Most people experience a moment when maybe they are looking in a mirror or sitting in traffic with crap-all on the radio, and it hits them – “How did I get here?” Work is nonstop, the days have gone by, the years have gone by, the fun seems to have gone by. This is it. This is life. Where is my fun?
Is it possible to reroute your life and brain back to fun? DGO talked to psychotherapist and shamanic practitioner Kris Abrams of Cedar Tree Healing Arts to find out.
What are common ways people hold themselves back from having fun? I think that our culture exerts a tremendous amount of pressure on us to associate fun with money. It’s very effective. If you think about what the image is when you think about people having fun, it is generally delivered to us straight from the media, like beer commercials where everyone is partying on the beach. We live in Colorado not by a beach, so that entails spending money to get to a beach or at least buying beer or a swimsuit. Another image that can come to mind is people having a fancy dinner in a fancy house on a beautiful patio.
Or gathering around a perfect granite countertops.Exactly. We are exposed to those images whether it is advertisements, commercials, or within movies or TV shows, from the day we are conscious all the way through our life. It’s no wonder that we have this belief, conscious or not, that money equals fun. We even have a term for it, “retail therapy.” It feels better to spend money because we believe it does and it feels like we are doing the right thing, the thing our culture tells us to do.
What I think is powerful about this, when you really ask people, “What are some of the most meaningful and powerful memories of you have?” They say, “There was this time I was watching the sunset with my partner.” Or, “That time we went backpacking.” Or, “Learning to ride a bike as a kid and playing in a park as a kid.” Fun doesn’t require spending money and we know this, we’ve just forgotten it.
I think kids are a great model. If you look at the fun kids have, even with the cultural pressure, you give a kid a stick and they will have fun with it.
What about people who are working so much they say, “I don’t have time for fun.” If you have to work two or three jobs just to get by, that’s rough. Really rough. But, there is a damaging cultural belief that you have to be upper-middle class or middle class to have fun. The studies don’t bear that out.
There was a study done that looked at who identified at being the happiest in the world. One of the groups that were identified were garbage collectors. It shoots down the assumptions we have about the kind of career you have to have to have a happy, fun life.
What else holds people back from having more fun?One of the biggest reasons is the way we “should” ourselves: What we should be doing, who we should be. Again, talking about cultural pressure. The media is one of the big propagators of these “shoulds,” but our families, our friends, our educational institutions, and intimate partners can unwittingly be a part of these “shoulds.”
For example, one of the really common ones with women is, “I’m too fat.” It’s rare to meet someone who doesn’t have a concern about that.
Everyone thinks they have at least five pounds they “should” get rid of.Right. “I should lose weight.” “I shouldn’t eat that piece of cake.” “I shouldn’t do all these things that can be fun” are a big part of our lives.
For men, it can be, “I’m too skinny.” Then it becomes, “I should be lifting weights.” “I should be eating more protein.”
Another common “should” in this culture is “I should be productive,” that you should be working all the time, that you are wasting time if you are just sitting. I have clients – and myself sometimes – (I) feel weird when I am just hanging out because I could be using this time differently. I should be using this time productively. I have a lot of clients who have a hard time relaxing because they’ve been taught that they’re worth lies in their production.
How does criticism factor into people’s fun?I think the fear of criticism is the beginning but over time we internalize the criticism. To go back to an example about weight, it’s not so much that, “I am afraid someone will criticize me.” It rarely happens that someone directly says something. It’s that someone said something once and now I think it, an inner critic.
What’s the first step to battling the inner critic? That’s often what people think, that it needs to be a battle. I haven’t found that to work for people. What I’ve found to work is to approach this part of you, this inner critic, with compassion. To understand that it came to you in a time of need and it was actually trying to protect you.
Typically, the reason why we criticize ourselves is that it is a learned behavior. Someone else was criticizing us and we thought, “In order to be acceptable, fit in, be loved, I need to be this way.” The inner critic has your best interest at heart. If you can thank it and treat it with compassion and say, “Gosh, I see how much you have been battling for me and my well-being and I get that you want the best for me, but do you see the message that might have worked before to stave off criticism with a judgmental parent or whoever is now causing a lot of harm?” Tell it, “I’m walking around miserable and not allowing myself to be who I am to or have a lot of fun.” That’s what this is all about.
Generally, when people practice that compassion with themselves, it works. The inner critic listens. It actually does want the best for you.
Are there different forms of self criticism?For some people, the inner critic is what blocks them from having fun. For others, it could be something else that they were taught they “should” be.
A lot of women are caretakers. They put everyone else’s needs in front of their own so that they feel guilty when they prioritize getting their own needs met. For them, it might be doing some work with this inner caretaker. It really depends on the person and what their block is.
How does perfectionism hold people back from fun?The perfectionist is another example of this internalized pattern of thinking and seeing yourself. It might be conscious or it might not. You can call it a neural network, because it is. It is a collection of neurons that have been strengthened over and over to think this way. Perfectionism is a close cousin of the inner critic.
What about thinking planning must be a part of fun?This speaks to “doing” versus “being.” This is another huge cultural pressure in this country. It is related to the “shoulds.” The, “You should be ‘doing’ all the time,” that having fun is no different. It is a “doing” rather than a “being.” But if you are really in tune with who you are in any given moment, and not feeling pressured to be anyone besides who you are, you can even have fun looking out the window or washing the dishes. If you are tuned into how amazing it is to be alive and feeling the water on your fingers and creating cleanliness where once there was soiled dishes, even that can be fun.
Like having a Zen moment? Mm-hmm. It is so foreign to our culture of doing all the time and that is trying to be somewhere else. We are always thinking about the future or the past and trying to get somewhere where we are not. Where we are not is where we are and that is where the fun is.
What are steps people can take to help lead them to a more fun place in life?If you notice that your mind is churning, churning, churning, about stuff that has nothing to do with where you are right now. Can you just notice it? And any tool can be turned into a weapon, so I’m not saying beat yourself up. Be gentle about it. Notice, “Gosh, I’m not here right now. What would I be noticing if I were here? Would I notice the water on my hands? Would I notice it’s a sunny day outside?” That’s one. You could spend your whole life on that. I mean, all of Buddhism is based on being versus doing.
Another is the “shoulds” versus the “woulds.” If you are a person who learns and transforms through thinking and writing, a little exercise you can do is to write down all of the “shoulds” that you told yourself, either throughout your whole life or even just what you should be doing right now. Then, in a different column, write down all of the things you would do, if you allowed yourself.
Another practice that is really powerful, and it can actually change the biochemistry of the brain, in the moment and over time, is gratitude practice. Whether you are writing it down or sharing it with another person or thinking about it as you go for a walk, just thinking, “What do I appreciate? What am I grateful for right now?” It changes the biochemistry of the brain. Even if you are in such a terrible mood that you can’t think of a single thing that you are grateful for, even asking the question has shown that it begins to shift your biochemistry.
One of my favorite activities I like to do with clients is called “The Child’s Wander.” This goes back to, kids know what they like to do, kids know how to have fun. Even though they’re starting to get bombarded with all of these cultural messages about how they should be or who they should be, to a large extent, kids are still who they are at their core. We, as kids, are not severed from that authentic self. This activity is designed to experience that again.
Rather than walking a trail to get to a destination – to get to the next trail, to get to the lake, as physical fitness – rather than approaching hiking that way, you walk the trail and you have 30 minutes and wander as though you are a little kid, like the kid that you once were. If you feel like climbing a tree, you are going to climb a tree. If you feel like skipping rocks on the lake, you are going to do that. Just give yourself that time. It’s amazing what can happen for people. They say, “I forgot how I used to be, who I am.”
If we’re getting to the core of why I think that people don’t have fun, it’s because they are severed from who they really are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer