As It Turns Out, Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds.

As It Turns Out, Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds.

Have you ever noticed that one guy at work, the one who you’ve never liked, but couldn’t put your finger on why? Or the neighbor who, for some reason, when she smiles at you, you feel irritated? Or why you can’t stand the smell of a certain laundry detergent? Or why, even though you’re accomplished in your field, you feel like an idiot before you give a presentation?

We all have an information processing system hardwired into our brains. This processing system has evolved to help us integrate emotional turmoil into our mental health and is essential for healing. This system helps us to let go of what is not useful information and make connections to what is useful about an experience so that we can adapt, grow, learn, and face similar situations more intelligently.

Here is an example:

You have a stressful interaction with your mother-in-law while she is visiting for a holiday. You feel angry, disappointed, and resentful. Your chest is tight, and your stomach is in knots. You think negative thoughts about her (“She’s always such a cold, demanding jerk.”) and about yourself (“What is wrong with me that after so many years, I can’t seem to avoid these situations with her? Is it me?”)

You keep mulling over what happened, talk about it with friends, maybe even have a stress dream about it that night. The next day, you still feel a bothered by it but not nearly as much. You’re able to think more clearly about it and understand that you two interpret things differently and that there are ways that you can skillfully manage this. This is your brain’s information processing system at work. It’s transformed this disturbing situation into a learning experience. (You can also thank your REM sleep phase for this since this is the time during which wishes, learning/lessons, survival/stress experiences are processed through the action of “synaptic pruning.”

Because of this uninterrupted time to process, your brain was able to associate the memory of the interaction with your mother-in-law and useful information already stored in your brain (from other stressful interactions with her and others) to create resolution. You remember what happened, what worked, what didn’t, and that it isn’t personal, that this is just the way she is and that you have useful tools for interacting with her. The intense emotional reaction you felt the day before is gone.

Unfortunately, our brains do not adaptively store all of our experiences in this way. Sometimes we encounter traumatic experiences or otherwise stressful experiences that overwhelm our brain’s capacity to process and adaptively store information received during these experiences. This is often referred to as “going off-line.” It’s kind of like short-circuiting.

When we encounter extreme stress, the emotional and physical reactions we experience during the event keep the brain from identifying useful information about the situation; there is no resolve. What happens instead is that the event and its information is maladaptively stored. This means that the event and its components are stored in the brain and body as it happened. Everything you saw, heard, felt (physically and emotionally), tasted, smelled, thought remain in their original, unprocessed form.

You do your best to move through it, but whenever any of these senses are triggered, your emotional disturbance level sky-rockets and you have a reaction. Many times, multiple unprocessed events are linked to one another in such a way that if one is triggered, all are triggered. These events, while often linked to one another, are stored in isolation so that they are not linked to anything adaptive.

No amount of time will help them to integrate. It’s as though these events are frozen in time. An event could have happened 40 years ago, but when triggered it’s as though it is still happening or just happened.

Our personalities, coping skills, perspectives, and beliefs about ourselves and others can develop through the lens of these unprocessed events and impact our emotional and physical capabilities.

Research shows that it’s not just clearly identifiable traumatic events that are responsible for this outcome, but any event or pattern that our brain experienced as overwhelming.

It could be the way someone spoke to you as a child, your interpretation of someone’s behavior you witnessed at three years old or making a mistake during an academic oral exam in second grade. We don’t always know how our brains will store an event.

The good news is that we’re not stuck here. There are therapeutic tools that can help us to free ourselves from the suffering of an unconscious cycle or unprocessed event. One of the most efficacious and reliable tools is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy. This therapy helps us to safely contact the disturbing event or maladaptive cycle and process it, giving us a new understanding of the situation so that we can use its information intelligently.

If you would like to know more about EMDR Therapy, please call or email me. I would love to talk with you more about this process and see if it’s right for you. If you’re not quite ready to reach out yet, that’s ok, too. You can find more information on EMDR Therapy here and here.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

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 habituate to looking at the world in a certain way which makes us 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

It’s Not About Self-Esteem

It’s Not About Self-Esteem

The US went on a real self-esteem rampage starting in the mid to late ‘80s. How-To books were written for parents, leaders, educators, executives, and anyone else who wanted to know how to cultivate high self-esteem in themselves and others. After 30 years or so, we’ve seen the impact of this practice, and it hasn’t delivered what its supporters had hoped. As it turns out, the self-esteem movement helped people approach life with more entitlement and less personal accountability. I get the intention behind the self-esteem movement and support that intention, but based on what we now know about the human brain, the application was doomed from the start.

 

Self-esteem is about confidence in one’s abilities, feeling good about oneself. I might be the most confident about my driving skills but constantly get into fender benders, get pulled over for speeding, and be a general train wreck on the road. Someone else might believe that he is an ace baseball player and yet is consistently overlooked by even the least competitive teams. Anyone can have high self-esteem. It doesn’t mean they’ve earned it. It doesn’t even mean that it’s based in reality. This goes to show that someone might have great self-esteem and a poor self-concept.

 

Self-concept is how we view ourselves, the beliefs we hold about ourselves, and the feedback we get from our environment. We categorize ourselves, then interpret those categorizations.

Part of your self-concept might be that you handle failure well because you learn from it and use failure as a way to learn strategy and increase your drive to get what you want.

 

I’m not saying that plenty of us don’t have faulty self-concepts. Most of us have incommensurate negative or positive self-concepts somewhere in there. I’m saying it’s more skillful to assess self-concept as opposed to self-esteem because it’s not about how confident or insecure we are in our capabilities as it is about looking at the evidence.

 

In sixth grade, I struggled with math. I wasn’t crazy-struggling, but I wanted to enjoy the same confidence in the subject I saw my peers enjoying so, I came to my teacher for help. If she had been concerned about my self-esteem, she would have told me something like, “Oh, Natalie, you’re such a great student! You’re not struggling that badly. Besides, you’re great and look at all the other things you can do!” Luckily, she cared more about my long-term self-concept than my self-esteem and told me something like, “Ok, Natalie, if you want to be better at math let’s look at where your performance is weak. Here’s where you’re doing well and here’s where you need help. Let’s work on it.” (Thanks, Mrs. Roloffs. I owe you.)

 

So, if you’re struggling with insecurity, instead of working on raising your self-esteem, try looking at how you’ve structured your self-concept. You’ll find it’s a much more useful tool than glossing over your experience with an I’m-ok-you’re-ok message.

 

If you want to look more closely at your self-concept, be curious. What are your values? What do you believe about yourself? What is the evidence of how true or false those beliefs are? What are the stories you tell about yourself? How do they play out in your life?

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

Defending Our Limitations

Defending Our Limitations

Have you ever talked with someone about a problem that they have, and they’re asking for your advice and opinions and every time you make a suggestion they respond with something like, “Yeah, but it wouldn’t work and here are all the reasons why”? And you can “yeah, but” anything- “Yeah, but I tried that and my situation stayed the same.” “Yeah, but she won’t listen to me anyway.” “Yeah, but that would require me to change everything I’m doing.” “Yeah, but if I did that then I would have to go back and fix a million other things that I’ve left unaddressed.”

After a while, it starts to seem like the person whose problem your listening to isn’t really looking for a solution. In fact, it might even start to seem like they’re committed to feeling bad and frustrated and to the problem itself. You get impatient and say something like, “Well, are you going to shoot down everything I suggest?” or “I don’t know what the answer is.” And they say something about how they don’t mean to be contrary and then start the cycle all over again. It almost feels like an argument, and they’re trying to convince you of all the reasons their life will always suck.

Most of us have been on either side of this conversation and understand that both of these roles are frustrating. When we’re the ones acting as the sounding board, we feel like the other person just wants to complain. When we’re the ones complaining, we feel frustrated that we’re experiencing the problem and scared that we will never move through it.

But what’s the deal? What’s happening with this pattern? And what can we do to make it productive instead of self-defeating?

What’s happening with this pattern is that we are arguing for our problem or our limitations. We’re defending them. (That feeling you had about your friend seeming pretty committed to their problem is right on. They are.) We have a lot of reasons to argue for our limitations. Most of them have to do with core beliefs we hold and the narratives we tell about the world and who we are in it.

We pick up our core beliefs as we develop. As we experience the world, we make meaning of these experiences and internalize that meaning. Our core beliefs are born of this meaning. If I grew up poor and I experienced this as lack, I might have started to believe that there is not enough. As I continued to develop, I might have cultivated the belief that, “Because I am poor, I cannot have what I want.” This limiting belief might have prevented me from going to college and setting my sights on the kind of life I wanted instead of the life I thought was available to me in my current state of lack. Maybe my narrative turned into “Everyone else can figure out how to have the life they want because they came from money or had some kind of windfall or are not as challenged.”

I might even go to therapy in hopes of enlisting the help of a professional, but end up spending a lot of my time fighting the treatment and arguing for my limitations. (And if I’ve picked a therapist worth their weight they’ll challenge me on this so that I can get out of my own way.)

Defending our problems is a pretty common behavior and while it takes time and work to change it, we can.

 

Try this exercise:           

1) Assess your narrative: What story do you tell about yourself, about who you are in the world? What story do you tell about the world? What story do you tell yourself about your capabilities, limitations, how you respond to challenges, what’s available to you?                       

2) Assess your current core beliefs: What negative and positive core self-beliefs do you hold?

 

Next time you’re in an empathic space, explore these questions with yourself. No need to connect your findings to any behavior yet. Just be curious about it. Let yourself sit with what you’ve been telling yourself all these years and hold that with compassion.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

You Are Enough.

You Are Enough.

As children, many of us received implicit (and often explicit) messages that it was not ok for us to just be. To some of us, it was communicated that sadness and anger are unacceptable feelings and that to be lovable and worthy we had to hide those parts of ourselves. Some of us were told to constantly strive for more and better, that we should never enjoy where we’re at or what we’ve achieved because someone else is waiting to take our place in line for the best. At some point, we might have realized that our needs and wants were not important.

As a result, we started to believe that we are not enough.

When we are bathed in a message from such a young age and for so long, it becomes woven into our fibers. Such a deep feeling of scarcity, of “not enough” can creep into many other parts of our lives. We feel there is not enough time, not enough money, not enough opportunity. We feel we are not good enough communicators, not good enough parents, not good enough partners, not good enough workers. This becomes the narrative we tell ourselves and we live by it. We have internalized the messages, the scarcity and made an agreement with ourselves that we are not enough, so we approach each situation with that belief. It informs how we participate in relationships, in challenges, at work, and in the rest of life.

It’s not that we want to live this way. We just don’t know how not to. When we haven’t been taught how to validate ourselves and our experience it’s pretty mystifying as to how that could ever work. And once we’ve been doing something for so long, it’s an ingrained pattern of thinking and doing. So, we live in various states of longing and fear.

We starve our needs and try to shape ourselves into what we think we need to be or do or look like so that we can capture the elusive feeling of being enough. We continue to do it until we are exhausted and hopeless.

If this post feels relatable to you and you’re wondering how you can start the process of breaking free from this painful cycle, read on.

 

  • You can observe. You can watch the feelings that come up and the chatter in your mind that tries to find ways to judge yourself and keep those cognitive distortions churning.
  • You can observe while beginning to reserve some judgment. Instead of following your thoughts of “Damnit, I looked like an idiot!” down the rabbit hole, you can put some space in between yourself and the thoughts. This looks more like, “Damnit, I looked like an idiot! …ok, the voice in my head is telling me I looked like an idiot.” That’s enough of a start. John Kabat Zinn devotes a whole method to finding and increasing this little bit of space. It’s called MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), and you should Google it.
  • You can start sending little bits of compassion to the part of yourself that’s feeling inadequate. It can be in the form of thought, a feeling, words that you say out loud, or a mixture of any of these. It’s ok if it feels small and short lived. It will be at first because this is a new practice.
  • Notice as you see patterns emerge. Start tracking your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behaviors about particularly disturbing or problematic scenarios. See if you can gather more information to get a better understanding of what happens for you and what you can do to help yourself.

 

Remember that this belief that you are/there is not enough didn’t happen overnight. It took years of training for you to believe it and live your life by it. It will take time and training to learn a new way of being. Try to show yourself some patience and stick with it.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie