Friday, February 25, 2011

Growing a New Mindset

I've been doing some reading lately on Cognitive Behavior Theory and how that interplays with new research being done through brain imaging.*  It's a little complicated for a lay person to untangle, but what it seems to come down to is this:  It's easier to change our behavior than to change our mind.  People, it appears, really do have a "mindset."  This mindset applies to almost every area of our lives.  We are probably all aware that we have a mindset about right and wrong, good and bad, but we also have a mindset about subtle things too, like which things are delicious and which colors are pretty.

Look at forgiveness, for example.  Do you remember when you were a child and a sibling or close friend hurt your feelings in some (to you) terrible way and your parents told you to forgive that person?  Can you remember how completely crazy and foreign that idea sounded?  To children, the "black and white" of "right and wrong" is as true and absolute as the notion that the sun will both rise and set each day.  It's only with age and experience that the black and white of right and wrong begins to gray and blur at the edges.  Forgiveness is a fascinating platform for investigating our mind-behavior interaction.

Also fascinating is how our cognition effects us when we want to change our behavior in some way.  For example, last year, I lost 45 pounds or so.  Then I plateaued for 10 months and am only now managing to lose again.  Research has repeatedly shown that most weight loss plateaus are caused by "lessened effort" as opposed to metabolic causes.  Therefore, I had to examine the root cause of my reduced efforts.  What I noticed was how easy it is for me to say, "I am too busy to . . ." or "Taking care of this (person or appointment) is more important than ( my food plan or my exercise)" or "Eating a special diet is too (blah, blah, blah). . ." and thus justify my choices. 

This was truly confounding to me.  I am a helpful person.  I'm generous with my time and talents.  I am quick to say "yes" when asked to aid another.  I'm industrious and hard working.  So why am I unwilling to aid myself? 

This is where cognitive behavior theory comes into play.  Ultimately, it is easier to think the way I've always thought than to change my mind.  Relapse is a huge issue for anyone trying to change their behavior.  That's because -- in theory -- it's easier to change your behavior than change your mind.  I've known people who stopped smoking for years, then relapsed in an evening at a bar and starting buying cigarettes again the next day.  Even with all we now know about smoking and our health, in the end, it's easy to justify. At some point, they made it okay for themselves and now "smoking is okay" is the default position.   It's our mindset.  This is why someone suffering from morbid obesity and diabetes can buy and eat that chocolate bar.  This is why the addict relapses.  Understanding the power of the mindset gives me a lot of empathy for people that I might be tempted to judge.

There is good news, however;  If we can change our behavior long enough, we can actually change our minds.  Recent research using brain imagery has documented these changes and it is good news, indeed.*  If you can successfully change your behavior long enough to form a new habit, your mind will start to accept the new norm.  You can actually change your mind and reset the position of that "switch."   The new mindset, however, is quite elastic;  for a long period of time it wants to re-form into the old mold, so vigilance and perseverance become important characteristics for success.

In my every day life it all boils down to this.  For years, I've subscribed to the notion that if I can repeat an action (or avoid repeating it) for 21 times, I can form a new habit.  It appears then, that by forming that new habit I truly can "act my way into right thinking."  The "but" is that it may take longer than I think it should and it may take some effort to keep the new way of thinking in the new shape.   I can live with that!

*Footnote: I don't have many references to share with you for either the brain imaging or the Cognitive Behavior Theory because I was not thinking about blogging as I was reading and absorbing it!  However, this is an ongoing topic of interest, so as I come across references for these things later on, I will come back and add in some links here.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

On Being Sick and Noticing Stuff

There is something in my "mother DNA" that does not allow me (a) to "feel" sick and (b) to admit that I'm sick.  That's why, 10 days into my current virus, I am still having a hard time accepting it.  I have symptoms, of course.  Loads of them.  And last Friday after running around  with 5 kids all day, meeting their needs,   doing the laundry and cooking--all with a splitting headache, blisters in my throat and a fever-- I declared that on Saturday I was actually going to BE sick. 

You know - be sick.  Stay in bed.  Drink a lot.  Sleep a lot.  Watch TV.  Do puzzles.  REST.  This was my second sick day in 15 years.  IT was glorious.  And it was a lot harder than I expected.

Dear hubby did great.  There was very little yelling or tantrum-ing on either side.  He asked for advice when he needed it but mostly just figured things out. 

Nonetheless, my lying a-bed was riddled with guilt.  And don't you dare write and say how "I shouldn't " feel guilty.  Too late.  I already did.  Never mind that I was only taking my own advice; I always send Paul and the kids to bed when they're sick.  "Rest is the best medicine, " I tell them, "Your body has to rest to heal."

This was the perfect challenge for me.  I've known for months that I have a tendency to put myself 7th on the priority list - hence the many months plateau on my weight loss.  No surprise-- I learned something truly valuable.  I actually DID get better.  Markedly better.  Mind you, I wasn't turning cartwheels on Sunday or spring cleaning, but I did feel well enough to tidy the house, do a bit of laundry and cook dinner and I have been getting "more well" every day since.  Yet I am still struggling with my mind trying to tell me I'm not sick, even as my lymph nodes swell, I can't breathe, and I cough like a TB patient.

I am not proud of the fact that it is SO hard for me to prioritize caring for myself.  At what point in my life did I become less important than everyone in my environment?  (It's a rhetorical question - it happened the moment they placed "Pepper" in my arms).   I am not doing my older girls any service by neglecting myself.  I don't want them to be that kind of mommy.  I want them to be the kind of mom who calls me up and says, "Come over, please, mom and get these kids.  I need to read a book!"

I'm going to turn this around.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Straight Talk

A little over 16 years ago on Christmas Day, I met Paul's Grandma Clair Simmel for the first time.  The house was a bustle of activity with Clair, her 6 kids, 9 grandkids (our generation) and (then) 6 greatgrandchildren.  With all those people in the house, you can imagine no one paid much attention to me.  After dinner, Paul's sister, Sharon, talked me into joining into a domino game and I found myself seated next to Clair.

Now, Clair is pretty serious about her "spinners."  So there was not much conversation on my end of the table.  Yet at one point, she leaned over and looked at me seriously and said, "Got any Grandmas?"

"Only one," I said, "In the nursing home.  She's pretty ill.  And no Grandpas."

Paul and Clair, Christmas 2009
"Well," she said, "You got me too."

That was the end of the conversation but suddenly, I was part of the family.  I next saw Clair just a couple of weeks later at our wedding celebration.  My sister-in-law had asked everyone to write some advice for us on slips of paper.   I can still see the slip of paper with Clair's advice on it -- straightforward and with an economy of words, "Never go to bed mad."

Thus began my love, love relationship with Clair Simmel.  Because she lives a 4-1/2 hour drive away, we have never gotten there as much as we'd like.  Yet every year, we manage to get there several times.  Often Sharon and I went together with our daughters and stayed a week or several days.  We would do a little housekeeping or garden-related things for her, when she'd let us, but mostly we sat and played Yahtzee or Spinner and just passed the time with her.

Maggie Rose, Chanelle, Grandma, Gabriel, Bennie, Paul
It's amazingly pleasant to hang out with someone who feels no need to chit-chat.  She has, as I said, an admirable economy of words.  Yet she has a real knack for saying just what I need to hear, sometimes compassionate and sometimes not -- just the truth as she sees it.  One time the girls were stomping up and down her wooden hallway, delighting, I suppose, in the terrible noise they were making.  She looked me straight in the eye and said, "You know, Henry [her husband] laid every one of those parquet tiles by hand."   You can bet my children never stomped down that hallway again!

Once when just the girls and I were up there, she was doing a lot of work in the garden.  I offered to have the girls do some weeding while she and I picked beans.  She said, "I don't allow kids in the garden. They're a nuisance."  You know, those girls had a great time romping in the yard while Clair and I made short work of picking those beans.

When our daughters (both African American) were toddlers, someone thoughtlessly made a racist remark about someone in Clair's small town.  She looked at me but spoke to them.  "We're all the same on the inside."  She has her prejudices; but no one is going to say anything against her Great Grandchildren!

Grandma with her two surviving siblings, Bertha Holley and Vera Duesman
She is an amazingly resilient woman and yet has the tenderest heart.  She gave birth to 7 children  -- 6 of them at home -- and all but one still survive.  But her heart has never stopped longing for little Patsy who died as a little girl.  She has spoken of her to me nearly every time I've seen her.  When Sharon died  at a youthful age in 2006, my first thoughts were for Grandma;  she treasures every one of her descendants, she can't stop loving any one.

My own grandma, Agnes Leeper, died about 13 years ago and I got the news while visiting with Clair.  She patted me on the back and never said a word. Later, she beckoned me over and gave me a hug.

"Well, honey," she said, "I'm the only old Grandma you got now.  So you don't call me Clair any more.  I'm just plain old Grandma, now."

That is probably the longest sentence she ever said to me -- and as it turns out, the most important.  She has been my Grandma ever since.  She stopped signing her cards with "Clair Simmel and Grandma."  They all just say "Grandma"  now.

Last week, Clair Simmel turned 100.  We celebrated with her two surviving sisters -- Grandma was one of 8.  All 6 of her kids were there and most of her 8 surviving grandchildren.  Her granddaughter Kendra couldn't make it from California having just recently given birth to Grandma's 20th great-grandchild! I have never seen a family with stronger ties.

I am so grateful that she has lived such a long and fruitful life because her living has made all the difference in my living.  Grandma has shown me how having a passion -- in her case gardening -- can keep you young.  She has taught me that when something needs to be said, you just say it and that dressing it up just muddies the message.  She showed me that on a holiday or birthday, every single one of needs to be there, because every one of us counts.  Most importantly, she taught me that that you never have too little money, too small a house or too many people in it.  Amen.

Grandma and several of her "grands:"  Paul Tischler, Kenny Simmel, Clayton Whitley, Tommy Simmel and Marsha Harris