The first portion of the Whole Hearted Living Series was dedicated to the topic of vulnerability and the challenges we all face in allowing others to share in the very thing that connects us and makes us human. Now that you have an understanding of why vulnerability is so vital for connection, it’s important to understand one of the major ways we all cope with the discomfort of our own vulnerability, avoidance. Specifically, avoidance of emotions and our internal experience. It is our internal world that makes us vulnerable; the thoughts, the feelings, the fears, the regrets, etc. Oftentimes, those experiences can be overwhelming, frightening, distressing or perceived as weakness, leading us to push them aside time and again. The concept of experiential avoidance is borrowed from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and it refers to the things we do to avoid, escape, and control distress. We all use avoidance strategies to some extent, which can be useful temporarily. However, a general avoidance of our experience tends to decrease both our life satisfaction and overall well-being.
Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.- Brene Brown
Ok, maybe this is me… so what?
Again, these ways of avoiding or being out of touch with our experience can be adaptive temporary strategies, but the effects of avoidance as a long-term coping skill tend to be far reaching, impacting our relationships, our level of distress, our life satisfaction and ultimately happiness.
Regardless of the extent to which we avoid, the challenge is rather than avoiding or trying to control what is in our minds, making contact with what we are experiencing in the moment. Feeling into our present experience often involves some aspect of mindfulness to cultivate this skill of observation. We are typically so busy DOING that we hardly ever take the time to notice our state of BEING. This can often be quite scary for people, as some may anticipate that moving into their experience may be emotional or overwhelming. And to an extent, if you are someone who has a habit of avoiding, you may not have built up an ability to tolerate negative emotions. However, slowly allowing yourself to dip in and out of your experience, whether it be your thoughts, feelings or body sensations will slowly build that tolerance to the point where you can tolerate distress in a way that won’t control your life. You must make the distinction for yourself whether you are truly living in accordance with your values and what is important to you or if your decisions are based out of fear; fear of the unknown, fear of not being able to handle the emotional experience, fear of letting your guard down or ultimately, fear of being vulnerable with ourselves. For each of us, it is important to understand the purpose of our emotional/experiential avoidance and acknowledge when it is/has been adaptive and what it’s impact is now.
For some, experiential avoidance is related to poor models at home, lack of coping strategies to deal with difficult/negative experiences and emotions, and for others its roots may lie in shame. An early experience of shame may lead an individual to find criticism, rejection and abandonment in nearly every direction, which can result in chronic anxiety, depression, exhaustion and a struggle for perfection. This type of shame tends to be related to a child’s experience of feeling loved. I will discuss the topic of shame in further detail in part III of the Whole Hearted Living Series.
With each passing day that I am practicing in the field of mental health, speaking with people ages 8-89 I have come to realize that 99% of the time, our “problems” have to do with connection, rather disconnection. As humans, we are neurobiologically hardwired to seek connection from day 1, for survival, brain development and emotional growth. However, in the days of social networking, 40-hour weeks, texting, and instagram we appear to be more disconnected than ever. You might be thinking, well how is that possible? All these innovations create more connection. While on some level that may be true, we are more often than not connecting on a superficial level. We’re connecting on the basis of what we want people to see; a persona that we believe is the version of ourselves that people will like, literally “Like.”
“Connection is why we’re here, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”- Brene Brown
What we know from researchers, like Brene Brown is that what underlies our struggle to connect authentically is shame. Shame creates a deep fear of disconnection stemming from questions of worthiness: Do I belong? Am I worth it? If others know the real me, will they still like me? This fear of unworthiness is the main reason we stay disconnected.
So in a society where the more we connect online the more we become disconnected from an authentic experience of ourselves and others, what is the remedy? Vulnerability.
“In order to connect to others we have to allow ourselves to be seen.”- Brene Brown
Putting all parts of ourselves on the table, even the one’s that we struggle to accept, may be the riskiest thing to do, as it opens up the possibility for disappointment, criticism and even rejection. Yet, it also has the potential to be the most rewarding, for there is no higher form of connection than when we are seen in our entirety and accepted for who we truly are.
For most of us, this feels far too risky.
Dr. Brown discusses multiple ways that we cope with the discomfort of vulnerability, but it’d like to highlight two of those:
Vulnerability can be so foreign and uncomfortable to us, maybe because we were raised in a family where it wasn’t modeled or it was even frowned upon, or maybe just because it is human nature to fear disconnection. Regardless, one of the main ways we adapt to this discomfort is by numbing negative feelings and emotions. Numbing can take the form of ignoring our experience, diminishing our experience, inserting laughter where there is pain or using drugs and alcohol to temporarily remove us from our own vulnerability. However, “we cannot selectively numb the bad stuff without numbing the other affects or emotion.” So when we numb the negative, we also numb the positive and deprive ourselves of joy and happiness and wonder why we are searching for purpose and meaning in our lives.
We also deal with vulnerability through perfection, by being the best at our job, by having the “perfect” relationship, by creating the “perfect” body, etc. While this perfectionism may feel like the most efficient way to fend off any possibility of being rejected, it is the very reason why people struggle to connect. People don’t connect with perfect, people connect with tenderness and authenticity.
Therefore, vulnerability is NECESSARY, not necessarily comfortable, but necessary for connection and risk taking that promotes happiness and joy.
So my challenge to each of us is let yourself be seen, because in that vulnerability we will find not only connection, but also the full range of feelings and experiences that make us truly alive.
This article was inspired by Brené Brown’s Ted Talks presentation.
This time of year can be quite stressful for many of us: we stretch our budgets for holiday gifts, students take finals and family members get on each others nerves at the dinner table. Most of the time we are simply trying to get through these events unscathed, but there is often a piece many of us are don’t consider….
SELF-CARE: maintenance of physical, emotional, spiritual and mental health intended to improve or restore.
Now of course, self-care is not something to do during only the holidays, it’s something we should engage in at all times,regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background. Before you get too hard on yourself for notpracticing enough self-care, consider this major obstacle:
Overstimulation—we are constantly consumed by work, family, TV, text messaging, Facebooking, Pinning and whatever else you do! Our society’s message is not “care for yourself” but rather “stimulate yourself!” It is so easy to get caught up in doing that we get out of touch with simply being.
For many, we are constantly on the go balancing work and personal life and leave little time to ourselves. Note that time TO ourselves is different than time FOR ourselves. Time to ourselves is time alone; time we can sit with ourselves, our thoughts, our bodies and our emotions. It is often not until we have that time to ourselves that we can truly unwind and get in touch with the toll our daily stressors have taken on us physically, mentally and emotionally. And yes extroverts, you too need alone time!
When we don’t carve out time alone to get in touch with those things, we don’t even realize they are there and sometimes we won’t realize they exist until they hit us in a big way—like panic attacks, burnout, physical ailments, meltdowns, substance use and crying fits.
Our bodies tell us what we need, but we just need to take the time to listen. And when we take that time to listen, we not only can discover what we need for restoration and recovery, but also what we can do to prevent physical, mental and emotional wear and tear.
Observe your body’s physical sensations—use a formal body scan or simply check in with your body for tension, tightness, heat, cold, spasms and whatever else you feel.
Observe your thoughts—Again you can use a formal mindfulness practice or just begin by checking in with your mind.
What is the quality of your mind? Racing thoughts, slow, chaotic, foggy?
What is the quality of your thoughts? Replaying one over and over, jumping from one to the other, repeating a theme?
What is the quality of your emotions? Disconnected, aroused, anxious, stressed, sad, angry?
*** If you feel unable to sit/lay still, notice what is going on for you and what your obstacles are.
My mind and body need….
For a healthy mind and body, we need to know what we need to repair, restore and prevent and we can only know this by taking the time to listen.
If you watch a child you can see that they are constantly learning, mystified by and engaged with even the simplest of things. Whether it’s blowing bubbles or discovering a new hideout, children are extremely curious. Now it may sound silly, but I envy that constant state of curiosity.
So what, we all have to become child-like and become fascinated with the basics? Not exactly. However, holding an attitude of kind curiosity can lead to a sense of openness, deeper understanding, appreciation and diminished boredom. The sheer prospect of discovering something new about oneself or one’s partner can light a spark in us or in our relationships.
Take steps to actively listen to your partner. This means being engaged and attuned rather than formulating your response or preparing to showcase your problem solving skills. The ability to be engaged requires us to be present. Yes physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. If we ourselves are distracted, upset, exhausted, it can be difficult for us to be in the moment and truly be attuned to our partner’s experience.
Reflect on what your partner is both telling you (I’m hurt, I’m exhausted, etc.) and needing from you (support, unloading, connectedness etc.)
“Love is three quarters curiosity.” - Giacomo Casanova
While we may not have an innate interest in every topic, story or complaint our partner shares, try to approach the conversation from a curious standpoint.
Curiosity creates a sense of being interested in your partner, like when you were truly new to each other and shared interests, dreams, experiences and hopes. Partners who have been in relationships for years often feel they know everything about someone and the sense of discovery and newness fades and sometimes even leads to disinterest or boredom. However, we know that we can never truly know everything about a person, so in order to maintain some sense of that newness and spark in our relationship, we need to have a continued sense of curiosity. Keeping a curious stance can create feelings of excitement, attunement and intimacy.
Ultimately, if you do something different in your conversations you will have a different experience talking with and relating to your partner.
As adults, we typically have established our understanding or opinions on how things work in the world, in relationships, in our careers, who we are, what we want etc. Oftentimes, we need to know how to categorize those things in order to function in the adult world. But what happens when we put those things into neat little boxes and tuck them away? We lose our curiosity.
When we stop being curious, whether in a relationship with ourselves or someone else, the fire can burn out. Continue questioning, continue learning and continue growing.
Is each action and interaction of your day executed with purpose and intention? Most likely not. We are constantly working on auto-pilot as most of us are overscheduled and overworked. We find ourselves making to-do lists while brushing our teeth and becoming consumed with work details in the shower without even noticing where our mind has gone.
While this mindlessness may be harmless while brushing your teeth, it can become problematic in your intimate relationships, particularly in times of conflict.
More often than not, we react from a surface emotion without understanding it, knowing where it is coming from and without taking a moment to pause. That surface emotion typically is anger. However, if we look at the anger iceberg, we see that anger is a secondary emotion, with primary emotions, such as hurt, embarrassment, rejection, fear, etc lying below the surface.
When we are not making a conscious decision about responding to our partner, the impact of our words and actions tends to stray from our intention.
For this reason, it is important to cultivate self-awareness and an ability to identify emotions. While self-awareness can be cultivated in many ways (self-reflection, journaling, therapy, music), mindfulness skills can also greatly benefit this process.
When we practice mindfulness, we are essentially learning to notice when our mind has wandered off over and over again. When we are able to notice that our mind is not in the present moment, we can become more aware of what is actually occurring right here and now. This here and now experience enables us to become more attuned to what’s happening inside of us, rather than continuing to react mindlessly and carry on in autopilot.
- Physical sensations
- Thoughts and mental activity
By tracking and identifying thoughts, feelings and emotions as they arise in the moment, you can use them as signals or a stop sign to PAUSE.
- What primary emotion am I experiencing?
- What am I being triggered by?
- Am I being triggered by what’s actually happening in this moment?
- Allows you time and space to make a conscious decision about how you would like to respond, or what kind of impact you’d like your response to have
Again, mindfulness is a practice and not a quick fix. As you become more aware of your present experience and more empathic with yourself, your ability to be attuned and empathic with your partner grows as well.
Confidence, confidence, confidence! Women today are told that if they can simply “be confident” then everything will work out for them: men will be attracted to them, they’ll command respect from others, they will achieve success at work, and the list goes on and on. But hearing the words or saying them to ourselves simply doesn’t cut it. So what makes it so challenging for women today to maintain a sense of confidence?
Females are encouraged to be passive, agreeable and polite (yes, there are cultural variances on this). Women typically ask rather than take. “Could I ask you a question?” “Would you do me a favor?” Assertiveness not only gives off an air of confidence, but it also tends to be associated with male qualities. Therefore, women are often taught that being assertive is not lady-like. Not to mention that too much assertiveness can be perceived by men as threatening or unattractive.
According to the European Journal of Social Psychology, women are more likely to be picked apart by the brain and seen as parts rather than a whole, whereas men are processed as a whole. This processing is referred to as “local processing,” which focuses more on the individual parts of an object. Interestingly, both men and women process in this way. Whether this is an evolutionary response or a conditioned response, this kind of objectification is damaging. Studies have linked scrutiny of women’s bodies to lower math scores, self-sexualization, body shame, eating disorders and poor mood.
And we wonder why simply repeating “be confident” in our heads doesn’t get the job done.
While these are only two hindrances on women’s self-confidence, they are quite pervasive in our society and will most likely take years to improve.
However, being a confident female in 2012 is not hopeless. Here are 5 tips to building self-confidence.
1. Take responsibility for yourself- It can be quite easy to place the blame on the media, society or our parents. Building confidence can be especially challenging when women (and men) grow up in households where they are belittled, criticized or even abused, as that negativity becomes internalized. Regardless of the where the critical messages come from, it can be challenging to drown out that negative voice or believe a positive story about ourselves. But you and only you can create change.
2. Fake it until you make it- Perception hugely influences our relationships and human interactions. In therapy we often talk about the relationship between behavior and feelings and more often than not, when we change our behavior we can change our feelings. So simply saying in our heads “be confident” doesn’t have much power; however, if we begin to play the role of what confident looks like, it becomes more believable to ourselves. For example, when a woman is timid and hesitant, people tend to perceive her as insecure and lacking confidence, which increases the likelihood that she will be disrespected or taken advantage of. However when a woman acts firm and self-assured, she is more likely to be believed to be just that. Finding a mentor or someone you look up to can be helpful to emulate these traits.
3. Focus on one area- Building self-confidence involves active participation. Looking at the gym doesn’t make you more fit, you have to actually workout. While it is near impossible for human beings to feel confident in every area of their life at all times, we can take action by focusing on one area. When we dedicate ourselves to be successful at something, the process of failure, recovery, persistence and success creates a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy. The more we develop those beliefs about ourselves, the more they translate to other areas of our life.
4. Model for others- People typically treat you the way you treat yourself. Modeling starts with what we say to ourselves internally. When we label ourselves with low-confidence or tell ourselves “I’m not good enough,” “my body doesn’t look like that” etc, we tend to believe it. These thoughts influence our behavior and people will treat you accordingly.
5. Practice acceptance- Whether it’s through a mindfulness practice or self-affirmations, practice accepting yourself as a whole. Acknowledge the parts of yourself that are more difficult, whether they’re physical, emotional or mental. When we accept ourselves, not only do we feel more whole, but we tend to compare ourselves to other less.
It can be easy to look to others or external things to instill this confidence with immediate gratification, but that will always require someone else’s approval. Today more than ever, women are faced with obstacles to believing they are beautiful, smart and talented. True confidence comes from cultivating a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy. These characteristics require hard work and a close look at ourselves. When we put in the work and become our own biggest cheerleader, the possibilities of what we can achieve are endless.
Quotes on confidence:
“What could you achieve in life if you decided to become totally and blissfully impervious to hostile criticism and rejection?”
“I exist as though I am, that is enough.”- Walt Whitman
“The more you love your decisions, the less you will need others to love them.”
“It is not external events themselves that cause us distress, but they way in which we think about them, our interpretation of their significance. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” – Epictetus
It is natural to avoid; to want painful things to simply go away, whether they’re physical or emotional. But no matter how hard or how far away you push, the experience wants to be known. When we try to avoid things that are unpleasant, unwanted, or frightening, we are choosing to reject the reality of the present moment. The more we fight against that, the more we suffer.
Not only do we tend to avoid situations, memories and sensations that are painful or traumatic, but we also have a tendency to avoid parts of ourselves that are unpleasant or unlikeable. When we are living in constant avoidance of shadowy things we are not living a true and authentic life and we are using up energy to keep these painful things at bay. The consequences of living mindlessly and trying to control our pain is that we leave little room for vitality, growth & change. When we are able to accept where we are we can then begin moving forward.
Acceptance is a word that can often be confused with approval. However, acceptance in mindfulness-based therapies refers to the notion of opening oneself up to all aspects of the internal and external experience without trying to control or change it. By coming in close contact with the present moment, we become intimate with painful, joyous and neutral experiences. This acceptance is cultivated through a mindfulness practice consisting of various meditations and exercises.
From the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a mindfulness-based behavioral therapy, the mind is neither a “friend” nor an “enemy.” The mind is simply doing what minds do, producing thoughts. It is a common misconception that mindfulness and meditation is a practice to rid your mind of thoughts.However, if you recall that it is this pushing away or non-acceptance that causes us suffering, pain and leads to maladaptive behavior patterns. Rather than distancing you from thoughts, feelings & sensations, mindfulness practice gives you the tools to make contact with them in the present moment.
It is important to distinguish between unwanted thoughts and feelings and our reaction to those experiences. For example:
It is our struggle with unwanted thoughts and feelings that causes us more distress and maintains unhealthy behaviors and coping mechanisms. But the more we practice tolerating the presence of unpleasant thoughts, sensations and emotions, the less we engage in experiential avoidance, or suppression of unwanted internal experiences.
When we are able to experience the present moment for what it is, free from entanglement with our thoughts and feelings, we are able to live a freer and more authentic life.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
A topic I often come across in couple’s therapy is one partner being more “sensitive” than the other. This relationship dynamic can be a great source of conflict for couple’s who struggle to accept and understand the other person or who believe this trait is something that can be changed. As I’ve said before, when we let go of our mission to alter our partner and instead practice acceptance, we create space for compassion, compromise and intimacy. However, it can be hard to create space for that acceptance and appreciation without truly understanding what makes a sensitive person the way he/she is. The research refers to sensitive or highly sensitive people as HSP’s.
Research on HSP’s highlights that these traits are due to a fundamental difference in one’s nervous system functioning, as systems with decreased latent inhibition are more open to incoming stimuli. As a result, these individuals are prone to overstimulation and becoming easily stressed and therefore need more down time.
When we hear the term “sensitive” we often conjure up stereotypes of what that term means and what it says about a person. Oftentimes sensitive people may be labeled as “shy,” “timid,” “inhibited,” or “introverted,” when in reality 70% of highly sensitive people are introverts and 30% are extroverts. So yes, there is such a thing as a sensitive extrovert! Nevertheless, this stigma against being a sensitive person can often be an obstacle to 1) identifying yourself as one, 2) being compassionate towards someone or 3) valuing these traits in yourself or others. Here are a few common stereotypes:
Nowadays there are so many different configurations of families, living arrangements and cultural influences on family roles. However, regardless of your family makeup, we all either have a father, know one, will be one or will marry one someday.
Fathers are often left out; out of books, magazines, school & medical decisions, family therapy, research studies and the field of psychology in general. Fathers and father figures serve as a template just as much as mothers do, and we know children follow more by example than advice. So, what kind of example is being set in your family?
Template for Daughters:
Template for Sons:
The research often describes “good fathers” as actively involved- (1) engagement (directly interacting); (2) accessibility (being available); and (3) responsibility (providing resources).
Even among socioeconomically at-risk families, children whose fathers were actively involved in early and middle childhood compared to those with absentee fathers typically had: Read More