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One Sentence

One Sentence

What is the meaning of life?

The question feels colossal. Maybe even unanswerable at first. When we’re young, we plan for our ideal adulthood via main plot points:

√   Pick a career
√   Get married
√   Have kids

Then we grow older and begin to understand that those checkboxes aren’t everything. Successful careers and thriving families are merely the cumulative results of some larger force that drives each of us in unique ways.

One of my favorite games growing up was Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life. I recently played it with my family, and was amused to see my kids react the same way I did at their age. “Yes! I got the best salary!” “It’s not fair! I wanted to be a doctor!” “I hope I get twins!” Of course, the game’s ultimate winner is defined by who has the most money. My boys were being taught the same unconscious lessons I absorbed when I was a kid.

I watched as they became swept up by imagination, seeing their “lives” unfold through the events marked by a large “STOP!” sign on the gameboard. They raced each other to see who could start a career, buy a house, build a family, and collect a payout the fastest. But even as I delighted in their enthusiasm, I was struck by a disquieting thought.

The big events provide a necessary chassis, sure – but what about those more common spaces on the gameboard we barely pause to read? The ones that say, “Go Fishing,” “Plant a Tree,” or “Visit a Museum.” Aren’t those just as important? How about coffee dates? Laughter during family dinner? Still moments to observe the clouds float across the sky? Why don’t these moments earn checkboxes?

These moments are literally what make up a life. The weight and meaning of our experiences are ours alone, but more importantly, they are ours to own. We get to direct our energy and attention toward whatever we value most. Each hour, you’re making the decision to focus on past performance, current experiences, or future plans. We get to decide when to be the driver and when to be the passenger in that little red car filled with pink and blue pegs.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. We all extract different significance from our days for different reasons. Yet when there are kids (pink and blue pegs) in our orbit, our choices about what’s important have influence. We navigate the “Game of Life” differently when there is precious cargo onboard. It’s worth noticing your personal tendencies and becoming clear on your answers to the big questions. What you find is what you’re teaching your children by example. Is finishing the game with the most money and accolades really the way you win? What is most important?

Widen the lens. Try to take on the big questions (“What is the meaning of life?”) with little answers. What if you could only respond with one grammatically correct sentence (no run-ons)? There are many questions to answer beyond figuring out the meaning of life. What is the role of joy and sorrow? What is the balance between work and play? How are pain and growth related? The point of limiting yourself to little answers is to force clarity. So here’s today’s big question: Why were you placed on this planet in this moment?

Define your purpose. You have one sentence available for your answer.

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is the Clinical Director and a pediatric occupational therapist at the Midwest Institute & Center for Workplace Innovation. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning. 

Knowing When It’s Time to Zoom

Knowing When It’s Time to Zoom

Grace under pressure is a gift. Those who can stay poised under adverse circumstances have the ability to step back and see the bigger picture. They widen the lens, get perspective, and fend off the body’s efforts to move into fight-flight-freeze mode. They can be thoughtful and decisive when it matters most. Sometimes, however, the crisis is bigger than even the most mature adult in the room.

When life gets disrupted by a traumatic event, a calm state of mind can disable the ability to act with urgency. Our bodies move into fight-flight-freeze for a reason. Health and safety become paramount. Zooming out lessens the stress that gives us our fuel to perform.

It’s a delicate balance. Not enough stress subtracts from engagement, while too much stress causes anxiety or even a total meltdown. Finding the sweet spot is the key.

Both detached calm and intense focus are valuable in a crisis and there’s an ideal time for both. Knowing when to narrow or widen the lens is the key. Zoom in when all other input must be blocked out in order to attend to the top priority on the triage list. Zoom out when you need to see the bigger picture and develop a strategy.

Families need both skill sets every day. It doesn’t require a trauma for our grace or our focus to get activated. It simply takes a diagnostic appraisal of the challenge, followed by a decision about which self to bring to the moment. Engagement or distance? Zoom in or zoom out?

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is the Clinical Director and a pediatric occupational therapist at the Midwest Institute & Center for Workplace Innovation. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning. 

Distraction

Distraction

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, there are distractions. That’s obvious. What isn’t obvious is that they often don’t reveal themselves. In fact, you’re likely to be convinced that the things competing for your attention deserve top priority. Perhaps you’ve been conditioned to think so. Or sometimes it’s simply because of an irresistible environmental appeal to our senses: the brightest, the shiniest, the closest, the loudest, the most noxious. The result is that, in the moment, you don’t realize you’re being distracted. It just happens.

There are two ways distractions succeed in doing their jobs. They either flip on your central nervous system responses through a reward pathway, or they hijack your attention by lighting up the flight-fight-freeze system. In either case, they’ve succeeded in creating tunnel vision.

Some people – kids and adults alike – are naturally good at overriding this. They’re able to step back, take stock and assess what’s actually going on around them and how it’s making them feel. For the rest of us, it takes practice.

And as if it weren’t hard enough, parents and caregivers have to master double-duty with this skill. Whenever a situation is begging for a reset – your toddler isn’t listening, your grade-schooler can’t focus on schoolwork – there are inevitably two parts to the puzzle.

We first need to try to figure out what’s commanding the child’s attention and causing their behavior. That’s the clear one. Then we need to figure out which blinders we ourselves are wearing. Our own competing priorities always color our responses to our children’s needs. Of course, then we have to decide which distraction to manage first.

Is your to-do list weighing on you? Do you have a backlog of texts, emails and phone calls? Are you making unconscious yet frustrated comparisons to your neighbor who never seems to have any problems? Or maybe your own flight-fight-freeze system has been triggered by the noise, the frustration and the stress?

It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s always most effective to address our own distractions first. No one serves from an empty vessel. Those who take good care of themselves are always better equipped to take care of others.

 

 

About the Author

 Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist at the Midwest Institute & Center for Workplace Innovation. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning. 

Nature vs. Nurture

Nature vs. Nurture

The nurture vs. nature debate has been raging for over a century. No matter which way we lean, most would agree there’s interaction between our natural wiring and the outside world. But how often does that knowledge actually enter into our parenting or the way we chose to talk to our kids or the way we teach them?

Use yourself as an example. How is the inner world/outer world interaction influencing you today? Maybe you indulged in some take-out last night because you didn’t have time to cook. (Excessive external demands on your time.) You then might have slept poorly as your body struggled to digest the meal. (Internal disruption.) The resulting tiredness means you have a hard time adjusting your body thermostat to the chilly winter air. This causes your muscles to stay tight, heightening your sense of fatigue. (Mismatch between internal needs and external conditions.) And so on and so on.

Your internal state and the external world are constantly dancing with each other in ways that are as basic as breathing. As adults, we can usually roll with this in our day-to-day lives. We’re able to make choices, and we have some control over our routines.

Now let’s think about the kids in our lives.

Many of them don’t have the same level of control over their world. Many of them don’t have the opportunity to make external adjustments to match internal messages. Many of them are still working on developing the self-awareness and communication skills to even let us know how we can help them.

This is challenging for kids even in ideal, predictable circumstances. Add in extra stressors – hours in front of a screen for remote learning, unrealistic performance demands, reduced peer interaction, limited outdoor time to burn off energy, illness, disrupted schedules, family hardship – and they’re forced to find new ways to cope. Many of these coping strategies are undesirable in the eyes of their parents (e.g. tantrums, defiance, inattention). They also end up reducing the child’s readiness for growth and learning.

What’s a well-meaning caregiver to do? Adults can strengthen each phase of a child’s development by first identifying key environmental influences and determining how well they match with the child.

This is a deliberate pause to take stock of:

  1. The clues the child is giving us about their internal workings (nature)
  2. The observable external influences acting upon them (nurture)

Strategies and modifications often present themselves when we remember to begin with this understanding of the fit between nurture & nature within the moment. So, the next time you feel lost about how to help your kid, just remind yourself to breathe and take a focused look at the unique dance happening between their inside and outside worlds.

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist and the Clinical Director at the Midwest Institute & Center for Workplace Innovation. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning. 

You Have Issues

You Have Issues

This might be tough to hear, but you have issues. It’s okay, though. We all do.

Our issues arise from our imperfect, very human, histories. Sometimes they come from singular events and traumas. Sometimes they build slowly over decades or they’re based in generational trends. They can be on the edge of our awareness or hidden in our blind spot. In any case, we carry them into every meaningful relationship in our lives.

Here are some things to roll around in your mind next time you find your issues floating to the surface:

  • Can you name them? You probably have at least a vague sense of the emotional trap doors that become activated in you on a regular basis. If you haven’t already, bring that fuzzy sense into sharper focus. Put some definition on your patterns.
  • Are they predictable? Our issues are triggered in the context of the historical events and relationships where they began. Recognizing their origins puts you in a better position to know when they’ll emerge so you can prepare for their impact. 
  • How are they impacting your family? That’s one of the hardest questions any of us face. The answer comes from allowing difficult observations to seep in. Consider how you might be making relationships harder and what you are teaching the next generation in the process.
  • How are you working on them? Chipping away at our issues is a lifelong project. Change has a way of slipping backwards. Continual progress only comes from being vulnerable, staying open-minded and moving knowledge into action – again and again. Learn, plan, execute, assess, repeat.
  • What happens when you work on your issues, but other people in your circle don’t? You can only do what you can do. Here’s the thing about families, though – the people in them tend to influence each other in powerful ways. Resolving to stay on an upward trend will create ripple effects, with you at the steady center.
  • What would it be like if they were resolved? Issues don’t form by accident – they serve functions. Letting go of them would result in the loss of the secondary gains they provide (escape, avoidance, etc.). But through making the unconscious conscious, you can turn them into strong footholds for your growth.

Our issues are what make us human. Striving toward simple understanding of them goes a long way to lessen their magnitude. At our best, our issues lend us genuine compassion and empathy for others – a sense of humble humanity that wouldn’t be possible without them.

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist and the Clinical Director at the Midwest Institute & Center for Workplace Innovation. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning. 

Invisible Selves

Invisible Selves

Humans have a tendency to be pretty self-centered. It’s not a criticism, it’s biology. We’re actually wired to diminish the complexity of other people’s experience while staying immersed in our own reality. It’s a great way to ensure we’ll care sufficiently for ourselves. It’s also a stopgap to make our experience of life more manageable and less overwhelming. But, of course, there’s an undesirable side-effect to this when we forget to put it in check.

If recent history has (re)taught us anything, it’s that nobody is immune to struggle. Even if you consider yourself one of the lucky ones – maybe you usually bounce back quickly from unexpected challenges, or you tend to find ways to skirt them – eventually a time comes when you just can’t. Or when a loved one is suddenly knocked off their feet and you find yourself powerless to help. Circumstances have a way of conspiring to take us by surprise when we’re least prepared.

Simplifying our understanding of other people makes us forget that their struggles are as real as ours – even if they’re invisible. It’s usually hardest to keep our biases in check during moments when we’re caught unaware. That self-centered biology kicks in to help us find clarity in a comfortable black-and-white conclusion. However, clarity is not always accuracy.

Whenever we create narratives about the type of person someone is, or what their lives must be like, we’re missing a big opportunity that would help both parties. What would happen if we recognized the “invisible self” – the one with complicated struggles and vulnerabilities – existing inside each of our friends, acquaintances and even the strangers we pass on the street?

This is hard. We have to suspend reality and endure the anxiety of not knowing until we can position ourselves behind the other person’s eyes. But there’s a reward. Trying to see someone’s invisible self is a powerful gift for both the giver and the recipient. It’s the gift of humble connection, of mutual grace, and, if we’re lucky, healing compassion.

I’ll be the first to admit it’s a very difficult gift to give sometimes. It’s easier to work on something in a familiar environment. So I have a suggestion: let’s make an effort to give it more at home to help build the habit. As well as we think we know them, our kids and our partners probably have invisible selves, too.

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist and the Clinical Director at the Midwest Institute & Center for Workplace Innovation. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning.