So, I’ve been quiet on here for awhile, and somehow we are almost done with the first month of the New Year. A new president was inaugurated sometime in the last hour, and we are all waiting to see what will come next. Many of us have also been thinking about resolutions for the year and setting goals for what we would like to achieve. It’s funny how easily, I think, we tend to dismiss the worth of the plans we make at these times or the effort of making the plan. How often do you hear someone remark that politicians never keep their promises? How often do we laugh and joke about violating our New Year’s Resolutions the next day or the next week? “My New Year’s Resolution is not to make any more New Year’s Resolutions. Ha, ha!” While I think it is true that we often do not follow through on those goals, and despite what has often been said about the “road to hell,” I think intention has great value.
When people ask me about the value of therapy, I think many of them expect me to elaborate on the relief of depression or anxiety, the improvement of relationships, or the increased capacity to manage stress. While I believe all of these are definitive and worthy benefits of therapy, I find that I tend to focus on a different aspect — living life with intention. Many of us live life essentially on auto-pilot. We do the same things we’ve always done and expect that life will generally stay the same. People may come and go, we may change jobs, and the weather may become interesting from time to time, but life in general will be predictable. The sun will rise in the east, my five-year-old will plunder the refrigerator for fruit any and every time he is hungry, and traffic will be generally miserable in Atlanta at 5:00 on Wednesday. After awhile, we stop paying attention to our lives, ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
One of the core benefits of therapy is that it shakes us out of our complacence. We start to look at what we are doing, what and who is around us, and how we respond to all of that. We start to explore who we really are, what we really need, and what we really want. So much of our reality is taught to us: what to attend to, how to respond to pain in others and ourselves, what to value, what to ignore, what to expect of ourselves and others, what our worth is…. Much of this is not verbally expressed but is learned through interaction and implication. One of the beauties of therapy is that it helps us to stop and evaluate for ourselves the lessons we have learned and whether or not those lessons hold true. We learn to explore and trust ourselves.
From that exploration and trust, we can then develop true intention. When I know who I am and what I value, I can make decisions about what is best for me and how and what I want to share with the world. I am no longer a passive recipient of what others tell me or what I expect to see, but I am open and curious and attentive. My world, both internal and external, becomes alive for me and I engage with it in new ways that create strong and impactful meaning. I am aware of the choices I am making and why and how I anticipate those will affect others around me.
Therapy is not about changing who you are but connecting with and becoming more fully who you are. Depression, anxiety, relationship problems and life stressors can all complicate or obscure our self-awareness and sense of empowerment, and as we resolve those issues, we likewise become more intentional. Intention gives us a sense of direction and a motivation to stay open and aware. I wonder how much longer our resolutions would last if we had more self-awareness? We all slip back into old patterns and Auto-Pilot from time to time, but trying to live with intention helps us to do so less often and for shorter periods of time.
Self-awareness can start with practices of mindfulness – focusing on awareness without judgment. Paying attention to physical sensations is often a good point of departure. What do I notice in my body and where? Where do I feel pain or tension? Where do I feel relaxed? Is there a pattern to when I feel tension or relaxation? What can I do that changes that? What message does this pain/tension/stress have for me?
We can also practice mindfulness of our environment. What does the space you are in look like? What do you see around you? What do you hear immediately around you? What do you hear that is further away? If you are quiet, do you hear something you hadn’t noticed before? What do you smell? Does that smell have undertones you recognize? Do you have a taste in your mouth? What are your hands touching? What does that feel like? What does the floor/ground feel like if you stomp on it? How does your body feel where you are sitting/standing/lying down? What is it like to focus on the here and now? How is your body responding to that?
There are many other practices that can help develop awareness. In therapy we also look at emotional awareness and engagement. We look at family history and relationships and the messages that were passed down in the family. We look at life experiences and how we interpret and respond to those. As we look at those things, we develop a sense of self that can lead to a sense of intention.
Who are you? What do you value in yourself? Others? The world? What gives you confidence? What creates fear? What and whom do you trust? How do you decide? All of these are difficult questions, but, I think, worthy of exploration. If you would like some help in finding your answers to your questions, I hope you will find me. It is my intent to help my clients connect with themselves in such a way as to be able to live in intention. I may not always succeed, but it gives me a framework and a path to act on what I value. I wish for you to be able to find the same for yourself.