A Tale of Two Failures

By Kate Bennett, PsyD

Over the past 18 months, I discovered (and continue to discover) just how tough the parenting gig is. Starting with our first “child”, a 100lb rescued Labahoula by the name of Rocky, and continuing onto the birth our first human baby, we faced unique challenges that ultimately led us to failure as parents more than once despite our best intentions.

I am by no means a stranger to failure. It is something that I faced frequently and often throughout my life: From not making travel softball in middle school to showing a high-strung ex-racehorse in high school, various experiences throughout college, and multiple failures in cycling, the idea of failure became less intimidating as I matured with age. The difference between my personal failures and parenting failures is this: Individually, I could work hard and put all my effort into achieving a goal knowing that if I did not achieve the success I hoped for, I was the only one impacted. Furthermore, I had the ability to grow/learn/work harder or re-evaluate my goal altogether. Inevitably, I achieved a lot of success along my bumpy road of failure because I became more determined, worked harder, and developed more resilience. However, as a parent, no matter how badly I wanted to achieve some goals or the amount I idealized them as being the best option for my babies, I could not (and cannot) force my child (fur-baby or human) to get on board with some of my individual desires.

Case and point: Despite my knack for goal setting and high level of persistence, both of my babies reminded me that failure is inevitable as a parent.

Failure #1: As my husband and I prepared to bring home our first dog, I dreamed of a companion that could run free next to us while we hiked and rode mountain bikes. Upon my insistence for a big, black lab (mind you that this was my husband’s first experience of having a dog and I essentially adopted a small horse), we brought home our sweet, yet unruly and overly energetic, furball. He was terrible on the leash. Daily walks were more similar to water skiing than walking a family pet. After he discovered that jumping our backyard fence was no problem with his athletic ability and countless (frantic) chases trying to make sure he did not get hit by a car, we signed Rocky (and ourselves) up for obedience training.

Our trainer told us what we already knew: Rocky is very smart and incredibly athletic. He performed well during our sessions and we did our best to continue our work between sessions. However, Rocky struggled look past the rabbits. For some odd reason, our trainer decided we should allow Rocky to chase rabbits on the leash and he quickly discovered that he could out-muscle us during outings. Essentially, every walk became an opportunity for freedom: Running through the open space and jumping our neighbors’ fences to check out their yards. In fact, it was in their yards that he finally surrendered himself and allowed us to catch him. Upon surrendering, he also magically forgot how to jump back over the fence when it was time to come home. My husband did a lot of heavy lifting while I mastered my coaxing skills to get him home. Needless to say, given the fact that we could not control Rocky on the leash, we failed training and more sessions were recommended. We politely declined and decided to figure things out on our own.

Lessons Learned: First, trust my gut. I already know this and frequently ask my clients “What does your gut say?” Reflecting on our primal wiring, it was the gut-response (instinctual awareness) that kept our ancestors out of harm’s way. When our trainer suggested that Rocky be allowed to chase rabbits on the leash, my husband and I both froze. We probably looked like we had just seen a ghost. My husband instantly knew it was a bad idea but I suggested that we trust the professional and try it out. Lesson 2: Trust those you know and make sure the professionals earn your trust. I wish I had listened to my husband sooner. Lesson 3: Adjust your goals upon early signs of failure. Once we slowed down and accepted that Rocky was still adjusting to his new home, family, and surrounding areas, Rocky quickly started progressing with leash etiquette. A year later, Rocky walks calmly on the leash, past rabbits, while I push the stroller. He is not always perfect (as none of us are) but, in general, Rocky’s behavior on the leash is something I am very proud of.

Values-Based Decision Making: Enjoying Rocky as a part of our family is more important than my ideal of a voice-responsive, off-leash dog. Maybe he will get there someday but, for now, we enjoy him most when he is well-behaved on the leash. Rather than impose my desire upon our sweet dog that needs structure to manage his anxiety, I accepted that we are all happier when Rocky stays on the leash and within a fenced-in open space.

Failure 2: Based on some basic preparatory research as we anticipated our daughter’s birth, I quickly discovered what I already knew: Breastfeeding is the healthiest feeding option and it can be difficult to achieve. Wanting the best for our baby, I set a goal to breastfeed, talked to friends about their experiences, and worked with professionals in anticipation of her arrival. Our baby girl finally arrived, six days late and simply precious. Over the course of the next six weeks, I tried and tried to get her to take to breastfeeding. We saw a doctor and the doctor ran tests. Our baby girl cried for six hours a day. The doctor normalized her crying and encouraged us to continue what we were doing. After several weeks of struggle, I finally looked at my doctor and said that I did not think my daughter was good at nursing. And it was true: As a newborn, my baby took to my philosophy of “smarter not harder.” She preferred bottle feeding and once we made the transition, she stopped crying. We were all happier despite not having the gold standard of infant feeding options.

Lessons Learned: First and foremost, make values-based decisions. While I wanted to nurse my baby for the numerous health benefits, more importantly, I wanted a healthy and happy baby. Lesson 2 (Learned Again): Trust my gut. I knew the amount of crying (read: SCREAMING) was not normal. Something had to be wrong despite the minimization I experienced during appointments. Looking back, I wish I would have been more insistent that something needed to change. Being a sleep-deprived new mom, I wanted to trust the doctors; however, I know that my gut instinct will always be stronger than a professional’s ability to understand and respond to my exact situation.

Values-Based Decision Making: While I idealized the gold-standard of infant feeding, having a healthy, happy baby was more important to me. We were not happy when we tried to make breastfeeding work, my husband dreaded coming home from work and my patience started waning with each new day of crying. The day we quit, we were all significantly happier: We were able to smile and relax as we enjoyed our newborn baby. Ironically, both my husband and I were formula-fed babies and we seem to have turned out just fine.

So, there you have it. We failed obedience training and failed at breastfeeding. Two significant failures as a parent; however, I also learned (and re-learned) important lessons along the way. Ultimately, I know that my babies will not always agree with the standardized ideals. Values will always trump ideals in our family. More than force my desires upon them, my new goal is to thrive as a family by working together and discovering what options best meet our babies' individual needs. And, more importantly, remembering that failure is a part of parenting. Rather than avoid them, I intend to welcome failures as learning opportunities which allow me discover more about my precious babies and their unique needs.

Give up New Year's Resolutions to Thrive in 2015

By Kate Bennett, PsyD and Corrie Van Horne, RDN

With the new year comes a natural instinct to reflect, look back on the year that passed, and prepare for the year ahead. Often times, this process leads to new year’s resolutions: Lists of things that people want to accomplish to improve or change their lives. We would like to challenge the tradition of resolutions by making 2015 the year of new year’s intentions.

Resolutions are problematic because they focus on what people do not want in their lives (i.e. stop eating certain foods or get out of debt) and absolutes (i.e. lose a specific amount of weight or give up smoking instantly). The problem with focusing on you do not want in your life is that your brain hears what you do not want versus the negation of it. For example, if you think to yourself, I do not want to eat that chocolate cake at the party tonight, your brain is solely focused on the chocolate cake. As a result you cannot stop thinking about it, likely end up eating the cake, and ultimately feel bad about your “failure.” Absolutes, also known as all-or-nothing thinking, leave little room for flexibility or adaptability as life happens. Inevitably, when people create an absolute resolution, life happens (interferes with the rigidity of the desired change) and people give up. For example, if you decide to follow a certain diet in 2015 but then find yourself driving through New Mexico desert land, you are certain to feel anxious and defeated as you stop to order "bad" food. Why bother trying to improve your life if situations continue to interfere with the perfect pursuit of that new resolution?

Given that resolutions set people up for failure, we propose that you start 2015 off with intentions: Positive changes that you would like to pursue over the coming year. By focusing on what you want to happen, you are more likely to achieve it. Furthermore, intentions allow you to work towards a goal in small increments versus expect overnight success. This creates room for flexibility and adaptability while life happens and circumstances change.

Here are a few ideas for New Year’s Intentions that will help improve your happiness:

1. Make 2015 a year of gratitude. Over the past couple of years, gratitude has become an increasingly more popular topic of conversation in mainstream media and individual lives. There is good reason for it. Science links gratitude to happiness and well-being. If you want to improve your overall happiness, consider starting a daily gratitude journal. Commit to recording a few things that you are thankful for at some point each day. Remember, no matter how rotten the day, there is always something to be grateful for. Consider using this five year journal so that you can reflect back on past years as you maintain your journal over time.

2. Create time to connect authentically with others. As technology advances and social media increases in popularity, many people rely on texting, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to feel connected to others. While it is convenient to text a friend, enjoyable to peruse online pictures, and effortless to scroll through a Twitter feed, these activities tend to create more distance between friends than closeness. Set an intention to check-in weekly with friends or family members in-person or on the phone. You will be amazed by how much more satisfied you feel after spending an hour talking with a good friend compared to spending that same hour scrolling through Facebook.

3. Take up the practice of self-compassion. We live in a society that focuses on comparison and achievements to build respect and self-worth. The reality is that comparisons lead to negative self-talk and ultimately interfere with individual happiness, values, goals, and relationships. Rather than criticize yourself for another 365 days, commit to practicing self-compassion instead. Take time to engage in self-care (i.e. take a warm bath or go to bed early) when you are tired rather than force yourself to work late because a co-worker always seems one step ahead of you.

4. Look back to move ahead. Somewhere along the way, many of us learned that anything short of perfection is unacceptable and, worse, labels you as a failure. The reality is that nobody and nothing is perfect. In fact, the word imperfect spells “I’m Perfect.” Let 2015 become the year that you embrace both your strengths and weaknesses. Rather than constantly evaluate your flaws and search for areas of improvement, focus on your strengths and learn from your mistakes. Embrace mistakes as a learning opportunity. Great things come from those who are brave enough to identify what went wrong and use that information to try a second time (or third or fourth or fifth). Ask yourself, "What worked and what can I improve upon?"

5. Practice mindfulness daily. The eastern tradition of mindfulness and meditation is becoming an increasingly more mainstream practice and for a good reason: Too much distraction, comparison, criticism, and productivity takes away from the simple pleasures in life. When you slow your mind down, your awareness of the things right in front of you intensifies, the mind quiets, and contentment increases. Next time you notice yourself worrying, take a deep breath, figure out when you have time to address the problem (if you have not already done so), and let it go. Worrying every minute of the coming day will not solve the problem but it will interfere with happiness and satisfaction. Instead, focus on the friends and family right in front of you, enjoy the beautiful blue sky, or simply fall asleep. Let go and cherish the present moment.

If changing your relationship with food is the top priority for 2015, we encourage you to not focus on weight loss or restricting food intake but, rather, set intentions based on balance, variety, and moderation.

6. Slow down. While this can be difficult, it is important to slow down when it comes to planning, preparing, and eating food. When planning and preparing food, focus on what sounds good. Take time to plan meals and prepare the food while contemplating the gratitude that you feel for the food itself or other aspects of the food like nourishment, satisfaction, and possibly pleasure. When eating, take time to engage in all five senses, slowing down to enjoy and savor the textures, aromas, tastes, and visual aesthetic of your food.   

7. Trust. We all have an inner wisdom, that with practice and perseverance, we can become attuned to. Our bodies are designed to regulate themselves, let us know when they need nourishment, and indicate what type of nourishment they need. Take time to listen to your intuition in order to grow and develop trust in your body and to develop a more balanced relationship with food. Note: Slowing down will enhance your ability to respond intuitively to hunger and fullness cues and trust your body.

8. Engage. Meal time can be a time to be still, to rest, and also a time to connect. When sitting down for a meal or a snack, whether it is with others or alone, fully engage in the process. If the meal is shared with others try to focus on the conversation and connection. If you are eating alone, bring awareness to your senses and the feelings and thoughts that come up for you while eating. 

9. Nourish. Remember, food is a source of nourishment for the body and the connection that often happens at meal time is nourishment for the soul. Rather than focus on good or bad or right or wrong, take time to experience the nourishment of your body and soul, expressing the gratitude you may feel. 

Finally, remember that while the start of a new year is a convenient time to implement positive changes in your life, you can set intentions and bring them into practice any day of the year. The most important thing to do is to identify where you want to head and then create daily steps for leading you in that direction.

May 2015 bring you joy and happiness as you learn from the past and move towards the future.

Priceless: The Empathetic Response

By Kate Bennett, PsyD

More often than not, people react to each other’s problems with well-intentioned but poorly-timed responses. From sympathy (“Oh, you poor thing”) to problem-solving (“You should try…”), people often miss a critical aspect of human connection: Empathy. In a society that values fast-paced and solution-focused lives, it is common to forget to slow down and listen, let alone feel. Sometimes, individuals’ own insecurities make empathetic responses intolerable. Brene Brown’s video on empathy provides a wonderful glimpse into the powerful human skill.

Think about the last time you shared a problem with a trusted individual. How did that person respond? Was the response congruent with your needs at the time? It is important to remember that you can share your preferences to help guide a support person. Starting with “I just need someone to listen” or “I really need some help figuring this out” will clue your confidant into your needs in that moment. Likewise, next time somebody reaches out to you for support, ask how you can help versus jump to your natural response. While uncomfortable and vulnerable at first, learning to share and receive empathy is an invaluable experience that every human is worthy of.