This compilation of songs, all of which can be found on YouTube, will bathe your soul in bliss. Some are in English and some in Sanskrit, the ancient holy language. All are designed to soothe your spirit during this strange and challenging time.
Clearly, this is an extremely stressful time. It’s also an opportunity to trust yourself and use all the tools you have practiced to cope in the past.
I have compiled a short list of things you can do to buoy your spirits, keep yourself physically healthy, and help others.
If you have Bach’s Rescue Remedy put a couple of drops in your water bottle every day or take one of the pastilles. It can only help calm your nervous system.
Don’t skip meals. If your blood sugar gets too low it affects your mood and you will be more prone to anxiety and irritability.
Catch up on sleep. Sleep helps raise your metabolism so you can process your food efficiently, helps your memory consolidate from the day before and gives you extra mental and physical energy to deal with change.
Discover the INSIGHT TIMERapp. I have a list of some of my favorite teachers in an earlier post. There are over 40,000 different meditations and talks available. They will definitely soothe your mind. This is a great time to try a walking meditation, either inside or outside your home. The app has a variety of short and long walking meditations to talk you through the experience.
Journaling, whether written or audio, can be great for releasing stress, counting your blessings or simply processing your reactions to what is going on.
Distract yourself. Whether it’s music, videos, reading, learning a new skill, practicing yoga, qi gong, taking a walk, calling a friend or relative, cleaning out your closets, tackling a household chore or doing anything else you’ve procrastinated with, being busy helps clear your mind and calm your nerves.
Help someone. If you can do a chore for somebody, if you can buy gift certificate to your favorite restaurant over the phone, if you can check in on someone and help them feel more connected, if you can simply be another person trying to get through this with the best attitude possible, you’re helping.
Thank everyone who’s working to keep things running. Reminding people they are appreciated gives them a reason to persevere and makes them feel useful. We can all be useful to each other. Isn’t that what we’re here for?
If you’re feeling anxious, notice what you’re telling yourself. In a time like this it’s all too easy to start catastrophizing. Please remember: You have been through myriad challenges before. If you’re here reading this you’re resilient. You survived. It may not have been pleasant. You may not have liked it. But you got through it.
Last but not least, be grateful. Do you have a roof over your head? Do you have food to eat? Those two things alone a reason to celebrate in a time like this. So many people are in dire straits. Start noticing every little thing you have to feel grateful for. Is the water running? Is the heat working? Do you have a book to read? Do you have the Internet? Can you open the door and breathe some fresh air?
This will pass. Everything since the history of time has. We will rebuild, recoup and recover. Have faith in yourself and everyone else. It’s time to unite and start trusting each other again.
If you didn’t have a predictable, loving, nurturing, protective adult presence in your life as an infant or child you are likely to search for it the rest of your days. Luckily, the answer lies within. The more you rely on yourself to give you what you didn’t get the more you can reliably get it.
We carry unconscious expectations to all our adult relationships, the kernel of which is usually a cellular desire, for what we didn’t get growing up.
Unconsciously, we bring that fervent wish into every close relationship we have until the day we realize everyone is bound to disappoint us. It’s not their fault, they don’t do it on purpose, it’s simply that we cannot get as adults what we missed as infants and children. Why? Because when we get that feeling of secure attachment as an infant and child we learn how to self soothe. We learn it unconsciously. It becomes part of our DNA. (Yes, according to epigenetic theory, environmental conditions can shape the way DNA gets expressed after we are born.)
Here is a story that illustrates the very human search to seek what we feel is missing, but looking in the wrong place:
A policeman sees a drunk looking for something under a streetlight and asks what the man has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “This is where the light is.”
As long as you look outside yourself for the reliable support, comfort and love you didn’t get you will be disappointed. Why? Because no one can understand what you really want better than you. Ultimately, you will feel frustrated, possibly grief-stricken, with your relationships since your conscious and unconscious desires can’t be met 24/7 by anyone else. Of course, you can find loving supportive people who will comfort you along the way, but they may not always be there when you need them.
I know it’s daunting to think of giving yourself love, consideration, and respect, but over time, with enough practice, it’s possible.
When you’re lonely, suffering, angry, even despairing, ask yourself: What do I really want right now? Then do your best to provide it. Since you will be with yourself every second of your life from birth to death, doesn’t make sense to create the most nurturing, loving and dependable relationship with yourself you can possibly have?
In the midst of anxiety, grief, and loneliness you can reassure yourself that things will be OK. This takes a lot of practice. You will not get good at it quickly. But what could be a more worthwhile enterprise than creating the very best, most loving relationship with yourself?
While there are all sorts of wonderful techniques for supporting yourself through trying times on this site, self compassion is what they all have in common.
Every time you hear that inner voice being harsh, critical or perfectionistic towards you counter it with loving thoughts that prove you cherish yourself. If the last thing on earth you feel is self-love just fake it ‘till you make it. In time, with practice, you will begin to believe it.
What better refuge is there than what you carry with you every minute of every day? You truly know what you want if you just ask yourself in any given moment. Here are a few questions to get you started. It can be helpful to either meditate on the answers or write them down.
What do I wish someone would say to me right now?
What would soothe me now: body, mind or spirit?
How can I show kindness towards myself in this moment?
How can I remind myself how resilient I really am? Perhaps, a list of all the challenges I managed to survive will help. (Kicking and screaming through them doesn’t diminish the end result of living to see another day.)
What if I make an audio recording of what I wish someone would say to me right now and play it to myself?
Can I get in touch with that inner child and say what he or she wants to hear?
Let me explore this feeling somatically, in my body, by really paying attention to and naming what’s going on physically.
What can I do to help myself feel safer right this minute?
Is there a guided meditation on the Insight Timer (free app) I can listen to that will help me re-frame this experience and re-ground me?
No matter how painful this is, I am bearing it. I know it will pass. Everything else has, even when I thought I couldn’t stand it. Sometimes, I just have to take the next breath.
Detaching from what causes you pain and attaching to what brings you joy sounds incredibly straightforward and almost absurd to write about, yet for most people it’s amazingly difficult￼.
First of all, one must do a fairly fearless inventory to discern what actually brings you joy in the first place and what causes pain. This may also sound obvious, but it isn’t. How often do you stay in situations that are unsatisfying at best and hurtful at worst? You don’t dwell there because you’re a masochist, you keep going back to those people or situations because they are familiar.￼￼
A good way to begin a self inquiry process is to think about a day in your life.
How are you typically spending it?
With whom are you engaging?
Are you enjoying this experience?
Is it something you do frequently?
If you’re not enjoying it, what’s keeping you there?
Is there something you might prefer to do?
Are you afraid if you don’t do it you will be alone, and that scares the pants off you?
After you have discovered those answers, examine what’s keeping you in situations that don’t bring you joy.
Is it fear of change?
Fear of the unknown?
Are you worried people will reject you if you don’t do what they want?
Does it feel too daunting to start setting boundaries and putting yourself first?
Are you afraid you’ll feel guilty if you disappoint people? (If so, please read the piece: Dare To Disappoint…)
Is it fear of being alone? I mention that one twice because it is a major concern for a vast majority of people. It’s human to have trouble setting boundaries and simply go along to get along, even if you end up feeling unsatisfied, regretful or resentful.
As you can see, it’s not so easy to choose joy.￼￼￼ It takes guts. You have to be willing to face your demons. Those demons might come in the form of what Albert Ellis used to call “love slobbism,” the notion that we must be loved or approved of by every significant person in our life, and if we’re not it’s horrible, terrible and awful, and we can’t stand it. That leads to poor boundary setting with other people and putting oneself at the bottom of the list. Clearly not a way to increase your joy.
Fear of being alone is a very real issue for most people as it’s a skill not well taught in our society. The good news is, just ￼like any other muscle, you can strengthen it. In time, with some practice, you might actually find you love your own company. If you don’t, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. We have therapy for that.￼
Probing one’s deepest self, whether it’s your desires, what really brings you joy, or what brings you grief, is only as useful as the changes you make with that knowledge. If you simply have the insight and don’t take it to the next level, acting on that awareness, it’s just an intellectual exercise￼￼.
Change is always scary. You don’t know what’s at the end of the road.￼ But not changing can feel like a slow death.
Luckily, change doesn’t have to happen overnight. It can happen in the smallest increments you can handle.￼ In feng shui, there’s a practice that involves moving 27 things in your house. You can simply move a book from one spot to another on the same table, it doesn’t have to be anything major. The act of moving 27 things shifts the energy of your space as well as your perception of it and allows other changes to follow. Similarly, doing one thing differently, like meditating (using the free Insight Timer app for even five minutes a day) can show you how capable you are of change. In addition, you get the message that change doesn’t have to be scary or extreme to be enlightening and exciting. And, what’s more exciting than seeing your own potential?
It takes courage to choose joy, especially when that joy involves change, and it almost always does￼￼.
Choose you! Choose joy! Nobody knows why we humans are here. Why not maximize your pleasure? I’m not suggesting you do it at the expense of anyone else’s, but there are myriad ways to enhance your enjoyment of life.
Get to know yourself.
Act on that knowledge.
Be curious and try new things￼￼.
Pay attention to any time you seem happy, peaceful or content.
Keep a joy journal. Simply write down, or just list, things that reliably bring you joy. Over days and weeks you will notice a pattern: it’s the same things over and over. Maybe it’s being with people, or taking more time for solitary pleasure.￼ Maybe it’s learning something new. It could be a physical activity. ￼For some, it might be exploring your spirituality or volunteering for a worthy cause.￼
If you put a little time into this you will discover what truly brings you happiness. Then you can do those things more frequently.
Waking up to who you are and what you want is not only good for you, it’s good for everyone else on earth. How does that work? The happier you are the more joy you spread. In addition, you can be congruent and authentic which is a fantastic example for others to follow. It gives them a cosmic permission slip to be their true self.￼￼
If happiness is love, then finding out what you really love and acting on it will bring you happiness. It could be connecting with a group, deeply knowing another person, immersing yourself in nature, devoting yourself to a cause, a pet, or anything else. Victor Frankel, in his famous book: Man’s Search For Meaning, believed finding meaning in life, whatever way you possibly can, brings true joy￼￼￼.
Bilateral Stimulation (BLS) is nothing new. Yogis have been doing it through the meditative practice of Yoga Nidra for thousands of years. Qigong incorporates it into almost all their routines. Bilateral Stimulation refers to any activity that channels your attention from one brain hemisphere to the other. In EMDR this is typically done by tapping on alternate knees or watching someone’s fingers move rapidly from right to left. But you don’t need to do EMDR, Yoga Nidra, Qigong, or anything else that requires learning a new technique to alternately stimulate both sides of your brain. Every time you walk you do exactly that. Ditto for stair climbing. As typical of those behaviors may already be for you, it can only help to incorporate more BLS into your day as it clears the mind, induces calm, and enables easier decision making. No matter which techniques you choose, the benefits are nothing short of extraordinary in recalibrating your brain.
No doubt, you have noticed how simply taking a walk shifts your thinking and gives you a new perspective. It’s the balancing effect of bilateral hemisphere stimulation. Once you have some measure of hemi-sync, as it’s called, you can more easily tackle thorny problems.
In our thinking oriented world, it can be quite grounding to work intelligently with the body; especially, when that directly affects mental and emotional processing.
A VARIETY OF WAYS TO DO BILATERAL STIMULATION:
Take the stairs.
Yoga (Actually, the meditative practice of Yoga Nidra uses this in many ways that don’t require learning any postures.)
Tapping (See tapping post on this site.)
EMDR, usually done with an EMDR practitioner.
Acupuncture can have elements of bilateral stimulation depending on how it’s done.
Alternate nostril breathing.
Binaural beats, an auditory way of alternately engaging both hemispheres.
Cognitive techniques, when going back and forth from tasks that require the left hemisphere, like logic, to tasks that engage the right hemisphere through creative or artistic endeavors.
WHEN TO USE BILATERAL STIMULATION:
Extreme situations are often a great time to try BLS. When a traumatic memory is triggered, whether it’s the thought, emotion, or both simultaneously. This might be a sudden feeling of panic when flooded with an old disturbing memory or a deep upwelling of grief when watching a movie of a child dealing with a situation you experienced. Whatever the trigger, extreme emotional states are well suited to the calming effects of BLS. For instance:
When feeling stressed overwhelmed.
When you can’t make a decision.
When an unpleasant emotion, like anger, anxiety, guilt, etc. shows up and you have no idea why.
If you find yourself ruminating on negative what-ifs, something upsetting from your past, or a fear of something in the future.
When lonely or bored. (Also, see pieces here on Loneliness and Boredom.)
If you feel emotionally detached, untethered from reality, “floaty,” or simply want to feel more grounded. ( See the piece here on Grounding Techniques.)
This is another tool in your mind-body toolbox. As with all the others on this site, the more you practice it, the more powerfully it can help you recalibrate your emotions and calm your nervous system.
I am a huge fan of the free app: Insight Timer. It has over 30,000 meditations. While I certainly haven’t listened to all of them, I have sampled many. With such an embarrassment of riches it’s a bit daunting to sort through them and bookmark all the ones you love. I thought it might be helpful to share some of my favorite teachers with you.
I’m not suggesting specific meditations from each of them as I think it’s good to look at all their offerings and choose what benefits you most on any particular day.
I will keep adding new names to the bottom of the list as I discover more of these amazing resources.
I was recently listening to an episode of the podcast “Like Mind, Like Body,” in which Dr. John Stracks was talking about his experiences treating Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), also called Tension Myoneural Syndrome or Mind-Body Syndrome (MBS). All of which refer to how the body expresses something the mind isn’t comfortable allowing you to think or feel emotionally. Dr. John Sarno, Dr. David Clarke, Dr. David Hanscom and others have written about TMS for quite some time. Dr. Stracks was saying how he has noticed many of his patients start showing physical symptoms after a death in the family. But, it doesn’t necessarily have to be as momentous a shift in one’s life as the loss of someone close to you, it can be a job change, a move, a physical diagnosis, divorce, a history of trauma, or anything that takes a fair amount of emotional and psychological restructuring to assimilate.
TMS can manifest as sleep issues, a backache, sciatica, neck pain, IBS, Gerd, migraines, tics, TMJ, palpitations, tinnitus, knee pain, pins and needles in your hands or feet, vision issues, numbness, sudden muscle spasms, or anything physical that stops you in your tracks and distracts you from feeling anger, grief, panic, or anxiety. Your body is simply processing something emotional and protecting you from what it unconsciously believes is worse: a flood of overwhelming disturbing or negative feelings.
One of the hallmarks of mind-body syndrome, is a rotating roster of physical issues. It’s like mind-body whac-a-mole. One day you might have Gerd, another day it’s a backache, next week it’s a migraine, next year it could be sciatica. To make matters even more complicated, some people find that when their physical symptoms abate they can be replaced by emotional issues, like anxiety, grief, or depression.
If you already know you fit Dr. Sarno’s pattern of someone likely to develop mind body syndrome, i.e.: you’re sensitive, generous, a do-gooder, perfectionistic, self-critical, have a variety of physical symptoms, are hyper-vigilant about what’s going on in your body, and you have had a major life change, it might be a good idea to consider your physical issues psychogenic. This doesn’t mean you’re making them up; rather, it’s your unconscious mind creating a physical symptom. It’s helpful to understand your body is simply trying to help you assimilate a major life change or something else you could find disturbing or overwhelming. Of course, these mind-body symptoms do not always come from something so easily traceable. They might just show up when your unconscious mind is concerned you’ll be drenched in grief and it wants to preoccupy you with something else it deems less bad.
One of the most useful things you can do is to keep a written or audio journal where you vent your deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings. Dr. Sarno used to say it was crucial to focus on your rage because people who are kind, nice, overly generous, sweet, considerate and perfectionistic generally have a tendency to not allow themselves to feel their anger to its full extent. In people with that constellation of traits and tendencies unexpressed rage can often turn into a physical symptom. The good news is: Getting in touch with your feelings, even ones you might think are unacceptable, can be safe and freeing. Simply writing about what’s going on in your life, including things you are unhappy about, allows them to move through you. It also lets your unconscious mind know you can handle feeling all your feelings.
Another aspect of moving through TMS into recovery is going against your symptoms by engaging in physical activity. Exercise is an essential component of healing from TMS.
While it feels wildly counter-intuitive to have real pain and convince yourself it’s in your head and you’re really OK, this is the road to feeling better. A short phrase that helps with this is: Hurt doesn’t equal harm.
When thinking of stressful events, it’s important to remember that positive life changes, like getting married, buying a house, starting a new job, or having a baby can also trigger TMS. It dosen’t have to be anger, memories of a traumatic childhood, or current annoyances.
Of course, with each new symptom it’s easy to get scared and think, “This time something is really wrong with me.” I certainly wouldn’t assume that every physical malady is a symptom of TMS. Check out whatever ails you with a doctor. If you find you’re really fine, there is a cornucopia of techniques that can re-orient your thinking and allow your body to come back to a more peaceful, pain free state.
A huge part of overcoming TMS is constantly reminding yourself that nothing really bad is happening to you physically, quite a feat when you’re suffering with an intense migraine, unpleasant stomach issues, or what feels like debilitating back pain. Yet, that is what ultimately allows your body-mind to switch back to a symptom-free state.
This is often a matter of retraining your brain, since a part of you unconsciously wants to create a physical symptom to distract you from emotional pain and while your conscious mind wants to get over the physical symptom and might be willing to feel the emotion. To make this even more difficult, you might also be aware enough to know you are grief stricken or furious at someone or something in your life; but, as Dr. Sarno used to say, there is a lot more anger there than meets the eye. This is why it’s so crucial to do the journaling and meditation.
Another important aspect of recovery is education. Current pain research is brimming with theories on the ways your brain creates pain. They are remarkably easy to understand, make sense, and help you see how easily you can re-train your brain. YouTube videos by Lorimer Moseley are engaging, fun and enlightening.
Dr. David Hanscomb has found 25-30% of a patient’s recovery from pain is based on getting enough sleep. (See Insomnia piece on this website.)
TMS can be a relapsing and remitting condition. That’s not a life sentence. It’s merely a way your unconscious mind shows you that you need to ratchet up your self care, create better boundaries with people, or start journaling and meditating again.
The good news is: There is nothing wrong with you. Even issues people have had for decades can suddenly resolve once the underlying psychological material is sufficiently acknowledged and you have been exposed to enough scientific information about the mind-body connection. At times, it’s helpful having a therapist on the journey, and an experienced body worker, massage therapist, acupuncturist. Not to “cure” you, but to support you.
I have suffered with mind-body syndrome since I was a young teen. It has manifested in myriad ways, none of which I enjoyed. The body can be astonishingly creative. No matter how many times I’ve been scared that something was really physically wrong this time, almost everything has resolved with a combination of journaling, meditation, education, and going against symptoms by staying active. The Curable app and their Facebook community are incredible resources, as they put all these healing tools in one place. I have also found reading Dr. Sarno’s and Dr. Hanscomb’s books incredibly helpful. Like so many things in life, dealing with this is both a process and a practice. If you have TMS please be patient and compassionate with yourself.
YouTube videos and books by Lorimer Moseley, Dr. John Sarno, Dr. Sarno’s 12 Daily Reminders, Dr. David Hanscom, Dr. Howard Schubiner, Alan Gordon, LCSW, Dr. David Clarke, Adriaan Louw and Beth Darnall.
There is an unfortunate trend in many self-help podcasts, books and YouTube videos that encourages you to let go, accept and forgive through the use of affirmations. Letting go, even accepting and forgiving, is wonderful as long as you’re emotionally ready. Spiritual bypassing comes when you force yourself to resolve something even though you’re still upset or angry about it. When you forgive someone or accept something before you’re ready you simply create a polarized part in yourself. In other words, you now have all the angry, grief-stricken or frustrated parts and a new (or more strongly activated) inner voice that says you shouldn’t feel any of those things, you should just forgive yourself and everybody else…as if that’s so easy, or simply saying it is going to make it so.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, putting affirmations or positive self-talk on top of roiling emotions only suppresses them: the opposite of letting them out and letting them pass through you.
The thing to do with feelings is feel them. Emotions are truly energy in motion. If you try to squash them by covering them up with something that sounds or looks better you’re merely encouraging them to burrow into you more deeply.
If it were truly so easy to say a few affirmations and excise your demons everybody would have done it long ago and would feel happy and peaceful. Affirmations can be a useful adjunct in your mental wellness tool kit; however, you have to be ready for them. Merely saying them doesn’t make them magically change your life. If you don’t really believe them, they won’t work. Wanting to believe them is not the same as having done the emotional prep work that lets you fully embrace them.
So what can an angry or grief-stricken human do to pave the way for true acceptance and forgiveness? Allow yourself to feel your feelings no matter how disturbing, scary or unpleasant they may be. This is one of the hardest things you could possibly do and takes an incredible amount of practice, but it can be done. Just understand it may go against an almost cellular tendency to fight what feels unpleasant or overwhelming. Still, you invite in the scary, triggering, or disturbing feeling. It’s both counterintuitive and incredibly powerful.
The practice involves saying: Let me feel this. There are many variations on this essential phrase, like: I can make it safe to feel this. Or: It’s OK to feel this. Whichever one you use will open the door to greater calm, less muscle tension, and less cognitive dissonance.
When you allow the parts of you that are still disturbed about something to express themselves they relax. There’s nothing for them to fight against. On the other hand, if you force them into subjugation with forgiveness they’re not ready to truly accept, they will fight you by creating cognitive and emotional dissonance. This discomfort may not be conscious, because your ego and/or unconscious mind might succeed in suppressing it, but it will be there, just under the surface, waiting to pounce with either a physical or emotional manifestation (muscle pain, headaches, stomach aches, heart palpitations, addictions, insomnia, anxiety, depression, feelings of worthlessness, etc.).
There is no way to bypass the work of feeling unpleasant emotions when they arise without incurring negative consequences. On the other hand, if you practice feeling all your feelings, they will become less scary, intimidating and overwhelming. Adding a hefty dose of self compassion by using Kristen Neff’s three key concepts can make this a bit easier.
She suggests saying the following to yourself:
1. This is a moment of suffering.
2. Everyone suffers, no one has singled me out for this, it’s simply part of the human experience.
3. Let me be kind and gentle to myself as I experience this.
It’s easy to see how suggestions to spiritually bypass this work can be enticing, but resist their enchantments. They will only add to your unhappiness. The only way out is through. If there were a faster route we would all be taking it and feeling deliriously happy. Just as with everything else in your life you feel good about, it requires some work. To build a muscle you have to use it. If you want to build emotional muscle you have to practice feeling and acknowledging what’s true and real for you. You have to feel your feelings. That’s what they’re there for. Stuffing them, ignoring them, or beating them into submission will not work. Just like whack-a-mole they will emerge somewhere else.
Resist the urge to wallpaper over your sadness, disappointment, frustration, anger, anxiety, and grief with forgiveness and acceptance. Allow yourself to feel them all. Get to know them. Hard as it may be to believe, they’re there to help you. They’re simply parts of you that want to protect you from further pain by reminding you, through an unpleasant feeling, to take the very best care of yourself you possibly can.
Why hold a grudge? Holding a grudge typically involves repeatedly reminding yourself how somebody wronged you and how they deserve your continued anger, disappointment, resentment, and retribution. It’s a unique self-inflicted pain requiring incessant internal reminders of being hurt by someone’s indifference, willful behavior, or obliviousness. Who would want to reignite the emotional distress of feeling dismissed, ignored, rejected, or hurt?
When you think about it like that, holding a grudge seems completely toxic to the person holding it. However, humans usually do things for very good reasons even though they may not be apparent at first blush. What could possibly be the benefit of holding a grudge? It helps you protect yourself. If you keep replaying and reminding yourself why you’re wary of somebody or avoid them, you protect yourself from future hurt. Another benefit is it’s easier to deal with feeling angry than it is to deal with feeling deeply disappointed, sad, or grief stricken. Anger can feel empowering while the other options might be draining and depressing.
Nobody really wants to hold a grudge, no matter what it looks like it to an observer or to the person the grudge is held against. The reason it’s so difficult to let go of a grudge, especially if it’s a reoccurring issue with someone, is part of you thinks if you don’t remind yourself this is how that person has operated in the past you’re much more likely to be negatively affected by their behavior in the future. Almost like a psychic pain inoculation.
Adding to the unpleasantness of holding a grudge is the self-downing that can come from knowing how people view you. You can be seen as petty, unforgiving, emotionally ungenerous and even self-destructive.
This really complicates things as it feels like a double hit: now you feel the inner dissonance of holding a grudge, and the sense that people are judging you for being slow to forgive. Their judgment can easily lead to self recrimination, even feelings of guilt and shame. I’m here to tell you that holding a grudge is just a self-protective mechanism.It doesn’t make you a bad or mean person. Everyone knows it doesn’t feel good to hold a grudge. The only reason you would do it is if it had some utility.
Forgiveness is wonderful when you’re ready to forgive. However, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. A grudge is simply entrenching a bad memory so you won’t let what caused it happen again. When seen in that light, it de-pathologizes your harsh self-judgment and gives you some psychic ammo to counteract the negative feedback you might get from friends and family who don’t want you to suffer.
As with all emotions, the more you allow yourself to feel them the sooner they evaporate. When you tell yourself you’re horrible for holding a grudge it only cements your resentment. It even refuels it as people’s negative judgments can easily make you more defensive. That defensiveness means you’re going to come up with more reasons why you feel the grudge and hold it more tightly.
The next time you’re harboring a grudge against somebody look at how that might be protecting you from potential future pain. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling, to explore why you’re feeling it, and to consciously decide what the next best course of action with that person might be.
This is a good example of how creating a default of self compassion will always help you. Instead of lambasting yourself for not instantly forgiving someone, it allows you to gently and patiently explore your own reactions to their behavior. Ultimately, the kindness you show yourself redounds to everyone’s benefit.
This is the easiest self-help thing you can do, even though, at first, it looks as if you’re doing it for someone else.
All you have to do is say something nice.
There’s only one catch:
You have to mean it.
Surely, in almost all your daily wanderings you can find something nice to say to almost everyone you meet.
Don’t lie and don’t lard it on. Just find something you can honestly compliment.
At their house? Even if you hate the decor, say how lovely the light looks as it comes through the window.
Seeing them at the grocery store? Comment on their cheerful demeanor, their smile, their attitude, their clothes, their children. You don’t have to rack your brain that hard to find something positive.
Barbara Fredrickson, in her book: Love 2.0, makes quite a compelling case for the beneficial effects of micro connections. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest these are even more powerful when they involve a heartfelt compliment.
There are many studies that show how much better people feel after they are generous. You don’t have to write a check, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or knit scarves for the homeless (though those would also be appreciated). Just say a few words:
You look so vibrant today.
You always have such good energy.
I love that color on you.
You have such a way with children.
You’re such a kind soul.
You really make a difference.
The world is so much better with you in it.
I really appreciate your unique view on things.
You get the idea.
Don’t wait until the urge strikes, cultivate the habit. I promise you will be the ultimate beneficiary.
So, go ahead, make someone’s day better. It’s free, easy (once you let yourself relax and let go) and it will increase your joy.
Clearly when you feel happy, elated or joyful your emotions are saying: “More please!” It doesn’t take a psychological sleuth to know what to do when you feel good; however, it does take a bit of digging to figure out what’s underneath the darker and more complex emotions.
When depression, anger, anxiety or grief show up they are messengers asking you to explore what you really want.
Grief, is a shape shifter. It can masquerade as anger, depression, anxiety, and guilt. (There is a piece on this site under the Depression heading called “Is your depression really grief” that points to how frequently people are misdiagnosed, or misdiagnose themselves, with depression when they’re really feeling grief stricken.)
While the following is a fairly oversimplified explanation, I think it can be a useful tool in exploring three major unpleasant emotions.
Often, anxiety covers depression, depression covers anger, and anger covers hurt. All four of those feelings are difficult emotions. They feel lousy, they usually involve unpleasant bodily sensations, and it’s normal to want to ditch them as fast as possible. Yet, if you push them out of your conscious awareness either with distractions, addictions, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, or other drugs, you will simply feel them more strongly in the future, or they will manifest in bodily conditions like backaches, migraines, tension headaches, IBS, palpitations, insomnia, etc.
As daunting as it may appear at first, it’s actually very liberating to plumb the depths of your initial feelings to see if there is something else underneath them. Since anger, anxiety, depression and guilt can be so disturbing, it’s a good idea to ameliorate their effect on you first.
Radical self-care practices, like yoga, qigong, walking, spending time in nature, music, self-compassion meditation, massage, acupuncture, healthy food, chocolate, inspirational videos and talks, and hugs can all soothe and mollify the harsh edges of these intense feelings.
After calming your body, mind and spirit as much as possible, you may want to do some deeper work to free yourself from the grip of the underlying emotion that is often at the root of your initial feeling.
While working with a therapist is one option, there is much you can accomplish on your own. EFT (emotional freedom technique), for example, provides a gentle, yet effective way to work with challenging feelings. You can find many helpful videos on YouTube. (Check out my piece on tapping for more information and specific suggestions.)
Another great path is through journaling. Whether written or audio, journaling can be be revealing, cathartic and calming, especially if you ask yourself some of the following questions:
Is my depression really grief?
Have I had a major change in life or a big loss recently?
Could my anger be hiding sadness and hurt feelings?
Is my anxiety covering a deeper sadness or depression?
Is there any chance anger underlies my depression?
Have my guilt feelings unconsciously created a lot of resentment?
These are very probing questions and it’s helpful to come back to them regularly.
Why do people unconsciously cover up deeper, often darker and scarier, emotions with other unpleasant feelings? It’s an unconscious choice to feel the lesser of two evils. For example, it’s easier to admit feeling angry than to get in touch with being hurt, sad, or grief stricken. Why? Because anger is empowering and feeds the ego. Just think of the Sea Witch at the end of the movie THE LITTLE MERMAID. As her anger grew she became enormous, finally imploding. Anger can be both seductive and destructive.
If depression feels so lousy and anger can be empowering, why unconsciously choose depression over anger? Because there is a gender divide in the world of feelings. You don’t consciously choose one over the other, you’ve been trained to do it. Men are allowed to express some measure of anger. Women are generally perceived as less threatening when they express depression, so they learn to stifle their anger, which then gets expressed as depression. They don’t prefer depression over anger, they’ve just been socialized to cope that way.
Whatever the origin of these tendencies, the good news is you can unearth your deeper feelings, work through them with patience, wisdom, and self compassion, and get to the other side.
Lately almost everyone I see in my practice complains of some insomnia. Here’s a list of everything I could conjure up to help you if you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep.
PLEASE CONSULT WITH YOUR MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL BEFORE USING THESE OR ANY OTHER REMEDIES, ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE ON PRESCRIPTION MEDICATION, AS HERBS CAN INTERACT WITH PHARMACEUTICALS.
An IMPORTANTNOTE about herbs: They can easily interact with medication you might be taking, so please call your pharmacist to check if you can safely use them.
Lemon Balm tincture (I generally recommend tinctures over capsules as it makes it easy to adjust the dose). This is both a sleep aid (soporific) and an anti-ruminative to help you quell those repetitive thoughts.
To start, try half the recommended dose suggested on the bottle in a little water 15 minutes before bedtime or if you wake up during the night.
Passionflower tincture, same dosing as Lemon Balm, but this targets anxiety.
Valerian is a central nervous system depressant, just like Valium, Librium, Xanax, alcohol and ether. If using the tincture, read the directions and start with a lower dose. Sometimes, the label will say something like, “Take 5-50 drops.” Usually, one dropper full, about 25 drops, is a good place to start; but, if you weigh very little, or are sensitive start with less. Mix the herb with a little water.
Valerian is often added to stress reducing herbal combination remedies. Just be careful when taking it not to operate heavy machinery, as it may slow down your coordination and reaction time.
Calms Forte is a combination remedy that’s safe for all ages. One tablet 15 minutes before bedtime to start.
You may take up to two, but don’t take more or you will feel sleepy the next day.
Magnesium Citrate 100-200mg before bed. Too much magnesium can give you diarrhea, so start with a smaller dose. Also, an Epsom salt bath is incredibly relaxing as it has magnesium which gets into your body through your skin.
“Sleep With Me” tries to both bore and slightly annoy you to sleep.
“Selected Shorts” is an assortment of wonderful short stories from most genres read by famous actors.
An ancient yogic meditation that you do lying on your back with earbuds, preferably, that systematically relaxes your body-mind. Here are some programs I like:
Free yoga nidra: Go to iTunes, go to Elsie’s Yoga, and scroll down until you hit episode No. 62, “Deep Relaxation.” This is her wonderful version of yoga nidra. The first 15 minutes she is chatting with a fan, so you can skip through that to the one-hour program that follows. I have been using this for years and highly recommend it.
Maalika Shay Devi Yoga Nidra on Amazon.
Richard Miller, PhD, is the major proponent of yoga nidra in America. In fact, he has successfully shown how regular use of yoga nidra calms posttraumatic stress symptoms in service people coming back from deployment. His CD is excellent. There’s a version of the longest track available for $1.95.
Swami Janakanada also has a great yoga nidra CD that is available on Amazon. It has a shorter practice, a seven-minute music interlude, and a longer, 45-minute practice. He is a true yogi with an Indian accent, and the CD is done in a serious but light-hearted way, which makes it different from almost everything else currently available.
You may want to listen to a sample on Amazon or iTunes and see if the person’s voice appeals to you. If not, try a different version.
Lavender is also quite effective as a relaxant and pain reducer. Put a few drops of essential oil of lavender on a tissue and place it about six inches from your pillow. Lavender will put you to sleep in no time. Men should not use lavender too frequently as it is a hormone disrupter and can activate estrogen receptors. (Ditto for Tea Tree oil.)
Balsam Fir Needle, Pine, or Cedar are all scents that evoke the forest. The Japanese love these for their rejuvenating and calming properties.
Chamomile tea brewed to a good strength for 3-5 minutes, is an excellent sleep inducer. If one tea bag isn’t doing the trick, try making a stronger brew with two. Tazo brand CALM tea is an especially delicious blend with camomile.
This is a Bach combination remedy made from the essences of five different flowers:
Rock Rose – for terror and panic
Impatiens – for irritation and impatience
Clematis – for inattentiveness and to counteract faintness
Star of Bethlehem – for shock
Cherry Plum – for irrational thoughts and lack of self control
Rescue Remedy is remarkable. It’s safe, gentle, but strong enough to take the edge off what you’re feeling, whether it’s anger, anxiety, panic, or shock.
If you are avoiding alcohol try the pastilles. They come in many different flavors flavors in a handy little tin.
Rescue remedy is also safe for children.
Rescue Sleep: This is Rescue Remedy with an extra component that quells repetitive thoughts. I don’t find it more effective than Rescue Remedy, but you might.
Hot Milk With Saffron and Nutmeg:
Heat up any milk you like, cow’s, almond, rice, chocolate, etc… and add a few grinds of nutmeg, if available, or a pinch of ground nutmeg
and a mixture of ground saffron with a tiny bit of sugar (You can grind about 1 TBSP of saffron threads with 1 tsp. sugar in a coffee grinder. Keep this in a small jar and use a pinch for each cup of milk.)
This really works to soothe your nervous system, relax you, and promote a great night’s sleep.
White Noise Machine: Many people love the calming, comforting and slightly distracting sound of a white noise machine.
Any forward bend, preferably seated, will relax your nervous system. Child’s pose is often a great place to start. Restorative practices are available on YouTube and Gaia.com. I love the ones called “Hurry Up and Slow Down” by Marla Waal. There are both 35 and 60 minute versions.
What is heroism? Courage, bravery and perseverance in the face of adversity. What person has not had all three?
This is not another chapter in the pantheon of modern narcissism, but a truism. It’s not easy being human. From the littlest discomfort to the hugest existential despair, health challenge or relationship dissolution, it takes guts to get through what we dismissively call an average day.
Think of your own life. If you really look, I guarantee you will find many acts of heroism, whether related to physical, mental, relational, vocational, or emotional challenges. You are the hero in your own life. Why look up to other people for examples of courage, strength and perseverance when you can look to your own past for examples of all three?
Try this to help you shift your perspective: sit quietly. Take a few deep, diaphragmatic breaths. Look back on your years. Heck, look back on the past week. Whether you’re a teenager or an octogenarian there will be plenty of difficult, frustrating times (maybe even some that brought you to your knees thinking you couldn’t cope) but you got through them. You did something you didn’t want to do, had a hard conversation with a loved one, changed an unhelpful habit, tried something scary, faced an illness, or conquered an addiction. All were challenging and took grit. Remembering how you navigated rough seas helps you appreciate your strength.
If you’re struggling now remind yourself it’s just another hurdle. You don’t have to jump over it, you can crawl under it. It doesn’t really matter how you get to the other side just that you do.
These days, there’s an inherent perfectionism in much of what you read about resilience. It’s almost as if it’s not good enough to survive, you have to do it with grace and ease. That is simply ridiculous. At the end of the day what matters is you faced the challenge. You don’t get extra points for looking as if you sailed through it. The people who make it look easy (and, believe me, it isn’t easy for anyone) encourage other people’s unrealistic ideas of how they should manage hard times. In addition, these unrealistic ideas of how to navigate hardship can trigger feelings of inadequacy as they invariably lead you to compare your inside to their outside. It doesn’t matter how you did it, gracefully or kicking and screaming, you got through it. That’s heroism, resilience and true grit. You’ve done this before and you will undoubtedly do it again and again and again until you drop the body. The very fact that you still draw breath shows how strong you are.
Refuse to add another layer of shoulds and perfectionism to the already complex and difficult proposition we all face: being human. Refuse to think that if you don’t waltz through life’s challenges with ease and equanimity you are somehow not resilient, or failing because your attitude isn’t especially sunny. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re reading this, you’re resilient. The very fact you’re drawing breath means you have survived whatever hardships life has thrown your way.
Every person walking the earth is a hero as everyone has overcome adversity many times. Celebrate yourself today for all the times you faced life’s difficulties.
It’s easy to think trauma is relatively rare; however, it’s far more commonplace than we like to believe. In fact, almost everybody has experienced some trauma in life. It may have been from a coach, bully, parent, sibling, war, assault, or accident, but the ubiquity of trauma is becoming more apparent as researchers and therapists plumb its depths.
When traumatized, your nervous system gets activated to fight, flight or freeze (sometimes numbness or dissociation). This is your body’s way of protecting you. In the moment it works beautifully, the problem is the effects can last and set up unconscious patterns of self-protection to keep you from experiencing that pain again.
This makes a lot of sense as most people want to avoid unpleasant or scary situations. While it can be incredibly helpful in the short run, it’s possible to overprotect oneself and end up living a constricted life.
Developing trust in your body is one aspect of healing that creates a sense of internal safety while keeping you open to new experiences. Qigong and yoga are two ancient practices that foster comfort and ease in a body that may feel unsafe, unlovable, or even scary, at times.
In an earlier piece on this site called The Holy Grail of Psychotherapy I spoke about the importance of feeling safe in one’s body and mind. Stephen Porges, the originator of the Triune Brain Theory, and a major researcher in trauma and its effects, recently said internal safety is the goal of trauma treatment.
While there are many ways to develop a sense of internal safety, I want to share one I’ve been experimenting with recently: qigong.
Qigong is an ancient Chinese mind-body exercise that predates tai chi, is very easy to learn, and is incredibly fluid. I have only been studying it for a short time, but have come to love its soothing effects on the nervous system, while it tones the body, deepens the breath, increases endurance, and calms the mind. In addition, many of the flowing poses utilize a spiral that crisscrosses back and forth over the body, synchronizing the left and right hemispheres, a very mentally balancing practice. (Walking with your arms swinging also syncs the hemispheres.)
Recently, as I was doing some beautiful, flowing qigong routines I was reminded of Rumi, the renowned Sufi poet and mystic (1207-1273), who started the whirling dervish dance tradition. This repetitive whirling is the epitome of moving meditation, often inducing trance states. While qigong does not involve repeating movements for such long periods, its calm, flowing, repetitive routines can be deeply meditative and centering.
I still love my yoga practice, but qigong gives me something yoga didn’t: flowing movements. Vinyasa yoga moves seamlessly from one pose to the next and once in a pose you typically hold it for five or more breaths. Qigong moves fluidly within and throughout the poses. Both offer calming, grounding practices and invigorating, energizing ones, and both pair breath with movement. They just do it differently.
Different stages of life call for different ways of working with the body. It can be a joy to listen to your body and try out new ways of experiencing it. Yoga and qigong help you feel connected to your physical self while calming the nervous system, so they give you time and space to pay attention to what feels good, safe, and healing.
For me, the fluidity of qigong’s seamless sequences feels very calming and gentle in my body, mind, emotions and spirit. I still do some yoga every day because it has been such a beautiful and supportive practice for so many years. Now, I’m adding some qigong as it nourishes me in a completely different, super loving way.
The key in choosing which physical practices will nurture and support you best is experimenting and listening to your body. Don’t just listen, but act on the knowledge your body provides. In my own experience as a swimmer I continued pushing myself even after swimming lost much of its luster for me. Ditto with hard yoga practices. Because old habits die hard, I pushed myself in my first 15+ years as a yogi, to achieve what I hoped was a beautiful, strong, flexible practice. Somehow, with qigong, and experience, I am able to truly relax into the sequences and let go of my lingering proclivity for perfection and achievement.
Just remember, each day your body will want something a bit different. With yoga and qigong you can even tailor the practice to accommodate injuries or conditions you might have. Just find a teacher who can carefully guide you through a therapeutic routine appropriate for your body or carefully experiment.
If you have experienced trauma take all body work slowly and pay close attention to how you feel. If something triggers you please stop and let yourself attend to what came up. If it’s really disturbing you might want to do some Tapping to re-regulate your nervous system. (See the Tapping post on this site for more information.) If your qigong feels as good as I hope it will, practice it daily as a conduit to a more compassionate, nurturing, safe relationship with yourself and a greater acceptance of your body, just as it is right now.
You may want to get started with some free YouTube videos. I recommend:
Lee Holden (Try this 6 minute routine for immediate balance and some emotional buoyancy: https://www.holdenqigong.com/recharge-routine-on-location-in-the-united-kingdom/)
Judy Young (only one video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwlvTcWR3Gs&t=35s)
Each of these excellent teachers focuses on the mind and emotions as well as the routines, and each has a website with more content. I have taken Lee Holden’s 30 Day Challenge and loved it. His Mindfulness Through Movement video is just sublime. The website also offers some great short and free Qi Break videos.
I also love the 15 minute qigong Mood Lifter video on yoqi.
Judy Young’s Eight Pieces of Brocade is deeply meditative and different.
Lee Holden is also offering a Tao Yin class with a free introductory lesson here: https://pages.holdenqigong.com/tao-yin-class-registration-thank-you?cf_uvid=df00d6c5a8344b0ee89f93a490ca6649
David-Dorian Ross also has some great qigong videos on YouTube.
Here’s a seated one for relieving back pain based on a Stanford University study:
What is fluid? Something that flows easily without much obstruction. Just as we want fluidity from the water in our faucets we also want it in our relationships, especially intimate ones. Intimacy implies a closeness beyond familiarity and generic caring. It’s when you know someone really well, you have shared a multitude of different experiences with them, you value what they bring to the table, and you cherish the depth and closeness you have built together.
Think of fluid intimacy as an effortless, spontaneous, and relaxed dance between two people where each assumes the best and resists the urge to jump to conclusions, get defensive, or lash out when feeling misunderstood or judged. Who wouldn’t like that? While achieving fluid intimacy 100% of the time might be nirvana, it’s not realistic; however, we can keep it as a guiding force and create more fluid intimacy in our relationships by paying attention to:
How well you listen. I mean really listen. Not just to what is being said, but to the emotion underneath. When you respond to the emotion underlying what is being said you open up new realms of communication and understanding.
Whether you respond carefully, or just shoot from the hip. You don’t have to filter every word or thought, but some pre-screening is helpful. Take three seconds to think what reaction your comment might engender.
How you feel after an interaction. It’s so easy to think there’s no point in revisiting something difficult. It will only cause more dissatisfaction, pain, or disappointment; but, often that means choosing short-term peace over long-term benefits to your relationship. When you allow yourself some time to digest what was said and felt you can come back with a fresh, more loving perspective. Sometimes, a little adult timeout is all you need.
How patient or impatient you are when handling tough topics. Are you in a rush to get through the conversation as quickly as possible? Is your low frustration tolerance leading the way? If so, take a breath, get grounded in your seat or feel your feet on the earth. Isn’t it worth some extra time to better understand someone in your inner circle? Wouldn’t you want that person to be patient with you and the process of connecting in an even deeper, more supportive way?
Whether you hold a grudge. The beauty of fluid intimacy is it allows you to work through your issues so they don’t stockpile and create resentment, which corrodes the very intimacy you have spent time creating. Fluid intimacy allows you to bounce back from conflicts (inevitable in any close relationship) more quickly, because you and the other person have a fairly secure, open, and supportive relationship that can weather some storms. Fluid intimacy, is like Rain-X for your relationship: bad weather—misunderstandings and disagreements—no longer block your view of the road, but bead up and wash away.
How you handle unpleasant situations that crop up. There are bound to be times when you don’t see eye-to-eye on an issue with a loved one and these can easily escalate. If you already have timeouts in your repertoire, that’s great. However, allowing a timeout to mushroom into a let’s-never-talk-about-that-again trope only encourages stockpiling grievances. Take time to calm down from a heated moment. As soon as you’re in a better frame of mind clear the air. You don’t have to agree on every issue. Just remember how much you value other aspects of your relationship and resist the urge to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Everything you have enjoyed and valued from this relationship. The way you felt understood, supported, loved, and respected. The way this person was able to make you laugh at some of your lowest moments, or help you change your perspective when you felt mired in negativity or hopelessness.
Whether you assume the best. Last but not least, resist jumping to negative conclusions about your loved one’s behavior or motivation. Assume they value you, care about you, and want the best for you. Anything else diminishes trust and is often incorrect. Everyone has bad days and people can’t always come from their kindest, patient, most evolved selves.
How wonderful it is to have a person with whom you can feel safe enough to be vulnerable. It is a great luxury to drop your guard and allow yourself to feel exquisitely open and vulnerable. Fluid intimacy creates that safe space. When all these aspects of closeness come together it’s possible to feel really known and accepted for who you are.
Fluid intimacy is an amazing thing to feel within another person. Once you experience it, you may want it all the time; yet, that is not achievable. Everyone with whom you interact has moods, hormonal shifts, and external events that impact their internal states. None of us can bring our best self to the table every minute. Part of fluid intimacy is understanding that and cutting people slack when you know they don’t feel well or are challenged in some other way…even if it’s something as mundane as being stuck in traffic.
Just like a good habit that can vanish if you stop doing it for a week, creating fluid intimacy is not something you achieve and it suddenly becomes self-sustaining. It takes consistent effort to show up and do all the things mentioned above. Also, just like a good habit, it will bring years of something priceless to your life: feeling heard, understood, and loved.
Use the following quiz to determine if you are living a self examined life.
Give yourself a point for any one of the following you do most days.
Laugh, smile, and interact with others.
Give of yourself or your resources in some way that feels meaningful.
Openly talk with friends, family, a therapist, or clergy.
Do yoga, qigong, or something else physical, breath related and restorative.
Get outside for a walk or any other conscious appreciation of nature.
Pay attention to something sensuous: a bite of food, piece of music, bird song, water cascading in the shower, or anything else you notice and appreciate.
Drink enough water.
Get enough sleep.
Read or watch something inspiring, beautiful or deep.
Eat healthy, delicious plant foods.
A perfect score would be a 12. You’re not going for perfection. You’re going for awareness and consciously choosing to take the very best care of your body, mind and spirit as you possibly can. If your score is zero to 3 you might want to consider upping your game a bit. Why? So you can feel better. The lower your score the more likely you make everyone and everything else in your life a priority and put yourself last. Yet, these rejuvenating practices all make you a better, calmer, more centered soul.
What does better mean? To me, it’s authentic, congruent, flexible, confident and peaceful. For some, it might be more physically strong. Whatever your criteria, you intuitively know how you feel this minute and how you would like to feel.
The above 12 questions are merely a way to take stock and see if you’re giving yourself the gift of time. Time to take radically great care of yourself. This does not make you selfish, self-centered, narcissistic, or egotistical. On the contrary, it keeps you grounded, self aware, and healthy so you can actually give more to other people. Whether that’s as a parent, friend, sibling, daughter, volunteer, employee, employer, or community member. It can’t be said enough: when you take the very best care of yourself you have more energy for everyone else. And even more importantly, the energy you bestow on others comes from a place of open heartedness rather than depletion.
While there is nothing new or earth shattering about the above information, it’s a good idea to regularly take stock of how well you care for yourself. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the daily race from one thing to the next. Making time for radical self care is probably the best thing you can do for everyone on earth. It’s certainly the most adult choice, as keeping your body, mind, and spirit fit means you’re less of a drain on everyone else. Being responsible for yourself is the hallmark of adulthood. At the same time being grounded enough in your authentic self enables you to be inter-dependent and cooperative; clearly crucial components of an evolved, compassionate society.
Yesterday, I had an experience I’ve had many times in the course of my career. Someone said, “I wish you could be with me in situations when I don’t know what to say, get completely flustered, and end up down the rabbit hole of a conversation that is either difficult, contentious, or unproductive.”
Spurred on by that comment, I want to offer you a few easy to remember techniques to help you navigate challenging conversations.
The problem we have when we feel put on the spot with a difficult question, or we feel conflicted and confused about something and not sure how to answer in the best way, is we overthink our response. Instead:
Ditch your cognitions and focus on your physical reactions in the moment as well as your emotions. This means you tune in to what you’re feeling in your body. For example, somebody says something that puts you on the defensive. You quickly assess how that feels in your body. Does your chest suddenly feel tight and heavy did your jaw tense up is your stomach fluttering?
Then, ask yourself what am I feeling right this minute? Am I anxious, angry, resentful, guilty, or overwhelmed? Now, respond to the person’s question by saying how you feel both physically and emotionally. For example, say something like: When you say that to me, or when you ask me that, I feel my whole body tense up. I feel overwhelmed and afraid that whatever I say is going to disappoint you or create some dissonance between us.
This is a very straightforward practice, but it is difficult for many of us because our natural default is reaching deeply into our pre-frontal cortex to find the exact right thing to say. We think we can think ourselves out of any situation. Often, when we search for the right words, while simultaneously assessing how we’re feeling about the question, we get completely flummoxed and derailed. This technique allows you to be honest and explain how you’re feeling physically and emotionally, while buying you time to really think about the question.
A corollary of this method is applying conscious delay (#3). There’s no law of the universe that says you can’t respond to a question, even one that sounds more like a demand, with the response: I wish I could answer that right now, but I’m still figuring out how I feel or what I want to do. I think I need to take a little more time to let it percolate inside me. I’ll get back to you as soon as I have some clarity.
Most of us, probably because we spent so many years in school situations where specific responses were expected of us when questions were asked, think we must respond immediately with something. If we do that before we’re ready we can get ourselves in a bit of a mess. We might say things we haven’t fully thought out, or make comments that negatively trigger the other person. Even worse, what we blurt out when feeling pressured and on the spot can easily complicate and obfuscate the issues, as well as our relationship with that person, because we don’t really know what we want yet.
These techniques: focusing on your emotions and physical feelings, honestly sharing those with the other person, and asking for time to reflect on the question, are incredibly empowering. It’s easy to feel stressed and think you must respond immediately when someone requests something of you. It takes guts and skill to use these tactics to change the focus of the interaction and buy yourself more time. Almost immediately, you will notice a greater sense of personal agency, as well as the inner groundedness that comes from being true to yourself while not becoming defensive…or offensive.
When it comes to the effects of childhood trauma, I have good news and bad news. Let’s do the bad news first.
The bad news is that if you were traumatized as a child because you didn’t get love, safe connection, nurturing, and attention, nothing else can ever take the place of what you didn’t get. No matter how much self compassion you lavish on yourself, how many thousands of hours of meditation and yoga you do, no matter how loving a spouse, friends and children you have in your life, there is absolutely nothing that will fill the void that was created by a mother, or other caretaker, who wasn’t capable of healthy attachment.
I know everything out there will tell you the opposite message. They will tell you that you can meditate, use self compassion, or the therapy choice du jour, to heal this ache in you and fill that space that was never filled. Unfortunately, they’re all wrong. You can’t fill a space that was specifically designated for a mother’s love with something you give yourself as an adult. Even if you got love from someone else and it was very healing and saved your bacon emotionally, there was still a space designated in your mind-body-spirit for love from your mother. As sad as I am to say this, I truly believe that nothing else can fill it. (If you doubt the long term effects of trauma, look at the ACE study: https://acestoohigh.com/2012/10/03/the-adverse-childhood-experiences-study-the-largest-most-important-public-health-study-you-never-heard-of-began-in-an-obesity-clinic/)
Luckily, that’s not the end of the story. There are many nurturing, wonderful things that you can do for yourself to help feel more grounded, peaceful, and whole. Some will help enormously, which is why it’s good to invest your time and energy in developing self compassion, getting therapy, and creating/developing nurturing loving relationships in your life.
Why share this news with you? Because if you can reconcile yourself to the loss of something you will never have, just the way you can reconcile yourself to the death of a loved one, you can more fully enjoy your life. As long as you consciously or unconsciously seek what you didn’t get, you have less potential for joy because your obsession with what’s missing stands in the way and gobbles up tons of your energy. That’s energy that could be focused on creating the life you want.
Since I believe that there is a space in all of us that ideally is meant to be filled by a mother’s love and attention, which for many is unattainable, the real issue is how to deal with loss, especially if your mother is still living. If she were dead would you crave what you didn’t get as badly? I don’t know, but I think the loss could be assimilated differently, the way a death often is.
In America we like to think we can fix everything. We can create amazing prosthetics for people who have lost a limb but we can’t give them back the limb they lost. Perhaps, what I’m really saying here is you can create a prosthetic for what isn’t there, but it will never be the real thing. And no matter how much you love the freedom and the ease it affords you in moving through your day there’s a part of you that will always miss your real limb, or the healthy attachment you didn’t receive in your early years.
So, why go to therapy? Because therapy helps you understand yourself and develop more self compassion, while working wisely with conditions that were and are. Most of all, a good therapist will validate and support you.
This is life. We move forward despite the challenges. We do the best we can with what we have. We find love and belonging where we can. We learn to be self compassionate and compassionate with all beings. And most of all, we try to give the love we didn’t get.
After 45 years as a psychotherapist I now believe the holy grail of therapy is helping people feel safe. If that sounds too simplistic, just think about it. Whatever you are dealing with: anxiety, depression, grief, guilt or anger, the best possible outcome is feeling safe in your body, mind, emotions, and environment. If you had traumatic events in your life, physical illness, abandonment, betrayal, abuse of any kind, you may not feel safe, even if the actual experiences happened years ago. Typically, this presents as anxiety and panic, but the body-mind is very creative when it wants to express itself. It can give you all sorts of physical symptoms, like headaches, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, muscle pains, GERD, blurry vision, vertigo, and a host of other unpleasant and challenging sensations.
While understanding and insight are wonderful, and can feel so exciting in those Aha! moments when patterns suddenly make sense, all the intellectual knowing in the world will probably not make you feel safe inside.
Paradoxically, sitting with whatever arises and investigating it can help you feel more comfortable and grounded. Remind yourself the painful emotion or physical feeling is there to be felt. You might even say, “Let me feel this” when something unpleasant shows up. Giving yourself a cosmic permission slip to feel what you are experiencing is empowering and can lower the emotional ante.
Just as helpful as being with your experience as it unfolds is developing the capacity to soothe yourself. To talk kindly, patiently, gently, and lovingly to the parts of you that feel afraid, alone, sad, or hopeless. This may sound fairly straightforward, but it’s actually very difficult.
Here are a few ways to cultivate lovingkindness towards yourself:
Meditate. Meditation helps develop curiosity about whatever is happening in your body-mind. You sit with what is, notice it, name it, and go back to following your breath. When in the throes of a panic attack or surfing despair you probably won’t be able to meditate, but all that training can allow you to view your current situation from a different perspective: one that helps you see how everything arises and dissolves.
Metta meditation is a special practice that starts with wishing yourself peace, happiness, and freedom from suffering. My version goes like this:
May I be peaceful.
May I be happy.
May I be free from suffering.
May I seek, find, know, and spread joy.
May I be grateful for all that has been given to me.
May I feel safe inside and outside my body.
After wishing these things for yourself you wish them for:
People you love
People you find off-putting or difficult
You can spend as little or as long as you like with this practice, lying down or sitting.
Physical practices can be great reminders of your deep love and concern for yourself. One way to access this connection is by simply placing your hand on your heart. There is a yogic hand gesture called Vajrapradama Mudra that has you intertwine your fingers and place your palms directly over your heart with your thumbs pointing up, elbows wide. Hold the posture for a few minutes or longer as you breathe into your heart. You can also say: I love you. Everything will be fine. This can be incredibly grounding in the midst of feeling something threatening.
A butterfly hug is also quite soothing. Simply cross your arms over your chest, tuck your fingers in your armpits and leave your thumbs on your chest facing up.
Drawing attention to your repetitive thoughts, especially the catastrophizing and self-downing ones, can be very helpful as it allows you to challenge them and substitute more helpful, loving self talk.
Watch out for thoughts, like:
I’ll never overcome this depression.
No one really cares if I live or die.
This pain will only get worse.
I’ll never be at peace.
It’s unbearable to feel this way.
I’ll always be a mess.
If you notice any of these, or other extreme, negative thoughts, ask yourself if they are true. Is there any evidence proving their veracity? Have you felt miserable every second of your life? Probably not. But, even if you thought so in that bleak moment (what the Buddhists call the hell realm) you could still remind yourself the great thing about life is its mysterious ways. The next second you could get a phone call from a loving friend or relative. You could suddenly see some of your thoughts as so extreme they strike you as funny. You never know. I have surprised myself by listening to my audio journal the day after recording an upsetting night’s experience and found things quite amusing.
Try Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), or Tapping. There are literally hundreds of YouTube videos (Brad Yates has one for almost everything) that can guide you through the Tapping protocol to calm your nervous system and clear out negative patterns. It’s very easy to learn, especially if you follow along with the video. Just remember to substitute your words when the practitioner says something that doesn’t feel right to you. That way, you customize the practice to your unique experience.
Wait. Yes, just wait. As Americans we are very impatient with things taking time, but simply waiting until this surge of self-downing, anxiety, anger, grief, etc. passes can make all the difference. If you can consciously choose to let your upsetting thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations be there they will eventually lessen, change, or evaporate.
Use Yoga Nidra, the ancient practice of Yogic Sleep. You may actually fall asleep listening to it, but even if you don’t, it will distract your active mind from all its racing thoughts. You can find more information on this incredible practice here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/yoga-nidra-for-relaxation-insomnia-and-posttraumatic-stress-0202154.
Make sure you are not hungry or thirsty, as both states can trigger a negative emotional cascade. In general, it’s best not to let more than three to four hours go between a meal or snack. Eating breakfast also helps stabilize your blood sugar levels and helps you maintain a better perspective. Some people are more sensitive to these blood sugar fluctuations than others, but almost everyone gets cranky when their levels are low.
Get enough sleep. Resting well and long enough allows your brain to consolidate everything it experienced and learned the day before, as well as gives you the energy you need to face the day. Some meditation teachers, like Jeff Foster, say depression is our body’s cry for rest. While I think depression can be more complicated than that, rest is crucial to feeling good. My colleague, Robyn Posin, always says, “Rest is a sacred act.” I agree. It’s also radical to slow down, take it easy, and consider that a productive use of your time.
Of all these techniques, the most important one is to talk lovingly, patiently, kindly, and gently to your sweet self. Notice when that inner critic’s harsh voice appears and think of other things to say to yourself. If that’s difficult, pretend you’re talking to the five year old version of yourself. Use the Recording and Listening suggestions on this site to record yourself saying supportive, compassionate, patient, understanding, and soothing things so you can listen to it when no one is there to say those loving words to you. You may find that hearing them in your own voice is even more affecting and powerful.
It’s not quick nor easy to change patterns, but you can do it. Every little shift you make will accrue over time into a more compassionate, loving relationship with yourself.
Have you heard about Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or Tapping? Nick and Jessica Ortner recently hosted the Ninth Annual Tapping Summit which explored many possible ways this method helps you deal with stress, physical issues, anxiety, grief, guilt, depression, relationships, work challenges, parenting, and trauma. All of these benefit from Tapping’s almost-immediate calming of your nervous system.
It’s amazing how pairing negative experiences and emotions with a calm body allows you to engage the thinking part of your brain, the pre-frontal cortex where clearer ideas are generated. When stressful experiences (in or outside your body) trigger your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze) it’s almost impossible to think rationally. The limbic system, the area of the brain that produces emotions and stores long term memories, reacts to new information much faster than the thinking part of your brain; so, you can get emotionally hijacked before you are able to think things through.
Tapping allows you to quickly calm the body sending messages to your limbic system that you’re safe. It also ratchets down the production of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones). Once you’re calmer you can figure out what to do.
Paradoxically, the first things you tap on are negative thoughts or feelings. Next are your bodily sensations. This is allows you to fully acknowledge what bothers you and to clear it before tapping on your resilience, strengths, and positive intentions.
At first, Tapping looks a little weird. You tap on a series of meridian points. Here’s a video to explain the basics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAclBdj20ZU.
YouTube has hundreds of Tapping videos. I recommend Jessica Ortner, Nick Ortner, Brad Yates, and Steve Wells. Tapping may look as if it follows a script, but it actually works best when you substitute your words, based on your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and history for those the presenters use. This takes some practice. A bit easier if you learn the formula first. Tapping can be incredibly creative. It also blends very well with Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS), or parts work.
One of the major tenets of tapping is the idea that pairing a calmer body with your negative or upsetting thoughts actually lowers their emotional charge. This enables you to talk about anything without feeling hijacked by your sympathetic nervous system. If you do get upset, take a detour and tap on being upset (how it feels in your body, what exactly those “upset” emotions are, how they might have been triggered in the past, and when you first noticed them). After you calm down, you can go back to where you were with your original topic, or just enjoy the peace.
Here’s a quick primer to entice you to try this potentially powerful technique. It can clear psychological, emotional, and even some physical issues when done regularly.
The physical part of Tapping is incredibly easy to learn, but the accompanying words are harder to master. With practice, you can design your own script. The Tapping Solution website has free downloadable scripts to get you started.
When using led tapping sessions, like those on YouTube or the Tapping Summit, say whatever words feel true to you. Feel free to play around with the way you express yourself so it reflects your beliefs and values, not those of the person leading the session. Be patient, this takes practice. If it seems daunting call a therapist who can guide you based on your unique experiences. It makes all the difference when you customize the practice to you, rather than fitting your thoughts and feelings to someone else’s template. That said, those videos can be a fantastic place to start, both as introductions to tapping and jumping off points for your own work.
If the set-up statement, usually framed like: “Even though…I have this rage towards my boss (for example), I can still deeply and completely love and accept myself,” annoys you because you’re not feeling accepting or loving towards yourself, change it. Try: “Even though…I have this rage towards my boss, I choose to feel calm.” Or: “Even though…I have this rage towards my boss, I can still cultivate compassion for myself.” There’s a lot of room for flexibility and creativity with EFT. You can even just tap and rant, or do the tapping without words while watching TV. It’s also helpful to gently press each tapping point while you take a slow, deep diaphragmatic breath. (Here’s a link to diaphragmatic breathing: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/diaphragmatic-breathing.)
One of the most powerful ways to use tapping is when you find yourself getting tense or upset about something. As soon as you realize your emotional temperature is rising start tapping. You can assess how well the technique works by assigning a number from 1-10 to the intensity of your reaction, whether it’s a physical feeling, like neck tension, stomach clenching, a headache, or an emotion. After a few rounds of tapping reassess your comfort level on that same scale of 1-10. If it hasn’t gone down as much as you like tap until it does.
You can tap on events or experiences from the past, emotions (both past and present), physical pain and your feelings about it, issues in relationships, addictions, things you might be trying to avoid, or current sensations in your body. All will lead you to insights you couldn’t have predicted, as well as a calmer nervous system. The more you practice tapping the greater its impact, since you’re creating new neural pathways that associate tapping, talking, and greater peace.
Some people think tapping on negative thoughts, feelings, or even physical pain, will only attract more misery. Nothing could be further from the truth. What you resist persists. Tapping when you are angry or upset releases its emotional charge, even if what you are tapping on happened decades ago. Bottling up your feelings almost always insures they will surface some other way.
It’s easy to think of certain life events, like marriage, divorce, or an empty nest, as big transitions. Yet, not all transitions are so obvious. Daily life is a stream of them, whether shifting from sleep to wakefulness, hunger to satiety, calm to annoyed, concentrating to distracted, or healthy to flu-infested. On a mundane level, every inhale is a transition to the next exhale. You are transitioning from the past to the present to the future every single second of your life.
Moment by moment you change and grow. Much of this is unconscious, some quite conscious, and all of it moves you forward. There is really no such thing as being in limbo. When you think you’re stuck you’re actually changing and growing in unconscious ways. Later on, you can look back and see how catalyzing that period that looked like limbo really was.
How does being aware of this constant dance help you? It highlights the importance of flexibility and openness, so you can ride the waves of existence while allowing transitions to become transformative.
These constant transformations almost demand you adopt a radical openness to what is rather than staying glued to preconceived notions of how things should be. This may sound simple but it’s actually very challenging. Everyone has ideas of how they want life to be, yet its slings and arrows constantly buffet you about, casting you onto to unknown shores.
How can you develop this radical flexibility and curiosity from moment to moment so life is just a little less daunting and overwhelming? One way is to start with the idea that this is how life is supposed to be. If you’re living mindfully, you’re aware of the constant ebb and flow around everyone and everything.
Internally, your body works towards maintaining homeostasis, but that balance almost never arrives, and, if it does, it doesn’t stick around very long. Your body is in a constant state of flux. Similarly, because you’re always changing and everyone else is, too, your relationships are constantly changing.
Your work situations change. Whether it’s with the people we work with or internally in our relationship to our work.
Your body ages and changes every day.
Your environment changes constantly, whether on the macro level of climate change or simply whether you’re having oatmeal or eggs for breakfast.
Your finances always change, and not always in ways you can control.
Which brings us to the essence of this topic of constant transitioning: This perennial state of change and flux calls on you to adapt. The most important skill to help you go with the flow is realizing this is simply how life is for everyone. No one made it extra hard for you. To expect any kind of stability is irrational and makes life far more difficult.
The major benefit of life eternally fluctuating is how fascinating it can be. Of course, those daily shifts can also be annoying, but if you cultivate curiosity some of those hard times will feel less overwhelming.
Once you except this is the nature of life you won’t push against the inevitable ups and down with such ferocity or denial. You will come to assume change and not expect stability or security, as that only sets you up for disappointment, stress, and unrealistic expectations of yourself, life, and other people.
In addition, truly knowing these changes and transitions are a part of everyone’s life helps you not be as surprised when things shift, whether in a way you welcome or eschew. And it’s not just things. It’s people, too. Once you understand that everybody is changing every single second it’s almost miraculous that we’re not careening into each other constantly. We can develop a new appreciation for what people go through. There’s nobody out there who isn’t dealing with some challenge. Whether it’s their health, finances, job, family, friendships, or something else, you can be sure every single person is carrying burdens. Ideally, this realization helps you cultivate compassion for yourself and others. When you see someone who seems to have everything going for them: a nice big smile on their face, a good attitude, and all their little ducks in a row, you can be 100% sure that’s not the case. There is absolutely no adult on earth who has not suffered, and suffered many times. Don’t be fooled by appearances. And, please don’t compare your insides to their outsides. (See Compare to Despair.)
This shift in attitude is all about your expectations. When you can get more comfortable with accepting how every second everything is changing for everyone you will not feel alone. Of course, on a molecular level we are all connected, as everything on earth is made of energy, but in a more prosaic way this notion that we’re all in transition every single minute of every day on every level helps us feel connected to each other. That in turn fosters compassion for ourselves and everyone else. The more compassion we develop the kinder, gentler, and more understanding we will be to each other. That’s the world I want to live in.
One is one’s own refuge. Who else could be the refuge?
For years I have wanted to tape a recording of all the things I wish I could say to each and every one of you. Every compassionate, kind, gentle, patient, accepting, affirming, understanding, appreciative, and supportive thought to make you feel as good and right in yourself as you possibly can. I let this idea steep for years. Luckily, waiting was the right choice since I found something better to share with you.
In an interview on the Sounds True podcast between Tami Simon and Cheri Huber, Cheri raved about her process called Recording and Listening. You simply record yourself saying anything you think will help you. It could be gentle reminders of your resiliency, nurturing words of compassion and support, lists of things you are grateful for, meaningful quotes, or anything you wish were being said to you, or wish had been said to you as a child. Hearing yourself say these things out loud is far more powerful than anyone else saying them to you.
As I always like to experiment with new techniques before I suggest them, I downloaded a free app called Voice Recorder from Tap Media Ltd. It is so incredibly simple and intuitive to use I was recording in no time.
At first, this may seem awkward and you might not know what you want to say. Take a few slow, deep breaths into your heart and just see what comes up. As you continue to record things you want to hear you will get more comfortable with the process, even if you think you dislike the sound of your own voice. Be patient, it’s a new skill set.
Of course, half of this practice is actually listening to what you recorded. You can listen any time you want an emotional boost, a reminder of your resiliency, a connection to the part of you that helps you feel safe, or you crave some unconditional self-acceptance. It can also be very helpful to listen before you go to sleep as your defenses melt into unconsciousness and you can open up to really hearing every loving, supportive, emotionally generous thought you have for yourself.
To jump start this practice just go to one of the following chapters on this site and record whatever parts of it you find most helpful:
Affirmations for self-empowerment and emotional freedom
Quotes to life by
Litany of love
Manifesto for emotional self care
Manifesto II: How to write yours
It’s OK Sweetheart
Linda Graham, MFT, has a beautiful protocol that allows you to create a resource called The Compassionate Friend in your mind. This friend imagery can be reinforced through an audible recording that feels supportive, safe and loving.
Here are her slightly modified instructions:
Picture someone older, wiser, truly loving, kind, and nurturing. This may be a real or imaginary person. They care about you deeply.
Imagine what they look like and how it feels to be with them.
Imagine how you greet them. Do you hug, shake hands, bow, or something else?
Imagine how you will talk with them: sitting, walking in a park, across from them, next to them, etc.
Imagine talking with your compassionate friend about something that’s worrying, bothering, or distressing you. What you will say and how they will respond with gentleness, interest, respect, curiosity and compassion. They may hold or hug you, or not.
You notice what it feels like to be listened to, understood, and truly heard
Imagine what you would like to hear from your compassionate friend have him or her say those words.
Imagine taking in those words and feeling soothed, comforted, calmed, and safe.
Notice what this whole experience had felt like to you.
When it’s time to say goodbye to your compassionate friend notice how you do that.
You have created a resource in your own mind that you can call up anytime you want extra support.
Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion Break:
Put your hand on your heart. This activates the release of oxytocin and makes you feel safer, and say the following to yourself:
This is what’s happening. A moment of suffering, anger, sadness, physical pain, loneliness, anxiety, or grief.
Everybody experiences these feelings.
May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I accept myself in this moment exactly as it is. May I give myself all the compassion I need. (Keep repeating these phrases until you feel your emotional equilibrium returning, and your contraction begins to open up and feel spacious.)
Another practice from Linda Graham you can record and listen to until it becomes automatic:
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I be kind to myself in any moment.
May I be kind to myself in every moment.
Last but not least, when you’re feeling upset ask yourself: “What would I wish someone would say to me right now?” Record those caring, kind, patient, gentle, supportive, understanding words and listen to them as often as you can. They are incredibly grounding, and give you a new perspective when you are drowning in negative or scary thoughts.
Anxiety, anger, or any other negative emotional reaction is often triggered by underestimating your ability to handle life’s challenges and overestimating the severity of a possible negative outcome. In the midst of a crisis or life transition it is all too easy to be thrown off course. Whatever sense of emotional terra firma you felt can suddenly morph into quicksand. At those times, it’s important to remember your brain is hard-wired to ferret out all possible negative consequences and present them in rapid succession.
This hard wiring is known as the negativity bias. As unpleasant as it feels to be flooded with negative outcomes in a given situation, it’s actually what preserved the human race through millennia. Your brain comes equipped with an internal system looking for danger 24/7. In the days of wooly mammoths and saber toothed tigers this was a great boon. Now, not so much.
In addition, humans have a natural tendency towards one trial learning. When something really bad happens your memory automatically encodes it to last, just so you will be extra alert to the possibility of it happening again in the future and as prepared as possible. Happy things are wonderful but not necessary for your safety, so they don’t get encoded as quickly or deeply. The more traumatic the event the more thoroughly it gets wired into your memory.
While that unconscious process has been very helpful historically, in day to day life it can lead to a lot of anxiety and hyper-vigilance.
The good news is some researchers believe you can shift this innate negativity-positivity template by focusing on everything good. A 5:1 ratio is supposed to do the trick. While it won’t erase the negative memories, it can make you feel more emotionally balanced and shift your outlook.
The irrefutable fact is you have managed to live through every daunting thing that ever happened to you. Those experiences may have been super challenging, even physically or emotionally painful, but if you’re reading this, you are still alive. When life seems uncertain and you feel off kilter it is important to remember you are resilient. These days, there are a plethora of studies trying to quantify and parse out what makes someone resilient. The fact is being alive is unassailable proof you survived. That’s resilience. Whether you went through the experience kicking and screaming or with great equanimity and grace, at the end of the day you were still standing.
The following are a few techniques for dealing with those times when you think you won’t make it.
Decades ago, Dr. Albert Ellis coined the term: discomfort anxiety to describe the intense anxiety you can feel when anticipating any unpleasantness, whether in a relationship, at work, medically, financially, or socially. He suggested asking yourself:
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Then, “What is the likelihood of that actually occurring?”
The final task was to imagine yourself coping with that outcome. Actually getting curious about how you would handle it, finding similar situations in the past you navigated and lived through, and even imagining different ways you could deal with this new challenge. It’s like training for a marathon, only this training is psychological and builds emotional muscle.
Another technique to help you remember your inner strength and coping capacity is to write a list of some major issues you have faced, whether vocational, medical, relational, financial, or emotional and how you dealt with them. The more you can remember and list, the better, as each will remind you of your flexibility and resilience which tamps down feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
There will be some days when you might simply let the hours pass without doing any major intervention, allowing what happened and just inhaling and exhaling. Even if you have successfully used some tried and true interventions in the past, like breath work, reframing your thoughts, or yoga nidra to calm your nervous system, this moment may be differently challenging and call for the super compassionate approach of soothing yourself with calming, loving words, plenty of rest, and healthy food. Getting through it and experiencing your emotions along the way is the holy grail.
There are times, though, when the only control you have is how you choose to react. People get divorced, lose jobs, have serious illnesses, lose loved ones, and experience financial reverses. Often there is nothing you can do about those shocking, tumultuous experiences. Grieve, rant, rave, cry, let your emotions flow.
Last but not least, ask for help. A friend, family member, neighbor, therapist, church mate, or a stranger on a hotline, can be there to support you. Asking for help when you need it takes guts, and only adds to your repertoire of coping skills.
The thing about the past is that it’s not the past.
People are often deterred from starting therapy because they think they will have to dredge up unpleasant things from their childhood, which can feel daunting. Yet, childhood experiences will surface, as they typically influence your present relationships. That doesn’t mean you have to excavate every disturbing event from your past, but it usually includes dealing with the issues and patterns that keep paying undesirable emotional and behavioral dividends in the present.
If you are working with a seasoned therapist you trust, the journey is fascinating. After all, who or what is more interesting than you? Good therapy helps you develop compassion for whatever you went through, as well as appreciation for how resilient you are, both of which can lift your spirits.
It’s perfectly natural to have some anxiety about retrieving unhappy childhood memories as you might fear being flooded with feelings of worthlessness, rage, depression, and anxiety. Fear of being retraumatized and feeling as helpless as you did growing up is a real concern that deserves attention. Therapy can help you manage those concerns, while only going as fast as you feel safe to go.
No matter how inconvenient and annoying it is to have childhood issues still affect you as an adult, it makes perfect sense when you think about it. Imagine you plant a tree. Every year as the sapling grows you force the trunk in another direction. One year you bend it to the right, the next you bend it to the left. After a decade you let it grow straight. For the entire life of that tree its base will be jagged. No matter how big and strong the trunk grows, the base will never be straight. The tree is incredibly healthy, but its early years are still obvious to anyone looking at it. Humans are far more complex than trees, and can cover up the effects of their early years in myriad ways; yet, those childhood experiences exert an influence.
Another reason therapists care so much about your childhood is evidence gleaned from the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACE) which showed definite links between the amount of adverse childhood experiences and an increased incidence of health, mental health issues, and social problems. You can take the ACE questionnaire here: http://www.acestudy.org/the-ace-score.html. (You can read more about the study here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-ellen-stevens/the-adverse-childhood-exp_1_b_1943647.html)
Of course, you did not need to have major traumatic childhood experiences to have issues. New research talks about the difference between what researchers are calling “little t” and “big T” trauma. “Little t” are things like incessant put downs, devaluing you as a person, snide remarks and sarcasm, while “big T” usually refers to war, rape, childhood sexual and/or physical abuse. Their findings show how anything that feels like family betrayal can actually be worse, long term, than cataclysmic events. The theory is family betrayals, or betrayals by an intimate, go to your very core and make you feel unsafe. Unsafe in your body, unsafe with people you desperately want to trust, and unsafe in your world. After all, if you can’t trust your family, whom can you trust?
It’s healthy to avoid pain, and revisiting traumatic experiences can be difficult. Luckily, there is a therapeutic technique called Internal Family Systems therapy that is both gentle and deep. It greatly limits the chances of being flooded with unpleasant or disturbing memories and their attendant emotions. IFS allows you to get to know your various parts, how they might be polarized, and whom they are protecting (vulnerable child or teen parts that still carry heavy emotional burdens). In addition, it helps you appreciate all the creative ways your protective parts have been trying to keep you safe, even when some of them have used alcohol, drugs, random sex, gambling, hoarding, etc. to keep your emotional Mount Vesuvius from erupting.
If the idea that you have a multiplicity of internal parts seems alarming, think of all the times you said something like: “Part of me wants to go to the movies, but part of me knows I should study for that exam tomorrow.” It’s second nature to notice different parts of you that want different things. What is less intuitive is how some parts use extreme behaviors, emotions, and thought patterns to protect you from feeling shame, grief, inadequacy, worthlessness, etc. IFS puts you in the driver’s seat. You control how fast you want to go, and if you start to feel flooded with an unpleasant emotion your therapist can help you unblend from the part creating it.
Of course, IFS is not the only path to freedom from the effects of adverse childhood experiences and trauma. Mind-body practices like yoga are extremely helpful in creating a new internal landscape, while fostering a different relationship with your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
Philosophical approaches like Buddhism can help you sit with unpleasant emotions, watching them come and go with curiosity and interest, knowing they won’t last. Buddhist techniques also help you reframe whatever painful experiences you might have so you can see and experience them differently.
For those of you who have often thought people should just stop blaming their parents and get on with life, I am not suggesting anyone blame their parents. This is simply a way to explain how childhood experiences have a long term influence. While you can work wisely with them and feel better, it’s impossible to completely overcome their effects.
“Your suffering is your benefit,” is a Buddhist phrase often invoked as a reminder of the hidden gems in even the worst pain. Tibetan Buddhist monks go even further with their practice of seeking out suffering. No, they are not masochists, they simply believe suffering ignites the fire of compassion for yourself and others. Just as in the Buddhist practice of loving kindness, or metta meditation, you start with yourself.
For more information and guidance about metta meditation see these links:
How is it possible to miss something you no longer wanted?
Nyozi Adiche “Americanah”
We are hungry for what we have grown out of.
Mirabai Starr “Caravan of No Despair”
It seems so counter-intuitive to miss something you no longer want, yet it makes perfect sense once you consider the complicated nature of relationships and desires. Since no relationship is ever 100% good or bad, there can be a part of you that wants all the good things back. A part that misses the connection, history, habit, or feels lonely and grief stricken. In addition, that inner balance, between attraction and aversion, shifts in a nanosecond depending on your mood, hormones, blood sugar levels, and state of mind.
It is almost impossible to truly want or shun something 100%. Understanding there is, at least, a smidgeon of ambivalence in every preference makes the notion of missing something you mostly don’t want far easier to comprehend.
When a relationship ends you mourn for all your dashed hopes, the many fantasies you constructed about your future, and the loss of a constant companion. You don’t necessarily miss the person, in toto, though you will probably miss aspects of them.
Mirabai Starr says it well when she says you are hungry for what you have grown out of, as it implies you may not consciously realize you have grown out of it. Yet, the unconscious mind knows and shows you in dreams, not-so-secret longings, physical symptoms, and words that seem to tumble out of your mouth unbidden.
The same concept applies when you notice how your habitual ways of perceiving life, surroundings, friends, family, work, etc. get in the way of your deeper joy in the bounty of the moment, of thinking whatever you have is enough. What American hasn’t fed at the trough of longing? Advertising inundates you with desire for desire’s sake, so how could you possibly not crave things you don’t really miss or even truly want? Society trained you to constantly yearn for things and feel dissatisfied with whatever you have or experience in any given moment. This vague longing can easily infiltrate your life and lead to feeling depressed, anxious, worthless, and angry. It’s an easy step to believing the return of your absent partner will fill the void, heal you, and make you whole again.
Yes, something is missing. You have experienced a huge loss. Society led you to think you can fill the void with acquisitions and accomplishments. While those feel good in the moment, their joys often fade. Wanting what you have, being grateful for everything, even the sorrows that bring you to your knees, is a more reliable path to inner peace, self-acceptance, and embracing life on life’s terms. It’s the rare person for whom those are achieved and sustained with a new car, new spouse, or new job. Feeling your grief, even your longing, fully is the answer, even though it can seem excruciating in the moment.
It’s also easy to conflate missing a specific person who is no longer in your life with missing a fantasy you may have been nursing for years. Those fantasies are fed by the media and the unhelpful tendency humans have to compare their insides with other people’s outsides, which can lead to feeling bereft, inferior, or inadequate. How much grief comes from just thinking your life doesn’t measure up to someone else’s, even if you really don’t want what they have? (See Compare To Despair on this site.)
To make things even more complicated, you may not miss the person you divorced or broke up with but miss having a mate, or the companionship. Sometimes, especially when you are triggered and feel grief-stricken, your emotional brain can hijack your pre-frontal cortex where all the higher level thinking happens. This makes it all too easy to confuse a general longing for something indescribable with a specific longing for someone or something, both of which you may not actually want should they suddenly appear.
Addiction plays a role in this pattern of desiring, too, as a brain accustomed to craving can sometimes substitute something else to quiet the inner cacophony. How often have you wanted deep connection with another person but chose eating, TV, porn, shopping, drinking, drugs, gambling, etc., instead? You probably didn’t really want those things; yet, if you limit them or remove them from your repertoire you may miss their short-term alleviation of deeper desires for connection, calm, or meaning.
Cravings seem to demand satiation. Yet, taking the time to sit with them in non-judging awareness, feeling all their physical sensations, lets them subside. One way to see this in action is to get a piece of paper, pen, and a timer. Number the page from 1-15. On a scale of 1-10, where one is the least and 10 the most, rate your level of craving every minute for the next 15 minutes. You will probably notice slight shifts in their intensity. This proves how you can manage what you don’t like without giving in to your desire du jour, and shows you that your craving was not 100% intense 100% of the time. All things wax and wane, including desires.
Like cravings, habits (including being habituated to a relationship) can form quickly. It takes a certain amount of unhappiness with them to motivate change, and an awareness that part of the recovery process, if you let the habit or person go, is the feeling of missing what you no longer want. Give yourself time. Be patient as you become aware of space in your life where that person or addiction used to be. You can still be hungry for your original longing to connect deeply with another, to feel more alive and whole, or for relief from inner demons. The difference is now you realize there are better ways to accomplish those goals.
“I don’t like to use the word acceptance, but I think we can be comfortable with what we cannot solve.”
Pauline Boss, Ph.D.
Psychologist and family therapist Pauline Boss talks about “ambiguous loss” and the futility of thinking about closure with deep grief. There is no closure, she argues, when you can’t really put a period at the end of the sentence. When you lose someone through a senseless tragedy like 9/11 where there is no body to recover and bury. More prosaically, when you lose someone through divorce, addiction, or estrangement and they are still alive but disconnected from you. In these situations it is common to experience protracted grief and a sense of loss that seems pervasive and on-going.
What makes that particular kind of grieving even harder to bear is our society’s tendency to sweep sad and unpleasant things under the rug with the harsh and inherently blaming comment, “Aren’t you over that already?” No one fully recovers or gets closure if their child commits suicide, or their husband is MIA, both ambiguous losses. They are able to go on because they find meaning in life.
As a society we could all help each other by recognizing the lingering effects of grief, all grief, not just the ambiguous kind, and stop pathologizing anyone who still grieves years after a divorce or death. Healing happens, but its trajectory is different for each one of us.
Certain connections are so deep, like that between a parent and child, that there is no way to fully heal after they are torn apart through death, Alzheimers, divorce, estrangement, or uncertainty (those cases where someone is MIA or a body is never recovered). The least we can offer people dealing with loss is compassion and the refrain, “I am so sorry you’re going through this.” There is nothing you can say to make it better. All you can give is sincere caring, your presence, a hand to hold, or a hug.
One of the best ways to go forward if you are dealing with grief is to acknowledge that sadness may always be a part of you; yet, you can still find meaning in life. How you do that depends on your proclivities. It might be crocheting blankets for newborns if you had a miscarriage, participating in one of the many walks or runs for different diseases, sending care packages to men and women deployed overseas, or anything that feels useful to you.
Another path to greater peace is through mindfulness. Pay attention to whatever is happening now, whether you are drinking a cup of tea or folding laundry. This deliberate focus can imbue each minute with purpose and meaning. Noticing beauty in the natural world, a painting, music, or someone’s smile is another way of reconnecting with life. In her book Love 2.0, author Barbara Fredrickson says these micro moments of connection can be powerfully felt as love, even among strangers. The smallest positive interaction can infuse your day with a sense of warmth that lifts your spirits and satisfies your need for connection. The trick is to cultivate more of those moments by looking for them and being grateful when they occur.
Whatever you feel, the most important thing to do is allow all your emotions and let them carry you into unchartered territory. Then, they can flow through you, as opposed to being stuck inside festering. You might even find yourself understanding the term “sweet grief,” as fully experiencing your grief can feel sweet. It’s still heart rending, but in its depth there is a tiny sense of fulfillment. Perhaps, that unexpected sweetness comes from realizing you loved someone so much and felt so incredibly connected that you are capable of mourning so completely. That ability, to give yourself over to all your emotions, can be amazingly healing. Be brave, your body, mind, and spirit were created to handle all life’s vicissitudes, including great loss.
Pauline Boss: Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief
Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search For Meaning
Barbara Fredrickson: Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection
John Kabat Zinn: Wherever You Go There You Are
Pena Chodron: When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed—a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.
If you had a childhood full of drama, yelling, violence, addiction, over-controlling or neglectful parents, it can be especially difficult to feel safe. Without a sense of secure attachment to a reliable caregiver you didn’t have the opportunity to create an inner template for safety and calm. Even your telomeres, the end caps of your chromosomes, were effected. Apparently, in the first 18 months of life your telomeres either get wrapped up like the ends of a shoelace, or frayed, depending on how securely attached you were to your parents or care-givers. This chromosomal change has far reaching effects into adulthood; specifically, how easily and quickly you become anxious or agitated. In other words, how you can go from feeling safe and secure one minute to feeling unsafe and insecure the next.
There is no quick, easy recipe for cultivating an internal safe harbor, but it is possible. Like anything worth having, it takes perseverence and hard work, or as they like to call it these days: Grit. Frankly, anyone alive has grit since everyone is beset with hardship and suffering of one kind or another. Learning to cope, even if it’s accompanied by kicking and screaming, still counts as resilience. Resilience will get you through this mortal coil, while cultivating a feeling of internal safety will lighten your load, provide comfort, and, in time, build deep trust in yourself.
Thankfully, there are many ways to develop a sense of internal safety. One of the most important is speaking to yourself in a gentle, loving, patient tone, just the way you wish your parents had spoken to you. As the Buddha said, there are only three important things in life: kindness, kindness, kindness. Practicing being kind to yourself is not always easy, as you have inculcated every negative voice you ever heard, with the loudest being those of your primary childhood caregivers. If they were harsh, critical, or demanding, you internalized those voices and probably speak that way to yourself. With vigilance and attention you can substitute loving messages for those automatic thoughts.
The first step is being aware when they show up. Since they typically engender negative emotions, when you feel angry at yourself, guilty, ashamed, depressed, or anxious, you can ask yourself what you are thinking. If nothing shows up, ask yourself if it is OK to feel angry, guilty, ashamed, depressed, or anxious. Often, the same internal messages that created the bad feeling also tell you you shouldn’t feel that way, just adding insult to injury; and, creating a secondary problem. Now, you have the original issue of the negative emotion and the secondary one of putting yourself down for having it. Just being aware of this dynamic begins to change it. Think of what you wish someone who really cared about you would say to comfort you. Say those things to yourself. At first, they might sound fake or hollow. In time, they will feel authentic and supplant the old messages.
In addition to cognitive therapy, body therapies are incredibly helpful for rewriting the body-mind feedback loop. Yoga, felt sense exercises, walking meditation all reacquaint you with the language of your body and help you welcome and understand it.
You might choose to work with an Internal Family Systems therapist, who can show you how to befriend all of your parts, including the inner critic, and learn the ways they have always been trying to help and protect you. This is an amazingly powerful, yet gentle, process.
Feeling safe in your body is a crucial component of developing inner calm. Yoga creates a loving relationship with your body while helping heal past trauma. Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., the preeminent trauma expert in America, advocates yoga as a reliable path to recovery as it helps your body-mind recapture its birthright of internal safety.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), or Tapping, is another way to re-ground yourself in your body-mind. It’s incredibly easy to learn from Steve Well’s videos on You Tube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UW2xw3ZpjXw). He calls his method Simple Energy Technique (SET). I also highly recommend his book: “Enjoy Emotional Freedom: Simple techniques for living life to the full.” It’s full of creative ways to customize EFT/SET to your own unique way of looking at the world.
Buddhist philosophy, especially the podcasts by Jonathan Foust and Tara Brach, can be supportive as they deal with life’s issues and transitions head-on while showing you different ways to feel safe in yourself regardless of the challenge du jour.
You can also create a sense of safety by using techniques to activate your parasympathetic nervous system: rest and digest. Anytime you feel relaxed you typically feel safe. This is why alcohol, other drugs, and OCD behaviors help people feel safe: they calm the sympathetic nervous system. After a while, they stop working and you have all the anxiety plus an addiction. The good news is you can use the exact same mechanisms to get “addicted” or habituated to meditation, yoga, rest, reading, music, etc. creating a peaceful internal environment, a safe haven to return to again and again. By repeatedly experiencing that delicious calm when unagitated, your nervous system becomes capable of switching more quickly into it when triggered.
Tonglen, a Buddhist practice of being with your own discomfort while acknowledging everyone else’s, and Kristen Neff’s self-compassion techniques (see her You Tube video) also provide a different perspective when you feel as if you have been singled out, or are alone with your difficulties.
How does a parent make her child feel safe? With love, hugs, predictability, soothing tones, healthy food, rest, touch, and simple supportive words. Even if you didn’t have those experiences as a child, you can lavish them on yourself now. Yes, it takes time to retrain the body-mind, but it can be done with kindness, patience, and perseverence.
The following is a list of symptoms associated with major depression:
A persistent feeling of sadness
Loss of interest
Changes in appetite
Decreased energy level
Thoughts of suicide
Inability to feel pleasure
Loss of appetite
Lack of concentration
Weight gain or loss
All of these symptoms can also be caused by grief. Why bother differentiating between grief and depression? Because grief is a natural reaction to loss and the accrual of losses as one ages. Depression can be exogenous (catalyzed by external events) or endogenous (come from within, like a mid-life crisis, or existential depression). It can be acute or chronic, mild to severe, difficult or debilitating. The most compelling reason to make the distinction between grief and depression is: If you know you are suffering from grief your expectations are different from those you might have if you think you are depressed. Grief is a natural reaction to loss. Everyone experiences it, though some with more awareness, compassion, and patience for themselves than others. If you mistake your grief for depression you might take antidepressant medication. Conversely, if you don’t pathologize your experience and recognize it as grief, you could ride its waves.
Grief is not a mental illness, even though it may look like one; especially, if you are experiencing complicated grief. Grief can result from obvious life experiences, like death of a loved one or pet, and less obvious experiences, like job loss, diagnosis of illness, a move that takes you away from friends and family, divorce, retirement, and even the natural effects of aging.
Another major reason to figure out whether you are dealing with depression or grief is that with depression it is all too easy to create a second layer of feelings such as anger, guilt, anxiety, and even more depression as you think things like:
I shouldn’t feel depressed.
I should be stronger and fight this.
I am such a failure.
I will always feel this lousy.
It’s horrible to feel depressed.
I can’t stand it!
You can also have secondary issues with grief if you think:
I should be over this already.
I hate it when I cry in public, it’s so shameful.
What’s wrong with me?
I’ll never stop feeling this sad and that will be awful.
The difference is that secondary issues are far more common with depression than with grief because grief is a healthy, human reaction to loss. Any loss, and the accumulation of losses over a lifetime. Depression effects some people, grief effects everyone.
Depression typically hides anger. Grief, on the other hand, may shape-shift into anger, but it isn’t usually hiding other emotions. The kaleidoscope of feelings grief can mimic simply appear as they are felt.
If you know you have experienced a recent loss, or something has triggered all your losses to coalesce into a hard knot of sadness, remember: grief is a normal, natural process that helps process raw emotions. No doubt, you will feel it physically as well as emotionally; but, this is just one of the ways the body-mind reboots your system. It happens on all levels: emotional, physical, and spiritual.
Imagine this scenario: you go to the doctor with a variety of symptoms fearing you have some dreaded disease. She tells you you are healthy as a horse, but you may want to adjust your diet, sleep schedule, work load, and make more time for leisure, nature, and rest. You leave the office feeling buoyant. Why? Because there was nothing wrong. You may have had symptoms and issues, but you are really OK. The same is true of grief. It can feel pretty awful and disrupt the flow of life, yet it’s benign. You’re fine.
How can you figure out if you are depressed or dealing with grief? Ask yourself what has recently happened in your life. Write a list of any changes you can think of, both internal and external, over the past 6-12 months. Look at your list. Did you move? Get divorced? End a relationship or become estranged from a family member? Change jobs? Face an illness? Have a sudden drop in income? If so, it is likely you are dealing with grief, not depression. Grief is the consummate shape-shifter and can mimic depression, anxiety, anger, worthlessness, and guilt. By taking the time to truly assess whether you are in grief or depression you can wisely choose a course of action tailored to what is really going on.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen (Inspired by Emerson’s quote: There is a crack in everything God has made.)
The full title for this article is “Dare to disappoint everyone, including yourself, and vanquish perfectionism, procrastination, exhaustion, and resentment.” I know it sounds like an unattainable task, but bit by bit you will progress and feel more peaceful.
Inner perfectionistic mantras, both conscious and unconscious, lead you to do many things you would rather avoid. All those “shoulds” in life, whether for yourself or others, have a nasty way of creating exhaustion and resentment.
Perfectionism just loves sparring with its sibling: procrastination. What makes perfectionism so appealing is the illusion that if you achieve some high goal, make a fortune, become famous, or fulfill anything else on your dream list you will be supremely happy while proving to everyone how worthwhile you really are. If only. Those of you dancing to the jigs of perfectionism and procrastination know all too well how achieving something is never enough. Typically, the minute you finish one goal you are on to the next.
Perfectionistic behavior is a result of your conscious or unconscious belief you are never enough and nothing you do is ever good enough. It derails almost any goodness by making you feel inadequate or only as valuable as your last accomplishment, and it prevents you from basking in the joy of completing something or fully enjoying someone’s appreciation.
Here’s an example of what I call spiritual perfectionism, just to illustrate how sneaky perfectionism can be. Two people owned a business together and one betrayed and cheated on the other for years. When the woman finally had enough she ended the association; yet, only a couple of months later, was bemoaning the fact she didn’t feel compassion for him as he was struggling with the fall-out from his choices. That’s spiritual perfectionism and an overweening desire to always do the right thing regardless of the cost to her. If you believe you are never good enough, you can torture yourself in novel ways that add insult to injury. First, you endure bad treatment; then, you lambaste yourself for not feeling compassion for the perpetrator. Clearly, no one does this on purpose, but a pattern of taking too much responsibility for others while believing you have to always be better is a hard habit to break. It can be done though, and one way is daring to disappoint yourself and others.
While much has been written about perfectionism and procrastination, or as I now like to call them: the twin torturers, I would like to suggest a novel way to overcome them. Dare to disappoint people. This is not done with malice, but from a place in you that is not yet comfortable with healthy self-care, assertiveness, and boundary setting. Of course, good therapy helps with all those issues, and more; but, while you are moseying through the fields of self-knowledge and developing more self-acceptance and self-compassion, a little dose of daring to disappoint people can work wonders.
It’s important to distinguish between what you do because you genuinely want to help and what is born from the inner demons of shoulds, musts, and have-tos. Of course, there are times when you might act from a sense of duty. For the most part, those are different. If you were trained to always show up, be super responsible, and never disappoint anyone, pay attention to how that might be limiting you. Often, the habit of putting yourself last leads to burn-out and resentment; paradoxically, undermining all the wonderful things you did to be useful, kind, or helpful.
It’s also freeing to allow other people to disappoint you without damning them. Everyone will fall short of your expectations sometimes, and you will fail to meet theirs. Of course, if you notice a pattern of someone continually disappointing you it is probably time to take action. That action depends on how much you value the relationship balanced against how irksome you find their behavior.
Last but not least, dare to disappoint yourself and others. Disappointing others feels disturbing until you make peace with your own imperfection and learn to relax into it. How? By starting to believe you are just like everyone else: fallible and human. Striving to be perfect is unattainable and dooms you to feel bad about yourself as you can never measure up to those lofty ideals. Disappointing yourself is a wonderful opportunity to practice self-forgiveness. Of course, there is nothing to forgive yourself for if you have truly come to believe the goal is unconditional self-acceptance, not perfection.
Paradoxically, by setting an intention to take the best care of yourself by nicely saying no to things that really won’t make you happier, and accepting your human fallibility, you will have more love, patience and compassion for others. When you continually deplete yourself by saying yes to every request you end up full of resentments. That doesn’t serve you or anyone else.
If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.
If you look at the symbol commonly used to show Yin and Yang you will notice each of the larger shapes has a small circle of the opposite color in it. This shows how nothing is completely black or white, good or bad. There is no shadow without light and no light without shadow. Yet, so often it is tempting to think in black and white terms. When comparing yourself to someone else, for example, that tendency to globalize goes into high gear. It’s as if there is no gray, no middle ground, only opposites. Pretty or ugly, rich or poor, success or failure, creative or uninspired, fat or thin. Thinking in that dichotomous way only serves to create misery.
If you are in a 12 step program you may have heard the adage: Compare to despair. The Buddha actually said something like this 2,500 years ago: Comparison is misery. Apparently, people have been comparing themselves to each other for millennia. Regardless of whether you end up with the short or long end of the stick, either on top of the world or lower than a snake’s wiggle, this exercise ultimately creates unhappiness and a sense of separation from others.
One of the inherent problems with comparing yourself to other people is the unconscious tendency to pit your insides against their outsides. You can’t possible know what challenges they have, as no one wears a sign saying: Just diagnosed with terminal cancer, or sexually abused as a child. So, you end up comparing your feelings and internal dialogues to their public image. Since most people in America have been trained to put their game face on, it is extremely unlikely you are getting the full picture. This habit of incessant rating only serves to make you feel inadequate. Next time you notice you are comparing yourself and coming up short, pause and remind yourself you are only seeing a fraction of that person’s life.
As a therapist who has been listening to people for 40 years I know this is true. No matter how beautiful, intelligent, kind, athletic, or creative someone may be they still struggle, like everyone else, to tame their demons. The world sees them one way, while their self-perception is often completely different.
It is all too easy to think the things you observe and esteem in someone else make them happy. They may not. You can’t possibly know what someone else is thinking and feeling. Plenty of people who looked as if they were on top of the world committed suicide. If all the trappings of success actually made them happy they would not have taken their own life. Humans are far more complicated than what they own, wear, or achieve.
You might think, “OK, those are all external things. What about someone who seems truly content?” No one is content 100% of the time. Conditions change minute to minute whether internally or externally; so, it’s impossible to maintain complete equilibrium. The best you can hope for is an inner gyroscope that keeps you coming back to an even keel after getting thrown off balance. Once you know that you will never presume the state you observe in someone is there 24/7. Unless they’re an android.
Conversely, you might think: “But, when I compare myself to others I usually feel better.” That’s a Pyrrhic victory. In the short run it may help you feel like a winner, but at some point you will undoubtedly find someone with more money, better looks, a hotter mate, a bigger house, more adoring children, etc. What then? The habit of comparison will eventually leave you in the dust, so why not work to notice when you do it and actively take time to practice gratitude for everything in your life? Yes, even the things you don’t like.
Surprisingly, there are some ways in which comparison can be helpful. When it is observation mixed with self-inquiry and curiosity. When it comes from looking at someone else’s ways of living and asking yourself if their choices might suit you. Of course, the more self-knowledge you have, the easier this is. Even without much inner probing, trying options on for size by imagining doing things differently can be illuminating. It can also excite and ground you. It’s exciting to do something different and grounding if your inquiry helps you feel more satisfied with your choices.
If you are curious about how often comparison undermines your state of mind, start paying attention to when you do it, what feelings (both emotional and physical) coincide with it, what you tell yourself, and how you feel emotionally and physically afterwards. This is a great journaling exercise. Your new found awareness will help you stop making semi-conscious comparisons and keep you feeling grateful for everything you love about yourself and your life.
We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows.
Robert Frost, The Secret Sits
In families where there is addiction, abuse, criminal behavior, or mental illness, there is usually a code of silence that dictates the actions of the whole tribe. This unstated but powerful family trope has the potential for creating an internal shame-based environment that perpetuates a sense of worthlessness and can leave a legacy of self-destructive behaviors and difficult relationships.
What motivates people to keep family secrets? Fear of social rejection, fear of rejection and criticism from the family, fear that articulating these truths will somehow make them more real and demanding of attention (whether by oneself, other family members, or the authorities). Yet, the path to releasing shame, cultivating self-acceptance, and creating a new life paradigm is through speaking one’s truth. By openly acknowledging the challenges of your unique childhood you unlock much of the power those secrets had over you, and can connect with everyone else who faced similar issues. Instead of feeling isolated and unfit for human company, you can re-join the human race.
Of course, after years of denial and keeping secrets, it is not easy to start speaking honestly. Thankfully, there are ways to heal from these patterns and their fall-out. 12 Step programs provide support as you navigate unfamiliar emotional seas. Therapy bolsters you as you become your authentic self and learn to speak your truth, while shedding light on family dynamics inculcated at a very impressionable age. Therapy can also help you deal with the parts of you that feel disloyal when choosing a different path from the one you were taught at home. In addition, it can assist you with the emotional, physical, and behavioral reactions that come from unleashing a boat load of family secrets. These consequences can be very hard to handle as they often include outright denial of events, and pushback from people who have known you one way and resist your changing. (A therapist can also help you with the cascade of feelings these reactions might trigger.)
If you grew up in a family with big secrets you were trained to deny your reality. If your childhood included abuse you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. Luckily, there are a number of incredibly helpful ways to heal through much of that trauma.
The more people refuse to keep family secrets and open the gates to their truth, both past and present, the more likely everyone will realize: we all suffer, we all feel rejected, we all face physical, emotional, and social difficulties. The sooner that happens, the greater the likelihood we can create a compassionate world for ourselves and others.
“There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you’re lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.”
Philip K. Dick, VALIS
“Words! What power they hold. Once they have rooted in your psyche, it is difficult to escape them. Words can shape the future of a child and destroy the existence of an adult.
Words are powerful. Be careful how you use them because once you have pronounced them, you cannot remove the scar they leave behind.”
It’s easy to get into linguistic habits that profoundly effect your relationships. By changing just two simple patterns your interactions will improve immeasurably.
If you find yourself saying: “Yes, but…” actively work to change that to “Yes, and….” This tiny linguistic adjustment will shift people’s unconscious perceptions of you from negative to neutral or even positive. When you say “Yes, but…” the “but” negates what you said before it. If you are trying to win friends and influence people, saying “Yes, and…” gives the impression of inclusivity, and comes across in a more positive way.
Another pattern that hinders relationships is the use of the word “You.” If you are in the habit of starting every sentence with the word “you” be aware this can come across as blaming, judging, assuming, shaming, criticizing, condescending, even accusatory. This negative message gets transmitted to your listener both consciously and unconsciously. Consciously, people may react defensively. Unconsciously, they might avoid you. Neither is conducive to nurturing safe, close relationships.
To get out of the habit of approaching people with the word you, unless it’s “My, you look beautiful,” start your thoughts with the word “I.” For example, instead of saying “You’d better watch out, something as tiny as an extra piece of bread can really pack on the pounds.” You might say, “I find changing just one thing, like skipping that extra piece of bread, really helps me maintain my weight.” The first one sounds condescending, shaming, blaming, judgmental, and critical. The second one sounds a bit more friendly, and informational. Of course, talking about weight is probably not a great idea no matter how semantically diplomatic your delivery.
To make matters even more complicated, the way you speak has profound effects on the way you think, and vice-versa. By saying “Yes, but…” you have already dismissed whatever it was you were supposedly agreeing with. The whole construct is designed to get your opinion out as fast as possible while rejecting the other person’s, albeit in a socially sanctioned way. Ultimately, this linguistic habit gives people the impression you don’t value their input. By saying “you” rather than “I,” you create a wedge between yourself and the other person. It’s subtle, but over time, its effects accrue.
By thinking before you say something, you give yourself the opportunity to abort the idea completely. If that takes too much time, just changing “you” to “I” will shift the emotional quality, valence, and meta-message. Try it for one week and notice the changes in people’s reactions to you and your reactions to them.
When you lose your way and forget who you are, your beauty, your kindness, your connection to all that is, come back home. There is a trail of breadcrumbs leading to your true self. A self capable of curiosity, creativity, confidence, courage, unconditional self-acceptance, and peace.
There is a part of you that can be ok in this world with its mind-boggling contradictions, daily challenges, betrayals, and unanswered questions. You can let it all just be. The knowable and unknowable. Give it a cosmic permission slip to soothe, annoy, delight, or dismay in its myriad ways.
Let whatever comes come. It won’t last.
You are here for it all. A vessel for experiences. If you woke up this morning there is still space in you for more. When you’re full, you’ll go. Now, just be.
Take a moment to let life fill you with its wild buffet: hunger/satisfaction, connection/disconnection, sound/silence, meaning/meaninglessness, joy/grief. They all pass.
Oh! What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.
Sir Walter Scott
As time moves on from your divorce you can be sure of one thing: There will always be new revelations from your children. At times, they will rock your world and make you question your own memories. Whatever they are, it is important to understand the truth will make you free (if it doesn’t kill you first). Eventually, that new knowledge, however shocking, will help you let go of a past you may have been romanticizing and allow you to more fully release any lingering attachment you felt for someone who was clearly not the person you thought you married.
The worst revelations are of abuse to your children and they will require deep work on everyone’s part. Learning of infidelity, especially if it went on for a long time, is also painful and the collateral damage can have long-lasting effects on your children’s views of marriage and ability to trust. Finding out your ex may have been undermining you for decades, or asking your children to lie to you can feel devastating. Since none of these past behaviors can be undone, the only good option is working to create the best relationship you can have with your adult child.
If your child was seduced into keeping secrets and lying to you, the history of those behaviors will always be there. The messages can quiet down, they can even be eclipsed with years of new thoughts and positive interactions, but they can never be erased. As a result, they will effect your relationship in inexplicable ways. Accepting that, and assuming everything happens for your highest good, is your path to peace.
To complicate matters even more, when children have been manipulated by a parent to keep secrets they usually feel guilty and ashamed. This guilt typically creates resentment for the wronged spouse because, on some level, the adult child knows they colluded with the other parent. When they interact with the parent they lied to their guilt creates cognitive dissonance and all they really want is to get away as fast as possible. These mixed feelings are often felt as resentment. (See chapter on Guilt.) So, now, you not only have to bear the brunt of the toxic behavior you knew nothing about, but your adult child’s possible guilt, shame, and convoluted resentment towards you. Add that to your parental feelings of protection for your child, no matter how old they are, and you get a very complicated situation.
As if that weren’t enough, they are dealing with anger at the toxic parent for manipulating, bullying, cajoling, bribing, and intimidating them. This anger can easily morph into depression, or anger directed within. It can also appear as anxiety related to dealing with either parent over the potential fall-out of choosing to keep secrets or reveal them.
If you felt abandoned or neglected as a child these revelations may feel like a re-wounding, and trigger old issues. If you learned of new betrayals by your former partner this knowledge can easily catalyze bodily reactions that make you feel unsafe. Unsafe physically, emotionally, or with the adult child who shared the information. It is hard to trust after being betrayed. (See chapter on Trust.)
What can you do to heal your inner wounds and your relationship with your child? First, remember, they were young, impressionable, and wanted their other parent’s attention and affection. Both of which may have been given by making your child feel special through sharing secrets, buying things, acting as a best friend, denigrating the other parent’s values, and all sorts of other unsavory behaviors. But, your child did not start this dynamic.
If the lies, bad-mouthing, and deception have continued into your children’s adulthood your path is even more complicated as expectations of adults are usually quite different from those for children. The good news is all of it can be worked with skillfully, lovingly, and patiently.
Here are some suggestions to help you heal from an adult child’s new revelations:
Take plenty of time to let everything sink in. Do your best to react slowly. Talk with a friend, therapist, clergy member, or relative to work through the myriad effects of this new information.
2. Explore these revelation’s effects in your body. How do they feel physically? Where do you feel them? Patiently work to find words to describe what you feel in your body as this will take the focus off your thoughts, and help re-ground you.
3. What are you feeling towards your child? Reach deeply to find all your feelings, not just the ones that show up immediately. Whatever they are, they will change with time.
4. When the time is right, talk with your adult child about your reactions to this new information and listen to how they feel.
5. What are your thoughts? Can you do some journaling? Try writing a List of 100. This is done by setting a timer for 20 minutes, pre-numbering a page with 100 lines, and writing as fast as you possibly can about your topic. No censorship. That means you write down everything that comes up, even if it is the exact same thing you just wrote on the previous 10 lines. Topics might be: 100 reasons I don’t trust my adult child. 100 things this revelation taught me. 100 reasons I am glad to be divorced from this person. Once completed you can easily group your responses into percentages, see which thoughts and feelings come up most frequently, and work with those first.
6. Does this experience trigger others from the past? If so, what are they and what emotions do they bring up? I am partial to Internal Family Systems therapy as it is a gentle, yet very deep, way of working with difficult issues.
7. Look for the benefits as well as the collateral damage. No matter how earth shattering the news there are always hidden benefits.
8. Emotional pain is almost always soothed with a combination of time and kindness. You can calm your body-mind with yoga, massage, exercise, good food, journaling, talking it out, music, sleep, nature, Bach’s Rescue Remedy, aromatherapy (lavender, citrus, balsam fir needle, cedar, or any essential oils you like), tea (hot drinks without much caffeine have been shown to calm the sympathetic nervous system), an epsom salt and lavender bath, and anything else that reliably works for you.
9. If you like talking to yourself as a way to work through things you might be interested in some new research that shows how using your name, or talking to yourself in the third person (using “you” instead of “I”) can be very beneficial. It’s explained here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304831304579543772121720600.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to your truth. Your truth when you lived it in the past doesn’t change because of some new information. It may change your opinion of your ex, but it doesn’t change what you felt at the time. Whatever new information has come to light says nothing about you and everything about him or her. You may think it says things about your children, but they were impressionable and needy. Even if the deception continued through their adulthood it is still not about you. They were indoctrinated, felt special, safe, and avoided conflicts with the manipulating parent, all if which created intense cognitive dissonance. Compassion for them and yourself is the best medicine.
“Finally, I decide I am my own case history, and if I don’t dig in to understand what I am doing, I will be spending the years ahead in a vexing pattern of intimacy and abandonment.”
Dominique Browning in “Slow Love”
Dig in is right. Dig in and root around is even more accurate. Of course, merely looking at the past will not excise it, as insight alone rarely leads to change. The intimacy and abandonment issues Ms. Browning refers to are some of the most deeply felt on earth, which gives them the greatest capacity to create suffering.
When do these issues of intimacy and abandonment get tangled together? In childhood. Everyone has some level of abandonment issues. Even a child brought up in the most loving, secure household still felt abandoned when his parents left the house. Babies have no concept of “I’ll be right back.” So, when Mom or Dad left the room they felt abandoned. Quickly, they learned parents will come back, but that primal experience of being left alone, perhaps eternally, is still part of their experience. If your parents divorced while you were still growing up, even if it was amicable, you will undoubtedly have some abandonment issues. Ditto if you were hospitalized as a child. Even more likely if you were outright neglected or abused. (Recent research into trauma has found that abuse by a family member has the potential to create just as much post-traumatic stress as living through a war.)
Though radically different, the capacity for intimacy also develops from birth. Did the baby get fed, held, changed, soothed, and spoken to? If so, there is an inner template for feeling safe. It is almost impossible to have intimacy without some sense of safety. That safety may be internal or external, but the greatest intimacy usually occurs when both coincide.
The ability to open to true intimacy with another is fraught with anxiety, while abandonment scares the wits out of most people. Yet, people seek intimacy even though it carries the specter of potential abandonment. The possibility to truly connect with another is wildly alluring to most humans. Who wouldn’t crave that sense of closeness, safety, and connection?
Trouble appears when your sense of relationship safety is jeopardized. It could be something minor, like your partner saying the wrong thing, forgetting your birthday, or simply misunderstanding you. It could also be something more threatening like finding out your mate is having an affair, emptied out your joint bank account, or really doesn’t want to retire early and spend 24/7 with you. For anyone with abandonment issues small or large events like these can trigger fears of being abandoned again. In relationships, these fears play out in an inability to commit to someone, a pattern of approach-avoidance behaviors, a penchant for starting fights to re-establish space, and any number of creative strategies that dance between the poles of engulfment and abandonment. To someone with these long-standing issues, neither feels safe. One again, the deepest sense of security can be found within.
When you know you can find refuge in yourself your “need” for someone else to be with you and pledge their undying troth is reduced. Of course, people couple up for many other reasons, and being in a relationship can be one of the greatest experiences on earth, as well as a conduit to self growth. However, if it is a hedge against existential anxiety it will probably be a Pyrrhic victory.
The potential for re-traumatization and more deeply embedding abandonment issues increases with each relationship in which you pin all your hopes and dreams on the other person, instead of yourself. Of course, the Disneyfication of society only exacerbates this dynamic, as it historically reinforced the notion that: ” One day my prince/princess will come,” implying that once that happens you will live happily ever after. What a damaging view, as it puts the controls for your emotional health in someone else’s hands.
Developing a compassionate, caring, patient, nurturing, inquisitive relationship with yourself is the holy grail of inner peace. While it is wonderful to have friends and family to depend on, you will always be with yourself. Every minute of every day. Wouldn’t it be incredible to feel safe with yourself?
No one feels 100% safe and sound. It’s impossible. Yet, if you regularly practice some of the following suggestions you will begin to notice a greater sense of inner peace and self-acceptance, as well as an increased tolerance for life’s challenges.
Everyone has different aspects of themselves. There may be a part of you that wishes everyone well, and another part that feels jealous of a friend’s success. You may notice a part that feels curious, and a part that judges or criticizes. Befriending all your parts and approaching them with curiosity and compassion is key to integrating them.
(If this idea interests you, you may want to learn about IFS, Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard Schwartz. Here is an animated video to get you started: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsJOVs_e1v4. If you want a more detailed explanation check out this video with Richard Schwartz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99HuL_Bk-SU.)
Get therapy if you have been struggling with these issues and not making any headway.
Develop a sense of inner safety by responding to internal alarms of feeling threatened, anxious, angry, depressed, etc. with self-compassion. Kristin Neff’s short video explains them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11U0h0DPu7k.
Watch the ebb and flow of your emotions. Notice how no emotion lasts forever.
Keep current with your inner and outer life through journaling. This allows you to more slowly process thoughts, feelings, and events. It is also a wonderful way of watching yourself grow and change.
Understand your triggers. Triggers to what? To past trauma that has the capacity to flood you with unpleasant emotions. Once you know your triggers you can more easily avoid people and situations that press your buttons.
Listen to lectures on Buddhism. You can start with podcasts by Tara Brach and Jonathan Foust. Pema Chodron’s books and CDs are also marvelous.
Set healthy boundaries with people for what you will and won’t allow, even if it means cutting the toxic ones out of your life.
Create safe practices that help you feel empowered physically, mentally, and emotionally. When you feel stable and grounded in yourself you are less likely to continue any relationship that keeps you swinging between intimacy and abandonment. Some supportive behaviors include: yoga, meditation, journaling to acquaint you with your internal dialogue and repetitive thoughts, relaxing, getting enough sleep, eating well, spending time with the natural world (even if it’s simply looking at the clouds or smelling a flower), giving yourself what you want when you want it (within reason, of course), taking time for friends and family, creating a home that feels welcoming and safe, and consciously balancing work, family, solitude, exercise, and rest.
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
“If others tell us something we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.”
Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
Considering how your mind was designed to process information every waking second, it comes as no surprise that it often corrupts incoming data with misinterpretations. Add to that your desire for closure, and you jump to conclusions all day long. The problem is, many of those conclusions are right. That’s a problem because you then go blithely on creating stories in your head and believing them. This causes an incredible amount of unseen damage, as each assumption begets a string of additional assumptions until you are in some nether world of your own making that might be galaxies away from the truth.
Since each head is its own universe, and you can never truly or fully know anyone else’s mind, your assumptions about other people’s motives are bound to be wrong a good deal of the time. The damage those assumptions make is unfathomable.
In addition, you are always projecting your own unacknowledged thoughts and feelings onto everyone in your orbit. What makes that especially pernicious is how easy it is to ascribe incorrect motives to other people’s behaviors. Then, act as if those imagined motives were true.
If you want better relationships check out your preconceived notions. Put them through the wringer of reality. Remind yourself you never really know what’s going inside someone else’s head no matter how long you have known them. There are always thoughts and feelings they haven’t shared with you. It’s sheer hubris to think you ever fully know another person. Contrary to what you might believe, this awareness will not make you cynical, but open. Open to looking at everyone, including those people you have known for ages, with new eyes. It will encourage you to ask more questions about their current thoughts and feelings rather than assuming their past thoughts and feelings are indicative of how they react now. This, in turn, will improve all your relationships as most people like to be asked what they think. It makes them feel valued, respected, and heard.
Asking is not easy; but, as Michael Ruiz said, it’s the antidote to assuming. It’s so darn difficult because the ego gets in the way. The ego loves when you make assumptions as it thinks it’s all knowing and powerful. By asking and checking out your assumptions, you give the ego a rest. It doesn’t like that, but it can learn to lessen its endless natterings and interference. That allows fresh data to enter your cranium where it can create new ways of looking at others, yourself, and the world.
It takes courage to change, and nothing has more pervasive ramifications than thinking differently; especially, when it comes to your assumptions.
As a yogi, I am naturally predisposed to noticing how yoga catalyzes change and growth. Here, it allows the incessant chatter to calm down a bit. How exactly does that work? Try doing a yoga posture and not paying attention to your body. You will fall down or hurt yourself. Yoga forces you to pay attention to something other than the fluctuations of your mind. In time, that becomes a habit. It also encourages patience with yourself as you navigate difficult postures. This, in turn, helps you extend more patience to others. Listening and asking questions takes far more patience than assuming you already know what someone is thinking and feeling.
Similarly, meditation helps open your mind as it makes you aware of the constant stream of ever-changing thoughts and feelings. If your mind works like that it stands to reason other people’s minds do, too. They are also constantly rethinking things and processing emotions. Meditation keeps you aware of your own mind’s proclivities as well as other people’s.
If you still want to assume things, why not just assume the best? Try it for one day and see if you don’t find life and all your interactions far more pleasant.
“We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.”
― Brené Brown: I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame
While it’s easy to feel ashamed of many things in life, the process of divorce and its aftermath vie for a top spot on the list.
Triggers for feeling shame over a divorce include:
One-time friends who avoid you like the plague because they either think divorce is contagious or you will want to relieve them of their mate.
People who are suddenly wary of you. You are not to be trusted. You’re too needy, damaged, on the brink of sudden impoverishment, or a bad person (whatever that means).
Maybe you are unconsciously tapping into some unhappily coupled person’s misery, thereby making them feel threatened. What do threatened people do? Attack. But “nice” people don’t attack in any obvious way, they do it by avoidance and implication. They shun you like the plague and imply you’re defective, all to assuage their own (often barely conscious, and certainly unpalatable) dissatisfaction with their relationship or fear they will end up alone.
What creates that shame? Both internal and external messages, like:
It’s easy to think you “failed,” since people will actually ask you questions like: “How do you feel about your marriage failing?”
And the ever popular: “In retrospect, do you think you made a mistake getting divorced?”
In addition, there is the inner cacophony of self-doubt and self-downing that plagues all but the most resolute divorcing and divorced souls.
A more subtle aspect of the aftermath of divorce is heightened self-consciousness, similar to what you may have felt in adolescence.
Naturally, thinking you are a failure, maker of big mistakes, unworthy of people’s attention, and out-of-step with most adults can lead to feeling shame.
But, what is there to be ashamed of? What you did took courage. No one gets divorced unless their relationship has ceased to work. Staying in an untenable, unhappy, soul-stultifying relationship is clearly the sadder choice. It may appear easier in the short run, but takes its toll in the long run.
If you are plagued by feelings of shame and critical internal messages, cognitive behavior therapy can help.
Let’s look at some possible thoughts that could create disturbing feelings, including shame:
I failed, therefore I am a failure.
People will know I failed and think less of me.
People will see I am alone and think something’s wrong with me.
People will think I am unlovable or defective.
That will prove I am deficient, less good, less worthy of happiness, and deserving their pity, criticism, and condescension.
The only thing to do with unhelpful thoughts is to challenge them until they lose their power to wound and stifle you.
You might choose to think:
I did not fail. I succeeded in taking necessary steps to free myself from a relationship that no longer served me, or allowed me to grow into the person I want to be.
People may think less of me. What a great opportunity to learn to care more about what I think than their opinion of me.
How can I possibly know what anyone else is thinking? They may actually be jealous of my new-found freedom.
The only thing my divorce proves is that I am no longer married to that person. It says absolutely nothing else about me. Furthermore, I am clearly efficient in taking care of business when I have to, whether that was initiating the split or picking myself up after it.
If people pity, criticize, or condescend to me that is a reflection of where they are. All three are good ways for them to distance themselves from whatever my divorce catalyzes in them. Once again, it’s not about me.
How does feeling ashamed help me? Why not cultivate thoughts of victory, empowerment, self-sufficiency, independence, flexibility, openness to new experiences, and unconditional self-acceptance? At least, those will make me feel optimistic, bouyant, and at peace.
In addition, divorce can be a tripwire triggering old feelings of shame from childhood. If that’s true for you, please talk to a therapist or counselor. Divorce is very good at re-awakening feelings of abandonment and their attendant notions of not deserving happiness. Working through those issues to a place where you can feel safe and whole feels a boat load better than wallowing in shame. Luckily, you get to choose what you want to think and how much energy you put into remaking your life. Acknowledge how difficult and disturbing it is to deal with the fall-out from divorce; especially, if it engenders feelings of shame or reactivates old thoughts of unworthiness. The good news is you can take that irritating grain of sand from your divorce and turn it into a luminescent pearl of courage and resilience.
Many therapists say you have to let go of the victim role to heal more fully. While that is definitely a good goal, it is also important to understand how you were victimized. Why? Because your path to wholeness depends, in part, on cultivating compassion for that child, teen, or adult who was mistreated, neglected, or abused.
There is a crucial difference between identifying as a victim or someone who was victimized. Seeing yourself as a victim will block your evolution. Yet, it is important to acknowledge how you were taken advantage of when you were either powerless to fight back, manipulated so well you thought you had no recourse, or not ready to take the necessary steps to leave.
Current research finds betrayal by a family member can lead to deep post-traumatic stress. As brutal as war and other atrocities can be, they are not personal. Even though family abuse is not personal in that it is all about the abuser’s issues, it feels personal. You did not engender the abuse, but its fall-out definitely effected you. Physical and emotional abuse are such violent acts that the mind and ego can’t really make sense of them; especially, if they happened in childhood.
Though there are many books on dealing with toxic parents or relatives, few talk about the way abuse can continue into adulthood. The family bond is so strong that separating yourself can feel like an emotional amputation. Typically, it’s only done when the pain is so great it feels like a matter of life or death.
Ronald Fairbairn, a Scottish psychiatrist of the mid 20th century, wrote on Object Relations Theory trying to make sense of how a child reacts to abuse. Part of his hypothesis was that the child develops what he called the Moral Defense when faced with upsetting, abusive, or neglectful parenting. According to Fairbairn, even a young child understands that he can’t take care of himself. He needs his parents to survive. When they act in abusive ways, even when their behavior is not necessarily directed at him, like yelling at each other, he thinks there can’e be anything wrong with the people I need to care for me, so there must be something wrong with me. This is an unconscious thought, and a very strong concept that has far reaching effects.
In addition, Fairbairn talked about the hopeful child and the wounded child. When the parents behave kindly, even if it is seldom, the child thinks (usually unconsciously): “Everything will be alright now,” and becomes hopeful. When the parent is abusive or neglectful, the child thinks: “Oh, no, everything is horrible and I can’t stand it,” which creates a wounded feeling. Typically, that internal switching, from hopeful to wounded and back again, persists throughout childhood. The wounded child is unaware of the hopeful child and the hopeful child is unaware of the wounded child. Emotionally, he feels like a ping-pong ball. What keeps this pattern going is something Pierre Janet called the splitting defense. This enables each part to feel completely split from the other. One goal of therapy is to help these two very disparate parts dovetail. That way, when the adult feels wounded he understands that it’s temporary. Right around the corner is something to enjoy. Conversely, when he feels overly optimistic, he knows to temper that thought (which can lead to impetuous behavior) with a dose of realism. In adults, this splitting is seen in black and white, or all or none, thinking. It’s pernicious effects are more obvious when the person becomes flooded with a sense of despair because they can’t see any other possibility. (Internal Family Systems therapy is incredibly helpful at being gentle, deep, and supportive with any trauma, and helping this disparate parts weave together.)
The ego wants to maintain a sense of control, even when there was no way a child or teen could have had control at the time of the abuse. Sometimes, this results in the adult saying things like, “I chose to keep it going. I could have ended it. I liked it. It was my fault. I was too seductive. It wasn’t so bad.” In the short run, all of these ways of reframing the past serve to retroactively make the person feel stronger by implying he had a choice. In the long run, they add to the pain, by blaming the person who was victimized. Even if it feels empowering on some level, it’s a hollow victory. There is still that wounded little child or teen who now feels doubly abandoned. First by the perpetrator and then by self-blame and a lack of self-compassion.
What can be done to help shed the view of yourself as a victim while still acknowledging having been victimized? A combination of yoga and good therapy goes a long way towards changing the relationship you have with yourself, and making it safe to be in your body-mind. Different people respond differently to various types of therapy. Even the same person at different times of his life can respond differently to different approaches. I am partial to a combination of Internal Family Systems therapy, Rational-Emotive Behavior therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, mindfulness, breath work, and Yoga Nidra (you can read my short article on Yoga Nidra here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/yoga-nidra-for-relaxation-insomnia-and-posttraumatic-stress-0202154).
It is also crucial to give grief its due. Understand that you are grief stricken. Your grief can come unbidden any time, though it will lessen over the years, it will never fully leave you. Think of it as another way you can feel compassion for that little child or teen who endured mistreatment, neglect, or abuse. It’s also important to remember that grief is a shape-shifter. It can manifest as sadness, depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, or feelings of worthlessness. So, if one of those difficult emotions arises, be extra gentle with yourself and don’t assume you are necessarily feeling anger, per se, but grief that’s appearing as anger. That’s an important distinction as it helps you normalize your feelings. Everyone feels grief. It’s a natural reaction to loss; and, all trauma involves loss. It could be the loss of boundaries, loss of control over what happened to your body, loss of feeling safe, loss of trust, etc. Allowing yourself to grieve those losses is crucial to feeling more in control of your present and future. It even helps you leave the detritus of the past behind and move towards freedom from victimhood. Yes, you were victimized, but you are not a victim.
How you identify yourself sets the stage for your recovery. Picturing yourself as capable, strong, creative, self-compassionate, curious, intrepid, open to what the Buddha called the 10,000 joys and sorrows, and focused on this moment, will all accrue to feeling more and more resilient.
Humans needed to survive in harsh conditions since our earliest cave dwelling days. As a result, our brains got very good at sensing danger. If we had a traumatic event, or even a close call, we had to learn from one experience to avoid those situations and any that looked like them in the future. A great survival skill, not so great for living anxiety free day to day. To counteract that natural predisposition and create new neural pathways of joy, try the following: Take 10 slow breaths whenever you are happy.
Contentment also counts as happiness, at least, according to the Buddha. Following his example, you don’t have to wait until you are completely blissed-out, everyday little joys are ripe for reinforcement. When you eat that first strawberry of the season, laugh out loud while reading a great book, notice the birds singing, watch children play, hear your favorite song, try something new and are surprised at how much you like it, get kissed or touched by a loved one, figure something out that eluded you, find yourself happy for no reason, or anything else that floats your boat, STOP and take 10 slow breaths while focusing on your happy feelings. You might even see if you can notice where in your body you sense them and breath into those spaces. For the fullest positive effect cultivate a feeling of gratitude.
Our brains are wired to remember dangerous, bad, or threatening situations. It’s called the negativity bias. That ship has sailed, it’s simply how we’re designed. Since neurons that fire together wire together, you can create new neural pathways through this practice. Not only will you feel better in the process, your amped up joy will strengthen your resistance to stress.
If you want a more physically oriented practice that helps you access good feelings when you are feeling depleted or down, try this yogic Breath of Joy:
“Pain is not punishment, pleasure is not a reward. Both are just natural occurrences. Kindness, kindness, kindness.”
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche to a bride and groom at their wedding.
Sometimes, life can feel like a whirlpool and you are being dragged into the vortex of hell. Hell might be dissonance in a relationship, financial or physical woes, or lack of purpose. Intense anxiety comes from thinking you can’t handle it and catastrophizing about how much worse things will get.
At those moments, the last thing you want is to delve deeper, or even allow the downward spiraling energy to carry you along, but that is exactly where freedom and relief lie. For what is at the end of any plunge but solid ground?
Allowing yourself to surrender to the inevitable, whether it be the dissolution of a relationship, facing an illness, dealing with debt, or acknowledging a sense of purposelessness, all have the capacity to jolt you into a new way of being with yourself and the world.
Unfortunately, the natural tendency is to fight tooth and nail to avoid an emotionally chaotic landslide. But fighting reality only creates more pain, anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, and feelings of worthlessness.
Instinctively, humans are designed to avoid what is fearful. Since cave dwelling times that helped us survive and evolve. Yet, even thousands of years ago, the Buddha realized running from reality (unless it was from a hungry tiger) only deepened fear. While the Buddha was not privy to current research on neurobiology, he was ahead of his time. We now know neurons that fire together wire together. Whatever you habitually do gets stronger until it becomes almost automatic. Thus, anxiety begets more anxiety until it can feel like living in a roiling sea of dread.
At first glance, it may seem that running away from what scares you, whether through an addiction or with other, less obviously harmful, distractions keeps the demons at bay, but avoidance only makes your fears grow until you can no longer deny them. The greatest kindness you can show yourself is letting go into the free fall of life knowing you will land on solid ground. The terra firma of your own center.
While it may go against your grain to face your fears, this habit develops courage, perseverence, and self-discipline, the very trio that help you navigate life more easily.
One way to strengthen your ability to sit with reality is to start small.
First, give yourself a cosmic permission slip to feel whatever is true for you now, and to feel it in your body, not just cognitively or emotionally.
Notice when you are disappointed. It could be your plans were cancelled, you sprained your ankle, or the grocery store was out of your favorite treat. Watch your reactions. Which parts of your body have tensed up? What are you thinking? Are you angry? Do you suddenly feel defeated? Are you projecting a bleak future?
Write them all down. Starting with your body, describe your physical feelings as best as you can. Then, breathe into the spaces that feel tight and see how they change. Next, look at your thoughts. Are they helpful? Are they true? What would you prefer to think? Finally, go inside and feel your feelings. Where did they come from? The two most likely places are your thoughts and your past experiences. What happened in your childhood when your desires were thwarted? Remind yourself, you are no longer that little child. You have amassed a slew of coping mechanisms, new ways of thinking, and behavioral interventions (like talking a walk, breath work, listening to music, having tea, calling a friend, etc.), any of which can be retrieved when you feel out of kilter.
Do you have a history of trauma? If so, even the slightest current challenge can trigger a cascade of negative bodily reactions and unwelcome emotions. For example, someone canceling a plan because they are ill can bring you back to other times when you felt abandoned. This is an unconscious process that can flood your system with a variety of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. The good news is accepting what is true for you now and gently moving towards it shows you you can handle more than you thought. That said, if you were abused it is important to get some help. You do not need to navigate those turbulent waters alone.
Goethe once said, “Words are a raft when the mind is at sea.”
If you don’t already keep a journal, please get one and write in it. Many mind-body practitioners, including Dr. John Sarno and Dr. David Hanscom, attest to the value of journaling for treating a variety of psychogenic and auto-immune issues. A key ingredient here is to write out all your thoughts and feelings, no self-censorship. Psychologically, writing down whatever you are thinking and feeling cleanses it from your cranium.
University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker contends that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes. Other research indicates that journaling decreases the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Pennebaker believes writing about stressful events helps you come to terms with them, thus reducing their impact on your physical health.
The act of writing accesses your rational, analytical left brain. This frees your right brain to create, intuit, and feel.
Writing also helps you:
Clarify your thoughts and feelings.
Gain self-knowledge; especially regarding people and situations that feel unhelpful, or even toxic, to you.
Release the emotional intensity from feeling angry, grief-stricken, or overwhelmed.
Become more mindful and present.
Because writing uses both sides of the brain it is an excellent way to solve problems and figure out creative ways to deal with difficult people. You might even find your perspective shifting as you write.
Keeping a journal allows you to track patterns and growth over time. One of the greatest benefits is how your own notes remind you of all you have already handled in your life. When current circumstances appear insurmountable, you can look back on previous challenges and see how you coped.
You might also like to keep an audio journal. Check out: Recording and Listening on this website for ways to embark on that journey.
Another wonderful, free resource is an app called the meditation timer. It has hundreds of guided meditations to help you discover the joys of being fully in the moment.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of boredom: The state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.
“One receives as reward for much ennui, despondency, boredom–such as a solitude without friends, books, duties, passions must bring with it–those quarter-hours of profoundest contemplation within oneself and nature. He who completely entrenches himself against boredom also entrenches himself against himself: he will never get to drink the strongest refreshing draught from his own innermost fountain.”
When was the last time you were bored? Were you really bored, or was that what you called your dissatisfied state? Can life be boring? Especially in this day and age, with internet access to knowledge about everything on earth: all music, movies, TV shows, art, university lectures, language programs, social networking, and video games. Is it possible to be bored? I don’t think so.
The next time you think you are bored, ask yourself if that is truly your state of mind, or are you feeling something else? I believe boredom is a code word for when we feel anxious, angry, worthless, lonely, depressed, or grief-stricken, and we don’t want to acknowledge those feelings. Saying you are bored is a subtler way of repressing unwanted thoughts and feelings.
As Nietzsche said, eschew boredom and you miss an amazing opportunity to connect with your innermost self. Boredom is not the enemy to be shunned at all costs, despite our society’s manic agenda to fill every minute with content of one sort or another. It can be a conduit to self-knowledge. Yes, I know it’s not fun to get in touch with unpleasant or disturbing feelings. However, if you avoid them they accrue and wreck havoc in all sorts of unconscious ways, like physical ailments, suddenly lashing out at people, nightmares, addictions, lack of motivation, depression, etc.
On the other hand, you can tap into feeling bored as a doorway into your deepest emotions. For example, notice when you typically get bored.
Are you alone?
With certain people?
Engaged in specific types of activities?
Just having an unscripted moment?
Perhaps, it’s simply a matter of declaring your independence and assertively taking more time to do what you want, rather than pleasing family and friends. Maybe you feel dissatisfied with the same job or hobby and want a change. If neither of those is true, it might be you just feel something unpleasant and call it boredom. If you think that could be what’s going on, sit down, and ask yourself:
What am I really feeling? If nothing immediately comes up, be patient and ask yourself again.
If that still elicits nothing, ask yourself:
What is going on in my life now?
Your primary relationships and work are good places to start. How do you feel when you are with your family, friends, co-workers? Are you fully engaged? Are you daydreaming about other options? Has something radically changed in your life that you might be reacting to with numbness? A death, illness, divorce, empty nest, job loss, etc? Numbness is triggered by our nervous system when we feel threatened or extremely stressed. Numbness can feel a lot like boredom, and vice-versa.
Just sit with whatever feelings show up. Notice where they are in your body and describe those physical feelings with words. Be curious and take the time to describe your sensations as accurately as possible. This can be difficult at first, and requires some patience. (Are you sensing some tension in your back? Tingling in your hands? Heat or cold anywhere? Heaviness in your limbs? Tightness in your shoulders or neck?) Describing the actual physical feelings you are experiencing can have a very grounding effect. Once you get in touch with those physical sensations, write down whatever thoughts and emotions accompany them. It’s great to keep a journal for this; or describe them audibly into a recorder app. (See the Recording and Listening article on this site for more ideas on audio journaling.)
If you think your boredom is born of a sense of meaninglessness, ask yourself what you find meaningful. Are you living in accordance with your values? If you haven’t read it yet, read Viktor Frankl’s book: “Man’s Search For Meaning.”
Don’t feel like plumbing your depths in those ways? Try mindfulness. Pay attention to whatever is going on right now internally, externally, or both. Just embrace whatever comes up, accepting it with as much grace and equanimity as possible. No self-rating allowed, especially self-criticism.
Experiment with switching your activity every hour. If you can’t do that, try every 90 minutes. You will be far more productive and energized.
Conversely, continuous activity, though it is socially sanctioned and appealing in its addictiveness, is not the answer as it simply masks the real issues and leaves you depleted and can compromise your immune system.
Last but not least, if you do find yourself frequently feeling bored resist the urge to put yourself down for it. That only compounds the felony and will make you feel lower than a snake’s wiggle. Accept that this is one of your coping mechanisms and a way to externalize your internal issues. It’s OK. There’s no right way to live, just your way, and that is evolving every minute. If you are not ready to take a sychological depth dive, at least allow yourself the luxury of being where you are. It’s a beautiful gift, and always available if you give yourself a cosmic permission slip.
There must be something in the human brain that makes it enjoy playing with different, often opposite, ideas simultaneously. Ambivalence is incredibly helpful when we are brainstorming or problem-solving, less so when assessing the value of relationships. Fortunately, this natural proclivity to complicate our lives is beneficial. Unfortunately, it can also be time consuming and draining.
When it comes to relationships, if you have a history of abandonment in childhood (not only obvious neglect or abuse, but emotional unavailability, or over-controlling parents) you might feel predisposed to staying in a relationship that no longer works for you; or, embark on one unlikely to satisfy your emotional desires. (I know some might call those needs, but I subscribe to the idea you have only a handful of true needs and the rest of your longings are actually desires. Why? Because by calling wishes needs you ratchet up how crucial something is to you. If you think you desire something and you don’t get it you are disappointed. If you think you need something and don’t get it you can feel devastated.)
Looking back on your childhood, if you regularly experienced any form of abandonment, you are most likely seeking what you didn’t get from your parents: consistency, reliability, and attention. It can be difficult to see over-controlling parents as abandoning, but they are. Their invalidating behavior implied you were not able to make decisions for yourself, thereby leading you to believe you needed them for everything and couldn’t cope. This is just as damaging as neglect in that both sets of parenting behaviors create a sense of insecurity and anxiety.
In addition, over-controlling parents are often co-dependent and live their lives vicariously through their child. This puts enormous pressure on the child, as all children are born with the desire to please as a way of insuring their health and safety. If this type of parenting is successful for the needy parent, the child ends up either achieving what the parent pushes, or rebelling against it. Either way, as an adult, that person is often unaware of what he or she really wants. This encourages ambivalence and difficulty making decisions.
Since no relationship is perfect, it is natural to have moments when you question why you are with someone and other times when they seem like the sun, moon, and stars. Those are normal fluctuations of intimacy, the waxing and waning of interest in any long-term relationship. Natural ups and downs are nothing to be concerned about, as everyone has them. However, if the legacy of your childhood has you continually swinging from one extreme to the other, you might want to pay attention.
If you had controlling parents it is easy to see how you might equate controlling behaviors with love and care. Yet, another part of you, a more independent part, could crave autonomy. That part might easily rebel against anyone’s attempts to mold or control you. In general, while people do like a bit of nurturing from their partners, they do not want so much that it seems oppressive or stifling. If you grew up in a home with over-controlling parents you might feel as if your approach towards adult love relationships teeters from one end of the spectrum (loving the attention) to the other (resisting anything that even remotely looks like control). Naturally, this back and forth can feel like ambivalence. If you experience that in your relationship you may want to seek out a qualified therapist, as childhood issues are difficult to work out on one’s own.
To make things even more complicated, if you grew up with controlling parents you may have lived with anxiety about not pleasing them, or feeling as if they would not love you should you not follow their plans. This also makes adult relationships challenging, as you can be extremely sensitive to the slightest hint of a loved one’s rejection or disappointment. Once again, playing to your audience and not being true to your own wishes and desires.
Everyone has issues and triggers, and there’s some co-dependency in almost all relationships. The only time to be concerned is if they are getting in the way of your goals, whether at work, with your health, finances, social or love life.
What looks like ambivalence may really be fueled by deep-seated fears of abandonment. The ego loves to feel as if it’s running the show and can be very sneaky in its methods. It also likes black and white answers. For instance, it may seem as if you are choosing to end a relationship when, in fact, the ego just wants you to feel as if you are in the driver’s seat. You leave before someone someone might leave you. Yet another reason why it is so important to examine your history in relationships and your current motivation to stay or go.
Ambivalence is pretty easy to assess; but, how do you know if you have abandonment issues?
Reflect back on your childhood:
Were you cared for in predictable, loving ways?
Were your physical needs attended to in a timely manner?
Were your ways of being, your thoughts and feelings, respected and valued?
Were you heard?
Were you seen?
Did you feel as if your parents reliably had your back?
Were you encouraged to pursue your interests?
Were your successes celebrated?
Did you feel loved, cherished?
Of course, not even the best parents are always loving, aware of their child’s needs and desires, and attentive. It is what happened to you and what you felt most of the time that is important, as that is what shapes your view of others. Your childhood experiences with people, whether are they are trustworthy, for example, has direct bearing on what kinds of adult relationships your will forge.
Luckily, none of this is set in stone. With therapy it is possible to overcome many of the influences of the past. Internal Family Systems therapy, Object Relations Therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, yoga, meditation, yoga nidra, and many of the body oriented therapies can all be extremely helpful in creating the relationship with yourself you wish you had had with your parents. As you find within what you have been seeking outside yourself you become more and more capable of the true depth and intimacy you seek in relationships. It may be enough to create it with yourself. For many who have felt abandoned as children, it feels quite nourishing to connect to people platonically and/or romantically. To others, it feels most soothing and fulfilling to seek union with a higher power. Whatever your path, it takes great courage to explore your inner landscape and commit to personal evolution and self-compassion.
Passive-aggressive behavior is a defense mechanism that allows people who aren’t comfortable being openly aggressive to get what they want under the guise of still trying to please others. They want their way, but they also want everyone to still like them.
Passive-aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, sarcasm, hostile jokes, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.
…of or relating to a personality that harbours aggressive emotions while behaving in a calm or detached manner.
Passive aggression is defined as a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008)
Bullying is finally getting the attention it deserves. Who hasn’t heard of the damning texts, Facebook taunts, punching, pinching, mean practical “jokes,” verbal assaults, sarcasm, cruel messages written on school lockers, and even pernicious gossip that abound in schools? Bullying also occurs in adult relationships. At work, with couples, the elderly, and even between parents and children. The difference is it is usually less blatant, and takes the form of more subtle, but no less destructive, passive-aggressive behavior.
By its very definition, passive-aggressive behavior is constructed in such a manipulative way that it leaves an aggressive residue without incurring the perpetrator any obvious negative feedback. That’s the beauty of it. The whole set up insures the person behaving passive-aggressively is beyond criticism. After all, who can blame someone for “forgetting” to get your insulin, everyone forgets things sometimes, don’t they? And, who can blame someone for being late when life intrudes? Only the most insensitive, rigid person would be critical of that. What about someone who insults you and says, “Can’t you take a joke?”
Passive-aggressive behavior creates a double bind for the recipient, and that is where its real power lies. If the target acts angry, or says something, she is suddenly the one with the problem. “I know I promised, but why are you getting so angry with me? I couldn’t help forgetting what time the pharmacy closes.” Suddenly you are the one who is angry or too sensitive. (Who can be too sensitive? You are simply as sensitive as you are.) This insidious way of blaming the victim, is also an example of projection, because the passive-aggresive person is actually angry, and probably highly sensitive, too, but incapable of owning his feelings.
Another hallmark of this behavior is the disconnect between the person’s words and behaviors. They say they want to help you, but don’t follow-up. When you press them for a reason, they will always have a logical, reasonable excuse. If this happens infrequently, it is not a problem. If it happens all the time, it creates a lack of trust and precludes any deeper intimacy.
Passive-aggressive behavior is an excellent strategy for goading someone into actually feeling angry or upset, as the recipient often feels trapped into either responding in an understanding, patient way (which may not reflect their true feelings), or reacting with disappointment, frustration, or anger. Suddenly, they are the one with the problem. So, passive-aggressive behavior is incredibly manipulative, and deflects the perpetrator’s anger onto someone else. It may not be as blatant as other forms of bullying, but it is still bullying.
The person who uses passive-aggressive behavior gets a rush of power from feeling in control. They have trouble being assertive because being assertive requires knowing what you want and asking for it in a non-confrontational way. Since they habitually deny their anger or resentment, they are not in touch enough to be assertive; hence, the use of passive-aggressive strategies.
While you may want to understand how this behavior developed (probably in childhood from an insecure attachment to a primary care-giver), it is best to keep the focus on you. Are you interested in staying with this person even if he never stops behaving this way? If so, there are ways to do this, but the behaviors may continue to annoy you. Even though your partner may not be an alcoholic, many of the methods suggested for dealing with an alcoholic in 12-Step groups, like Al-Anon, can be very helpful. Just bear in mind that employing these techniques, will probably not change the other person’s behavior. So, it is wise to ask yourself if this is the future you want.
Since passive-aggressive behavior is rampant in our society, you are bound to encounter it at work, at the gym, in your family, with romantic partners, etc. Here are a few suggestions for how to deal with it while feeling more in control of your reactions:
Act unfazed, even blasé.
Don’t react with anger. If you do, things will most likely escalate with you feeling more frustrated, hopeless, and furious.
Say something like, “I am disappointed that you forgot my 40th birthday.” Try for a calm, neutral tone. After all, this person has behaved this way ever since you met, so it’s really no surprise he disappointed you again.
Find humor in their attempts to annoy you. That’s genuine humor, and only if you can really access it. Reacting with sarcasm will only up the emotional ante. This type of humor is actually another aspect of compassion. You can see the inner child in their behavior struggling for a way to express himself and having only a few tools in his toolbox.
Be extra friendly, nice, and calm, just the way you would with a psychiatric patient. But resist using a condescending or contemptuous tone.
Be direct. Use “I” sentences to tell the person how you would like him to behave. State it as a preference, not a demand. (“Next time, I would like it if you could pick the kids up on time.” rather than “You should have remembered to pick up the kids on time.”)
Only give an ultimatum if you plan on keeping it. Idle threats typically make these behaviors increase in intensity or frequency.
Remember, it’s not about you, even though it effects you. You didn’t do anything to deserve this; nor, can you change anyone else’s behavior.
Typically, people who employ passive-aggressive behavior have it set pretty deeply in their repertoire. So, expect them to continue using it.
Be aware that the person behaving this way wants you to act out their unexpressed anger. If you rise to the bait, you run the risk of really escalating things. This may entail someone blaming you for “making them angry.” (You can’t make anyone angry, just as you can’t make anyone happy.) Conversely, you may think reacting calmly will also increase the behaviors. It may, but if you don’t react with anger, yelling, or tears he will (consciously or unconsciously) get the message that his behavior is inappropriate.
Dealing with passive-aggressive behavior is generally exhausting. Having a few techniques enables you to feel less triggered, and to remember: It’s not about you.
You may wonder if staying in a love relationship with someone who behaves passive-aggressively is possible. That depends on you. Everyone is different and has different proclivities and tolerances. Some people can separate sufficiently from their partner to know their partner’s behavior is not about them. They can more easily detach from someone else’s annoying ways without catalyzing a cascade of negative emotions.
Because everyone has different levels of sensitivity and tolerance, there is no right way of being, only your way. The key question is: Given how I am and what triggers me, can I skillfully work with these behaviors or will I perpetually get irritated, annoyed, frustrated, angry, and eventually resentful and hateful? This is an opportunity to plumb the depths of who you really are, not whom you would like to be. The more honest you are with yourself, the better decision you will reach. There can be strength in deciding to stay or go. Copyright: Nicole S. Urdang
If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.
Henry David Thoreau
Many years ago, people expected to be disappointed with their leaders, bodies, relationships, and circumstances. Life was brutish and short. In the second half of the 20th century, when Americans were riding a post-war high, this view radically shifted. Since then, we have been bathed in advertising that blatantly says, “Buy this and you will be perennially happy.” It used to be cigarettes, booze, and cars. Now, it’s more likely to be the latest technological breakthrough. Regardless, the essential message is the same: You can attain joy 24/7. Clearly, that sets everyone up for one disappointment after another. In addition, we humans are really good at disappointing each other in personal relationships. But that is not the problem. The problem lies in our unrealistic idea that disappointments are awful, we can’t stand them, and we shouldn’t have to deal with them.
On the most prosaic level, your Netflix streaming videos will not always stream, and your iPod can freeze. Those are just minor, annoying inconveniences, and most people take them in their stride. You know things break down; but, it’s an entirely different situation when you are disappointed with yourself, your mate, child, sibling, or parent.
To make matters even more challenging, Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun and author, has said: “It’s amazing how often disappointment hardens into anger.”
And, here’s the cherry on top: If you are dealing with abandonment issues you will likely frame each disappointment as just another abandonment or rejection. (See chapter: People Are Who They Are.)
The good news is by working skillfully you can head many of these disappointments off at the pass. How? By managing your expectations, and creating an inner sanctuary. (See chapters on Self-Soothing, Fall in Love With Yourself, Self-Compassion, It’s OK Sweetheart, Overcoming Abandonment Issues.)
Here are a few techniques to help you break away from some unhelpful, possibly habitual, patterns that just create more unhappiness and anger around disappointment.
* Ask yourself: “Is this about me? Did this person deliberately plan to hurt or reject me? If so, you may want to rethink that relationship, or the context in which the behavior occurred. You might feel differently about it if it happened during a fight, or just out of the blue. If it really had nothing to do with you, you can more easily detach. All humans have traits, and not all traits are lovable. Once you know it’s not about you, you can say something to yourself like: “I know s/he’s often sarcastic and I don’t like it, but that’s just how s/he is.” Then, you get to assess the situation without the added distraction of thinking it’s about you, because it isn’t.
* What are my expectations of myself? My family? My friends? Am I demanding or expecting more than is reasonable? This can be a sticky wicket, as many people think: “Well, I expect a lot from myself and thereby expect a ton from others.” That is exactly the kind of thinking that can create long-term disappointment that might harden into anger. Why not look lovingly at everything you do expect from yourself and see if you can’t lessen your internal pressure by being kinder and gentler. Miraculously, that also helps you develop more compassion and patience with other people’s issues.
* What thought habits have I cultivated that make me react so deeply to disappointment? Am I telling myself it’s awful or I can’t stand it? Do I think that person is horrible and should be punished? What if I challenged those thoughts? How awful is it, really? I know it’s unpleasant, and even very disturbing, but must I make it worse by thinking I can’t stand it?
* What if I started to think of each of my expectations of myself and others as little straight-jackets? They really do limit the range of behaviors I deem acceptable, hereby limiting my growth and the potential for growth in my relationships. What if disappointments actually foster my development? Each one certainly makes me sit up and take notice. They clearly provide opportunities for me to flex my emotional muscles, to let go of preconceived notions of how people and things have to be for me to be content, to love others as they are, and to accept myself with all my own idiosyncrasies. Of course, there is a limit to your tolerance for accepting people who perennially disappoint you. That calls for a re-evaluation of the relationship.
* Am I often disappointed in people? If so, perhaps I am habitually setting up unrealistic expectations, which could easily lead to anger. Is this also true of my relationship with myself? Am I a perfectionist, demanding such high standards and behaviors that no one, not even I, can meet them? If so, you might want to shift them.
* An insidious thing can sometimes happen when addressing these inner demands. You can begin to think, “Why bother, everyone will disappointment me. I’m better off not counting on anyone.” This only leads to feeling more isolated, depressed, and anxious. It may seem like a Herculean task to shift your expectations based on reality, yet it will end up creating better relationships with yourself and others.
* How can I reassure the little child inside me that most of the time people are not doing what they do to purposely hurt me? By taking the very best care of you, on every level: physical (sleeping enough, eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting fresh air, dealing with addictions), social (making time for friends and family), self-actualization (developing your skills and talents, expressing your creativity), financial (creating the best relationship you can have with money, planning for the future), spiritual (meditation, mantra work, possibly a religious organization, 12-Step group, yoga), and relationships (dealing with unhelpful patterns of behavior).
* Last but not least, choose to believe that everything, including all those pesky disappointments (especially, the huge ones), is happening for your highest good. How could that possibly be? Because it all helps you evolve, adjust, adapt, and, ultimately, set more realistic expectations for yourself and others. Then, when people disappoint you you won’t be surprised or blame them. Remember, their behavior is not about you.
What would happen if you never took out the garbage? Pretty soon, it would become intolerable. Yet it’s all too easy to let the inner detritus of negative thoughts and feelings accrue, building on each other until they create a malodorous mess. Actively cleansing your mind of unnecessary and unhelpful old material can give you a new lease on life and create space for alternate ways of thinking and processing experiences.
Just the way too much clutter actually inhibits the flow of chi (energy) in your home, mental clutter can block the flow of all thoughts (including neutral or positive ones) while allowing some of the persistent (usually negative) ones to take up residence.
In yoga we often talk about the Monkey Mind. The mind’s tendency to jump around like a little frenzied chimp. In fact, one of the major goals of a yoga practice is to quiet the mind and fully inhabit your body and the moment.
One sure-fire way to create a more cluttered cranium is to obsess about how awful it is to have unwanted thoughts. There’s nothing horrible about it, it’s simply the way the mind works, taking in all sorts of material whether relevant or not.
You can start this emotional house cleaning by grabbing a piece of paper. Using the following categories as a starting point, ask yourself if you are harboring any:
Negative thoughts about your:
work, or lack of it
If you find some, and I can’t imagine a person who has none, write them down. Look at them. Thoughts create feelings. Are these thoughts helping you? If not, try the next exercise.
Ask yourself, “What am I feeling now?”
Is it anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, or something else?
When you think “I feel my life is out of control,” or “I feel like a failure,” those are actually thoughts, not feelings.
If you find yourself mistaking thoughts for feelings you can clarify between them by asking:
“When I tell myself my life is out of control or I am a failure, how do I feel?”
Another way to separate a thought from a feeling is to remember there are really only a handful of major negative feelings.
To make things even more complicated, some things that sound like feelings are really physical, not emotional. When I talk about feelings I am speaking of emotions.
There are even certain words, like boredom, that masquerade as a feeling, and can fool you into thinking you are bored. In fact, boredom is almost always a code word for something else, like loneliness, grief, depression, or anger. (Check out: Boredom, Does It Really Exist?)
Clearly, it is not always so easy to identify a feeling; yet, negative ones like anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, and worthlessness usually make themselves felt fairly strongly.
Once you have identified your negative feeling, ask: “What would be its opposite?”
Allow yourself the opportunity to really think about the 180° opposite and explore what that might feel like. Sometimes, that’s all you need to do to create a major shift. On other days, you may not feel like making the effort to alter your mood. That’s ok. Letting yourself feel your feelings, while remembering they will change, can be just as freeing as actively working to shift them. (You may want to re-read that last line as it’s easy to forget.)
Luckily, once you become aware of the whirlwind of internal thoughts you can usually calm them by putting the focus on your body.
Body Check-in, or Notice and Name: (This technique is also mentioned in the chapter: Self-Soothing.)
Do a slow body check starting at the crown of your head and working down towards the soles of your feet, or vice-versa. As you navigate your awareness to the various parts of your body ask:
“What am I noticing here? Is it tightness, tension, itchiness, heat, cold, shakiness, expansion, contraction, discomfort, twitchiness, or obstruction ? Is there pressure, pain, a particular shape, motion, texture, color, heaviness, lightness, buzzing, singing, humming, scents, emptiness, numbness, burning, etc.?”
Once you describe it, just sit with it.
Then, allow whatever is true for you now to be. Breathe into that space as you tell yourself it’s ok. Allow the breath to soften and soothe any tight areas. No agenda, just allowing and watching to see what happens.
If you are feeling particularly open minded, you may want to ask that part what it is trying to tell you. You might ask what it would like from you, or what it wants you to know. (I know this sounds a bit unusual, but it really helps take the focus away from intellectualizing to paying attention to the way your unconscious mind can communicate via your body.)
By taking the time to plumb your depths you can cleanse your inner abode of unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Of course, it’s impossible to do a clean sweep, as nagging thoughts and feelings like to camp out in the nooks and crannies of our body-mind. These exercises, if done regularly, create a dialogue between you and your various parts allowing them to feel increasingly comfortable with the vicissitudes of life.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
If you grew up in a family where there was little nurturing, or unpredictable nurturing, especially during the first 18 months of life, you may have a difficult time self-soothing. Alternatively, if you were lucky enough to have had parents, or any caregiver, who was adept at calming you down with a hug and loving, kind words, you have taken in those behaviors and can claim them as your own. When life gets challenging, you know how to emotionally realign.
If it wasn’t merely the absence of loving interaction in your childhood, but the trauma of abuse or neglect, it can be extremely hard to imagine you deserve to feel good about yourself. You do. The past doesn’t have to be your future, no matter how long you have been feeling unworthy.
If you didn’t get loving reassurance when upset as an infant or child, you can still retrain your mind to quiet negative self-talk. Those internal diatribes often get triggered by a break-up, job loss, death, or bad diagnosis, and can easily activate anxiety, panic, or numbness.
Like anything else, the only way to get really good at self-soothing when you don’t have an inner template from infancy and childhood, is to practice giving yourself what you would ideally like from someone else. Learning self-calming techniques can be simple. The only way they get entrenched to the point you will actually use them in a crisis is if you practice them regularly, especially when life is not in turmoil.
Think of times when you have handled bad news. No matter how you dealt with them, you lived. No one says you have to navigate life’s stresses elegantly. Sometimes, just getting to the other side alive is good enough. So, please don’t trip yourself up by rating how you are dealing with a given situation. Give yourself credit for simply getting from one breath to the next.
While there are a plenitude of great ways to work with your thoughts from traditions in Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, there are times when you simply want to feel better immediately, without having to dispute whatever thoughts led to your disturbance. Having a cache of self-soothing techniques can be incredibly helpful.
Here are some I find especially good at calming the inner chaos:
First, remember these two truths:
All things end, the blissful and the miserable.
You can stand what you don’t like, unless you brainwash yourself into thinking otherwise.
In the Internal Family Systems model, we have a term called a “part attack.” It is when one part, let’s call it the “scaredy cat” takes over and floods you with anxiety. Of course, you could have other parts that inundate you with depression, guilt, worthlessness, or anger. Regardless of the specific emotion and the part involved, it usually feels very overwhelming. It can even seem immobilizing. When that happens, you can consciously call upon other parts inside you, like a resilient part, an inner loving parent, or any other part that helps you feel safe and heard. Let that part listen to the one causing the part attack. Hear all its concerns, validate them, and ask what would make it feel safe. As unusual as this technique may sound, it is incredibly soothing and effective.
Experiment with Jin Shin Jyutsu finger holds. They are remarkably simple and no one will know you are using them, so they can be used when you are disturbed in public. Here’s a link to get you started: http://jsj-holds.blogspot.com/search/label/attitudes (once there, scroll down the page for photos and more detailed information).
Check out the chapter on this site called Breathwork. It is full of techniques to help you switch from your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze) to your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
Use a technique I call Notice & Name. With compassion and curiosity notice where in your body you feel a particular emotion. Now, do your best to describe it. You can start at the crown of your head and work down to your toes or from the soles of your feet moving up to the crown of your head. Pay attention to any areas that feel tight, twitchy, hot, cold, obstructed, itchy, or tense. See if there is pressure, pain, a particular shape, motion, texture, color, heaviness, lightness, buzzing, singing, humming, scents, emptiness, numbness, burning, etc. Once you describe it, just sit with it. You might ask what it would like from you, or what it is trying to tell you. (I know this also sounds a bit different, but it really helps take the focus away from intellectualizing to paying attention to the body.)
Try a mantra. You can use English words and phrases like the ones found on this site under: Affirmations, Manifesto for Emotional Self-Care, and It’s OK Sweetheart; or, you can try one of the Sanskrit mantras listed under: Mantras. By repeating thoughts that run counter to your internal dialogue, especially if it’s harsh, you can actually create new neural pathways. In time, these become so strong they will supersede the old, self-critical ones.
Do some yoga. Even if it is just one posture. Not only will it calm your nervous system, and make you physically strong and supple, it will also help you meet your emotional and psychological issues with more awareness and compassion. By holding postures that don’t always feel comfortable you build up your frustration tolerance, and gain a new appreciation for your inner fortitude.
If that seems like too much effort, use the simplest technique of all:
As you inhale say: Breathing in I am breathing in.
As you exhale say: Breathing out I breathe out.
It is incredibly difficult to grow up in a family where you have been unseen, mistreated, or physically harmed and come out thinking you deserve joy. You do. You deserve every goodness the world has to offer. After all, you weren’t born believing you were unworthy. People and experiences had to teach you that. Just as you learned one way, you can learn new ways of being tender and compassionate to your sweet self. I know it’s a ton of work. The good news, as the French psychologist Émile Coué said years ago, is: Every day in every way you are getting better and better. These self-soothing techniques simply accelerate the process.
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”
There is no one right way to live. There is only your way in this moment. Whether you are experiencing abject misery, overwhelming joy, or numbness, this is your minute. Claim it as part of your unique experience on this earth. After all, since you are only a visitor, why not approach everything as fascinating? If you really feel like raising the bar, you could even consider all aspects of your life sacred. Should you choose to adopt that world view, you might find yourself more comfortable riding the seas of unpredictability that show up daily.
Of course, it is natural to get caught up in an emotion or experience and think it will never end. Whether it is physical pain, euphoria, or something else entirely it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that everything, yes, everything, ends. Clinging to the joys and shunning the difficulties only makes life harder.
What if you adopted a completely different view, one that embraces everything as part of your adventure on planet earth? Each moment would be a portal into understanding the varieties of experience. Not judging, comparing, or getting lost along the spectrum of discerning whether something brings joy or grief. Just being. Right now. In this moment. No story line to keep you company, no drama to create, only awareness and curiosity.
How differently would you think?
What might your new attitude feel like?
How would you approach what arises?
What effect would that openness and acceptance have on your relationship with yourself and others?
This is not about spiritual perfectionism, but gently, lovingly, coaxing yourself back into an appreciation of the moment, whatever it feels like. Not every moment, just those you want to fully experience.
While there is no emotional terra firma, you can anchor yourself in the present, allow all thoughts and feelings to flow through you, and cultivate genuine wonder. Empowered with joy, openness, and curiosity you can truly inhabit the fullness of your life.
An exercise that grounds you in the moment while tapping into your ability to appreciate the most mundane, yet potentially bliss-inducing, aspects of your environment, is the 5-4-3-2-1 meditation. It is quite simple, yet profound.
Wherever you are, notice 5 things you can see, then 5 things you can hear, and then 5 things you can physically feel. Continue with four things in each category, then 3 things in each category, then 2 and, finally, 1. Give yourself about 15 minutes to complete one full cycle. It is preferable to find new things, but not necessary.
Even simpler, just consciously allow whatever your experience is right now. Stop reading, take a breath, and assess how you are processing this moment. Are you being critical? Angry? Stoic? Resigned? Numb? Perhaps, you are grateful, joyful, accepting, open, or unconditionally self-accepting. The more you pay attention and do these mini check-ins, the more you will notice the emotional vicissitudes of life as they occur. Once you allow your ever-changing, full range of thoughts and feelings, and agree to being present and human for whatever crosses your path, life will feel more manageable and interesting.