A professional colleague just sent me a link to a very nice, simple but not simplistic explanation of how our nervous systems are affected by everyday life and by trauma. Let me know what you think.
It’s not about a pedicure. It is about taking note of how you are feeling. Take note.
The term “self-care” is all over the internet, aimed at first (I think) at women who probably don’t take care of themselves particularly well, but more recently becoming a buzzword designed to sell products and services.
Radical care of the self isn’t about buying things or even about buying a service, such as massage or even psychotherapy. Radical self-care is about taking care of yourself as if you counted, as if you are as important as the other most important people in your life.
So let’s deconstruct this. What do you do to take care of other people’s selves?
I am guessing that you may be involved in material care of other people. If you have children or a spouse, certainly you are involved in making a safe and secure home, procuring food, clothing and other things that are needed, and doing daily tasks that are required to maintain lives. You are probably also engaged in helping those people with their emotional work. That is, you may keep a weather eye out to see if your child is looking tired, or if your spouse is stressed or feeling harassed, or if there is something to celebrate from the events of the day. You are the one who notices these things, who expands on them as appropriate (“Let’s tell Auntie June hooray for her promotion at work!”) and helps process them as needed (“Let’s talk about what happened at school today.”) You are the one who is attentive to all of the nuances in the family system, keeping a light finger on the pulsing dynamics, noticing when the toilet paper is low and when spirits are low. These are important facets of being a family member, and particularly with children, this work is essential to helping to grow up adults who can function emotionally.
The challenge of self-care, though, is to provide yourself the same level of concern and attention. We generally know when things are very bad with us or when things are very good. Those extremes are often easy to label because they are extremes. But it is important to check in with ourselves regularly, not only when an extreme of feeling makes us pay attention.
What’s the purpose of this? We are designed with early warning systems, actually, that can help us to know in advance when we are on the pathway to becoming overwhelmed. We can’t tell that we’re on that path, though, unless we take a moment or two to check in and see how the current situation is sitting with us. How often have you suddenly felt like you couldn’t take one more baby crying, one more request for something, one more kid arguing? Sometimes we experience this as if we are going from zero to sixty in an instant but generally we didn’t start at zero. We started at about forty-five because we were so busy “holding on” or “holding in” whatever reaction the stressor was creating. So then we get explosive, the kids get scared, the spouse gets defensive and angry and another lovely evening begins.
This is not the failure that you think it is. You haven’t failed to be a perfect mother. You have failed to pay enough attention to yourself to realize that something has to shift in order to avoid a blowout.
So what has to shift? Okay, the handsome prince comes in on the white horse, gathers up the crying children, leaves a gourmet meal on the table along with a large glass of wine, and rides off into the sunset with the kids, the dirty laundry and the dishes. Don’t worry, he’ll return in the morning with everything clean, happy and well-cared for. This is my fantasy, right?
But what if my fantasy can’t be realized right this minute? You need some self-care and that’s not about getting a pedicure when the baby is crying, dinner is burning on the stove and your spouse reminds you that some mission-critical tasks is yet incomplete.
It is about taking note of how you are feeling. Take note. Notice what your body is telling you and then notice what your mind is saying to you. Decide where you will shift gears. Will you change your location, your thoughts, or your body response? You have control over all of these.
Notice your body. Are you tense in your shoulders, jaw, and hands? Can you feel energy rising up your back and pressure building that feels like you have to scream? Can you try jumping up and down, shaking your head and your hands like a wild person, discharging energy in a way that isn’t hurtful? Can you try that shift?
Notice your thinking. Are you having thoughts that tell you that you can’t do this, or that they shouldn’t be the way that they are, or that there is something wrong with you? Can you try just looking at those thoughts as if they are not yours? Can you shift gears and remind yourself that this is a moment, just a moment in time, and soon there will be a different moment?
Notice your location. Notice how your body and mind respond to the immediate stimulation. Is it possible to change your location for a moment or two? Can you step outside into winter’s cold, or put a door between you and the stressor, long enough for something to shift inside of you?
These are the baby steps of self-care in emergency situations.
From here, you have choices. When you are able to check in and see how you are feeling, rather than being rushed away with the stress of the situation, you are able to make decisions about your next step. What can you choose to do next that will support you? Can you decide to take a moment to turn off the stove, sit and take a breath? That is the beginning of self care.
You can make your self-soothing activities a lot more effective by doing one simple thing first.
Most people are a little more stressed and tense now, during the COVID crisis, than usual. Some people are a lot more distressed. Everywhere you look there are articles about how to calm yourself, how to soothe yourself and your children, and how to cope and take good care of yourself.
It is a good idea to manage our stress. When we are stressed, we are not our best selves. We are less able to make good decisions. We are less flexible in our thinking. We may be short of temper or spacey and dissociated. None of these will make self-isolating, physical distancing, or working from home any better.
We can do a lot to help calm ourselves. We can breathe more deeply, do relaxation or meditation, take a warm bath, read or do crafts. All of these can be soothing to the over-stressed nervous system.
However, you can make your self-soothing activities a lot more effective by doing one simple thing first.
Think about your body’s energy system. I’m not talking about some esoteric or cosmic energy. I am talking about that energy that you use to live. You take in food and turn it into energy that keeps your tissues healthy and growing, allows you to move and think and dance and run, even to sleep and regenerate. When you are stressed your body is recruiting your energy to be prepared for the emergency. Energy is tied up in keeping your muscles tense, your gut disrupted, your thoughts racing. Your energy is being used to be prepared.
In this case, you are prepared to fight or run away from a virus.
However, that is pretty useless. No amount of fighting is going to vanquish this foe. Running away isn’t possible either. The energy of preparation is caught up in your system keeping you stressed and distressed. This is a very real manifestation of energy being blocked from moving through your body. You can turn it into obsessive thinking, excessive news consumption, overeating, body tensions and rigidity, and irritability. It can erupt in bouts of rage or crying or excessive cleaning.
Calming that distress is needed. However, you need to free up some of this energy for your self-soothing, calming activities to work effectively. You need to create an opportunity for discharge.
Please note! I am offering these simple ways to discharge energy for you to use at your discretion. Please remember that everything isn’t useful or recommended for everyone. Be self-aware and monitor yourself as you practice. You can use these with kids, too, but remember that you’ll be monitoring yourself AND them.
Effective and easy ways to discharge
Shake Your Body
Shaking your body all over is a way to discharge energy that is simple, effective, and feels good.
Start from a grounded standing position. Stand up with both feet solidly on the ground. Feel your feet on the ground, and make sure you are standing solidly on both feet. Soften your knees, so that you can feel your whole leg from the sole of your foot up to your torso. You might need to bend and straighten your knees a few times before this is clear in your mind.
Think about your feet being deeply rooted in the earth. Just for a moment, imagine that your feet have grown a long, strong taproot connecting them way into the earth like an oak tree. Imagine that you are rooted so deeply that you may bend and sway in the wind, but you will never fall over.
From this deeply grounded place, start to shake your body. You can shake starting from your arms and shoulders, shaking your head, bouncing a little in your knees. Monitor yourself; you can do a little or a lot, and what works best for you will depend on you. Shake, shake, shake, and then shake some more. Notice any parts of you that want to shake and then shake them. Shake like you are in a big wind and then let the wind settle down into a small breeze, and finally, let your shaking come to stillness.
Check in with your body and mind. What did this discharge exercise do for you? Go to How the End Any Discharge Exercise, below. After this, move into your self-soothing and comforting activities.
Twist and Growl
Start from a grounded standing position. Stand up with both feet solidly on the ground. Feel your feet on the ground, and make sure you are standing solidly on both feet. Soften your knees, so that you can feel your whole leg from the sole of your foot up to your torso. You might need to bend and straighten your knees a few times before this is clear in your mind. (You might notice repetition here…that’s for a good reason. Being grounded helps us to discharge. Every discharge activity begins from being grounded.)
Holding a hand towel or dishtowel out in front of you, begin to twist it. Let your hands really work that towel. Hold it up at eye height, look right at it (or beyond it), and twist. Narrow your gaze and stick out your jaw. Maybe make a growling noise. Grrrr! Damn towel! Damn coronavirus! Damn working from home! Allow yourself to think and say whatever angry thoughts might come to mind. Damn stress!
What else could you do with that hand towel? Shift your feet so that one is ahead of the other, shift your grip on the towel so you are holding one end, and use the towel to hit a bed or couch. Really get into the swing of it, using your whole arm, and keeping your eyes and jaw focused outward. Try it with the other arm. What is that like for you?
Then drop the towel and shake out your arms, your jaw, your neck. Let everything shake.
See if your body wants to do another round. If you are finished, head to How to End Any Discharge Exercise.
Stompa Your Feet
Start from a grounded standing position. Feel your feet on the ground, and make sure you are standing solidly on both feet. Soften your knees, so that you can feel your whole leg from the sole of your foot up to your torso. You might need to bend and straighten your knees a few times before this is clear in your mind.
Now stamp one foot. Just smack it into the ground. Notice what that feels like.
Stamp the other foot and take a moment to notice what THAT feels like. Similar? Different?
Now try stamping your feet one after the other. Really PUSH those feet into the ground, feeling your legs all the way up.
Check in and see what your hands want to do. They might want to form into fists, or even if they don’t, you can try that. Stamp your feet and shake your fists.
Now take a moment to rest, breathe in and out, and notice what you are noticing in your body and in your mind.
This might be enough discharge for you. You can check in on yourself and notice. Does my body want a little more of this? If so, continue. You can always stop whenever you want to.
To continue with discharge, re-engage the stamping and fists. This time stick out your jaw and narrow your eyes. You can say or think something like, “I don’t like this!” *
Depending on your level of privacy and how this exercise is sitting in you, you can go to town. You can stamp and shake and shout as much as you like. You can also do it just a little to try it out. Either way is effective and you are in charge.
How To End Any Discharge Exercise; forward bend
This exercise allows your body to integrate and assimilate what has been happening, and gives your mind a chance to catch up. See if you are able to stay attuned to body sensations before letting thinking overwhelm your body experience.
You will stop, rest, breathe and take in your experience by doing the forward bend. Keeping your feet planted, allow your body to hang over, letting your head hang loose, arms not quite touching the ground, and breathe into your belly there. Stay in this position as long as it feels right. When you decide it is time to come up, push your feet into the floor and allow your spine to straighten very slowly with your head coming up last. This way you minimize the likelihood of getting dizzy.
Once you come back up to a standing position, take a few moments to notice how your body and mind are doing. You may be more agitated, or angry, or you may have uncovered some sadness, or you might notice a different lightness in your shoulders and arms. Whatever you notice is your body’s response to the exercise.
Now is a good time to engage your self-soothing activities. Try lying down on the floor and letting your body rest deeply. You can use your hands to gently stroke your face, shoulders and arms, saying soothing things, or you can just let yourself be. Notice how your body naturally lets down after discharge. You may feel the impulse to turn on your side and curl up; follow that impulse, watching your body’s response. This time is about settling in and settling down.
* An important postscript about vocalizing and verbalizing while doing discharge work
It is okay to make sounds or shout out words: this is a way of discharging energy. Stomp your feet, shake your fists, stick out your jaw and narrow your eyes and say the words you want to say about this situation.
People often struggle to say out loud some of the things that they are saying in their minds. They judge themselves for the words that they say. Vocalizing is a helpful way to discharge. Use your discretion if there are other people in your house.
What should you say? Well, only you know what is in your mind, but if you want to discharge, here are some tips.
Short, declarative statements work better than long explanations. (“Stop it!”) (“Get out!”)
Stretching out the sound helps you to breathe more deeply. (“Stooooooop!”)
A long, drawn-out, loud “Nooooooooo!” will make you breathe more deeply.
It is romance season, time to get your songs fired up, mark out your territory, make note of food sources, shift from seeds to insects for some.
This morning I stepped out on the front porch to breathe in the cold air, see the sunshine, and wonder about my day. The street is very quiet. The school across the street lies empty, of course, for the last ten days. The snow from yesterday was still quiet and solid; it was pretty cold.
Then I heard it: the insistent rapping, rapping, rapping of a woodpecker across the neighbourhood. It was probably a block or more away, but it was clear and persistent.
Spring is here. This is early spring here in our part of the Maritimes, whether there is a pandemic or not. There is strong, penetrating sunshine, crisp and still shocking cold, icy pavements, and birds eking out a meal from the insects that are embedded in trees whose sap is starting to run.
A little later, I took my coffee out to the back deck where the sun was strongest. Not clever enough to wear my jacket, I knew I’d only be out a few minutes, but it was enough. When I was able to still my mind, I could hear a mourning dove, probably two streets away. Then a gull, closer. Then I could tune in to some twittering in bushes near me. There was a veritable spring symphony going on out there.
Birds are back in business. It is romance season, time to get your songs fired up, mark out your territory, make note of food sources, shift from seeds to insects for some. They don’t know or care about what agitates me. They are intent, as always, on their own journeys, their own lives. The intensity of their biological drives to survive and to help their species survive, one mating season at a time.
I know that spring isn’t an inevitable thing. I know that our songbird stock is vastly small than a century ago. I know that climate change or a volcanic eruption or an asteroid hit could make all of this go away.
But I am also warmed and comforted and encouraged by the continuity of the birds, and the procession of the seasons, and the feeling that life itself is our best resource in hard times. Life has a way of asserting itself under all sorts of conditions. When I tune into the assertive voices of Life Going On, I can remember that I am part of that, too, and so are you.
EDITED to add: here is a lovely bit of Mozart with birdsong …and video
Here is a radical suggestion. Instead of DOING more, try doing less.
But not just any resting; try constructive rest.
If you are a high achiever, or someone who likes to Get Things Done, constructive rest might be just the ticket. You get to rest and allow your body and nervous system to downshift, and you are doing something constructive!
Do you do too much? Most of us do a lot; we care for family members, work at a job, do mundane chores like laundry, shopping, yard work. We may also take courses, do workouts, volunteer, have social relationships that require tending. We take online courses for self-improvement. We belong to clubs; we go to parent-teacher meetings. We are busy, all the time.
Our society values doing. Doing is highly regarded: people cannot imagine “doing nothing” and letting that be okay. Even vacations are highly organized events. If they are focused on relaxation, we say things like “I needed a vacation. I work really hard all year and this is when I take time off.” It is almost like we need to have an excuse to rest or relax or enjoy. Almost – dare I say it? – as if there is something wrong with wanting to have some free time. There is more social value in being tired from work than in being tired from playing.
We generally are pretty good at working too much, and pretty bad at taking time off.
Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, some of us are now required to take time off. We are being forced to do less because our activities have been curtailed, we are socially distancing or self-isolating and many people are not permitted to go to work. This can be a shock to our functioning if we are used to overworking, and we may find ourselves struggling to let go.
Beyond this enormous change in everyday life, there are many unknowns in our future. Even some of the things that we do know are pretty scary, like the nature of the illness caused by the virus. With all of this going on, it is likely that your body and mind might be overcharged or over-activated.
How can you tell?
Here are some ways to check in with yourself.
Notice if you are able to pay attention as you usually can. Distraction sometimes occurs as our nervous systems ramp up. Does it take you three tries to do something simple?
Notice your thoughts. Are you thinking more than usual? Are your thoughts louder than usual? Are they oriented to fearful topics, or stress-inducing ones? Do your thoughts feel like a rushing river, and you are rushing right along with it?
Check out your body tensions. Are you feeling tightness in your chest, your throat, your jaw? Is your lower back aching?
Any or all of these can be due to excess stress or to anxiety. Sometimes we don’t feel anxious, but our bodies are charged up in an unusual way. We may have trouble settling down, easing into relaxation or sleep, allowing our minds to quiet. Those things can tell us that our nervous systems are on alert, even if we don’t actively feel dread or fear.
Here is a radical suggestion. Instead of DOING more, try doing less.
But not just any resting; try constructive rest.
If you are a high achiever, or someone who likes to Get Things Done, constructive rest might be just the ticket. You get to rest and allow your body and nervous system to downshift, and you are doing something constructive! This practice has a lot of forbears, but I first learned of it in a wonderful book called BodyStories, by Andrea Olsen (https://www.amazon.ca/Bodystories-Experiential-Anatomy-Andrea-Olsen/dp/158465354X/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=bodystories&qid=1584984957&sr=8-1).
How to practice constructive rest?
Find a quiet space (I know, that might be the hardest part of this exercise). You’ll want to be able to lie down on the floor, so find a carpeted space, or use a yoga or exercise mat or towel to soften a hard floor.
Lie down on your back. You can let your legs stretch out long, perhaps with a rolled-up towel under your knees to help them relax. Or you can rest the soles of your feet on the floor, allowing your knees to rock gently to the center and support each other. Turn the palms of your hands up and allow your body to just lie on this firm surface.
(Don’t rest like this lion; lie on your back. I put him in here because he looked pretty relaxed. And cute, if a large carnivore can be cute.)
Take this moment to notice where your body contacts the floor. Where do you notice the contact? It is likely at your hips, the back of your head, the soles of your feet, and parts of your back and arms. What do you notice, as you wait here for a moment?
Now bring your awareness to the very fact of the floor beneath you. Feel the support and firmness. The floor is connected to the ground, and the ground is the earth. The whole earth is there to support your body whenever you want it to. Is there any part of your body you could let down a little more? Let that happen.
Now notice your breath. You don’t have to change anything, or breathe more deeply. Just allow yourself to notice your breathing as you lie on the floor. Feel the breath enter your body. Feel the breath leave your body. Keep watching and noticing. What is happening in your breath as your body lets down?
Keep resting and watching your experience. If you can stay in constructive rest for five minutes, you’ll notice changes. If you can stay longer, you’ll notice more change.
Notice what you can allow to let go. Notice what parts want to keep holding on, even with your awareness and desire to let go. Consider all of your parts kindly; giving kind attention and curiosity to yourself. What will it be like if I can stay here a little longer? How do I feel about making a move to get up?
When you are finished resting, notice your awareness that you are finished. What is it like to feel ready to move on? Can you find the place or places in your body that are giving you that message? Before you move on, take a moment to assess what you got from this exercise.
There can be something profoundly satisfying in doing nothing and calling it constructive. Try it and let me know what you find out about yourself in the process.
Oh, and helping humanity? Whenever you can exhale and relax, the people around you can also exhale and relax. Keeping a centered, peaceful self helps everyone.
This is the Poetry of Therapy
I don’t know what force moves me to put these words on paper,
to choose words carefully in the sacred space
to check inside myself for the resonance I want to feel
before releasing them into the room (or onto the page).
And then – that most exquisite moment
When they land precisely as intended and the ripples and prickles on my skin confirm it,
Along with the expression on your face, the light in your eyes, and the resonance between us.
Sometimes a word, a phrase, or a moment of music is just right. You cannot predict it, you cannot engineer it, but you can feel into the experience and the great vault of language to locate a match.
When it floats to the surface, I check it. Really? Is this it?
I feel around in my chest or belly or throat
Is this the word? Let me see….I send it, gently, tentatively, into the air of the room
Where it drifts across on feelings
And lands with you. I watch with my eyes and my heart.
I see you change; your colour, your eyes, how you hold yourself, the very meaning you make of your place in the room.
When it works
the word expands the experience
When it works, it connects us.
When it works, it changes the world.
The crabapple tree is going to have a great weekend. I can see her through the burgeoning green of the maple in my side yard. The crabapple sits in my neighbor’s yard, currently housing an assortment of songbirds who are shuttling back and forth to a local feeder. But the tree is focused on what’s happening in her flowers, not on the birds. Birds are secondary, irrelevant. The pink is deep, almost red, lightening at the edges of buds so swollen that they seem about to burst. The day is sodden and cold, so the buds are just waiting, just gathering moisture and strength, awaiting the next time the sun makes an appearance. When that happens, well, you better watch out! The crabapple is going to bloom, with a no-holds-barred eroticism that will pull every bee in a county mile into her orbit. Watch out! That sensuous hot pink, the seductive perfume….the tree will be humming as you walk by, humming and buzzing with the activity of a thousand winged things, all frantically doing what they do and the tree herself will be regal, vibrant, basking in the pleasure, taking it all as her due, enjoying the brush of stamen on pistil, the dusting of pollen, the industry of bees, the enjoyment of human passers-by. Oh, what a weekend she will have.
The sensuality of spring is everywhere. Birds are loud and demanding. The frogs in the little pond across the street spend every evening declaring their intentions. The onions and potatoes in my kitchen bins are insistent: sprouts happen, they tell me, and spring cannot be denied.
I feel it, too. I feel the urge to create, to make something new. I dig my hands into the soil of the garden, watch my mind generate ideas, stir up a new recipe in the kitchen. Long spring days that last well into the evening, warmer weather that draws one outdoors, the smells and sounds and skin sensations of spring….all beg to know, what will you make? What will you create? What will you bring to this season of growth and newness?
This morning I had a large load of laundry to hang up. I found myself rushing to get it finished, hurrying to complete the task because I had another task to complete or maybe just because I wanted to get back to my cup of coffee. The point was that I was going to spend twenty minutes hanging laundry and I could do it with my mind in the next task or in irritation or in feeling rushed, or I could hang laundry and practice being present to myself as I did it. So I decided to take this task moment by moment, and try to see when I was derailing and when I might actually be in the present. Hanging laundry doesn’t take a lot of attention and I can attach many memories and thoughts to it, so it was a bit of effort to stay present. In fact, I was thinking I’d write a blog post about hanging laundry and that was yet another way I escaped the present moment! Ahh, the monkey mind can be a clever fellow.
The most potent sensory moment was in snapping out my cotton flannel pajama pants and tossing them over the line, feeling the cold wetness on my hands and the dryness of my skin, smelling the damp cotton and the briefest sense of the enjoyment of the future of pulling on clean pajamas….maybe that was a memory and not a projection, but in any case, it was being present to my own inner experience as well as what was coming in from my senses. I might have enjoyed more spending that twenty minutes sitting on my meditation cushion in silence, but I still would have needed to hang the laundry, and so I am choosing to see that as part of today’s practice. How can I BE when I am still doing? This is one way.
Be-ing is something that I can access all the time. When I am deeply into thinking or remembering or reacting or otherwise unaware of myself, I can stop, notice my sensory experience, take stock of myself (“what do I notice in my body NOW?”) and connect once again to the ground of Be-ing. I don’t need silence, my cushion, or even a quiet space, although they certainly can help. But I am “being” all the time, even when I am not able to notice it.
How do you find yourself in the midst of a lot of doing?
This New Year, I need to lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking, train for a marathon, meditate every single day, read a novel a month, and quit spending money. Entirely. (The subtext: I’m not good enough the way that I am.)
Unrealistic goals, you say? You bet! But we engage in this unrealistic process at least annually, and some of us find that we have to be in continuous self-improvement mode to feel even marginally okay about ourselves.
I have been considering this question of self-improvement. It is a North American pastime, and weight-loss programs, gyms, and other businesses that cater to our sense of being not-okay tend to make a lot of money in January before the motivation flags.
I am interested in this not-okay-ness. Many of us have a continuous internal criticism process going on. When we are engaging in our self-improvement behaviour, perhaps the critical voice quiets, or maybe it changes tone. Maybe we feel a bit better for a little while, but usually the judgment shows up again, or perhaps in another way.
Imagine thinking about everyone the way that you think about yourself. Imagine what it would be like to view everyone as “not good enough” or in need of change. If you see your partner, your children, your co-workers as all needing to change (generally we need them to change to suit OUR expectations), you probably also see yourself in just as negative a light. In fact, I suspect that if you see other people in the light of negative judgment, your inner experience of yourself is probably powerfully negative. And it feels miserable and yucky to think ill of yourself and everyone else. It becomes so pervasive that even things that you might otherwise see as good and wholesome take on a negative tone (for example, a friend has success and you cannot be happy for her, but can only think of the reasons why she doesn’t deserve it).
I’ve heard people say that they are afraid of not being hard enough on themselves. They think that they might become dissolute, lazy, pointless, or some other scary thing if they are not continuously correcting and criticizing themselves. Even the idea of letting go of the internal critical voice is hard to think about because who would I be if I didn’t think all of these things about myself? The inner critic becomes so much a part of us that we cannot recognize that voice as someone else’s. We think that we are hard on ourselves because we DESERVE it. And we are hard on other people because they deserve it, and also because why should they get to be themselves if we can’t allow ourselves that luxury?
There is a way out of this, and it isn’t at the gym. Or it could be at the gym, but the way out actually begins with being willing to question your experience and your thoughts. What if you were actually wrong about your need to change? What if you were really okay just as you are, and that your internal litany of self-criticism is just a reflexive thinking pattern? Would anything else change in your life if you could flex around this issue?
Changing your thinking sounds easy. You just have to change your mind. But your mind has been practicing particular thought patterns for years. Shifting those pathways is not easy but it is simple. You just have to keep on doing it, over and over. Let’s look at specifics.
It is easiest to start with people other than yourself. So try this: think about a person in your life, perhaps a very annoying person. Notice how your mind generates a story about how annoying this person is, and the specific behaviors that annoy you. See how fast this happens! Notice pictures, words in your mind, whatever your mind generates, and then notice how your body reacts to this line of thinking. Don’t judge yourself, just notice! Now stop all of that internal stuff and begin to look inside your ideas about this person for something that you really appreciate, respect, or even envy. See if you can generate appreciation, respect, or even pleasure in yourself about this other person. Try to stay with this thought and the feeling that comes with it; notice what happens in your mind. You may generate other ideas that are about appreciation. You may want to shift back into negative judgment. Just notice and try to stay with what you appreciate, respect, or take pleasure in. Watch your thoughts and how your body responds.
What did you find out? Remember that you are finding out about YOU, not about the other person. You are finding out what happens to you in your thinking about the other person.
After you have practiced step 1 for awhile, you might notice that your everyday annoyance and judgment of other people is shifting. A practice that can help you to be less critical generally is to make a requirement for yourself that when you indulge in a critical thought about someone, you have to generate three items about that person that you appreciate. This will help to shift the balance of your thinking from negative criticism to a place where you are feeling more open and positive. Notice how your body reacts to your thinking. Remember, for every one criticism, THREE appreciations.
If you have friends who like to engage in offering judgment and criticism of other people as group activity, notice how this feels to you. Notice how you feel when you join in, and how you feel if you just observe without judging your friends (or their target). Watch your body and your mind as these interactions go on.
At some point, you might try the experiment of offering an appreciation about the target within your group. Do this as an experiment to notice how it feels to you to actually go against the group-think, and to see how the other people in the group respond to you. Can you tolerate feeling outside the group? Does the open feeling that comes from appreciation help you to manage any anxiety that comes from stepping outside of the norms of your group?
If you have been doing the steps, you probably have begun softening your stance toward yourself without even noticing. Check it out; when you notice that you are criticizing yourself, see how that feels. Then see if it is possible to make a shift to identify something that you actually appreciate about yourself. For example, I might have spent more money than I planned but I do a good job of providing for my family. Or maybe I haven’t quit drinking yet, but I have become honest with my partner about it. You cannot lie to yourself about how well you are doing, because your critic will be on alert for that. (Curious, isn’t it, how we can lie to ourselves about how BAD we are but we cannot lie to ourselves about our acceptable qualities. That’s a topic for another post.)
If you can agree that self-respect is important you might borrow this strategy from the Emotional Freedom Technique . Agree about the thing that needs to change, but take the stance that you can still appreciate yourself. Here are some words to use: “Even though I have twenty pounds to lose, I still appreciate and respect myself.”
“Even though I …..whatever your critic claims…….I appreciate and respect myself.”
If you want to be radical about this, you can even say something like “I totally love and appreciate myself.”
Now you can assess what you might want to change about yourself. But you can make that assessment from a platform of self-respect and appreciation for who you really are, and not from a place of shame and humiliation that makes you criticize yourself. Maybe you want to explore your creativity more. Maybe you want to try a new sport, or dance more. Maybe you want to learn a new language, or to write code, or to take care of lost animals. Whatever it is you want to change, let it be about becoming more yourself in the world, and not about conforming to the image of a critical, judgmental part of the self.
In feeling the openness of living in appreciation rather than judgment, you can enjoy more and take more pleasure in your life. We all know that life has challenges, struggles, pain and sorrow. These are part of being human. Those struggles don’t preclude us from pleasure and enjoyment. We can have all of that, and more.
I am fortunate in my life to be able to take a bit of time to contemplate, to reflect, and to consider my experiences. I am not often in reactive mode any more: I don’t know if that is a change due to my age or to my life circumstances. Maybe both…and maybe a lot of therapy in the middle has been influential!
Anyway, I have noticed two things lately that have made an impact on my thinking. First is this irony: I recently posted with great joy about the silver maple trees preparing to bloom (see here). Well, now they are open and my sinuses are responding: I am foggy-headed, thick-thinking, and have a dull pain that moves around in my head. Yes, I can claim the source but it still left me wandering around the house yesterday, wondering what it was I needed, what did I want, why was I feeling so…bleagh?
So I did what I know is the thing for me to do when I can’t figure it out. I drank two glasses of water and headed to the gym.
What is it about the gym? What is it about moving all that energy around in your body that makes you feel so much more like yourself? I don’t have any answer for that, but the experience made me remember a “rule” I had made for myself back when I was running long-distance. The “rule” was this: “It is always better to run.” This was a guideline for when I was waffling around indecisively. Without fail, running improved my waffling and generally improved my sinus symptoms, even though I was often out in the offending allergens.
The second one is a bit different. I have an injury to a shoulder: something a bit intractable that I hope will be cured by strengthening my back and chest, providing more stability to a joint that is easily strained. Today is a rough day for the shoulder, probably because of having to use it to work with back and chest. I found myself wallowing, in that fogged-in, wandery kind of way, having work to do, having things to consider, having many items that probably needed my attention, but being completely unable to point my attention where I wanted it to go. I finally acknowledged some organic realities: I was hungry, my shoulder hurt, and more caffeine was not going to unfog this brain. So I found food and ibuprophen and then took twenty minutes cuddled up under a blanket, gazing at my most miraculous blooming cactus and breathing. I didn’t try to do anything at all, didn’t “try” to meditate, contemplate, or even reflect. I just sat with what I was experiencing.
It seemed sudden, my awareness in an instant, my noticing that my shoulder was easing and more relaxed, my head was clearing, and my upper body beginning to relax. For the first time I was able to see clearly how that low-level discomfort (read: pain) in my shoulder was creating tension in neck, jaw, head and face, and how creating some space there shifted everything. Soon enough I could get up and move into doing something…not because I HAD to (I can always do what I HAVE to do) but because I actually wanted to…my body felt more like it belonged to me.
I have been a body psychotherapist for years and for years before that I was in training and in therapy myself. Yet I am continually amazed to see how my body IS me, and how the messages from the parts of me other than my mind are so very influential. Allowing for space and time to explore my inner experience allows me to see how that experience may limit me, or how it may free me. The experience of chronic, low-level pain pulls on energy reserves and causes the body to tense as if to protect itself. Finding a respite from the pain means that the body has a respite from its vigilance, and there is more energy available for living life.