Better Than Sex Ed: Part 1

It was the awkward moment we had long waited for. We heard the whispers of those who had gone before us. Their giggles would echo through the metal toilet stalls at Thomas Edison Elementary School.

The old red brick school on 22nd street had spent decades preparing young preteens, like myself, for the upcoming journey into the torturous halls of junior high school and puberty. It was the sole responsibility of our P.E. coaches, dressed in sweatpants, to deliver the SEX talk.

First, the male gym coach came, beckoning the boys in the room to stand and follow him into some unknown realm. A rolled poster diagram of the male and female anatomy was concealed under his armpit. One by one, each boy left the room, head lowered, but inwardly excited.

Our female coach stumbled through the door with her poster and some odd life-sized, 3D diagram of the female reproductive system. When the day was over, I don’t know if we ever looked at one another the same. But, our public school system had done their job of preparing us for adulthood.

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Two years ago, I was 35 and sitting in my counselor’s office in Akron, Ohio. She turned and opened a brown laminate file cabinet from the 80s that was filled with helpful handouts that spur all of her clients towards greater mental health.

“I feel horrible that, despite my greatest effort, I am just not strong enough to shake this depression.”

My counselor, a petite woman in her 50s, handed me a thought diary, and looked me sternly in the eye: “Look. Stop the guilt! You can never change your feelings. No matter how hard you try, you cannot control them. Now that we know the issues, we begin the process of cognitive behavioral therapy. You can’t change how you feel, but you CAN change the way you think. I am going to train you.”

At the end of our week with her, and our intense immersion into the world of cognitive therapy, I looked at her and was exasperated.

“This is so life-changing. Why in the world did they spend all that time, year after year, teaching us things like sex education and NOT ONCE did they teach us how to develop healthy thinking habits?”

And…we can all hear the crickets chirping as the answer remains encaged in some forgotten school’s toilet stall. Hopefully the secret of this vital life skill can be found somewhere in education--etched on the wall, along with all the curse words and hearts encircling two young lovers’ initials.

Thank God it’s never too late to learn. Our hormones have finally balanced, the acne has disappeared, and we have years of experience to help guide us. Welcome to my blog- where I will attempt to teach you something the coach in sweatpants never did. Here, without the threat of head lice, bullies, or scary lunch ladies, we can finally learn a vital skill that is life-changing.

Get your notebooks out for a series entitled: Better than Sex Ed – Part 1.

 

Step # 1:  Pay attention to your feelings.

I know this seems simple and you may want to act like a junior higher right now. Go ahead—roll your eyes, lay your head down on your desk; try to pretend that this teaching is of no value to you! You may be tempted to stop reading and jump to the latest Instagram pic or controversial gossip on Facebook, but DON’T.

The ability to discover your true feelings is more difficult than it appears. We were experts at it when we were young. Observe any two-year-old, and you can see the core of our feeling person. We cry. We cuddle. We completely trust. We follow our gut when we should run away. We get angry. We know what we want and spit out what we despise.

Then our training begins. We are quickly taught that many things are not worth getting angry or crying over. The strong remain in control and don’t show their emotions. We feel embarrassed the moment tears appear and equate their companionship with weakness. Our love for the handsome teenage boy gets pushed down until it disappears under the belief that we are unworthy.

Little by little, we feel like the victors of our souls when feelings stay well hidden, never making a public appearance. Although they may appear buried, the feelings stay very much alive inside of us – secretly forming our worth, dreams, health, and future.

As well-known researcher Brene Brown says, “We are taught that we are thinking beings that feel. But in reality, we are feeling beings that think.”

If we do not learn how to retrain ourselves to recognize and explore the feelings we experience daily, we will never truly be alive or live a whole-hearted life. The road to changing our dysfunctional thought patterns and habits always begins with recognition of our feelings. When we are aware of the feelings that arise or have been covered for so long, we can finally become the very best version of ourselves.

Step #2: Determine the Situation

Once you slow your reactions down and record your feelings, take a moment to reverse time and determine what happened to you that initiated the emotional response.

You feel sad. Now you need to reflect on the cause. Did someone say something? What situation caused the sadness?

If you start to feel your cheeks brighten red from anger, pay attention. What made you feel the need to defend or fight?

The moment you feel completely happy and alive, pause. Whom were you surrounded by? What felt so effortless and like home – the person you were created to be?

After you have clearly determined the feeling and situation that caused it, there is one additional step that definitely occurred, unnoticed, in your heart and mind. Our brain often processes it at lightning speed, so it may feel invisible despite its great power. It is a thought.

The timeline looks like this:

·      Something happens (a situation; something said)

·      Your brain processes what happened. The way you process it is based on your past experience with similar situations or people. You also interpret the occurrence based on the current health of your mind, spirit, soul and body.

·      Then, based on how you processed the event, you are left with a feeling: anger, sadness, joy, despair, loneliness etc.

Since launching my website a week ago, I have noticed that I have been especially critical of myself. I decided I needed to be attentive to my feelings and wrote the following entry in my thought diary to help me dissect the battle going on inside. {See image below.}

 

Many counselors recommend that, at least in the beginning, you take a few minutes to write down your findings in a thought diary. Although it may seem tedious, research has shown that when we take time to physically write something it automatically forces our minds to slow down (instead of its normal racing pace), and systematically process what is going on inside. You can do this on a written worksheet that you can download and print here. Or, the above entry was done in a smartphone app entitled “CBT Thought Record Diary.” You can find more info about this free app here or in your app store (available for Apple and Android devices).

And now students, a week’s worth of homework awaits you.

Homework Week One:

1. Pay attention to your feelings. This will always be the place to start, and work backwards for steps two and three. Don’t allow yourself to push any emotions down without first recognizing your feelings and reactions.

2. Recognize the situation that caused the emotional response.

3. Dig deep and explore. Find the exact thought or self-talk that resulted in the feeling.

4. Although not necessary, but very beneficial, keep a written thought diary for one week.

WARNING: In counseling, they often say you feel worse before you get better. Exploring negative emotions and recognizing unhealthy self-talk and thoughts will not be pleasant. You may feel more depressed or sad when standing face-to-face with your own personal giant to conquer. Trust me! This is the beginning of freedom for you. You have to dig through some thick mud to finally recover the gold inside.

The gold is still there. It may be like your school P.E. coach- overweight, in sweatpants, and exhausted from dealing with too many pubescent hormones - but with some purposeful training and a healthy thought diet, you will shine again. 

{Next week, I will write “Better than Sex Ed: Part 2." I will explore the revolutionary next steps in cognitive behavioral therapy. Fortunately, after a few years of coaching and practice, I was able to quickly combat the thoughts shown in my diary above. Stay tuned. Now, isn't it time to do your homework???}

Read Part Two of this Blog Post

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{This is the second part of short blog series exploring the power of retraining your thoughts. If you have not yet read Better than Sex Ed: Part 1, please take a few minutes and read it here.}

Thursday, I lay down on the doctor’s table. A loosely placed white protective paper covered the germ-ridden top and made a crinkling noise every time the gynecologist asked me to reposition my body. My knees seemed to have an automatic response--always wanting to fold closed and together; protecting against too much exposure.

I could see Dr. Minni’s brightly dyed red hair as she lifted her head above the table and yelled something to her nurse behind the curtain in Estonian. She assumed I did not know what she was saying, but I understood enough to know it wasn’t good.

She is an older woman with the wrinkles and years of practice to prove her mastery of the female reproductive system. At that moment, her hardened face softened and she had the look of a grandma. Her eyes looked at me with kindness and pity, as if her heart was saying, “You’re too nice of a girl to have this.”

I was quickly ushered to the ultrasound room to do more tests, the lab to give blood, and sent home with an appointment next week and a few words. “This is not good. We will get the results and discuss everything next Thursday.”

I tend to believe that her lack of English skills caused her chosen words to be more dramatic then they were meant to be. If a doctor in America told me, “This is not good,” I may start planning my funeral. Until I know more, I tend to believe that in her rustic English, Dr. Minni actually meant to say, “You have a little problem and I will help you fix it.”

The truth is that I had been ignoring the signs for far too long. After a few years full of stress, emotions, endless work and investment, I had convinced myself that my body would survive unscathed. I am strong, after all.

Looking back, I can now see that I just continued to dig deep for strength and had refused to acknowledge the warning signs. Although my body was screaming at me, I chose to believe a lie that became my truth. Don't be a wuss. Just ignore it. Just keep going. It will soon all be o.k.

I am sure that Dr. Minni, the gynecologist nearing retirement, could give me quite a lesson on my female organs-- how to pamper them and prepare them for holding and giving life. All of that knowledge in my head, or even pressure from the redheaded doctor, is absolutely worthless unless I take a moment to stop, listen to my body and move forward in truth instead of denial. 

I was reminded that this is the key to a healthy body, but it is also the foundation to a whole-hearted, healthy inner life.

In Better than Sex Ed: Part 1, I shared the first few steps of cognitive behavior therapy. After intensive counseling to overcome depression and being taught these life-changing steps, I was frustrated. Why was it obligatory for my P.E. coach to teach me the basics of sex education and not educate me on the steps to developing a healthy thought life?

Why? Many adults have never been taught to utilize these simple, life-changing steps for themselves. You, however, have no excuse. You are here, sitting at your desk, and it’s time to pay attention. Stop dreaming of the beautiful girl or muscular jock sitting across the room. There are far more important lessons to acquire than could ever be taught by a coach in sweatpants. During our last lesson, I challenged you to do four things:

  1. Pay attention to your feelings. This will always be the place to start, and work backwards for steps two and three. Don’t allow yourself to push any emotions down without first recognizing your feelings and reactions.

  2. Recognize the situation that caused the emotional response.

  3. Dig deep and explore. Find the exact thought or self-talk that resulted in the feeling.

  4. Although not necessary, but very beneficial, keep a written thought diary for one week.

Here is an example of one of my thought journals reflecting steps one through three.

It’s time to check your homework. How did you do?

As I said in in Part 1, if you did your homework well, you may feel quite miserable right now. Rolling around in difficult feelings, experiences and thoughts gives you the sensation of sinking deeper into the pit that you are ready to climb out and leave behind you.

If you are prepared to leave that ditch in your past, the next crucial steps of cognitive behavioral therapy will be your rescue ladder. If they are followed faithfully, you will revolutionize your thoughts, and in turn--your life.

By writing my personal diary pictured above, I realized that I had become inwardly critical of everything in my life (my weight, my looks, my intellect, my abilities). I felt ashamed and disgusted. When I took the time to analyze the inner story I was telling myself, I realized the truth. I had exposed myself by launching this website, and I had a fear that people would judge me and my work as unacceptable. I recorded the process of stating the truth in the rest of my thought diary below. The diary helps you to distinguish the distortion, identify the challenge standing before you, and record the actions steps to a healthy outcome.

 

My self-talk was exposed. It was evicted from the deep trenches of my mind and emotions and forced to stand in the light. The lie stands there, naked, with knees shaking from fear. Even in their weakness, they cry out and attempt to retain power over your soul. Although some of these lies may feel like life-long friends that have been with you since your youth, you MUST use every piece of strength within you to instigate the revolutionary and difficult step five.

Step # 5: Discover and listen to the truth, and only the truth.

Perhaps a lie has been your companion for far too long. How do you even discover the truth after so many years?

If you are unsure, imagine yourself sharing this lie with the most trust-worthy person you know. They know your strengths and weaknesses while completely loving and accepting you for who you are. This may be a best friend, a relative, or even God. If they knew everything you inwardly said and believed about yourself, how would they respond? Would they say it was truth or would they quickly demolish it with words of encouragement?

It is time for YOU to inwardly talk to YOURSELF like your most trusted relative, counselor or friend. If they would not say it about you, cast it out as a lie. 

Assess your inner thoughts against this quote from well-known researcher Brene Brown. It is your measuring stick.

"You are worthy now- not if, not when. You're worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is.” 

AS IS. Not if you change something. Not if you had made better choices in the past. Not if you get that education, job or partner you always dreamed of.  Not if you get your anger under control. AS IS.

If you make a list of things in your head that you need to change or achieve in order to be worthy of someone’s love or acceptance, this is a lie. Healthy, whole-hearted people are humbly confident of this truth. Accepting their imperfections allows them to live life in the light; loving and accepting others as well as embracing themselves.

Step # 6: Write the truth on your heart. Change your behavior.

After you discover your truth, write it down. When you live attentive to your feelings and situations, and recognize a lie as it attempts to squeeze the worthiness out of your heart, strangle it with the truth. 

Keep the truth on the tip of your tongue, playing on repeat in your spirit, and ready to shoot down the lie every time it jumps up out of hiding. Tattoo the truth on your soul in the brightest, deepest of colors. Don't allow anything to dull its brightness and strength. You must learn to be the protector of your heart.

New studies (University College London) show it takes an average of 66 days to create a new habit. So, prepare yourself for a long battle, but your behavior can be changed. You can even, little by little, overthrow the lies that have been companions for years. Just remember--you survived way more than 66 days of teenage gossip, complicated algebra and sex ed homework. Don’t give up! Once you are able to sense your feelings, challenge and uproot unhealthy thoughts, you will see a change in your behavior. A different future awaits!! 

 

Step # 7: Share your story.

Lies cannot survive when exposed. They often gain their power from remaining hidden under our shame.

Find a proven and trust-worthy relative or friend, and share it ALL. This is simultaneously the most difficult and bravest thing you can do.

“Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it- it can't survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.” – Brene Brown

We try to be strong. We try not to burden others with our inner issues. Wrestling with them alone, accompanied by shame, creates a stagnant cesspool in our souls. It’s lifeless. It smells stale and rotten. And it just keeps eroding deeper and deeper into our core.

The moment we sit down with someone we trust and share the lie, the situation, the wrong mistake that haunts us--fresh water floods the dying corners of our lives. A new outlet is opened, and the cesspool is destroyed. It will quickly reform, however, if we do not begin a habit of being repeatedly vulnerable.

Someone is waiting to help you walk through this. Every time you begin to weaken your stance and give precious battleground back to the lie, you will not be alone. There is someone standing beside you, holding your arms up in the battle; reminding you of the truth and who you are.

I ask you to leave the hormone-filled halls of your beloved high school behind. Those certainly were not your best years. Learn to make the truth your guide, and you will change. Your future transforms. It is finally time for truth to be the author of your life.

 “If you own this story you get to write the ending.” -Brene Brown

I’ve got my sweatpants on. 

I'm standing firmly in front of you, blowing the coach’s whistle.

Let’s get writing!

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{I know some of you may be worried about my doctor's appointment. Please don't be. I really do feel that with rest and some good medicine, all will be well. When possible, I try to use real examples out of my life to empower my words. That is why I chose to tell the story. Perhaps this does explain, however, my delay in writing the second part of this blog. I had promised to post it long ago. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. If prescribed rest means getting to wear sweatpants more often, then I'm all for it :). Life is so good. This is how I spent the evening after my appointment--see video below. There is always something great to dance about. Now THAT is the truth.}