A mindful approach to self-hatred and self-criticism

Often people with self-hatred, shame or self-criticism get “caught up” in a thought process that includes a fair amount of self-attacking. This thought process can include arguments with oneself, reasons a person should not be the way he/ she is, or a rationale for how he/she “should” be feeling. Sometimes this thought process is associated with muscle tension, headaches, the suppression of emotion, the inhibition of interactions, or the shutting down of expression and experience.

People sometimes think that by punishing themselves in a self-hating dialogue is an effect way to change thoughts, feelings, or reality. Almost as if they are somehow being “deserving” of “bad” things someone sets things right. The difficulty is, it typically is not an effective strategy for changing thoughts or feelings! It might temporarily suppress feelings, shut down hurt or sadness, make one feel more empowered or less vulnerable, or even distract from other problems. But the bottom line here is this: Does actually work to reduce suffering? Does it get rid of emotions in the long term?

Being mindful, or starting to observe this process, is really the first step towards making some changes in this process. Being able to notice the thought, step back, practice using a gentle tone of voice, and practice saying “I am noticing the thought that…” is one way to start to just notice thoughts, rather than try to change them.

Next, assess your willingness to “shift gears.” Often people who are stuck in a ruminative process somehow believe that if they keep ruminating, something will change. That’s not to say you have the power to immediately “stop” ruminating, it just starts to get you thinking about an alternative.

If you feel miserable, want to stop hating yourself, and invest a lot of unproductive energy into engaging in self-hating thoughts, the option of doing something different just might be appealing. Once you decide to try something different, you can try softening your facial expression and relaxing your shoulders. Consider being curious about the physical sensations in your body that accompany the thought. What uncomfortable sensations might you be pushing aside in order to invest in the thought? Practice accepting physical discomfort and think about how you might approach or move towards it instead of away from it. If you could be curious about your pain and your emotion, you might be able to work with it a little bit differently. Remember to stay non-judgmental.

Finally, try out the phrase, “May I be at peace.” Try stating this phrase quietly and softly to yourself. Make sure you keep your face and shoulders relaxed, and practice acceptance. Try doing these steps several times throughout particularly difficult days, knowing that practicing new behaviors (and getting “good” at them so they are more automatic) takes effort and rehearsal.

10 things you can do to survive painful life situations

1) Remember what matters. Consider the connections you have and what your current relationships mean to you. Do something today to honor those relationships, even it if is just expressing appreciation or liking.

2) Look for meaning in the current situation; including spirituality, faith, understanding, vulnerability, and connection. Sometimes our own painful situations get us to take our guard down, soften our stance, and risk letting others in.

3) Keep in mind the “bigger picture.” How do you think you will be looking at this situation in ten years? Sometimes focusing on our current pain prevents us from seeing reality in perspective.

4) Sometimes, when we are in pain, we look around us and see how other people don’t have to go what we go through. Instead, consider what you have right now that someone else would want (A job, an able body, health, a place to live, a relationship, a child, a parent, someone to love you, a garden outside your window).

5) Consider rehearsing, imagining, or writing out a scenario in which you cope adaptively. The key is that you don’t avoid reality and that you respond in such a way that you maintain your self-respect.

6) If you can’t solve a big problem right now, solve smaller problems. Sometimes taking care of smaller problems gives us a sense that we are doing something as opposed to being passive or helpless.

7) Give your mind a “break” by planning adaptive distractions that have nothing to do with your current life stressors. Sometimes perseverating on a painful situation makes us think that we are actually doing something to solve it.

8) Take care of your health. Remember that physical activity can help you “shift gears” by releasing endorphins and changing your physiological arousal. Don’t forget to eat. When you eat, pause and actually taste the food.

9) The only way to get through a situation is to survive the moment. Instead of denying, avoiding, or escaping the moment, breathe into it. This moment too shall pass.

10) Consider how you typically respond to a crisis. Do you do anything to make it worse, such as complete avoidance, threats, or escalations? Take the first step towards doing what works. Be effective and do what is needed, even it if is hard.

On being “right”: Demystifying the “stiff and rigid” cartoon person from The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon elephants.

StiffRigid2 copySometimes being “right” has to do with maintaining a sense of justification, power, or virtue. Sometimes being “right” has to do with feeling valued or heard, or even finding others to support your point of view. Sometimes it has to do with taking sides, feeling validated, or knowing that you have something important to add that is being left out of the equation. Sometimes being “right” has to do with not sacrificing a point of view, a perspective, or an observation.

Sometimes, when people feel emotionally threatened, they focus on the “right”-ness of where they are coming from. When threatened, attention is often narrowed and constricted to the threat- thus making it difficult to shift perspective, see things from different points of view, or understand the person who is identified as a threat. Sometimes being “right” has a certain quality, characteristic, or experience that feels guarded, shut down, or even restricted. It’s a way of being that builds walls, doesn’t let other people in, and sends a strong message. It builds a dichotomy in which one person has the upper hand, and the other person doesn’t.

Sometimes people need to be “right” to gain a sense of influence, power, or importance in a relationship or situation. Being “right” may have to do with making a statement, communicating something strongly or clearly, or not yielding to an expectation. It may have to do with mattering.

Sometimes being “right” means sacrificing a relationship, failing to get along with someone, or being seen as someone who is approachable. This can create difficulties in important and unavoidable relationships.

Sometimes being “right” isn’t so much about being non-negotiable as much as it is about trying to define values, being clear about how much you can take, knowing that you can no longer make the sacrifices you are making, or suddenly realizing the demand that someone is placing on you. Sometimes it is difficult to define the “right”-ness of your experience and keep important relationships.

Here are some ways in which you might re-consider being “right”:

  • Even if you are “right”, consider the impact that communicating being “right” has on the relationship.
  • Stop thinking about one person being “right” and the other person being “wrong.” Start thinking about it as “this is my experience” and “this is the experience of the other person.” Make space for them to be different.
  • Sometimes it makes sense to simply stop bringing it up. Refraining from pointing out your point of view can challenge you to tolerate differences, anxiety, or some other threat in order to make for better relationships. Making strong overtures in which you are constantly proving your point can exhaust any conversation.
  • If you are in the middle of one of those conversations that bring out the “I have to be right” in you, consider having the conversation while practicing loose and floppy (refer to the cartoon elephant book for more specific guidelines!).
  • Consider what you would lose if you found out conflicting information that challenges your “right”-ness. What’s the threat?

PS- Want to get a free Cartoon Elephant book? Make sure you check out the last blog post for details…

Cartoon elephants (emotions!) up close and personal: When you don’t like what you see

Sometimes, if you look closely at what actually feel, you won’t like what’s there. Sometimes it’s just too much. Here are some tips on what to do when you get up close and personal with your elephant, and this

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may be what you find.

  • Start with whatever is present in the moment. See if you can notice and allow for what is there vs. actively trying to ignore or push away.
  • See if you can get yourself to willingly tolerate all sensations, discomfort, or urges associated with the emotion. Noticing if there is anything holding you back from doing so.
  • Bear in mind that the better able you are to tolerate, you will be better equipped to survive the moment. Redirect your attention back to your elephant and practice the gentle yet curious gaze.
  • Tolerating sensation does not mean that you have to approve of reality, take action, or fail to take action.
  • An unwillingness to tolerate what is there will not make cartoon elephants disappear. (You can’t have a life without cartoon elephants!) A refusal to tolerate can actually create more problems later.
  • What you pay attention to= what your life is about. Do you want your entire life to be characterized by the struggle of not looking at your cartoon elephants?

 

Loneliness and the New Year

Loneliness may have to do with a feeling as if something is missing. A loss of connection, a loss of relationship, a loss of well-being, or a loss of what could or should have been.

New Years Eve may bring up a loneliness for several people, and may be related to anxiety or discouragement regarding:

  • Personal failures or setbacks over the course of the year
  • Uncertainty about how to be around the people currently in your life
  • The relationships you think you should have but don’t
  • Comparisons to others who may be having “more fun” or “a better time” than you
  • Not being invited or included in the way that you think you should be
  • Not feeling a sense of connection to anyone
  • Anxiety about what it means for you (on this particular day of the year) to not be in the place you want in your life right now

Loneliness can happen to people who are surrounded by family during the holidays, to married couples, to engaged couples, to divorced people, to single people, to people who are with the people they want to be with, and to people who have a wide range of established connections and meaningful relationships.

Just like pain, loneliness doesn’t discriminate across ethnicity, class, gender, age, or social economic status.

There is always someone who is lonely!

Suggestions:

  • If anxious indecision is part of your pain, accept whatever it is you have chosen to do (who you are with and how you will spend your time) to bring in the New Year
  • Find a way to acknowledge loneliness, even if the only thing you are doing is reading this blog post
  • Bear in mind that loneliness is not a reflection of personal failure on your behalf
  • Spend the holiday in such a way that is the most meaningful to you despite your loneliness
  • If there is someone you could reach out to or make a connection with- consider doing it
  • Remember that this too, shall pass

6 quick tips on mindfully navigating the holidays when you aren’t “feeling” it

Notice what you feel without judging. Sometimes people believe that if they don’t feel a certain way, they are missing out on some kind of grand, spiritual, or wonderful experience. I am reminded of the Charlie Brown Christmas special in which he doesn’t feel like he “should”.  Not everyone is awed, exhilarated, or spiritually “moved” this time of year.

Accept and acknowledge the mundane, the everyday, or the not-so-wow experiences this season.  Remember that the glue that holds us together in the smaller, everyday nuances of our existence and our relationships also has meaning. Foster the relationships that matter.

If you want to feel more connected and less detached, practice ways to participate willingly, go with the flow, risk being open, and become involved. Volunteer, show up for the holiday parties, attend services, and remain attentive and awake to what is going on around you. Although it is possible that exerting energy takes effort (and may not completely diminish loneliness), it gives you an option to temporarily shift your mood.

Find the stillness within– Crowds, shopping, to do lists, and holiday planning can be overwhelming. Finding stillness within yourself can help you cope adaptively, slow things down, find your wisdom, and stay grounded.  Bear in mind that you have the ability to find inner wisdom, but sometimes emotions and other people can get in your way of finding it. Try the suggestions below:

Find 2-5 minutes once a day from now until Christmas to sit quietly, observe your breath, and gently pay attention to whatever sensations arise within you. After sitting quietly, try writing: I notice… I would like… I feel…I sense…I think…I am aware of…I am most worried about…

If you are out shopping or involved in intense holiday planning, make sure that you don’t skip meals or shop on an empty stomach. Take periodic breaks that include sitting down and being away from loud noises, bright lights, and crowds. Consider what you need and the cost/ benefit of overestimating your energy and pushing yourself too hard.

Is your anxiety helping or hurting you?

1)   Figure out the benefit(s) of your anxiety. Anxiety is beneficial when it activates us to solve problems or gets us moving on a task or activity. Our anxiety may be the push we need to speak up or speak out, to make changes in our life, to meet deadlines or study for tests, or to confront a difficult or situation. If anxiety is ignored, it might get stronger. What do you think your anxiety is telling you? What action is your anxiety getting you to take? Failing to take action when action is necessary may be one reason why anxiety is extremely strong.

2)   Figure out how or if anxiety is getting your way. Anxiety can inhibit or interfere with your life if it prevents you from doing the things you want or love, prevents you from accomplishing life goals, causes problems at work, or causes problems in relationships. Crippling anxiety can severely restrict people from having a quality of life they want.

3)   Figure out if it’s worth it to change. Some people moderate their anxiety by avoiding everything that makes them anxious! In some cases, this can create even more problems.  Missing work, relationships, important social functions, conflict, or events that lead to connections and success can all be good reasons to get treatment for anxiety. However, if you expect a different outcome, you would have to be willing to do something different in order to make that happen. Otherwise, you will get the same results that you’ve always gotten.

4)   The most effective treatment for non-useful, too much, or extreme anxiety is exposure. What is exposure?  Exposure is when people come into contact with things that cause anxiety- and don’t push away, deny, escape, or avoid the feelings or thoughts that arise when in these situations. Over time they get better at tolerating painful sensations associated with fear and panic. Their brain also “gets” that the feelings and thoughts themselves are tolerable. This new learning leads to a reduction in anxiety.

5)   Obviously, exposure wouldn’t work in a situation in which fear is functional, useful, or valid. It makes no sense to change your anxiety if it is working for you. However, if your fear isn’t working for you, what risks would you have to do take to approach what you are afraid of? What would you have to tolerate? Consider how doing the opposite of what you have the urge to do can be uncomfortable in the short term, but help you have a better life in the long run.  After all, YOU are the one living your life!

What acceptance means in the face of loss

Acceptance is considered to be a critical component to being able to cope adaptively. People who are able to accept what is (or what has already happened) are generally able to move more fluidly through life. They have less problems getting “stuck”, “hung up”, or “unable to let go”.

When I first learned about acceptance I thought it meant that I had to just deal with it. This angered me because I felt very alone. I thought it was another way in which I could not speak up or have a voice. Just dealing with it was a way in which I didn’t feel as if my pain, grief, or loss was being acknowledged. The concept of acceptance was difficult because it seemed as if the rest of the world was able to “move on”, but because I had strong feelings about it I wasn’t able to.

Accepting something is different from approving or liking something. I think this distinction is important, because some people think of acceptance as giving up, being hopeless, or becoming passive. Acceptance somehow gets translated into nothing ever changing.

However, being able to radically accept something is a way in which all of reality can be fully acknowledged. A person cannot change the past or avoid what has been lost. It is hard to live a rich, fully, and meaningful life if a person can’t see reality for what it is. In order to change reality, we have to first fully accept it. Often this means seeing all that is in front of us. Sometimes if we can see what is in front of us, we can access the resources and information we need to change it.

Often acceptance of something brings pain. The benefits of not accepting often have to do with keeping doors for sadness, loss, grief, or other kinds of emotional pain closed. Sometimes not looking at reality means not having to deal with reality. Acceptance of reality can also mean the acceptance of our own emotional responses and our own distress. While it may seem paradoxical to work on acceptance our own distress, this acceptance will help us grieve, understand ourselves, figure out what matters, and be more fluid in our ability to handle life’s losses.

I don’t think anyone could be in accepting mode all of the time. Acceptance sometimes comes in small parts, and sometimes there are some short-term benefits to non-acceptance. I don’t think anyone wants to live with loss, but sometimes the full acknowledgement of reality as it is enables us to get “unstuck.”

Are you running the Boston marathon today?

 

Since this is the day of the Boston marathon, I thought I would write a blog post about running.

Running!

Some people spend their lives running. Running is a way of getting away from something. It’s a matter of going fast. It is a way of living life in fast forward. It is a way of being busy and not having stillness, quiet, or calm. It’s a way of being busy, distracted, and pre-occupied. It’s a way to move, skirt around, avoid, and leave painful sensations behind.  Some people run away in their hearts, their minds, or their bodies. Some people run because they are afraid that:

  • If they don’t run they will start crying, and if they start crying they will never stop.
  • If they don’t run they will become angry, and then do something they regret.
  • If they don’t run they will be anxious, and therefore they will stay anxious forever.
  • If they don’t run they will feel sensations in their body, and the sensations will overwhelm them.
  • If they don’t run they will feel things they don’t want to feel!

Do you have any idea about what you are running from?