but try this tip: Talk about plans only when absolutely necessary.

While some amount of anticipation is enjoyable, too much of it will actually increase the level of expectations we have and it will ultimately distract you from the present, which is really where your kids need you the most.

3. Remember it’s always easier to complain than it is to change.

Take a moment to think about what goes on with your children or your extended family during the holidays that just drives you nuts.

• Little Jason throws a tantrum because grandma bought him the wrong video game.

• Your mother spoils your kids rotten and makes your presents look like a joke.

• Your brother and his ungrateful brood leave their dirty clothes all over your floor and never pitch in after dinner to clean up.

Now think about this: It is far easier to point out what everyone else does during the holidays to make life miserable, but it’s far more difficult to point out our part in those patterns. Even though it is certainly more difficult, it is ultimately more beneficial. Remember, you are the only one that you can change. The next time you find yourself frustrated with your kids, remember this fact. Buying into this concept can allow you to focus on yourself and begin creating the type of holiday you’ve always wanted.

If you really want to have a better, more peaceful holiday this year with your kids (or anyone for that matter), turn the tables on traditional finger pointing. Instead of finding blame, ask questions! Ask your spouse and your kids what you do around the holidays that seems to get under their skin. You just might be surprised at their answers.