Is there such a thing as a healthy ego, and is it even possible or desirable?
Most of us have a judging mental voice that I call the inner critic. It comes out of nowhere to let us know, loudly, when we (1) have screwed up, (2) are screwing up, or (3) might be about to screw up.
I've gotten to know this voice pretty well. However, I've also spent a lot of time studying and learning how to tame it. What follows are a collection of tools I've used with myself and my clients over the years. I hope that you find something useful if you're struggling with your own critical voices.
Top 5 Things to Know About the Inner Critic
- Almost everyone has one. Some are louder than others, and some people have gotten better at making peace with theirs.
- It was formed at a young age. As a little kid, you probably noticed that you got rewarded when you were “good” and got punished when you were “bad.” In the beginning, adults did the judging for you, but eventually you created your own internal judge to keep you in line even when no one else was around.
- Its fundamental purpose is to keep you safe. The implicit promise is that if you’re always “good,” you’ll be worthy of love and never have to experience pain or rejection. Therefore, if you ever experience those things, you just aren't trying hard enough. The pain it causes is justifiable because it keeps you safe, like an adult jerking a kid out of a busy street. It might hurt in the moment, but it’s better than being run over. Except the inner critic sees cars everywhere, even where they don’t exist.
- It can't follow through on this promise. The whole “Just be perfect and you’ll be safe and loved” line is a scam at worst and wishful thinking at best. Painful things happen, and the inner critic will take those things and use them as retroactive evidence that you fell short. You will never be able to meet its standards.
- You can’t get rid of it or shut it up permanently. However, you can lessen its impact in your life by using one or more of the following strategies.
1) Stop buying into its implicit promise.
Now that you know it can’t promise success, acceptance, and security, stop feeding it!
I understand that self-criticism can be a hard habit to break, but seeing it as an unhelpful pattern rather than a virtue interrupts the cycle.
The inner critic will always be around in some form, but when you stop actively buying into what it says, it loses a lot of momentum and power. Sometimes it really is that easy.
Still skeptical about whether it's worth giving up? Maybe you really do need it to to stay motivated. I respectfully disagree - read why in my article on self-kindness as an effective job-searching strategy.
2) Accept and defuse it.
When you’ve stopped buying into its dubious “wisdom” and accepted that it will always be a part of your life, you can stop fighting it.
Think about how much mental and emotional energy has gone into trying to shut it down or live up to its impossible standards. What would it feel like to opt out of the whole mess and just move on with your life?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy gives us lots of tools for “defusing” the inner critic. When we stop taking it so seriously and start seeing it as something separate from us, we can spend our energy doing things we actually care about.
Here are a few defusing techniques to try:
- Imagine its monologue as a crappy mix tape. What are the top 10 tunes? Then when it starts playing, you can say, “Oh, there’s my ‘I’m a failure and doomed to die alone’ tape!”
- Play the thoughts in your head but imagine them in silly voices. How does the “You’re totally inadequate” thought feel different when Donald Duck is saying it?
- Picture a stream with leaves floating by on the surface. Put each thought you notice on a leaf and let it drift away.
- Imagine your negative feelings as a beach ball that you’re trying to keep submerged under water. Notice how hard it is to concentrate on anything else. What would it be like to let go of the beach ball and allow it to float in a corner of the pool? It’s still there, but it’s a lot easier to swim and relax than before.
- Give your inner critic a face and a name. Who or what do they remind you of? When they start talking, ask yourself, “Is this really someone I want to take advice from?”
Note: A major tenet of ACT is that feeling better isn’t the point, although that often happens when you defuse from your painful thoughts. Ideally, you’d notice the critic was active, do what you need to do to create some space between yourself and it, and then go on with your life. You don’t want to devote too much time and energy to arguing with a mixtape, after all!
3) Open a dialogue.
This takes a slightly different attitude towards the inner critic than the ACT tools. While Accepting and Defusing treats the inner critic like a fundamentally mindless voice that runs on autopilot, Dialoguing comes from the point of view that the critic has good cause for what it’s doing and can be reasoned with.
This approach asks you to accept that you have different parts within yourself that want different things (like when one part of you wants to exercise and another wants to watch TV).
When you accept that the inner critic has its own needs and desires, it’s easy to see that its main motivation is fear. If you let yourself be satisfied with who you are, who knows whether it would be good enough? The inner critic isn’t going to take that chance.
A basic approach to reaching an agreement with your inner critic:
- Listen to what it's afraid of and all the things it's been doing to try to keep you safe.
- Respond to the fears with compassion and the efforts with appreciation.
- Come up with some alternate ways of dealing with the fears that don’t make you feel like crap.
- Ask the inner critic what it thinks and listen to any objections that come up.
- Continue to negotiate until you come up with a plan that satisfies the inner critic and makes it feel safe enough to take a break.
This approach is really well-suited to working with a coach or therapist. If you’re doing it by yourself, I recommend journalling. One surprisingly effective technique is to use your non-dominant hand for the critic and dominant hand for the interviewer.
Coach Havi Brooks has a unique and playful way of talking to her "monsters," as she calls them. Check out her blog posts Not All Monsters Like Cookies; The Negotiator, the Monster, and the Scribe; and Monster-Watching: Some Notes.
An important thing to keep in mind here is that you want to be talking to your inner critic from the kindest, wisest, most patient part of yourself. Think of a nurturing parent, a wise friend, or a supportive teacher. If you’re having trouble accessing those qualities, check out the next approach.
4) Develop compassionate inner resources.
In addition to your inner critic, you have a positive counterpart. I call it the healthy adult; some people call it your inner wisdom or your inner mentor. This is the part of you that always acts with compassion and wisdom. It knows the truth: that there is nothing wrong with you.
One way to tap into this resource is to recall times when this part of you was present to make good decisions. Let yourself relive those memories.
What qualities did you exhibit? Love, kindness, patience, good boundaries, courage, perspective, and groundedness are all qualities I’ve heard from clients over the years. How does it feel in your body when this part of you is really present?
Hypnosis is a fantastic way to get in touch with this part of yourself - check out my stress-relief and self-confidence session if you’d like to experience this in a really concrete, empowering way.
Another way is to imagine yourself 20 years in the future, all grown up into the person you always hoped you’d be. What would that person say or do? How would they act? What suggestions would they make?
Author Tara Sophia Mohr has a beautiful guided meditation to take you through this process, available here (free in exchange for your e-mail).
A third way is to take the love and kindness you feel towards someone dear in your life and direct it inwards. How would you treat them in this situation? How would they treat you? Sometimes it’s much easier to access compassion and understanding for others than it is for ourselves.
Finally, a quick and dirty way: fake it till you make it. Ask yourself, “How would I act if I loved myself completely and unconditionally?” Do whatever the answer is.
5) Finally: be a scientist.
The opposite of judgment is curiosity. When you notice the inner critic coming up, get curious. Start gathering data. When do you notice its voice being particularly loud? Is it a constant presence, or are there certain situations that trigger it? The inner critic isn’t especially complicated - the thoughts that come up tend to follow certain patterns.
I’ve found a journal especially useful for staying in scientist-mind.
Here are some prompts to get you started if you’d like to begin taking your own field notes:
- I’m noticing that…
- My inner critic is especially loud when:
- Underneath the criticism, I’m really afraid of:
- If I stopped being so hard on myself, I’m afraid that:
- What’s helpful in dealing with my inner critic:
- What’s not helpful in dealing with my inner critic:
- Internal and external resources I can count on:
- What would be helpful to remind myself of?
- Healthy ways to distract myself from my inner critic monologue:
- I envision my inner critic as…
- What do I need right now?
- What am I believing that it’s not okay for me to need, want, be, have, or do?
- What would it be like to accept myself exactly the way I am right now?
So there you have it.
There are lots of ways of dealing with this voice in our head. Whether you see it as an enemy, a misguided coping mechanism, a scared little kid, or just a tape loop, this part of you is here to stay - so you might as well make peace with it.
Obviously, this is an incredibly broad overview about a complex topic. Nevertheless, I hope it gives you a place to start and some ideas for things to try. Whatever you do, don't let your inner critic turn your self-compassion practice into another stick to beat yourself with!
Unlearning the patterns of self-criticism and replacing them with self-kindness isn’t easy for all of us. I remember thinking, “What would I do with myself if I’m okay the way I am?” I was invested in looking for problems to fix beause I thought that was the only way to make progress.
But when I remember to approach my life with curiosity, compassion and humor, it’s amazing how much gets done - no stick needed. Go ahead, try it out and see what happens. As Cheri Huber says, “If it doesn’t work, you can always beat yourself up twice as hard tomorrow!"
Inner critic making it difficult for you to make progress on your career goals? Schedule a complimentary strategy call with me to discover how coaching can help you move forward.
Recommended Reading on the Inner Critic:
- Cheri Huber, There Is Nothing Wrong With You
- Kristen Neff, Self-Compassion
- Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
- Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
- Tara Sophia Mohr, Playing Big
- Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap
image credit: freeimages.com/Marcelo Gerpe
What are you doing in your life that’s just for you?
Me? I walk. I like taking pictures, too.
I wear a lot of hats in the course of my day. I’m a coach, a cat-mom, a spouse, and a friend (not to mention a housekeeper/cook/financial manager/general adulting person).
There's a lot to keep track of, and I've learned it's necessary to my (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) health to get outside and ramble on a regular basis.
Going for a walk in the middle of the day sometimes feels like a luxury (especially when I’m busy), but I know from experience that it's vital to my sanity and optimal functioning - especially when I’m busy.
I'm sure you have a lot on your plate, too.
It’s easy to get into the habit of talking about how busy, overwhelmed, and overcommitted you are. It seems like you just don’t have any time for yourself!
I do it, too, and then I have to remember all over again what I wish I could beam directly into your brain: taking that time for yourself makes everything else work better.
If you are in the process of trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, this time becomes even more crucial. Who are you when you’re not a helper or a worker? When you’re by yourself and all those labels fall away?
If you can’t connect to those things that bring you joy, it's much more difficult to find your path.
My invitation to you, if you’re willing:
Take 10 minutes today to do something that feeds your soul. If you have no idea what that might look like, try something, anything, and see how it feels. Do it again tomorrow.
Pay attention, take notes, learn what lights you up. Find your way back to yourself, one step at a time. Take my box turtle friend here as inspiration.
Let me know how it goes!
I'll tell you a secret: I'm allergic to gratitude.
If you’ve spent any time in the self-help world at all, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal. This practice does nothing for me. I understand why it might be useful for some people, but I don’t love it.
I've spent so much time telling myself "You should be grateful for [x]" that the word itself brings up feelings of irritation, resentment, and guilt. If you look up gratitude in a thesaurus, you get synonyms like indebtedness, obligation, and requital. Ugh. No thanks. I'm done with trying to force myself to feel a certain way.
However: humans are wired to give more weight to negative events. It makes sense to somehow emphasize the positive ones and balance out your worldview. And there is a lot of evidence out there that a (ugh) gratitude practice has a meaningful effect on your life.
So how can we do this without it feeling fake, forced, or obligatory?
Four Alternatives to the Gratitude Journal
1. Change the word
If you hate the g-word as much as I do, how do you feel about appreciation? While one of the definitions of appreciation is gratitude, another is recognition of worth. This feels so much more empowering to me. It's a choice I've made to recognize the worth in the world around me. A gratitude journal may make me want to gag, but an appreciation journal feels a little more doable.
2. What went well?
This exercise comes from Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology.” According to him, three weeks of doing this had a positive emotional effect on test subjects up to six months later.
At the end of your day, simply note down three things that went well. In his version, you can also add why you think they went well.
The language of “what went well” accomplishes three things: it takes the gratitude label out of the equation, leaving you free to feel appreciation, satisfaction, relief, or a spectrum of other positive emotions.
Secondly, doing this exercise helped me realize that the majority of events in my day happen without a hitch. I got better at putting the occasional glitch in perspective.
Thirdly, it gave me a body of data to look back at and see what I thought was worthy of labeling as “going well.” I frequently mentioned time with friends, time spent creating, and time outdoors. Sometimes I’d list a memorable meal or a workout.
Something like binge-watching Steven Universe, while technically going the way it was supposed to, didn’t make the list. This gave me some great insight as to where I’d like to put more of my time and energy.
3. What do you want to remember?
This was inspired by a Seth Godin article. So many things happen to us throughout the day, most of them forgotten by the next. Unless we do something to tell our brains “This is important,” it tends to get lost in the shuffle.
We already do this automatically with painful, stressful, or embarrassing things because we’d like to be able to avoid those kinds of situations in the future. But what about the sublime, the cozy, the just-right? What happened today that you’d like to remember five years from now?
4. Noticing what you’d like to continue happening.
For one day, make a mental note of everything that happens to you that you would like to keep happening in the future. This can be anything you can perceive with one of your senses. This exercise comes from Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. When I do this, I find it easier to stay in the present and appreciate life's small pleasures.
Don’t worry about sticking with it indefinitely.
A lot of gratitude journal proponents will tell you that you need to do this every day. I agree - up to a point. Like any routine, it’s meant to support you. When you don’t need it, you can let it go. It will always be a part of your toolbox, after all.
Start with committing to one of these exercises for 1-3 weeks. As Martin Seligman showed, even this brief amount of time can have positive repercussions far into the future.
To document or not to document?
The gratitude journallers will tell you that you need to physically document your list. In the case of the "what went well" and "what do you want to remember" exercises, I think that a written record is helpful for the reasons I mentioned above. The last is more of a mindfulness practice and doesn't require the same level of documentation, since you're looking for many small moments throughout the day.
If you have a smartphone, keeping a record is incredibly easy. Set an alarm for the evening and when it goes off, use your favorite note-taking app to list three things that went well or that you want to remember from the day. That’s it - the whole thing might take you five minutes. Of course, you could use a physical notebook or a voice-recording app if that's more your style.
Let me know how it goes!
I’d love to hear about your experience with these exercises or your own favorite gratitude journal alternatives.
Shock keeps us from effective action. It steals our memory and higher brain functioning. It numbs us out when we need to stay awake and aware. It dampens our compassion, empathy, creativity, and wisdom.
Shock is a silent saboteur.
The following is a book I wrote for my clients after my article on taming the fight-or-flight response became one of my most-read posts. I'm making the full text available for free now because this is a hard time for many people (about a month after the 2016 election, if you're reading this in the future).
I hope it helps.
Don't get overwhelmed by the information below. Pick one or two things to try. Write them in a note on your phone. Set them as a text alert. Put a sticky note by your computer. Keep a stone in your pocket that reminds you to reach for those lifelines.
This information is not intended to diagnose, prevent, or treat any disease. If you suspect you may be suffering from depression, anxiety, or other illness, please seek help from a trained professional.
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Okay, let's do this.
What is Shock?
Shock is a physiological response that happens when we're temporarily overloaded by a stressful situation. It's also known as the "fight-flight-freeze" response or an "acute stress reaction," and it's a lot more common than you might think.
Recalling a past stressful event, how did you react to it? Did you go into overdrive and try a million things to fix the situation? Or did you retreat and zone out with a substance (like food or alcohol) or a behavior (like napping or Netflix-binging)? Or did you start out in one state (say, putting out fires at work all day) and end up in the other (unwinding with a beer in front of the TV)?
This is such a normal way of existing for many people that it might seem odd to give it a label as serious as "shock." But living your whole life swinging between these two extremes is quite hard on your physical, mental, and emotional health.
The following charts describe the symptoms of the two different kinds of shock so that you can start putting your own experiences in context.
Sympathetic (“Fight or Flight”) Shock
- Racing thoughts
- Overpowering thoughts/emotions
- Feeling the need to control
- Elevated breath rate or pulse
- Cold extremities
- Excessive sweating
- Muscle tension
- Teeth grinding/clenching
- Nervous tremors
- Hypervigilance (easily startled)
- Sensation of pounding in head
Common activities and/or addictions:
- Frantic/constant movement
- Talking quickly without stopping
- Compulsive working, spending or shopping
- Multi-tasking or constant planning
- Using substances like tobacco, alcohol, food or “downers” like pot to calm down
Parasympathetic (“Freeze”) Shock Symptoms
- Disappointment, grief, shame, guilt, and despair
- Inability to focus
- Numbness or feeling “shut down”
- Feeling disconnected from body
- Nausea or dizziness
- Indigestion, cramps, or constipation
- Feeling tired or sleepy often
Common activities and/or addictions:
- Isolating or withdrawing from others
- Sleeping a lot
- “Zoning out” in front of the TV or internet
- Intake of stimulants like caffeine or nicotine to wake yourself up
Okay, I’m in Shock. Now What?
If you're like me and many of my clients, you might be surprised at how much of your life you've spent in one (or both) of these states. Fortunately, there are many ways to treat your shock in the moment.
Pick one or two of these to try out the next time you're feeling "shocky," and know that it becomes easier with practice. If a technique doesn't work for you, let it go and try something different.
Please note: these techniques should be used in conjunction with more long-term treatment to help you discharge the original trauma (if necessary) and build up your in-the-moment coping mechanisms.
If your shock symptoms are chronic or overwhelming, please seek advice from a physician or mental health practitioner. These techniques have worked for me and my clients, but should not be considered a replacement for medical treatment.
Come Back to Your Body.
A common symptom of shock is a lack of body awareness. By bringing your attention to your sensory experience in the moment, your body will naturally begin to return to a neutral state. Keep reading for some ways to do that.
Bring your attention to your breathing (either the sensation as the air enters your nostrils or the feeling of your abdomen rising and falling) and gradually let the inhale and exhale even out. Don't breathe too deeply - just focus on making it smooth and even, as though you were asleep.
You can press your palms together, gently hold on to one finger with the opposite hand, or give yourself a hug. Try tapping or rubbing gently right underneath your nose, at the crown of your head, or on either side of your upper chest. These types of actions let your body know where it is in space and also stimulate various accupressure points. See the end notes for related resources.
Notice the sensation of your feet on the floor or the way you're being supported by your chair or bed. See if you can direct your awareness to your hands and feet - what sensations do you feel there? Can you sense the life inside them? What about the inside of your head? Can you imagine the distance between your temples, as though there was empty space between them? Can you let this awareness expand to fill your whole body?
Hold a hot or cold beverage in your hands and sip it mindfully, feeling it travel from your mouth down your throat. You can also use a hot or cold compress on your forehead, back of the neck, chest, belly, or feet.
Find a wall and rest your forehead against it. Place your palms on the wall on either side of your head. Press your heels into the ground. Breathe. Feel the support.
Release the extra energy.
Scream into a pillow. Whisper scream. Hit a wall or the floor or the bed with a towel. Let that energy move out of your body.
These exercises help relax the psoas muscles, which tend to seize up or contract when you go into shock. This set of muscles attaches to 22-24 different places in the body through your thighs and vertebrae; in other words, how tense they are really affects the way you move, stand, and walk.
Here's the first one: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Put one foot in front of the other and all your weight on your front foot (your back heel will naturally lift off the ground). Using your back foot to balance as necessary, raise yourself up on the toes of your front foot and then slowly lower yourself down. Do this 5-10 times; you’ll probably feel a slight burning sensation in your calf muscles. Then put your weight on your back foot and lift the front foot, shaking it out – it'll quiver on its own for a bit.
Give Your Mind Something to Do.
Whether your mind is racing or spaced out, giving it something to focus on can bring you into the present moment.
- Repeat some soothing words to yourself: "Be safe, be well, be at peace." Or "You've got this." What would you most want to hear right now?
- Notice your physical environment. Name objects, colors, shapes.
- If you believe in a higher power, ask for help in dealing with this moment.
- Mentally visit a "safe place" (maybe a favorite memory or a place out in nature).
- Harness the power of acceptance. Can you accept without judgment that this is the way you feel right now?
- Remind yourself that in this moment, right here and now, you are safe. Focus all your attention on getting through the present moment.
- Journal. Write down what you're feeling. Start with "I'm feeling..." or "I'm noticing..." or even "I'm noticing that I'm feeling..." and go from there. Get those swirling thoughts out of your head or use this tiny action as a way to jumpstart your momentum.
- Try out some "Even though" statements. "Even though I'm in shock, I'm going to take care of myself. Even though I'm stunned, frustrated, and discouraged, I'm open to letting these feelings shift when they're ready. Even though I feel helpless, I'm going to be kind to myself and others in this moment."
Look Outside Yourself for Help
If you can't deescalate or shift your energy on your own, there's nothing wrong with getting help.
- Physical affection - would a hug from a friend or time cuddling with a pet help?
- Music or comforting words. Listen to a favorite song or read something that feels comforting or inspiring. (Check out the end notes for some suggestions).
- Listen to a guided meditation or relaxation recording.
- Trust your own experience: what's worked for you in the past?
- Get grounded. Go outside and put your bare feet or your palms on the earth. Imagine that the earth can absorb whatever you're feeling. Let the physical sensations bring you back to the present.
- Don't isolate. Reach out and connect to someone. 7 Cups of Tea is a free online resource for connecting with a sympathetic listener if you don't have a friend handy.
- Find a way to help someone else. Donate to a cause, show up for a friend. Take pride in your ability to function well in difficult circumstances.
Long-Term Treatment of Shock
Keep in mind, the previous suggestions are band-aids. Once you've regained your equilibrium, put a self-care plan in place.
- Work with a counselor or coach. No money/insurance? Check out this page for suggestions.
- Adopt a mindfulness practice, like yoga, t'ai chi, sitting meditation, or spending time in nature.
The Hardest Part is Knowing When You’re in It.
By the time we recognize we’re in shock, we’ve likely already spent much of our lives in that state. So the most challenging part can be identifying when we need to intervene. Congratulate yourself when you notice you’re feeling disconnected and take steps to bring yourself back.
Treat Your Shock Before You Do Anything Else.
Once you’ve recognized you’re in shock, take the time to bring yourself back to balance before going on with your day. Any actions you take or decisions you make will be much more effective when you’re fully present in the moment.
Shock is Contagious.
It’s very easy to pick up on someone else’s shock (and vice versa). Take the initiative and treat your own shock to keep it from being spread or magnified further.
Start Mapping Your Triggers.
Begin to notice what circumstances trigger your shock. A common one is worrying that you’re not going to get what you need (which can manifest as panicking or becoming resigned/defeatist). What else do you notice?
- Everything is awful and I'm not okay: questions to ask before giving up
- Guide to finding free and low-cost mental health care in the US and Canada
- You feel like shit (interactive self-care flow chart).
- 7 Cups of Tea (free compassionate chat service)
Reading for Hard Times
- Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore
- F*ck Feelings by Michael and Sarah Bennett
- The Happiness Trap by Russell Harris
- Anne Lamott's Facebook Page
Soothing Music (YouTube Links)
- Weightless by Marconi Union (also a 10-hr version...just because)
- P by Labradford
- 1/1 and An Ending (Ascent) (+ a 60-min version) by Brian Eno
- Night Sight by Air
- Dream 3 (in the midst of my life) by Max Richter
- Ave Maria by Ashana
More Reading about Shock and Treatment
Overcoming Shock by Diane Zimberoff and David Hartman. Much of this information was taken from that book.
What is Shock and How Can I Find Treatment? by Diane Zimberoff.
We Are All in Shock: How Overwhelming Experiences Shatter You...and What You Can Do About It by Stephanie Mines. Mines explores a variety of Jin Shin Tara (therapeutic touch) techniques for treating shock.
How to do EFT Tapping Basics – The Basic Recipe. EFT is a method of tapping on various acupressure points on the body to release negative emotions.
If you're reading this: I love you. Please take care of yourself. The world needs you.
Have a resource you think I should add?
Leave it in the comments.
None of my clients ever wants to be angry.
To them, anger is a loss of control. It’s unenlightened. It’s petty. It might be okay to quietly seethe, but when I ask them to actually express their anger, they freeze up. “It’s not that bad.” “I want to be better than that.” “I don’t think it’s productive to be angry.” “I should be more understanding.”
Personally, I resist feeling anger for several reasons.
I still sometimes think of anger as a "bad" emotion, a purely destructive force with no redeeming qualities. It is a very powerful emotion with potential to wreak havoc. But like a raging river, it can either flood the surrounding areas or generate enough electricity to power a city. Healthy anger can be a motivation to change, to right an injustice, to protect the small and undefended, to keep us true to ourselves and our values.
I struggle with "feeling" my anger without venting all over the people around me, so I end up just stuffing it down. Unfortunately, even when the triggering situation is past, adrenaline continues to swirl through my system. Sometimes it dissipates naturally over time, but many times it ends up getting stored in my body - especially if the underlying issue is not addressed. These stored feelings are uncomfortable and if I don't take care of them, they can lead to numbing and addictive behaviors, chronic tension, unpredictable explosions, or even illness.
By the time I let myself acknowledge its presence, it feels bottomless. I'm afraid that once I start letting myself express it, I'll be swept away and stuck in it for the rest of my life. Personal experience has taught me that's not the case, but the fear remains. When I do remember to let it move through me without resistance, I find that it dissolves or shifts into something else.
Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor discovered after a stroke that if she allowed her feelings to come and go, no emotion lasted longer than 90 seconds at a time. A minute and a half can feel like a long time when I'm in it, but I’ll take it over years of seething resentment anyday. Learning to accept, feel, and learn from my anger has been one of the most powerful steps on my journey.
Understanding and Accepting Anger
My understanding of anger has come from a few valuable sources, one of which is Karla McLaren's book The Language of Emotions. Her position is that all emotions have good information to share with us, if we can take the time to slow down and listen. Anger is a sign that a boundary has been violated. The questions it asks are, “What needs to be protected? What needs to be restored?”
I've also had many transformative experiences with anger through my heart-centered hypnosis work, both as a client and a practitioner. I've seen, heard and felt the anger move, change, shift, and reveal deeper emotions underneath (often anger is a masking emotion for sadness or fear). When we let our anger move freely, it can be an incredibly healing experience.
What about forgiveness? Often we tell ourselves (and others) to just “get over it” or “be the bigger person.” What I don’t like about this approach is that 1) it’s dismissive of our experience and 2) I think forgiveness is less of a conscious choice and more of a natural process that happens when we deal with our anger in a healthy way. Otherwise, what looks like forgiveness on the outside often becomes a buried grievance underneath.
Healthy Anger Release
Some of the following techniques are loud and dramatic, and some are much quieter. Even though I'd much rather retreat to my room with a journal than beat the crap out of a pillow, I've found that giving myself permission to be loud and take up space when I’m angry feels extremely freeing and empowering. So don't be afraid to try something new!
Before You Do Anything Else: Get In Your Body.
If at some point during your release you realize you can’t connect to your emotions, you can't feel anything in your body, (perhaps accompanied by a feeling of being frozen or a flood of analytical thoughts), slow everything down. Get a drink of water. Put a cold washcloth on the back of your neck. Breathe deeply in and out a few times. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice what you can see, hear, and feel around you. You have to be in your body for this stuff to work.
Physical Releasing: Throw a Tantrum
If you watch a toddler throw a tantrum, they get all into it. They’re not hanging back, trying to be enlightened or evolved or empathetic. And yet, when they’re done, they’re done. They go back to being their playful, loving, and creative selves without lingering resentments.
It may look violent and uncontrolled, but done in the right way, a tantrum can be just what you need to release those emotions.
Here are some ideas for getting started:
- Hit something in a non-damaging way (like hitting the wall with a towel).
- Scream into a pillow (or into your hands, or in your car).
- Throw things (safely), like pillows or balled-up pieces of paper.
- Tear up some paper.
- Exercise - speed walk around the block, go to the batting cages, rage-clean the fridge.
- Cry. This is nature's way of letting you release stuff - don't judge yourself for it.
With the throwing/tearing/hitting exercises, try yelling out your resentments and frustrations as you release.
In Public Spaces
At work? Can’t just start cussing while you hit your desk with a foam bat? Try one of these:
- Mentally give yourself permission to be pissed.
- Journal about how you're feeling until you feel the emotion shift or dissipate.
- Imagine that you're surrounded by a protective bubble of light, and then set it on fire and let it burn with all your rage. Channel your anger into the fire instead of the people around you. (This is a McLaren technique).
- Try a few silent screams in the restroom: Open your mouth and exhale forcefully as if you were screaming, but don’t engage your vocal cords. It will sound like you’re whispering “ah” very loudly.
- Listen to some music that suits your mood.
After you’ve discharged the initial anger, you may notice other feelings coming up - sadness, fear, loneliness, or shame, to name a few. You can release these in similar ways, or ask yourself what you need right now.
Do you need a loved one to listen to you? Do you need to wrap yourself up in a warm blanket? Really connect with what sounds most comforting. If you were with a little child who was feeling that way, what would you do to take care of them?
When the emotional charge is mostly gone, return to those questions: “What needs to be protected? What needs to be restored?”
Where can you shore up or create boundaries in a healthy, non-abusive way? What do you need from yourself? What would you like from the other person (knowing that you may not get it)? What lingering thoughts or beliefs are causing you pain in this situation? This is where your healthy, more enlightened self can step back in and help you see a way to move forward.
But What Will My [Spouse/Roommate/Children/Dog] Think?
I know it might feel weird or awkward to excuse yourself to the bedroom to yell into a pillow. Goodness knows I try to wait until I have a minute alone to do these things. If that's not possible, what I can tell you is that you are demonstrating a healthy way to release stored emotion. People don't get many examples of that.
When you hit a pillow, you are not creating violence - you are preventing it. This isn't punching a wall as an implied threat, it's discharging the emotion so you can return to the situation with clear eyes.
It's Never Too Late
No matter how long you've carried around your anger, it's never too late to let it go and see what it has to say. You may not have the time or resources in the moment to deal with your frustration. You may have to suck it up for a short time to do what needs to be done. I guess the upside of the fact that anger tends to hang around in our systems is that it's still there when you're ready to deal with it, whether it's been 10 minutes or 10 years since the original incident. Whenever you get to it is the right time.
I want to end this article with a reminder that even though anger is a healthy emotion, too much of anything can be bad (and anger can often be a masking emotion for depression). If you feel angry/irritated/resentful all the time, please reach out for support.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions! And if you enjoyed this post and would like to read more like it, subscribe to get them in your inbox.
Let's talk boundaries.
Whether it’s struggling with a demanding job or coping with a person who is draining our time/energy/resources, we’ve all been put in the awkward position of having to take a stand and draw some limits. In a perfect world, enforcing boundaries should feel empowering. But sometimes (speaking for myself here) I feel anxious, resentful and guilty when I try.
Many of my clients have boundary challenges, whether with family, work, or friends. It can be so hard to know what is ours to take care of and what to let go. So in response, here is a kitchen-sink type post with some of my thoughts about boundaries:
- what they are,
- how they get violated,
- why they're important,
- and what we can do to keep them strong and healthy.
What They Are and How They Get Violated
Boundaries, literally speaking, are "where you draw the line."
They are the internal rules that govern what behaviors are okay with you and which are not. Each person's boundaries are individual and unique to them. Yours may even vary depending on the person and/or situation.
In my own experience, there are two types of boundary violations.
There's the kind you violate yourself, like when you keep getting asked to work extra hours and you have trouble saying no. Then there's the kind other people violate, like a coworker who won't stop telling offensive jokes around you.
How do you know whether one of your boundaries has been violated?
Look for times when you feel angry or resentful. As Karla McClaren says in The Language of Emotions, the questions we should ask of anger are, "What must be protected? What must be restored?" Anger is a sure sign that one of your personal boundaries has been breached and needs to be attended to.
Let's Create a New Narrative
Why are boundaries so hard to create, maintain, and respect?
Boundaries are necessary for our own mental and emotional well-being, but there are some pretty negative cultural messages about them out there. When I set a boundary, I sometimes worry that I will appear petty, selfish, miserly, inflexible, uptight, humorless, uncaring, entitled, or rude.
These stories tell us that boundaries keep us closed off and disconnected from other people. While that's not true in my lived experience, it's still a powerful message.
Let's look at some evidence to the contrary and create a new narrative.
Boundaries create safety.
Imagine being able to say what is okay and not okay with you in any situation and trusting that it will be respected. I don’t know about you, but I heave a sigh of relief just thinking about it. This creates a fertile ground for trust and intimacy to grow.
Boundaries create closeness.
Clear communication is a cornerstone of good boundaries. For example, I have a couple of friends who are really cool about saying, “We’re going to bed, it’s time for you to leave.” I can relax and enjoy the evening without worrying that I’m overstaying my welcome, and I appreciate that they feel comfortable saying that to me.
Boundaries create healthy separation.
Many of us think that to empathize with another person, you have to be able to feel their feelings. Not so! It can be all too easy to take on the emotions of everyone you meet until you can’t separate out what’s yours and what’s theirs.
Listen: it’s not your job to carry around everyone else’s pain. And it’s not anyone else’s job to carry yours. When you're always trying to guess how someone will react to something, you're so far in their business that you aren't able to take care of yourself.
Boundaries create freedom.
When you are able to truly claim responsibility for your own feelings, thoughts, and actions, it’s easier to give up the need to control other peoples’. This is hard stuff.
Anne Lamott says of one of her mentors, “She insists that if we want to be free, we have to let everybody be free. I hate and resent this so much. It means we have to let the people in our families and galaxies be free to be asshats, if that is how they choose to live.”
When you're able to realize how hard you're working to manage everybody else's stuff, it can be a huge relief to let go of that responsibility (even if it feels terrifying at the time).
Boundaries create spaciousness.
This can be as simple as not responding to work e-mails over the weekend, not picking up a stressful phone call, or responding to requests with, “Let me get back to you on that.” They can be stalwart defenders of your happiness and sanity if you let them.
Boundaries cultivate self-care (and thus, care of others).
Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend compare poor boundaries to turning on your sprinkler and watering your neighbor’s grass instead of your own. Clearly defining that “property line” makes it easier to meet your own needs first; as a result, you can help others from a place of wholeness rather than depletion. “Secure your own oxygen mask first” is a cliche in the self-help world for good reason.
Ladies! Boundary-setting can be especially hard for us.
We are trained from birth to be accommodating, diplomatic and nice. We give people the benefit of the doubt. When we see a woman standing up for herself, she’s often characterized as bitchy, over-reactive, unreasonable, or rude. I know, it’s gross and no one wants to be seen that way. But we have to stop caring so much about what other people think of us. When we are able to create those healthy, flexible boundaries and hold them with love, we become beacons for everyone trying to do the same. It takes courage and heart, but all the women I know have that in spades. </soapbox>
How To Start Thinking about Healthy Boundaries in Your Life
(Super-important note before I jump in: I'm guessing we've all had not-good, creepy boundary-pushing experiences, from unreasonable demands to unwanted sexual attention. These can range from icky comments to outright assault. Many of the suggestions I make below are for situations where the boundary-pusher is more on the “well-meaning but oblivious” spectrum.
If you are dealing with someone toxic or violent who treats boundary violation like it’s their job, they will be much less likely to respect yours. Know that this doesn’t say anything about you, and please make your own personal safety a priority. Leaving/restricting contact is just as much a boundary as engaging verbally. If you can, surround yourself with people who support you in keeping yourself safe and well-cared for.)
Believe that you deserve to have boundaries.
Practically speaking, this is the hardest part. Everything else is just logistics. This is hard work, friends - unfortunately, the Fuck-Off Fairy is not guaranteed to visit you in your sleep and magically make it so you don’t care what other people think about you. It takes some practice, but it’s so, so worth it.
Get clear on what your boundaries actually are.
What’s on your "dammit list"? (As in, “No one gets to shame me about my looks, dammit!” or “I don’t work weekends, dammit!”) What are your deal-breakers for a job or a relationship? Notice if there’s anything you’d like to put down, but feel like it’s too much to ask or that you don’t deserve it. That right there is valuable information. What do other people get to have that you don’t? You have to be willing to honor your own boundaries before you can expect others to do the same.
How respecting are you of others’ boundaries?
Whether it’s your best friend’s smoking habit, your sister-in-law’s constant relationship disasters, or even your kid insisting, “I can do it myself!”, there can be a real compulsion to jump in and fix the situation. I know, you just want to help. You have all the good intentions in the world. If you could just get them to see what they’re doing wrong, they could fix it and be so much happier! Right?
This probably deserves its very own blog post, but think on this for a minute. When you ride in on your white horse, you deprive those people of the opportunity to ask for help when they want it. When you anticipate their needs, they never have to figure them out for themselves. When you assume you know what’s best for them, they either blindly accept your leadership (and miss out on a growth opportunity) or they end up resenting you. Is that how you want to treat the people in your life? How you want to be treated?
Let it be awkward.
Boundary setting can feel awkward, and one of the most powerful things you can do is just let it be that way. As another self-help aphorism goes, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” Boundary-pushers will often (consciously or not) use your discomfort or sense of obligation to try to get you to agree to things. A little discomfort won’t kill you; if it feels weird, they’re the ones who made it that way.
Respect your instincts.
Sometimes you will just know when something isn't right for you. Trust that feeling. It will save you loads of regret and resentment down the line. Your mind may try to justify it, but ask yourself, "Am I trying to talk myself into this or out of it?"
Get clear on what piece of the situation is yours.
(Hint: that would be your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Period.) Remember those emotions of anxiety, resentment, and guilt that I mentioned way back at the top of the post? How much of that is directed at the boundary-pusher? How much is directed at yourself for not being able to say no?
Boundaries are a place where emotions get mirrored and projected all over the place, which is why it’s really important to separate your stuff from theirs. What are you, personally, responsible for here?
Let the other person have their experience.
Taking responsibility for others’ reactions and emotions feeds right back into that white-knight urge. No matter how well-intentioned, it’s a way to try to control the other person. The most respectful thing you can do is give them the freedom to react in their own way, even if you’re scared that you might not like it.
Explore those fears of what will happen if you do set boundaries.
A lot of people are afraid of being rejected somehow, like people will decide that respecting the boundary is too high a price to pay for being around them. But do you really want people around you who feel that way? These fears of abandonment and rejection usually go really deep, like back to childhood, and talking to a therapist or going through a process like heart-centered hypnosis can go a long way to healing these old wounds.
Don't beat yourself up if you can't enforce your boundaries in the moment.
It takes awhile to establish those new patterns and gather the courage to speak up for yourself. Thank goodness, there’s no statute of limitations on bringing it up later. If they try to make you feel weird for talking about it, that's about them, not you.
Stick to specific behaviors when you do speak up.
Calling out behaviors ("Don't tell racist jokes around me"),rather than judgments of them as a person ("Stop being such a creep") makes them more likely to be respected. The "around me" is important here - you don't get to use your boundary to dictate behavior in all of their life, just the part that affects you and your loved ones. Even if you wanted to, it wouldn't work anyway.
When you state your boundary, they are allowed to say no.
They may just outright refuse, get defensive, or try to make you feel unreasonable for having it. (I think this falls under the "free to be an asshat" clause.) That's their stuff, it's not about you. The important part is that once you get it out in the open, no one can claim ignorance. If the other person promises to honor your boundary, yay! If they ignore it or debate it with you, you just got some useful information that you can use to decide how you want to proceed.
One of the best pieces of advice I've heard about training people to respect your conversational boundaries is to politely change the subject, disengage if they won't take the hint, and try again later. In other words, reward good behavior, ignore bad behavior. Solid gold examples here and here.
Boundaries are hard to put in place all by yourself.
Figuring out what they are and how to enforce them in a healthy way requires a crazy amount of self-awareness and perception. Getting support from my community of coaches and therapists has done amazing things for my boundary skills.
In the end, they're fundamentally about relationships.
With ourselves, other people, the world in general. The hard news is that once you start thinking about things in terms of boundaries and relationships, it seems like everything relates back to them. The good news is that you now have some keys for making those relationships safer, healthier, and more authentic than ever.
You may even find that once you’ve gotten internal clarity on what your boundaries are, you’ll find that the people around you start behaving differently without you having to say anything. It’s kind of freaky, actually. But really cool.
This ended up being kind of a hodge-podge of thoughts, and I know I'm leaving some stuff out, but at some point I have to stop giving five caveats to every statement I make. What's important to you about boundaries and boundary-setting? Leave me a comment below!
Some of my favorite resources on boundary setting:
- Captain Awkward (check out http://captainawkward.com/category/saying-no). She has a million scripts, situations, and all-around good ideas for dealing with this stuff.
- Carolyn Hax
- Here’s That Bad Advice You Asked For. (Hilarious - What not to do!)
- The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeGraw has some good info on identifying toxic boundary testing behaviors (although I recommend taking the DV chapter with a grain of salt, it's kind of victim-blamey)
- Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
- And of course, working with a good therapist or coach like yours truly.
Love to you for reading! If you'd like to receive more articles like this one, click here to subscribe to my newsletter.
How frustrating is it when things stop working, just as you've figured them out?
There’s something really satisfying about finding a method that works. Whether it’s jump-starting a car or flipping a fried egg, mastering a little piece of the universe just feels good. It makes you feel like you have the cheat codes to life, or something. Can I get an amen, systems lovers?
And then whatever was working...stops.
For me, it feels like logging onto one of those websites that make you change your password every three months. Just when you get to the point where your muscle memory kicks in and you can type it in quickly without thinking...it stops working. And then you either have to retype the new one a few times before you get it right, or you forget and need someone to reset it for you. Annoying and time-consuming either way.
The stuff we do to manage our mood and motivation is especially susceptible to this phenomenon.
Maybe a nap usually works, but then one day it just makes you feel fuzzy. Or the friend who usually cheers you up isn’t available. Or taking a break to read a novel leaves you feeling more disconnected than before.
(My mom tells me this happens a lot when you have small children.The magic approach that short-circuits a tantrum or gets them painlessly in bed might work 75% of the time - or it might work once and never again.)
Dedicated readers might notice that there are multiple articles here on the same kinds of topics. When I'm anxious or in a bad mood, I come over here and write my way out of it, one word at a time. Clearly, I don’t have it all figured out, or I wouldn’t have to reinvent the “feel-better” wheel every time.
I'll tell you a secret - I rarely look back at those posts and follow my own neat list of instructions to get myself out of whatever pit I’m currently stuck in. The specific techniques I use when things stop working vary depending on the situation and what sounds good at the time, but the basic philosophy is similar each time.
So, how do I know what approach will work?
How do you get to the point where you’re not following a self-help recipe?
Here are some things to try (and yes, I'm aware of the irony that this is another list. What can I say, I love lists).
1. Make friends (or at least frenemies) with your patterns.
Start paying attention to what pushes your buttons and where your internal rules and limits create areas of friction with the world around you. For me, going through coach training and getting frequent coaching turbo-charged this process and threw those areas into sharp relief. When things stop working, it's a great opportunity to question your beliefs about the way the world "should" be.
After a few years of self-study, I now know that 90% of my bad moods come from me trying to force something to happen (usually something I have no control over, but feel like I should).
2. Accept where you are right now, even if it sucks.
As long as I'm beating my fists against reality, I can't get anything done. If I can’t get to this place on my own, I call someone in my support system to help me get there. Sometimes I just sit down and write about what I’m feeling (and if it’s halfway coherent or helpful, you get to read it later).
After I'm able to get a little distance, whether alone or with a friend, I check in and see if there’s a version of the "I should be able to control this" story lurking underneath my funk. It might be disguised in a trench coat or Groucho Marx glasses, but it’s always basically the same. Sometimes just being able to recognize the story gives me some distance and relief.
3. Believe that you deserve compassion (or be curious about what you would need to believe in order to give it to yourself).
Yes, even (especially) around your imperfections. For me, this was the first step to being able to doubt my doom-and-gloom stories and collect evidence that no matter how bad my mood was, it always (always!) eventually passed. Being mean to myself didn't make it happen any faster.
The frustrating thing is that I can know all this stuff about myself, but still get fooled over and over.
And then I have to send love to my inner perfectionist and work at not getting down on myself for falling for the same trick yet again, or for wasting all that time feeling like crap when "I should know better by now.”
It doesn't say anything about you when things stop working.
This is really the takeaway I want to give you. I could go into all the various tools you could use after you get to this point, but that’s not really the purpose of this article.
It doesn’t really matter whether you try a bunch of different things to get back on track or give up and wait for things to get better on their own.
What matters is how much patience and compassion you can show yourself when things go stop working, even if it takes you a while to get there. Because no matter what other systems in your life break down, that skill will always come in handy.
Photo credit: freeimages.com/african_fi
"Perfectionism" is one of those words that everyone thinks they understand.
In reality, it can vary greatly in meaning depending on the person and context. So what do I mean by it? Read on to find out if you fall into the group I refer to as "recovering perfectionists."
If you are a perfectionist, you may notice some of the following tendencies:
- You are likely exceedingly conscientious and dedicated, expecting far more of yourself than anyone else...but nothing ever feels quite good enough.
- You can be very self-critical, finding flaws in everything you do, and it’s hard for you to take a compliment without deflecting or downplaying it in some way.
- You struggle with procrastination.
- You can get very anxious and/or defensive, especially around matters of performance.
- You try very hard to control external circumstances and can get easily flustered when things don’t go as planned.
- You may not consciously think about the Bad Things (failure, rejection, etc) that you think might happen if you don’t get everything right, but you’re worried about them anyway.
- You tend towards all-or-nothing thinking, especially when it comes to your own performance or progress.
- You tend to motivate yourself through fear or shame rather than self-love.
- You tend to focus more on results than process.
- You spend a lot of time in your own head, focused on the past or the future, and tend to over-analyze situations, decisions, and interactions.
- Sometimes your life feels like one self-improvement project after another.
If you are a recovering perfectionist,
- You recognize the above tendencies in yourself and acknowledge that this might not be the healthiest way to exist in the world.
- You are open to creating a more loving, forgiving relationship with yourself, even if you’re not sure how. Even if you’re not sure you deserve it.
- You would like to believe that you can let go of shame and anxiety and still be successful, but you have major doubts.
- You are willing to question the non-stop interior monologue (you know - the one that’s completely certain that you’re just a step away from screwing it all up and dying alone).
- Even though being wrong and/or vulnerable is possibly the most terrifying thing you can imagine, you are open to it being a door to tremendous growth and healing. (Or, as one of my friends put it, an AFGO: “Another F-ing Growth Opportunity.”)
Do I identify with the above? Oh hell yes. Many days, I get at least one chance to decide whether to roll around on the floor in a haze of self-loathing, numb out with a comforting distraction, or show up and do the infinitely harder work of loving myself anyway. Thankfully, those days are much rarer now than they used to be, but I’d be lying if I said they were gone for good.
How did I start shifting my outlook? Honestly, it wasn't until I was in coach training that I viscerally understood that my "Keep it together at all costs" attitude wasn't keeping me safe from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I had to be willing to let go of the stressful thoughts and beliefs that were holding me hostage - and I had a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome. I had to make the choice to accept myself the way I was and not save my love for the "ideal" version of me I thought I could eventually become...with enough blood, sweat, and tears.
Make no mistake, self-love is not for the faint of heart. Accepting one’s flaws does not come easily or intuitively for people like me. But it has been one of the most rewarding, heart-opening journeys I’ve ever embarked on - and that was before I started helping others on theirs.
Now, I have trouble expressing just how much gratitude I feel for this path we’re on together, and for my clients - who remind me (whether they know it or not) not to give up, that I still have a ways to go.
So, what’s different now? What’s on the other side of “not good enough”? Let me see if I can give you a taste:
- It feels steady and safe. (My sense of self-worth isn’t constantly being adjusted up or down depending on external circumstances or others’ reactions.)
- It feels quiet. (That constant critical, judging, analyzing internal monologue is gone. Sometimes for hours at a time!)
- It feels connected. (When I’m not obsessed with how I’m doing, I can focus more on other people - and not just as a basis for comparison or a means of feedback.)
- It feels light. (It’s hard to describe the sensation of an internal rule dissolving, but the best I can do is a mixture of relief and hilarity: “Oh thank GOD that’s gone now and how funny is it that I let it run my life all this time?!”)
In the moments I can truly tune in to this part of myself, I feel at home in my own skin - a sensation I’d nearly forgotten, and now one I can’t get enough of.
My main intention for this blog is to help you feel understood, and to give you hope. (Also, doing my own processing here is fantastically healing, but that’s another post.) I hope I’ve done that here.
If you recognize yourself up above and you want some help as you start creating a new relationship with yourself, sign up for a free assessment here. One of the hardest things for me to admit was that I couldn't do it all by myself, but the relationships and growth I've gained since I learned to ask for help have been more than worth the temporary ego-deflation.
And if you’re just starting to realize you have a choice in how you relate to yourself and you just want to poke around the archives, I still love you madly.
Wherever you are in your journey, thanks for stopping by. As Rumi (kind of) said, “We’re all careening around in this surprise.” I’m happy to have collided with you!
What is checking out?
The way I define it, checking out is a mindless activity chosen as part of a (usually) unconscious decision to temporarily escape reality, often to avoid boredom or other uncomfortable emotions.
You probably have your own favorite methods; my preferred ways of checking out are the internet (especially Facebook and Pinterest), reading, and napping. Some people lose themselves in watching TV or gaming or eating.
Some places/times I’ve chosen to check out: in the bathroom, in line, while eating, while waiting for anything, at the end of a long day, when I'm procrastinating (more about that in a bit).
What's wrong with it?
I’m going to voice a fairly unpopular opinion in the self-development line of things and say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with checking out from time to time.
Everyone, from the Dalai Lama to Eckhart Tolle to (probably) Oprah, will tell you that awareness heals and checking out ultimately leads to unconsciousness and existential suffering.
They’re right. If you seek true enlightenment, you won’t find it on a screen somewhere. But life is hard, we don’t always have the full capacity to deal with it, and I actually don’t think there’s anything bad about taking a break from the world for awhile.
I’m a worrier by nature, and sometimes I get stuck in a loop thinking about things I have no control over. When that happens, a few hours of aimless internet browsing or fiction reading does a lot to help me rest and recharge. It helps me break the cycle.
I think distractions can be a blessing - laying around with the flu would be infinitely more tedious and awful if I didn't allow myself to read or watch movies while I was sick. And it’s been well-documented since Archimedes’ time that switching mental gears is often the key to creative breakthroughs.
However, there are some situations when it becomes a problem.
The Habit and the Hideout
For me, checking out becomes harmful in two circumstances:
- When it becomes a default state instead of a temporary coping mechanism (habit).
- When I’m using it to indefinitely put off dealing with a larger problem (hideout).
I'll speak to the habit response first, because it's a little simpler. Thanks to my endlessly adaptable brain, I quickly become used to a baseline state of mental stimulation. When I drift from one distraction to another, bringing a little screen with me from the breakfast table to the bathroom to the bedroom, it can be difficult to get excited about the quotidian nature of everyday life. There are so many moments when nothing much is happening!
I agree with Eckhart Tolle’s observation that ceaseless mental activity can become an addiction. I know I need to re-calibrate my brain when I get restless doing something simple like watching a sunset or cuddling with my husband.
Usually, the fix is pretty simple: finding myself in this situation means that my normal awareness practices have fallen by the wayside, and it doesn't take very long to get back into a state of presence.
The hideout response is more complex because it tends to be more emotionally charged.
It’s a problem some of my clients struggle with, and I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of it as well.
Some of the most uncomfortable days of my life were the ones I spent newly unemployed, with too much time on my hands and too much time in my head. I would alternate between “active” distractions (compulsive housework and exercise) and “passive” ones (reading, internetting, etc).
I didn’t want to feel the discomfort of not knowing what to do with my time and worrying that I wasn’t doing enough with it.
At the same time, I had trouble moving forward because of my own fears, uncertainties, and feelings of unworthiness. They needed to be examined (or at least accepted) before I could come to peace with my situation.
In this case, the protective measures of checking out are actually keeping us from creating happier lives for ourselves.
How do I check back in?
If you’re reading this far, I assume that at least a couple of these points resonate with you and you’d like to try being a little more present in your life (or you at least see the value of being present in your life, even if it kind of sucks right now).
For someone who spends as much time checked out (or in my head) as I do, I’ve actually made a lifelong study of awareness and mindfulness. There are a lot of resources out there, but these are the six practices that I use most often in my daily life.
1. Being conscious.
This is the biggest one. Just noticing that I’ve spent an hour clicking around on the internet or have visited the fridge three times in the last 30 minutes is a victory.
I can’t shift my patterns until I become aware of them. Once I’ve noticed, I like to ask myself, “What am I avoiding?” Then I can give myself love around the resistance and use some of the other tools in my toolbox to work with it.
2. Moments of stillness.
I try to spend at least 10 minutes a day meditating. It doesn’t always happen. I’ve experimented with a lot of different kinds of meditation over the years, from following my breath to walking meditation. Different kinds work for me at different times. Making space for myself means I don't have to spend the day running away from my experiences.
3. Keeping a journal.
I just write down what I’m noticing and what I’m feeling at the moment. Occasionally, I'll ask myself questions about what I've written so I can go deeper.
Sometimes just seeing my thoughts and feelings out on paper gives me enough distance to bring some awareness to the situation and shift the mood.
4. Getting back into my body.
The body is always in the present - I can't be in my body and checked out at the same time.
To get back in my body, I might use some of the techniques I've written about before, like some stretching or trauma release exercises or go for a walk. Bringing my attention to all my senses simultaneously (taking in everything I can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, perceive) is a great way to reconnect to the world around me.
If I notice I’m wanting to check out, it’s often a sign of depletion or over-stimulation. Instead of fighting it, I allow it to be there.
I get curious about what I need. I dial way back on effort and “trying” and just let myself do something restful, like laying on the couch and staring at the ceiling, or crying, or reading something comforting.
There’s a lot of power in permission and giving into the feeling, and a lot of times it will move on its own.
6. Getting support.
when I’m experiencing (or trying not to experience) a really hard, painful emotion, I don’t go there by myself.
I ask my husband to hold me while I cry, or I call a coach buddy, or I post on one of the online communities where I know I’ll find empathy and kindness.
Extreme pain can feel extremely isolating, and my monsters often tell me that it’s my job to figure it out on my own. That’s bullshit. There is no virtue or responsibility in suffering by yourself.
This is just the beginning.
Being present for yourself is a lifelong practice - hopefully one that leads to greater self-care and self-understanding (as well as more compassion for others around you).
If you've ever experienced receiving the full attention of someone you deeply love and admire, you know how it might feel to give that present to yourself.
That being said, this isn't something to get perfect at overnight. Being present for yourself 30 seconds whenever you think about it (and being nice to yourself when you forget or it feels too hard) is going to be much more rewarding and sustainable than turning it into yet another self-improvement tool to beat yourself up with.
These are simple, but when they become part of a daily practice they add up to something pretty cool. Ultimately realizing that you don’t have to fear or avoid your own experiences is an extremely liberating and powerful feeling.
Okay, that's enough self-awareness for me today. If you need me, I'll be curled up on the couch with a book, escaping my reality for a little while.
Image credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
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If you ever worry about getting enough done and/or getting the most out of life, at some point you'll over-commit and experience the feeling of not getting much out of anything. Whether it’s signing up for too many classes, saying yes to too many work responsibilities, or making plans with friends every night in a given week, we all make the mistake of overestimating our capacity.
Today, I’m going to talk about why it happens and what you can do about it.
Why We Over-Commit - The Question You're not Asking
The “why” might not be what you expect. The question isn’t “Why do I commit to too many things?”, it’s “Why do I keep committing to too many things, even though it stresses me out?” In my experience, there are three things that keep me in this cycle:
- I overestimate my capacity and underestimate the amount of time/energy everything takes.
- I get anxious at the idea of missing out on something important or fun.
- I’m not awesome at saying no.
Example: I was taking an online class earlier this year. A month or two after it started, another class opened up with tons of valuable information I felt like I really needed to be successful. Since I was handling the workload from the first one okay, I thought it wouldn't be a big deal to add one more.
What happened? I went from submitting my homework on time every week to defaulting to “I’ll get to it later.” I couldn't take advantage of all the available support and resources because I was already trying to juggle too much. I got exposure to a lot of concepts, but I didn't dive deep with many of them and as of today, still have a fair backlog of exercises and worksheets I'm meaning to work through.
In this case, I don’t regret taking either class. However, I do regret not having the time and energy to give 100% to either one (or get 100% of the benefits I was paying for).
What We Can Do About It
Over time, I've identified a few basic practices that keep me from going into complete overwhelm. Here are my favorites:
Three to four things a day.
This is one of the biggest changes I made when I transitioned to self-employment. At some point, I realized my brain and energy can handle about three to four commitments a day, total. That includes work projects, client meetings, and social events. When I try to fit more in, I often end up cranky and drained, which carries over into the next day.
My loose definition of a commitment is anything I would write on a to-do list or calendar that takes an hour or more. Today I’m writing this article, meeting with two clients, and doing a free strategy call. Anything else that gets done is a bonus.
If you had to distill your day down into three hour-long tasks, what would make it? What would get cut? Before you start freaking out, keep in mind: most 8-to-5ers are actually only productive 70% of the time, anyway. Your optimum commitment number may vary from mine (maybe you can comfortably fit 5-6 things in, you superhero), but I still recommend that you start with 3-4 just to see what drastically limiting your priorities does to your energy.
Know your triggers and energy drains and plan accordingly.
I only get hypnotherapy sessions on days when I don’t have clients later, and I try not to schedule too much right before or after I travel. This is because, after many years, I’ve learned to stop shooting myself in the foot where my energy levels are concerned.
We tend to treat time as though it’s a flat reality - all hours are created equal. But you and I know that an hour at a movie is very different than an hour of meetings, don't we? Some activities energize us, while others drain us. What makes you anxious, sets you back, and distracts you? And are there ways you could give yourself extra spaciousness around those commitments? Here are some ideas:
- If traveling stresses you out, don’t schedule anything urgent the day before you leave or the day after you get back. Aim for what I think of as "bare-minimum days."
- If you have a meeting with a difficult co-worker or client, set up your appointments so that you have a nice buffer of time before and after.
- If being late gives you hives, plan in plenty of travel time.
- Don’t schedule multiple stressful appointments on the same day (performance review followed by a dentist appointment, anybody?).
The big thing here is not shaming yourself around your reactions. It’s easy to say, “Shut up, you big baby, you’ll be fine,” but every time you do that, you are sending the signal to yourself (and everyone around you) that your feelings don’t matter. Instead, try asking yourself, “If I really loved myself, how would I take care of myself in this situation?” (FYI, You don't actually need to feel love for yourself in the moment for this to work; just be curious about what you would do if you did.)
Knowing the things that stress you out (and how you can take care of yourself) gives you a huge advantage in other areas of your life. It makes the actions you take more deliberate and effective, and it makes you appear more confident and relaxed. Super sexy.
Practice saying no.
Try this with small things and work your way up. Ask: Is it vital to my happiness or success? Is it in line with one of my core values? Does it sound like fun? What’s the worst that could happen if I didn’t do it?
Use your experience.
One of the reasons we keep getting caught in the “oh no, not again!” trap is because we fail to revisit what happened last time we tried something.
In my case, I’m going to be very wary of participating in more than one online class at a time again, because I want to actually absorb the material. I also know that more than three nights out in a row makes me cranky and overstimulated, a day out freelancing often requires a day of recovery, and a flurry of productive days will often be followed by a period of lethargy.
It took me years in some instances to identify these patterns (hello, high-school breakdown!), but now that I know about them, I'm rarely caught by surprise. So anytime you’re on the fence about whether to add one more thing to your plate, look to your experience. Is there anything in your past that might speak to whether or not you can handle it gracefully?
Beware of faulty rationalizations.
The mind will often say, “But it’s different this time!” because it’s still operating on the three reasons I mentioned at the beginning (under/overestimating capacity, fear of missing out, avoiding the “no”).
(Side note: This mental voice sounds a lot like six-year-old me trying to persuade my parents that shotgunning a whole milkshake and eating my weight in french fries wouldn't give me a stomachache this time.)
What if you responded, “Oh, really? How is it different, exactly?” and actually made a list? (This is also an amazing tool to use when you’re trying to make a decision and afraid of the past repeating itself.) How do you have more time, resources, or support at your disposal than the last time you added something and got completely overtaxed? Bonus: maybe things are different! Maybe you can do the thing!
In conclusion: Sometimes, you just over-commit anyway.
Like I said before, I don’t regret taking both of those classes, even though I might not have gotten as much out of them as if I’d taken them separately. I understand that I took a small loss there, and I gratefully accept it in exchange for the information I got.
Confession time: sometimes I stay out later than I should and spend part of the next day recovering. Sometimes I still say yes to an intensive work assignment and end up freaking out over how long it's taking. But I’m moving towards making those kinds of situations the exception, not the norm, and it's not just because I'm trying to get better at loving myself - it's also because it helps me do better work, in less time, without getting overwhelmed.
I also understand that if you're working for someone else, you don't have 100% control over your workload and schedule. However, I'm willing to bet that you have a little more leeway than you might think. I've helped others with stressful work situations, and I'd love to do the same for you.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a client call in 15 minutes that I need to prepare for. Buffer shields activate!
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Image credit: freeimages.com/Charles Thompson
Edited 12/12/16 to add: I'm happy that this article has been a help to so many. Click here for a more in-depth and up-to-date guide on identifying and treating shock symptoms.
It doesn't take much to send some of us into fight or flight mode (aka sheer panic).
Getting yelled at by your boss or contemplating a leap into the unknown might not constitute getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, but our less-evolved reptile brains don't know that. Some people barely miss a beat, while others find themselves doing the emotional equivalent of riding a spooked horse.
For my highly-strung compatriots, I wanted to share a few techniques I use regularly to soothe my overtaxed nervous system. Best of all, these can all be done in public or discreetly in an office restroom (because freaking out at work sucks, amiright?)
Great. I'm in fight or flight mode and I'm freaking out. Now what?
1. Hot or Cold
A common symptom of the fight-flight-freeze response is feeling dissociated from your body. Either you become a ball of mindless, leg-jiggling energy or are consumed by racing thoughts (fight or flight), or you start feeling numb, sleepy, or spaced-out (freeze).
A simple way to reunite mind and body is by holding something hot or cold against your body. An easy and inconspicuous way to do this is with a hot or cold beverage. The sensation as you hold it in your hands and feel it moving down your throat immediately brings you back into the present moment.
Experiment with both sensations and see which one works best for you. If you're at home, ice packs and hot water bottles (applied to the belly, upper chest, or back of the neck) can be even more effective.
2. Conscious Breath
Our brainwaves automatically sync up with the stimuli around us, and the most ubiquitous of these is our breath. When you're in a panic response, you may notice yourself breathing in a shallow or jagged pattern - or not at all.
I like to do a version of Dr. Andrew Weil's "Relaxing Breath" exercise. I inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of six, and exhale for a count of eight. Making your exhale longer than your inhale triggers the "rest and digest" nervous system response.
If you like visualizing, you can imagine the breath entering your body, attaching to the tension present there, and then letting it out in a cloud on the exhale. Try at least four of these, putting your mind fully on the sensations in your body.
If you can't do this because you're too agitated, just evening out your inhale and exhale will help. Experiment with breathing through your nose or mouth and see which one feels more grounding.
3. Silent Scream
This tool is from Barbara Sher's book It's Only Too Late if You Don't Start Now. Open your mouth and scream with all the force and energy you can muster - but without using your vocal cords. It's basically like a whisper-scream. Try ten of these in a row, emptying your lungs completely between screams. Probably a good one for the staff bathroom, even if it's not very loud.
4. Touching on a Sore Spot
This is an EFT technique. Locate a spot on your chest about halfway between your throat and shoulder, a few inches down from your collarbone. It should feel slightly sore when you press on it.
Rub little circles on this spot while repeating a version of the following: "Even though I'm feeling [crappy, scared, etc], it's okay for me to feel this way/ I'm going to try to love myself anyway/ I'm going to accept this feeling right now." Tweak the words to suit yourself. Stay focused on the feeling and notice if it shifts or changes as you repeat your phrase.
If you like this tool, you might be interested in the TAT method, which also uses acupressure techniques.
5. Trauma and Tension Releasing Exercises
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Put one foot in front of the other and all your weight on your front foot (your back heel will naturally lift off the ground). Using your back foot to balance as necessary, raise yourself up on the toes of your front foot and then slowly lower yourself down. Do this 5-10 times; you'll probably feel a slight burning sensation in your calf muscles. Then put your weight on your back foot and lift the front foot, shaking it out - it quiver on its own for a bit. This is the first of the Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises.
These exercises help relax the psoas muscles, which tend to seize up or contract when you go into fight or flight. This set of muscles attaches to 22-24 different places in the body through your thighs and vertebrae; in other words, how tense they are really affects the way you move, stand, and walk. Check out Youtube, the TRE iOS app, or David Bercelli's book The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process for the rest of the exercises.
6. Get Your Mind Back on Your Side
You may notice that these techniques don't involve analytical thinking. That's because the part of your brain responsible for the fight or flight response isn't really verbal, so "talking yourself down" isn't very effective without also incorporating a nonverbal technique.
Once you've done one or more of the above techniques and you've downgraded from red alert to yellow, look around. Notice the environment you're in. Notice that whatever happened to trigger the response is probably not a life-or-death situation (if it is, ignore this article and go with your limbic system!).
Notice that there's nothing, right here, in this room, at this moment, that is threatening your physical safety. What's present are the thoughts telling you what all this doooom means for you in the future. Recognize that in this moment, the only source of distress is coming from inside your own head. You can choose to listen, but you don't have to.
You and Me, Baby, We Ain't Nothin' But Mammals
Really, the spooked horse analogy I used at the beginning of this post tells you all you need to know about quieting the alarm response. Our bodies react just like other animals when faced with a threat - and they know what they need when they get triggered. Notice if you are feeling the urge to release energy or the need for calming and comfort. Do you need to cry, run, take a nap, get a hug?
Treat yourself gently; mentally yelling "What's wrong with you?! Calm the #%&* down already!" does not actually make things better. (I know, it was a surprise to me, too!)
Finally: Assess Your Environment for Chronic Stressors
I hope these techniques help you calm down so you can think more clearly and make good decisions. That being said, if you're in an environment where you find yourself in fight or flight (or freeze) multiple times a day...I hope it's possible for you to change your situation so it's not as traumatizing. Your brain, body, immune system, and nervous system will thank you.
As always, I'd love to hear your feedback or experiences!
I think this is a good time to remind everyone that I’m not a doctor, physical therapist, or other medical professional. My experience with these exercises has been safe, relaxing, and beneficial; nonetheless, you are the best authority on your body and what’s right for you. These suggestions are not intended to replace professional medical care or to treat severe trauma/anxiety.
Photo credit: freeimages.com/Urlich Peteron
Contemplating something scary like a job change can easily send you into running around in a panic or numbing out with a bag of Oreos. Calming your brain down so you can make good decisions is just one of the things I cover in my career transition programs.
Earlier this week, I was in a pretty bad mood.
The problem was, I didn't know why.
Often bad moods are caused by something I'm telling myself, like I'm not good enough. But in this particular instance, I couldn't find a reason that my stomach was tight and my jaw was clenched.
I talked to my coaching partner, Alice, about it that night. After some investigation, we discovered that whenever I'm in a bad mood, I feel like I need to fix it.
What I'm learning in training is that most suffering is caused by painful (often untrue) thoughts, so theoretically finding and examining the faulty thought should help with the suffering.
Fine, except sometimes moods and emotions just show up. Is it hormones? The weather? What I ate for lunch? Who knows?
This may come as surprise, but if I'm feeling tense and anxious because of a low-pressure front, I won't be able to fix it by questioning my thoughts.
I told Alice that a bad mood seemed like the equivalent of a "check engine" light on my dashboard; a sign that something needed immediate attention or else.
When I can't find a thought to work with, I usually go into distraction mode. Let's look at ALL THE THINGS on the internet! Let's take a nap! Let's eat some chocolate! Let's try a whole bunch of stuff and see if any of it makes me feel better! (And don't forget Let's brood on my history with depression and wonder if it's a relapse! Whee!)
When we came to the conclusion that maybe I don't have to do something about every little blue spell, I felt an incredible sense of relief. You see, feeling like this mood was my responsibility to fix and not being able to usually ends up making me feel even worse.
"What do you want to do when you let go of needing to fix something?" she asked.
"I just want to be quiet," I said (to my own surprise).
One of my favorite books when I was little was called Henry's Awful Mistake. It was about a duck who was cooking dinner for a friend when he sees an ant in the kitchen. He goes to more and more extremes to try and get rid of the ant, eventually wrecking the dinner, the kitchen, and flooding the entire house. Full text here if you're interested.
The busy, problem-solving part of my brain is a lot like Henry when I'm in a bad mood. Rather than just being okay with it, my brain keeps coming up with more and more solutions, stressing me out and leaving me worse off (and sometimes prodding me into unhealthy coping mechanisms along the way).
The next time I get into one of those moods, I'm going to try not to let it mean anything about me. It's not a check-engine light, to go back to the car metaphor; it's more like a crummy part of town I'm driving through. The kind that has car dealerships and fast-food restaurants lining both sides of the road. If I just keep driving, eventually I'll be somewhere else without having to change anything.
Thinking of the fix-it part of my brain as a well-meaning but befuddled duck has some surprising advantages, too. "Oh, sweetie," I can say now. "It's okay. It's just an ant." I'm not adding self-hatred to the bad-mood fire, I'm dousing it with compassion and humor. That's the plan, anyway.
And maybe one day I'll be as wise as Henry becomes...
When Henry was settled in his new house, he again asked Clara over for supper. Just as he went to the door to let Clara in, he saw an ant.
He looked the other way!
About your job. What people think of you. Your weight. Etc. Would the world fall apart? Would you?
I've been in that place, depressed and bitter because of the disparity between How Things Are and How Things Should Be (I've been in that place today, lest you think I've become too enlightened to relate to). I've broken myself trying to fit into broken systems because I cared so goddamned much.
I thought that if I couldn't change things, playing Sisyphus would at least prove something about how dedicated and awesome I was. When your entire value system is based on continuous improvement, deciding not to care is tantamount to dismantling your identity. Letting things be the way they are, without needing them to be better, feels dangerous. Like giving up.
But...is caring useful?
How's it working out for me?
Well, to quote Albert Einstein, "Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Sometimes it feels really good, in a eat-the-whole-bag-of-Oreoes way, to have a good bitch session about how a situation should be different. But showing up to that same situation time and again, thinking that somehow maybe things will change, feels kind of crappy.
The self-righteous high of anger and frustration turns to feelings of powerlessness and depression (not unlike the way I feel when I actually binge on junk food). Anger without a constructive outlet just turns into cranky cynicism.
Ironically, it's when I stop caring that my actions are most effective.
I was afraid that if I stopped caring, I would just passively accept whatever crap came my way and take it with a smile. (Instead of accepting crap and complaining about it, which I think has historically been more my style.) Not so!
Leaving the toxic job, writing the assertive e-mail, or practicing radical acceptance of my body becomes a lot easier when my identity isn't riding on a successful outcome. Areas where I do have the power to improve things suddenly come into focus.
I have to learn this lesson over and over, because I've been practicing caring to the point of pain for almost three decades and I'm still a newbie at this whole "detachment" thing.
Something that's helped is a trick I picked up from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy where I ask, "Is this thought useful?"
Another question could be, "What am I getting out of this?"
Or, "What would happen if I didn't care so much?"
The answers tend to be along the lines of Not particularly; The satisfaction of feeling martyred and/or superior; and Probably nothing too bad, respectively.
Another useful question is, "Who or what am I judging here?" I usually find out some unquestioned assumption about how things are Supposed to Be that needs to be examined.
(Man, it sucks to think of yourself as a tolerant, easygoing person and then discover how much anger and judgment you're carrying around! I mean, it must suck for those people. Ahem.)
I've tried "caring to the point of pain" for awhile and I know how it usually ends.
Maybe it's time to try something different. I have this sneaking suspicion there will always be stuff to get bent out of shape about if this whole accepting-the-way-things-are thing doesn't work out.
I'm so grateful for the work I do because it teaches me to call out my own bullshit. It shows me that a more peaceful existence is waiting patiently for me to get tired of my stuff and learn to let it go. I just have to want to be at peace more than I want to be right. Easier said than done...but I'm practicing.
What do you think? What are some things you could stand to care a little less about? How do you successfully let go of something that's not working?
Image credit: freeimages.com/Claudia Cristina Mesa P
Late one night in a hotel room three hours away from home, my husband realized he'd forgotten his business clothes. He had a suitcase full of jeans and t-shirts and a meeting at 9 am the next morning. He was so frustrated with himself. "I can't believe I did that," he kept saying. I sat with him on the bed for a few minutes while he fumed at himself, and then we got up and drove to Wal-Mart and bought some clothes for him to wear the next day.
I understood his feelings. When I screw something up, I am merciless with myself. When I misplace my keys yet again; if I misjudge how long something is going to take; if I'm late to something, the thoughts that go through my head can be so venomous and cruel. The mistake isn't just a mistake, it's a referendum on my worth as a person and my right to exist.
I don't think we're the only ones who do this.
When my husband forgot his work clothes and was beating himself up, I felt such incredible love and tenderness for him. It was inconceivable to me that something like that could make me love him even a tiny bit less. All I wanted to do was hold him and be there for him until he was in a place where we could problem-solve. I kept telling him, "This doesn't mean anything. It's just a mistake. It doesn't say anything about you."
Those moments were eye-opening for me as I realized what my husband feels when I'm lost in self-loathing. Why can't I practice self-compassion when I mess up? Why is my first instinct to comfort when it's someone I love and castigate when it's myself?
Part of it is the belief that if I shame myself over the mistake, I won't make it again, and if I do it enough, I'll never make mistakes! I'll be perfect, because that's how it works, right? I'm afraid that if I cut myself slack, I'll somehow internalize that it's okay to make mistakes, and we can't have that.
I'm currently reading Kristin Neff's book Self-Compassion (which I checked out after semi-failing her self-compassion quiz). In it, she says there are three components to bringing yourself back from the brink of hateful self-talk. These are taken from her website, self-compassion.org.
- Self-kindness: "Being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism."
- Common humanity: "Recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience - something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone."
- Mindfulness: "Taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated."
Before that night, I understood that these were important and all, but I was having a really hard time believing they applied to me. I just couldn't let my mistakes slide for fear that I'd lose my motivation to do things correctly.
Until I held another human being going through the same torture and saw from the outside how unnecessary that pain was, I couldn't bring myself to truly believe there was another option. Maybe I can be imperfect and loved. Maybe being a flawed, vulnerable human being isn't such a horrible fate after all.
I'm still working on self-acceptance when I screw up. While I wish I could say, "It's okay, sweetie, you're still okay," to myself, sometimes the best I can do is to just not continue the critical internal monologue. As strong as the urge is to masochistically poke myself with all my shortcomings, I know it's not useful.
Sometimes all I can do is try to let my mind go blank and focus on my breath. My tendency during a freak-out is to either hyperventilate or not breathe at all, so I pay attention to that and try to smooth it out as best I can. If I'm feeling super-ambitious, I put my hand on my heart.
I try to let the feelings of sorrow, shame or anxiety move through me without resisting or amplifying them. All I can do is try to hang onto myself until the emotional crisis is over, and then see what I can do to pick up the pieces.
It's not perfect, but then again, neither am I.
Photo credit: freeimages.com/len-k-a