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.

********

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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