6 Steps to Trusting Yourself

6 Steps to Trusting Yourself

“The suffering itself is not so bad; it’s the resentment against suffering that is the real pain.”
-Allen Ginsberg

 

When I first started my own work with mindfulness and radical acceptance, I found myself saying, “I’ll accept this feeling/ this symptom so that I don’t have to have it anymore.” That’s… not really acceptance but it was the best I could do at the time. Since working with clients around mindfulness and radical acceptance, I have heard this sentiment hundreds of times. It’s hard to get behind the idea that accepting our pain or feelings or aversive experiences has therapeutic value, that it could ever help us to make positive changes. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is driven by just this, accepting the hard-to-accept.

 

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy was created by Steven Hayes in the early 1980s and tested by Robert Zettle in the mid-1980s. It is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and is based on Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’s (ACT) main objective is to help participants turn toward their feelings and symptoms instead of resisting them. The protocol helps participants learn how not to overreact nor underreact nor altogether avoid the associations with these feelings and symptoms. With ACT, we learn to accept ourselves and the experience we are having in the present moment so that we can commit to a behavior aligned with our values.

 

ACT succinctly describes the change in psychological flexibility in this way:

 

We go from F.E.A.R.

 

F- fusion with our thoughts

E- evaluation of our experience

A- avoidance of our experience

R- reason-giving for our behavior

 

To A.C.T.

 

A-accept our reactions and be present

C- choose a valued direction

T- take action

 

In the book, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change by Hayes, Strosahi, and Wilson, we’re given the six core principles to help us develop psychological flexibility:

  1. Cognitive de-fusion: Learning methods to reduce the tendency to reifythoughts, images, emotions, and memories.
  2. Acceptance: Allowing thoughts to come and go without struggling with them.
  3. Contact with the present moment: Awareness of the here and now, experienced with openness, interest, and receptiveness.
  4. Observing the self: Accessing a transcendent sense of self, a continuity of consciousness which is unchanging.
  5. Values: Discovering what is most important to oneself.
  6. Committed action: Setting goals according to values and carrying them out responsibly.

 

ACT emphasizes mindfulness because presence of mind/contact with the present is the only way to change behavior. Now is the only time that we can truly choose a behavior. We miss important external and internal cues to help us determine what is happening in the present moment by thinking about the past or the future. Awareness of the present moment helps us to differentiate between what we are afraid is happening and what is actually happening. It helps us to describe what is happening and then make choices in response. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

 

The “acceptance” part of ACT is problematic for some. “So then, if I’m supposed to accept my feelings and my experience, does that mean I’m supposed to accept abuse and maltreatment?” The answer to that will always be no. When we accept our feelings and experience, it means we accept the information that we are receiving and can make choices based on that information. It means that we accept that this is how it is right, not that this is how it should continue to be.

 

When we practice acceptance of what’s happening we can mindfully make choices that are in alignment with our values. I like to use this phrasing in my own life and when working with clients: “I’m going to keep choosing the same behavior of ______ because I care about______.” Or “I’m going to change my behavior to ______ because I care about ________.” So, someone might say “I am going to keep choosing the same behavior of confronting people when they treat me with disrespect because I care about my feelings and how I’m treated.” Or “I’m going to change my behavior to respectfully disengaging from an argument when it no longer feels productive because I care about my feelings and this relationship and I know that continuing in unproductive conversation usually leads to hurt feelings and resentment.”

 

Sometimes the choice is hard to make. For instance, “I choose to go to bed earlier so that I can wake up feeling more refreshed” is a great behavior goal. But what if it means sacrificing quality time spent with loved ones? This is where present moment focus and acceptance of your experience comes in handy. You might prefer to spend the time with your loved ones and wake up feeling a little more sluggish.

 

I know it’s hard to identify choices so let’s do it together. If you want to talk more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, changing behaviors, or anything else, please call or email me.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

The Challenge of Change

The Challenge of Change

“If you could get rid of yourself just once, the secret of secrets would open to you. The face of the unknown, hidden beyond the universe would appear on the mirror of your perception.”
~ Rumi

 

There are a lot of things we tell ourselves all day each day, both consciously and unconsciously. Everything we do and believe about ourselves is the result of a narrative we’ve adopted. And this can present some problems for us, especially when it comes to a rigid or negative narrative.

 

Here’s an example:

 

As a kid, I was always told to go sit on someone’s lap or talk to someone on the phone who had just called my parents or visit with someone because it would “make their day.” My parents’ intentions were good. They wanted to socialize me and share me with others however, the story that was forming was that I didn’t have a choice about who I interacted with, that I must interact with people whether I wanted to or not, and that it was my job to make other people feel better about themselves whether or not that worked for me. I carried this with me for years, and it meant keeping relationships I didn’t want and committing to responsibilities I didn’t want or need. I had identified so deeply with this way of being that I was afraid to let it go. I’d repeated this story for so many years that I’d unconsciously trained my threat response to activate with even the slightest stimulus. For years I had perceived both interaction and disengagement from interaction as dangerous. I conditioned my threat system to see relationships as precarious, and I needed it to be on high alert. I was familiar with this pattern and didn’t question it so, I kept doing what I had always done. When I realized how much it had been holding me back, I wanted to change this narrative/core belief. I had to acknowledge my attachment to the story and identify the other beliefs I’d held that had been bred by that narrative.

 

The more I delved into this work, the more I started feeling more in control of who I invited into my life, which relationships I maintained, and my level of engagement with people. I didn’t feel trapped anymore, and I accepted my limits.

 

Our Threat/Self-Protection System has evolved in such a way that it automatically turns off our ability to take an interest in anything aside from the perceived threat. This is useful when we have to evade a predator or save a life. In fact, it does us one better! It takes over for us, shuts down our executive functioning, and overestimates danger for us. This is how our species has survived for so long throughout so many dangers and threats. The problem is, it doesn’t know the difference between a predator hunting us and a conflict or phobia or anxiety. It only identifies what our brain has programmed as threatening. Many of us get activated around spiders, public speaking, making a mistake, driving, etc. because our brains have programmed threatening associations with them. As if that didn’t make it challenging enough (and then some), since this system only has eyes for the perceived threat, we have to work much harder to shift gears and successfully manage our anxiety. We have to work against a part of our own brains that has had millions of years to become stronger and more efficient if we want to self-soothe and de-escalate ourselves.

 

What we believe about ourselves + our emotion regulation system + conflict = our life patterns   

 

So the longer we tell ourselves things like, “I don’t deserve it,” “I can’t have it because (I’m alone, poor, don’t know how…),” “This is just the way things have always been and the way they always will be,” “This is who I am,” “I deserve love as long as I give more than the other person,” the longer we condition this pattern and the longer we condition ourselves to associate any upset in this pattern with threat. We can literally train ourselves to feel threatened by success. We can also unlearn and rework these core beliefs.

 

Take the first step in changing the narratives that aren’t working for you anymore:

 

  • Train yourself to be more aware of the core self-beliefs you hold by assessing what is going on in your life right now.
  • What patterns do you notice?
  • Can you see any narratives reflected in your patterns or in what is happening in your life?

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

What Gets in the Way of Self-Care?

What Gets in the Way of Self-Care?

We hear a lot about the importance of self-care. It’s become a pretty big industry. It’s even commonplace to be asked what we do to take care of ourselves when we are applying for certain jobs. We know it’s good for us. We want to do it, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Self-care is incredibly personal and defined on a case-by-case basis. What I might consider self-care you might consider a chore or a waste of time. When we finally figure out what self-care means to us, we run into other obstacles. We don’t have the time or the means or the motivation. Sometimes we feel that we have such a deficit of self-care that we’re overwhelmed by what we need and don’t know where to start. We just keep slogging through life because it’s what we know how to do and what we’ve always done.

Let’s take a break from all that slogging and look at some of the common issues that get in the way of self-care:

A lack of understanding of what self-care is: A good way to find out what feels like self-care to you is to explore. Ask yourself what you need and want more of in life and what you need to do to get it. For some it might be more play time. For others it might be more work time. Some of us might need more massages and nights out with friends while others might require more time to prepare meals and quiet time. Sometimes it’s more specific. Someone might want to self-advocate more in relationships needs to create a self-care plan around that. Some of us need many hours of self-care per week and some of us need a lot fewer. And it’s subject to change from week to week and age to age; what we consider self-care at 25 might be different at 35.

Defining ourselves based on what other people think: When we define ourselves and our worth based on what others think we imprison ourselves. We either deprive ourselves of the self-care behaviors we know we need or we engage them in secret, surrounding ourselves with guilt. We feel we have to steal that time instead of owning it. I know how hard this is. We live in a culture that encourages us to define our worth by how busy we are, how overworked and exhausted we are. If we have anything left to give at the end of the day we haven’t done enough. We’re not as worthy as someone who doesn’t make time for themselves.

Low self-worth: The lower our self-worth the less we believe that we have the right to self-care. We’re on a hamster wheel just running to try to reach that coveted status symbol of worth. We run ourselves into the ground. We work around the clock. We don’t say “no.” We don’t hold limits with other people. We people please. We try to fit in.

Perfectionism: We eat into our self-care time with work, chores, favors for other people. It’s hard for us to stop something mid-project or before it meets our unattainable measure of satisfaction. Sometimes it’s a little more subtle; we don’t want to start a self-care routine until we (are in a relationship, move, lose weight, are sure we have the job, etc.) This is dicey because there will never be a right time to start the routine. There will always be something that prevents us from taking care of ourselves. We’ll just keep running on that hamster wheel.

Inability to ask for help/define needs: When we introduce self-care into our lives it usually requires a change somewhere else. We need to restructure our time and this can impact other aspects of our lives and relationships. When we can’t ask for what we need we stay stuck. Not asking for help when we need it is a great way to make self-care seem like a chore. It becomes one more thing we have to get done instead of something that feels restorative and nutritive.

Shame: When we carry beliefs that we are defective, not enough, unworthy, or intrinsically bad it’s difficult for us to believe that we deserve to take care of ourselves. We’re usually too busy trying to prove our worth by taking care of others to give ourselves care. This is an insidious issue that has many faces and can show up in various aspects of our lives. It can feel nearly impossible to take care of ourselves when we’re carrying around shame.

The list looks like a pretty tall order of change to address, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s challenging. We’ll have to be willing to look at our patterns and narratives and do some uncomfortable work. It’s better than the alternative, though. It’s better than staying stuck in the pile of shame and resentment and exhaustion. Let’s get to work.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

What You Practice Will Continue

What You Practice Will Continue

Who among us hasn’t gotten fed up with some pattern to which we seemed to be unflinchingly committed and decided that today is the day to make a once-and-for-all change? We’ve bought the self-help books, read them all the way through, completed the exercises, and made a plan for ourselves. And then in a couple of weeks (if that) we’ve felt as though the book that was going to help us change our patterns (improve our relationship, help us get fit, connect us to happiness) never happened at all. It’s as though we never even picked them up. And that seems to be the best case scenario. It’s more likely that we’ve bought the books and gotten half or part-way through them and haven’t completed all (or any) of the exercises. We lose interest, lose steam, and we lose motivation to revisit them. We blame the books, ourselves, our busy schedules, other people.

This frustration is definitely not specific to self-help books. It can happen with anything- a motivational speech we attend, a heart-to-heart we have with a loved one about changing something in the relationship, a heart-to-heart we have with ourselves about not choosing the wrong people anymore. How many times have we found ourselves saying something like, “How many times do I have to tell you?!” or “How many times do we have to have this conversation?” and “I’ve tried to change this so many times. Nothing works.” It’s infuriating as hell, and it makes us feel like giving up and walking away.

And I know how it feels. I’ve had partially-read self-help books stack up on my bookshelf, too. I have also said, “How many times do we have to talk about this?!” Don’t lose heart. The human brain learns by doing, by experience. It would be awesome if we learned by doing something just one time, but we are people, not robots. In what sport do the players practice one time? In which subject do students have a one-time class? Do musicians attend one practice? Did any of us learn to drive by driving a car once? When have we ever been prescribed a one-pill antibiotic? (Actually, this one-time antibiotic might be a real thing now. I’m not sure.) Anyway, you get it.

Our brains are set up to let our sweet, little neurons flow wherever there is a synaptic connection. We strengthen those connections through use. The more we think about, practice, or experience something, the more we embed that synaptic connection. It will be the first path down which our cute neurons choose to travel. (Keep in mind that during sleep our brain experiences synaptic pruning which means that it discards all of the weak associations it has made. It identifies the strongest synaptic connection and saves them. It assumes they are most important.)

Don’t donate those self-help books quite yet. Consider rereading them. Keep having the same discussion about the distribution of household duties with your spouse. Keep trying to make the changes you’ve been trying to make. Remind yourself that, even though school might be forever out of session, studying is still a requirement for success. We study every day; we’re just not aware of it.

If I think and talk about how much I hate Brian from work, what an idiot he is, how clueless he is, I am studying how much I hate Brian. The more I think about how awful Brian is, the stronger I make that synaptic connection. The stronger the connection gets, the more important my brain thinks that information is, and the more neurons are inclined to choose that pathway. I can turn this in any direction. I can practice thinking about idiotic Brian or I can practice detaching and remind myself that his behavior isn’t about me. I can practice having important conversations about repeat-scenarios with someone in whom I am invested. I can practice the homework my therapist gives me and the exercises my health coach assigns and the exercises I read in self-help books to strengthen those neural networks. So, keep practicing, as often as you can. Keep getting back on the wagon after you’ve fallen off. It’s not as easy as a one-time fix, but it’s more realistic and sustainable.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

Motivate Yourself

Motivate Yourself

You and I both know that, sometimes, it’s hard to self-motivate. Pretty much everyone experiences it at some point- getting out of your warm bed on a cold morning, sticking with your workout routine, catching up on emails and phone calls, giving a presentation to a large group, making the healthy meal choice, initiating a difficult conversation, transitioning from something fun to something not-so-fun. It might even sort of feel like a miracle that you were able to make it from bed to the bathroom to brush your teeth this morning.

And before you get too deep into the “Ugh, I’m so lazy. I just need to suck it up! Everyone else seems to be able to do it” narrative, let me just tell you that every typically developing human brain experiences this same problem. The human brain is wired to seek comfort and satisfaction because comfortable and satisfied equals safety (i.e., you get to live). Discomfort, on the other hand, equals danger (i.e., you might die). It’s adaptive. This process is what helps keep you from standing in a busy street full of cars or leaving your hand on a hot stove. Your brain doesn’t care (or even know) if, in reality, you won’t die from giving a presentation to 500 people. It just knows that its little limbic system is firing signals that the current situation is not safe. Your body is a great listener to this network and starts to release more cortisol into itself and before you know it, you are in full fight or flight mode. Do this enough times and you get a good old fashioned pattern happening in which you don’t even need to think twice before this process is right behind the trigger.

But take heart. It’s possible for you to rewire this process in your brain so that you don’t have to go through quite so much sturm and drang. It takes work and commitment, but with enough practice, you can retrain your brain to respond more favorably to what you previously viewed as insufferable tasks.

Rewiring your brain to perceive things differently can help you to accomplish all sorts of things that normally feel tricky or burdensome. You can learn to manage your time better, delay gratification, improve your self-discipline, strengthen your relationships, and improve your confidence, just to name a few. You might even start to view your brain as a cute sidekick and powerful ally instead of an enemy. To improve or maintain the relationship you have with your brain, take a look at two basic things you can do to increase your ability to self-motivate.

First thing’s first. You need to know why you are doing what you’re doing. You’re much more likely to keep your commitments if they are in line with your value system. Start by identifying your values, the way you live your life, your personal code of integrity. Do you want to be a better parent? Do you want to live a more purposeful life? Do you want to be and feel healthier and stronger? Identifying your values behind the action is crucial for getting your buy-in.

Second, you must identify actionable and measurable goals for yourself. This will give you a concrete plan for next steps and a sure-fire way to see if you’ve hit your target or not. Let’s say that one of your values is self-respect. Part of how you demonstrate self-respect is by treating your body well. Some ways you can treat your body well? Get yourself moving regularly and feed yourself healthy foods. So, one of your actionable and measurable goals can be “Today, I will take 200 more steps than I did yesterday” and “Today, I will drink 16 more ounces of water that I did yesterday”. Start small and be realistic. Remember to step up your goals as you accomplish them. The more you practice accomplishing the challenges you set for yourself, the more you will increase your confidence and ability to self-motivate and the better you will be at it. (I’m serious. fMRIs show that the more our brains experience challenges and accomplish goals related to those challenges, the more emotionally resilient we become.)

Some days, you might shoot your goal right out of the water. On days like these, you will feel invincible. Other days, you might have a hard time making it to your goal at all. You might even fail. This is a good thing. We can talk about how these failures are useful to you (and how failure, in general, is an important part of the human experience).

If you’ve tried this and are having trouble or if you can’t seem to get yourself in gear to make the first move, please let me know and we can talk about next steps.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

What You Need to Know About Happiness

What You Need to Know About Happiness

It’s nothing new that there are a many goods and services that communicate how flawed we are, how we are not ok as we are. It’s part of what drives the market. Seriously, there is so much of this stuff available to us that there is no way I could make an exhaustive list here. We hear and see it so much that we start to believe and feel it. “I’m not as good of a parent because my kid doesn’t have four different kinds of carriers (at minimum) and the newest multicolored toys which promote brain development.” “I don’t have a good body because I don’t have a thigh gap or a shelf-butt.” The examples of this are pretty limitless. We have creams, clothes, pills, places to live, jobs, vacation destinations, ways to look, ways to feel, technologic devices, cars, food… an innumerable amount of things that are thrown at us to let us know that we are not complete until we have them in our possession. Heck, not only are we incomplete (and missing out), we aren’t as good as the other humans who are already using these products.

What a trap. We are not ok, not enough until we are surrounded by all of these things… but by the time we start to feel like we’re gaining some ground, more products have come out or have been improved, and we’re right back where we started. And maybe we’re even worse off. Maybe now that we have all of these dependencies on our things, we’ve taken a few steps back. Dismal.

I am not imploring you to give up everything but the clothes on your back and live an utterly minimalist lifestyle. I like creature comforts, too. I have favorite clothes and favorite coffee and favorite devices and favorite places, too. I am not asking you to give any of this up. I am advocating that you change your thinking about what these things mean about you and your life. Change the meaning you’ve made of them. Make some space for you to be ok as you are.

What does this look like? It starts with changing your thinking. Sometimes this feels especially challenging the more dependent you have become on these goods and services. When you employ the various products packaged as happiness in a cup, it’s harder to respect your thoughts, your innate ability to create your happiness. It’s not just you. It happens to most of us at some point. “Obviously, it’s true that this product will make me a better, happier person. How dumb would I be to think that I could be just as happy (or happier) without it?” Don’t worry too much about it; you just think what you’ve been trained to think. Being consistent about changing your thinking is exactly what will help you readjust this part of the thought pattern.

A pretty critical part of the problem is that we want an easy solution to happiness. It’s two-fold. We think we need these products to make us better… and, once we get said product, we just wait for the transition to happen! Acquire this thing and all of your dreams will come true. Just being around it will make you better, happier. Honestly, that would be awesome. But here it comes…

We have work for it. We have to take an active role in our happiness because feelings and perceptions of experiences are produced inside of us. The good news? If the solution is inside of us, no one can break it or steal it or create a new and improved version. So, sure, it takes some work, but it’s worth it. (Also, it’s super light and travels well.)

So, start taking those baby steps toward changing your thinking. Ask yourself what you’re seeking. Is it confidence? A sense of belonging? A sense of purpose? Increased self-worth? What thoughts get in your way to connecting with it? When do you notice these thoughts? Making these connections harnesses your awareness. When you’re more aware of your process, it’s less overwhelming and more in your control. When it’s more in your control, you feel more confident about your ability to meet your needs.

So, the next time someone doesn’t text you back right away, and you start to freak out and freaking out makes you want to reach for something, stop. Ask yourself these questions. And it’s ok if you still end up reaching for that product. Just this step is a step in the direction you’ve been trying to go.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie