With a wellness movement on the rise, self-love is all the rage on social media. But what does that actually mean? How do you get it? And what if you’re struggling to get it? You’re not alone.
To be comfortable in your own skin means to accept yourself, just as you are. Easier said than done, right? Many of us have the idea that being comfortable with ourselves means that we love everything about ourselves, every trait, body part, and quality (false)! It is of course easy to extend positive feelings towards our awesome parts, but more much more challenging when it comes to embracing our mediocre or even not so great parts that perhaps we don’t want others to see. When many of us hear the word acceptance, we may think it means being complacent, giving up bettering ourselves or making excuses about our behavior. What it acceptance means in this context is actually to see ourselves completely, as we are, without trying to avoid, run away or resist.
One of the many ways we may avoid looking inward with an honest and nonjudgmental lens is by searching for answers or solutions to “fix” what feels faulty or broken within us. I often hear various scenarios from clients, such as once I get this job, once I lose the weight or if I could just make this much more money… then I’ll be happy. However, wholeness and happiness are an inside job. Practices, such as mindfulness and self-compassion can help us cultivate a sense of wholeness and happiness from within. As the word practice suggests, these are not quick fixes, but rather ways of relating to oneself and one’s experience: in the present moment, nonjudgmentally, and with kindness.
The Struggle is Real
While for some, early life experiences may have predisposed them to feelings of unworthiness or shame. Perhaps, there were individuals in your life that communicated through words or actions that you are less than, unworthy, or not good enough. Even if this is not you, there is a universal human experience of having an inner critic. With valiant intentions, the critic is designed to keep us safe, however, its methods can lead to stress, self-doubt, and feeling not good enough. In addition to our inner critic, we are taught to strive for “high self-esteem,” which is actually based on how we measure up compared to others. We can all certainly thank social media for helping us out in this department! The problem with self-esteem is that it is often contingent upon our success or related to some external marker, such as our attractiveness, wealth, or even relationship status. These will inevitably fail at some point or fade with time and then what are we left with?
Self-Compassion: The Critics Worst Enemy
However, when we strive for self-compassion rather than self-esteem, we are cultivating an internal strength or resiliency reserve for difficult moments. Self-compassion is always available to us, in successes and failures and fosters a sense of connectedness rather than the comparison inherent in self-esteem. Self-compassion can also greatly impact the chemistry of the body. When the critic is in the driver’s seat and we are repeating harsh words to ourselves, the body perceives this as an attack, triggering a cascade of stress hormones related to our fight or flight system, which can be a source of stress, tension and other physical and health difficulties that are working against a healing environment for the mind and body. Conversely, when we practice mindful awareness and take a compassionate stance towards our failures or misgivings, we tap into our physiologically hardwired mammalian response that generates soothing and safety. This is how we counteract stress and practice acceptance of all the various parts of ourselves. This takes quite a bit of willingness on our part to feel and sit with experiences that may be uncomfortable or challenging. However, each time we stay with our experience in the present in a compassionate manner (rather than judging ourselves), we are expanding our tolerance and ability to do this in the long-term.
Using Mindfulness and Self- Compassion in daily life:
We may seek outside sources to feel good about ourselves, but with time and practice of observing our inner life without judgment and with kindness, we cultivate a deep sense of acceptance, gratitude for who we are, and for this body. It is from this place that we are able to boldly pursue the life we want.
“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”- Dalai Lama
Between recent world events and the upcoming presidential election, there has been much discussion around themes of hate, racism, bigotry, and differences among people. While we may see the occasional story of kindness, the notion of being compassionate and kind all too often is undervalued and drowned out in our society. We tend to place all sorts of judgments and put people in categories about who is lovable and worthy, and who is not. We may feel that loved ones, friends, and children automatically deserve our love and compassion, while strangers, and people who look and think differently from us are not. We may even believe that people who have created difficulties in our lives are entirely undeserving of love and compassion, leading us to feel justified in disliking or even hating them.
We hold all sorts of misconceptions about what it is to be compassionate and kind, including that it makes us weak or wimpy, it is a form of self-pity, it is indulgent, or it gets in the way of success. The latter attitude, that being hard on ourselves motivates us and helps us to achieve our goals is greatly valued in our competitive, tech-driven and busy culture. The reality is that the great majority of us struggle with a judgmental, critical, and harsh voice when we don’t live up to our own expectations. While at times this approach might push you harder, it can also lead to persistent negative emotions, doubt, feelings of worthlessness, shame, and feeling disconnected from people around you. What would the world look like if we actually practiced more kindness?
One mindfulness practice, called “Loving-Kindness”, helps us take a different approach by cultivating an attitude of open, unconditional friendliness. This practice entails sending kind, compassionate, or loving intentions to several different categories of individuals: (1) one- self, (2) a cherished person or “mentor,” (3) a friend, (4) a neutral person or stranger, (5) an “enemy” or difficult person, and (6) all living beings (Salzberg, 2006). (For briefer introductory practices, see Audio.) The beauty of this practice is that you can adapt the phrases so that they resonate with you. “It counteracts the loneliness and sense of separation that comes from not feeing connected to other people. It is a powerful practice that can change how we respond to difficult situations over time. We can learn to turn down the volume on the internal, snide monologue of self-judgment and be kinder to ourselves” (Wolf & Serpa, 2015, p. 137).
Mindfulness says, ‘Open to suffering with spacious awareness and it will change’. Self-compassion says, ‘Give yourself kindness when you’re suffering and it will change’”- Chris Germer
Benefits: Through repetition comes rewiring. The more we practice setting these intentions through a formal Loving-Kindness practice, the more easily this stance of compassion and kindness becomes available to us when we are in situations where we may judge ourselves or someone else.
A Note on Connection: Another major benefit supported by research and my experience teaching this practice is that incorporating Loving-Kindness into meditation helps us recognize the inherent connection among us; the realization that we are all human, that we all struggle, and that we can turn towards suffering in ourselves and others with warmth and compassion. It is the sense of “we are all in this together,” that ultimately strengthens compassion and connection.
How Does it Work? The practice works because it capitalizes on our inherent capacity to express love and compassion easily to those close to us and to have more difficulty expressing love and compassion to those at a distance or enemies, or even ourselves. We cannot choose how or what we feel, but we can set an intention for how we wish to be and respond in the world. Thus, loving-kindness and similar metta practices are about setting an intention for openhearted, unconditional friendliness, rather than about feeling friendly or loving.
Well-wishes vs. Positive Affirmations: The intention behind Loving-Kindness is what makes the practice powerful, which is quite different than positive affirmations. A positive affirmation is a skill used to produce change by repeating a phrase with a desired outcome, such as “I am happy.” In contrast, a loving-kindness phrase is a wish for something that is universally desirable and starts with, “May I…” or “May you…” However, positive affirmations can be difficult to practice if they do not match up to reality. Similarly, a loving-kindness phrase may feel out of reach at the moment, we can connect with the intention behind it, even when we feel far from it (Wolf & Serpa, 2015).We can hold the intention of Loving-Kindness wherever we are, however we are.
People will have different reactions to the Loving-Kindness practice and there’s no “right way” to feel. Remember that it is also a mindfulness practice, so invite yourself to notice what your reactions to repeating the phrases are with curiosity and kindness. You might notice frustration, doubt, irritation, or even sadness…and that is ok! It is important to remember that you don’t have to feel loving when you practice Loving-Kindness meditation. Noticing difficult feelings that arise in us during this practice can be an important step towards healing.
To listen to my brief and introductory Loving-Kindness practices listed, click here:
Davidson, R., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santarelli, S.F., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
Salzberg, S. (2006). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness (shambala classics). Boston, MA: Shambala Publications.
Wolfe, C., & Serpa, J.G. (2015). A clinician’s guide to teaching mindfulness. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Over and over I’ve heard people say, “it doesn’t matter, they’re too young to remember.” FALSE. This is especially false in regard to children’s early interactions with their caregivers. For better or for worse, children remember. A child’s early interactions with their caregiver are one of the most influential factors in determining a child’s well-being and future functioning as an adult.
An issue that we commonly see in therapy is the impact of early shame. We see adults reeling from the aftermath of these experiences, trying to understand why they simply feel “bad,” why they have become so rigid and perfectionistic or how their belief that they are unlovable and will be rejected has created barriers in their relationship.
Well, here’s why…
As children are continuing to develop, the way our parents react to us and see us is the way we learn see ourselves. So, when a parent yells, ignores, or calls the child names rather than opening lines of communication and teaching the child, this sends them the message that “I am bad, “I am inadequate,” and “I am unlovable.” This can be particularly harmful if these interactions are repeated without repair, leading these beliefs to become internalized as truths for the child.
When a caregiver is critical, rejecting, threatening or even abusive, the internalized memory is not one of feeling safe and soothed, but rather one of feeling “bad.” These early interactions form a template for how the child expects all other relationships to work. However, because the child’s hippocampus (memory center) is not fully developed, the memories of these early interactions are stored in implicit memory, which is not as readily accessible to us.
“Because yelling shuts down the communication; it severs the bond; it causes people to separate — instead of come closer.”- Rachel Macy Stafford
No parent is perfect. No human is perfect. Sometimes it’s our own “stuff” that gets in the way…whether it’s our tendency to be a perfectionist that translates into the intolerability of age appropriate mess and mistakes or being overloaded and stressed. Perhaps our parents were intolerable of imperfection or perhaps we were expected to take on more responsibility than was developmentally appropriate. Nevertheless, this “stuff” gets communicated clearly and directly to our children.
So for all of us imperfect people, there is good news from parenting and brain development expert Daniel Siegel, MD who talks about the process of “rupture and repair.” He defines ruptures as inevitable breaks in the nurturing connection with the child. What is important is not that ruptures never occur, but that ruptures are repaired.
Here are three steps to the repair process adapted from Siegel.
Reparative communication is an essential aspect in this process, as being open and candid with the child allows the shame, sadness and sense of badness that is elicited in a rupture to dissipate.This process is extraordinarily important because when ruptures repeatedly are not repaired, this can lead to problems in the parent-child relationships and the child’s developing sense of self.
(For more information on perfectionism in adulthood, stay tuned for LA Therapy Spot’s upcoming blog post)
I recently presented to the lovely ladies of Women Empowered on utilizing mindfulness to reduce and manage stress. As part of the presentation, I shared my 8 personal tips to incorporate an informal mindfulness practice into every day life and wanted to share them with you!
For those of you who may be newer to mindfulness, it may be defined simply as a moment to moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. It is this present moment awareness that helps us accept and experience reality (internal and external) just as it is occurring to decrease stress and anxiety.
While formal mindfulness practices have been shown to be the most beneficial when utilized consistently, many of us struggle to incorporate a 45 minute meditation into our busy schedules. Does this mean you have to live a mindfulness-free life? No! Rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach to mindfulness, here are my 8 tips to infuse a bit of mindfulness into your daily life!
1. Do one thing at a time. Single-task, don’t multi-task. When you’re talking to someone, don’t talk to someone and send an e-mail. Research suggests that we are actually more efficient when we do a single task mindfully than multiple tasks at once.
2. Do it slowly and deliberately. Take your time, and move slowly. Make your actions deliberate, not rushed and random. When we are in busy mode, we are out of the present moment so use your daily tasks as anchors in the present.
3. Put space between things. If you cannot put space between tasks or appointments, give yourself between 2-5 minutes to ground yourself by either checking in with your mind and body or doing a simple breathing meditation.
4. Spend a few minutes each day doing nothing. Just sit with yourself…yes, stop checking e-mail…and Instagram…and turn the TV off. This is one of the most uncomfortable things for most of us because we are not used to being with our actual experience. Start with 1 minute and try to expand up to 5 or beyond as you learn to tolerate more and more.
5. When you notice feelings of stress, anxiety or sadness, check in with your mind. Observe your thinking — are you worrying, ruminating, catastrophizing, saying something negative about yourself? Learn to recognize when you’re doing this, remind yourself that thoughts are not facts and practice bringing yourself back to the present.
6. When you’re talking to someone, be present. How many of us have spent time with someone but have been thinking about what we need to do in the future? Or thinking about what we want to say next, instead of really listening to that person? Instead, focus on being present, on really listening, on really enjoying your time with that person. Connection is what matters, not our to-do list.
7. Make daily tasks mindfulness activities. Cooking, cleaning, washing your face, driving to work and playing with your dog are great ways to practice mindfulness daily. Put your entire mind into those tasks, using your 5 senses to ground you in the present (e.g. washing your face- pay attention to the sensation of your fingers against your skin)
8. Keep practicing. PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE! It takes time to re-train our brains so be compassionate towards yourself when you struggle or forget to be mindful. Mindfulness is not a skill to be conquered, it is a process.
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.