Category Archives: Skillful Living

Mindful Relationships: Rewiring for Compassion and Effective Communication

Being mindful can jumpstart your relationship
Being mindful can jumpstart your relationship

I don’t know about you, but my partner really can push my buttons. Sometimes he does so intentionally but oftentimes it happens without him knowing it.  In either case, when my buttons get pushed, I typically react in anger. Or, my fallback: passive aggression. As you can imagine, this can lead to the formation of some pretty unhelpful patterns in our relationship.  Usually it results in him getting defensive and me feeling hurt.

When we choose our partner, we usually do so with the assumption that our partner will help to support us in all avenues of life. I think most relationships start with both people oriented toward this ideal: that the relationship is good and that they want to do what is reasonable to keep the relationship on this positive track. But almost always, wires get crossed along the way. And we develop patterns of reacting in our relationships that result in undesirable and distressing experiences.

Bringing more mindfulness to relationships can provide a jumpstart to a relationship, whether it is decades or days old. Mindfulness can help each partner check in with their internal experience and communicate that experience more effectively to the other.  Being a mindful partner can potentially rewire long-standing unhelpful patterns of communication while enhancing compassion and promoting authenticity in that relationship.

For instance, let’s meet our mindful couple, Archie and Veronica. Archie’s hot button is tone of voice. When he feels that Veronica’s tone is critical or harsh, he shuts down. When he does so, Veronica feels like Archie is ignoring her and she feels hurt and angry. She wants him to respond to her and thus, ramps up her efforts to communicate what she is saying. This cycle of communication is self-defeating. With time and practice, Archie and Veronica learn to check in with themselves in that moment that their buttons are pushed. They become familiar with the patterns of emotions, thoughts, body sensations, and behaviors that are triggered. And then, if they wish, they can communicate what is happening for each of them and discuss ways to more effectively manage the conflict.

Veronica learns that sometimes, when it’s too late and Archie has withdrawn, she can manage her distress on her own and revisit the topic with Archie when he is not overloaded. And Archie learns to assert his need to take a brief timeout when he is emotionally flooded so that he can better attend to what Veronica is saying. They both can now take responsibility for their part in a conflict because they feel safe being vulnerable.

Mindfulness is not rocket science. It simply involves consistent effort to attend to the full experience of the present moment. In a conflict with a loved one, it is tempting to get overwhelmed by one particular aspect of the experience, for instance, thinking. So, with Veronica, when Archie was shut down, she was swept away by the distressing (and incorrect) thought that “He doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t listen to me. How could I be so stupid to choose someone who doesn’t want to listen to my needs?” Rather than checking in with other aspects of the experience (for instance her body sensations) and attempting to soothe herself until that distress could pass and more logical thinking could return.

It takes time, practice and patience to rewire old patterns of thinking and reacting. Luckily, our fantastically plastic brains have the indelible capacity to form new connections which result in new beliefs and behaviors. As this excellent blogpost describes, better connecting with yourself via mindfulness can have a transformative effect on the relationships in your life. The relationship we have with our partner is one of the relationships that most impacts our daily lives and thus, I believe that it’s one that deserves consistent care and attention.

(Image courtesy of khunaspix / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Parenting in Real Life: Modeling Imperfection

family

We parents are hard on ourselves. It is no secret that the parenting bar is often set ridiculously high. There is some usefulness for these high expectations- they can sometimes provide a boost of short-term motivation or help make clear what is really valuable. But, more often than not, unrealistic expectations only make us feel… well… crappy.

Funny enough, when we find that we cannot leap effortlessly over that high bar we set for ourselves, a common method for dealing is giving ourselves a stern internal talking-to and setting the bar even higher! Most of the time, this strategy- although based on good intentions- only depletes our sense of self-efficacy and further invalidates the very good efforts we are making but overlooking.

There is an alternative that serves to set up a new pattern of relating to yourself and has the potential to impact your child’s relationship with him or herself. As your child’s primary role model, you have the fabulous opportunity to model imperfection. Just as many parents make an effort to help their children realize that the implausible expectations society places on appearance and physical beauty are not reasonable, you can do the same for behavioral and emotional expectations.

You don’t expect your child’s appearance to fit the photoshopped standards of beauty perpetuated in the media. And more than likely, you do not expect them to go through life without making a mistake or never being disappointed in themselves. And you are in a unique position to show them how to embrace the imperfection that helps to make us who we are as individuals. You get to say to them:  “I was really angry today and I can see it did not help the situation. Next time, I am going to try to handle my anger in another way.”

Or: “Yes, I was very frustrated today when I said those words while I was driving. Normally I try not to say those words because they can be hurtful. Next time, I will try to handle my frustration differently.”

And what you are really saying is: “I am not perfect. Sometimes I do things that I am not proud of. But I own that and I am accountable for my mistakes.” That small act of acknowledgment pays dividends. You are actively showing your child how to cultivate self-compassion and how to be vulnerable. Concurrently, you are showing him/her how to take responsibility for their actions, how to be courageous in the face of difficulty and  how to build a innate sense of worthiness.

As discussed earlier, self-compassion is not self-indulgence. Modeling imperfection does not mean that all of the sudden your “expectation bar” is tumbling down to the floor and you spend the rest of your days lying in front of the television with a gallon of Nutella (although that may happen from time to time). It simply means that you make a conscious effort to cultivate a different kind of internal conversation that is more kind, fair and balanced. One that is more along the lines of “Yeah, that did not go as well as I had hoped but I am proud of what I did accomplish” versus the tired old refrain of “Everyone else could have done that and you didn’t. Tomorrow you’ll have to try even harder because failing is unacceptable.”

And how wonderful would it be if you could simultaneously help your children to cultivate this same kind of dialogue?

(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Mindful Weekend: Coping Effectively with Distress

This weekend, I invite you to meet distress in a different way. We all know this feeling of distress- good old distress makes himself known in a variety of different ways, whether it be body sensations, thoughts, or emotions. It can be assured that in moments of unease or discomfort or anxiety, distress will very often be along for the ride.

To boil down its definition, distress means “suffering.” We know that pain is inevitable- we will lose loved ones, we will be disappointed, we will encounter difficulties (big and small) around every bend in life. Yet, in spite of this inevitability, suffering itself is not a given. Pain is the natural reaction of the body and the mind to a difficulty. By contrast, suffering involves our reaction to the pain: the story we tell ourselves about how long the pain will last and what it means, our assessment of our resources to deal with the pain, what we think past pain of the same degree could mean for dealing with this current pain, and on and on.

If we could peel away that layer of suffering, we could deal more directly with the pain and respond to it more effectively. But while we are defining vague psychological constructs, what does “effective” really mean?  One definition, or equation if you will, that I think is very illustrative is borrowed from Dialectical Behavior Therapy:

current reality + rules of the universe + values/goals = effectiveness  

All the variables in the above equation are important to factor in when deciding how to respond in a distressing moment. Yes, there are things that you cannot change about the situation and about how the universe works (for example, life is not fair). Even with all those realities in mind, you can bring your values front and center, ultimately choosing to move in a value-driven direction.

Here is an example. Today I found myself in the midst of a little “road rage,” wherein I thought I had the right of way and the other person thought they had the right of way. The other driver rolled his eyes, gesticulating, lowered his window and tried to convince me that he was right. I tried to prove my case (in French- yikes!) but I could see it was going nowhere and drove away. A part of me wanted to stay and try to convince the other driver that I was right. But, the value-driven part of me said, “what do you have to prove? There are more important things to do today than stay to fight a meaningless battle.” The inner core of my distress in that moment was striking fear that I was wrong, that I made a mistake. After getting home and calming down, it was clearer to me that who was right was less important than the fact that no one got hurt and I have more emotional energy for the rest of the day.

Even when distress threatens to overwhelm you, keep moving in the direction of your values
Even when distress bogs you down, you can keep moving in the direction of your values

Distress can feel like a formidable foe. He takes many shapes and forms and often it can feel like he engulfs rational thought.  But this weekend, I hope you can try to meet him in a new way. Get to know him and he will lose his power. I believe it will then be easier for you to connect to your values and to move back in the direction of the things that matter most to you in your life.

So, when you encounter a distressing moment this weekend, ask yourself: What does distress feel like? Can you notice the thoughts and body sensations that correspond with it? How are you pulled to manage distress? Is it effective?  Does it serve you and your values in the long-run? If not, is there something else you can try?

New Pathways

Even when a path already exists, you can make a new one.
Even when a path already exists, you can make a new one.

As a visual person, I use a lot of metaphors in my work. A personal favorite relates to the development of new habits, and particularly, new thought habits. Over time, we build up a certain way of thinking about a situation or ourselves or a difficulty until it becomes more or less automatic. This thinking habit becomes a well-worn, frequently-trod path through the landscape of our mind.

For instance, when faced with the prospect of making a presentation at work, some of us have developed the habit of thinking about the worst thing that could happen. Or, when receiving a stinging comment from the mother-in-law, some of us may descend automatically into self-criticism (or revenge fantasies). There are hundreds of mostly automatic thoughts zinging through our mind on a given day. It can be interesting to take a step back and slow down to see if it is possible to make a new path.

Making a new path does not mean that you can never use the old path. It just means that you are opening up options for yourself, consciously cultivating a different type of thinking (that perhaps is more rational and compassionate) that can ultimately impact how you respond to a situation. It will take time and patience to create that new path, just as it did to create that old one. But the beauty is that as a result of this new response flexibility there is greater awareness of choice and of freedom from (as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it) “the tyranny of thinking mind”.

Change takes time but our mind is an amazingly flexible vessel for our thoughts and motivations. What kinds of new pathways would you like to create for yourself?

Mindful Weekend: Sensations

Why not bask in the sun during your practice this weekend?
Why not bask in the sun during your practice this weekend?

This weekend, I invite you to play with mindfulness to sensation. In a nutshell, this process involves investigation of a sensation (pleasant or unpleasant) as if you’ve never encountered it before. It is a great opportunity to use beginner’s mind to approach an experience as if it is novel. Once you bring your attention fully to the sensation, try using the sensory qualities as your present-moment anchor.  You may even find that mentally labeling aspects of the sensation is useful; breaking it down into basic sensory terms as you connect with the experience.

Here are some ideas for you to explore with your five senses.

Touch:

Stroking your cat or dog’s fur

Folding towels

Washing your hands

Holding a cup of coffee or tea

The breeze on your skin

Smell:

Household cleaning products

Fresh laundry

The outdoors

Incense

Taste:

Something crunchy

Something spicy or sour

Something minty

Sound:

Soft or loud music

Ambient noise

Water

Laughter

Sight:

A candle’s flame

Different colors of pens or paper

Bubbles

Shadows

Not only is this practice an interesting way to explore more fully the sensations that surround us, it is also useful for self-soothing when overwhelmed by distress. Psychologist Marsha Linehan, developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, suggests that seeking out sensations (especially pleasurable sensations) and experiencing them more fully in this way can be useful in managing emotional crisis.

If you’d like, let me know what you try or what other ideas I should add to this list. Wishing you a wonderful and mindful weekend.

Self-Compassion and Parenting: Talking to Yourself Like You Talk to Your Kids

Parenting can be as challenging as it is joyful
Parenting can be as challenging as it is joyful

Following a very fun and thought-provoking workshop about mindful parenting on Monday, I’ve been reflecting on the notion of infusing more self-compassion into parenting. Specifically, how parents can cultivate self-compassion and what responding to difficulty with self-compassion rather than guilt and anxiety would look like in reality. I believe that careful cultivation of self-compassion can provide much needed balance to our habitual reactivity.

First, I think it is important to elucidate what self-compassion is not, as it can easily blend with some of the other “self-” terms that exist in our modern vernacular, like “self-esteem,” “self-indulgence,” or “self-care.” As self-compassion researcher and advocate Kristin Neff explains, self-compassion is not self-pity:

Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection.

Self-compassion is also not self-indulgence. Again, Dr. Neff explains:

Many people say they are reluctant to be self-compassionate because they’re afraid they would let themselves get away with anything.  “I’m stressed out today so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch TV all day and eat a quart of icecream.” This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion.  Remember that being compassionate to oneself means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term. In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising).  

Instead, self-compassion is an acceptance of our humanness, an acceptance of those things that make us flawed, imperfect and relatable. And it’s about responding to those difficult moments (when those challenging aspects of yourself feel so front and center in your mind that you cannot think of anything else) with kindness and gentleness. Luckily, we parents have an advantage when it comes to cultivating self-compassion because we have a lot of practice with compassion in responding to our kids.

Think about it: when your child comes home complaining about a bully, or feeling sad, or feeling angry- you respond. You likely relate to your child’s suffering and attempt to make your child feel better by responding with warmth and understanding. Ok, now let’s flip the script:  what would it be like to respond in this same way to yourself when you are experiencing similar difficulties?

Self-compassion and mindfulness go hand in hand. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of difficulties as they arise, and to be able to observe them without over-identifying with them. With mindfulness, we can simply notice the experience without judgement and without getting swept away in unhelpful reactivity.

But, like all new thinking habits, cultivating self-compassion takes time and a consistent effort to try something different in the face of a difficulty. It takes a) recognition that you are indeed being triggered in this moment, b) stepping back to decide how to respond and finally, c) deciding not to do the same old thing, like talking to yourself with reproach or self-criticism, but instead noting that a mistake was made and that imperfection is normal (and, dare I say it, even desirable!). See if you can replace the punishing self-recrimination with the idea that you are doing the best you can.

We parents are quite adept at helping our children to cope with the stressors and difficulties that they encounter everyday. But, somehow, it is far less easy for us to treat ourselves with the same understanding and kindness. You’ve likely seen that the “carrot works better than the stick” with your kids, that they are far more motivated and effective when rewarded for good behavior rather than punished for the bad. And what about for you? What would it be like to modify your internal dialogue and talk to yourself more like you talk to your children? With time, you may find that intentionally cultivating self-compassion can help you to be a more effective parent.

Acting “as if”

Sometimes it works better to put the cart before the horse
Sometimes it works better to put the cart before the horse

We’ve all heard the phrase “fake it ’till you make it” and this concept has come up frequently in my clinical practice this week. When you find yourself struggling to implement a new skill or persist with a new behavior or routine, this idea of acting “as if” can be particularly useful.

It is important to recognize what one is feeling or how one may be pulled to behave but mindfully implementing this idea can do so much good. For instance, on those days when I am tired and daydream about only getting out of bed to refresh my coffee, I find that it is useful to act as if I am energized. And going through these motions (rather uncomfortably at first) can help to augment my momentum until the behavior feels more natural.

Oftentimes, our behavior can impact our thought patterns in powerful ways. When our minds observe our bodies acting in certain ways, we take that as evidence regarding how we are feeling. And because our minds do not like it when our behavior and our thoughts and feelings do not line up, they shuffle things around a bit so that it all makes sense. If I am singing in the shower to my favorite song, my mind says “Hey- she must be feeling ok. Let’s get pumped up for this day!”

It sounds a bit tricky but I invite you to give it a try. Even in subtle ways, our bodily activity can jumpstart our thinking in very productive ways. A simple way to play with this concept is by wearing a gentle half-smile throughout otherwise mundane activities. Research indicates that because of the bi-directional relationship between behavior and emotion, simply changing our facial posture can trigger a cascade of seratonin and dopamine that results in feeling more positively.

So try putting the cart before the horse and acting “as if” when approaching a difficulty. We sometimes have more direct control over our behavior than our emotions. Therefore, this concept is a useful way to practice self-validation, by recognizing your emotional needs, while gaining a sense of mastery by responding effectively to those needs.

(Image courtesy of vectorolie / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Mindful Weekend: What Went Well?

sunflowers
Take time to notice what is going well

We humans are a tricky species. Thanks to our ancestors from way, way, waaaay back,  our brains have developed an ability to focus on threatening situations in order to help protect us from harm. For instance, I might think  “Hmm, I could get mugged on the metro so I’d better pay attention to my purse.” As much as this way of thinking is often helpful, it can just as often be overblown, for instance, when I overestimate the likelihood of a mugging or avoid public transportation altogether. Luckily, thanks to good old neuroplasticity, we have the ability to gradually change how we perceive and organize information, and effectively problem-solve.

This exercise from positive psychology trail-blazer Martin Seligman is a way to cultivate a greater attention to what is going well and to effectively analyze a situation to increase the likelihood that things continue to go well.  In his new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Dr. Seligman suggests we try to regularly engage in the following exercise to practice strengthening these useful mental muscles that help us notice information that contributes to our contentment and sense of well-being.

At the end of the day, think back on three things that went well from the day. Write down each of these events – they do not have to be major, life-shaking occurrences- just three positive events. Next to the event, write down one reason that this event might have gone so well. Try this out for a week and see if it has any affect on your mood.

As an example, here’s my list from yesterday:

1) Event: I got to a meeting on time. Reason: I planned ahead and was organized and ready when the time came to leave the house.

2) Event: I made a good dinner for my family. Reason: I was more creative in the kitchen than usual.

3) Event: My son had a great time playing with his friend. Reason: My son really enjoys the company of his friends.

It may feel strange at first but keep at it and see what happens. Good luck and let me know how it goes for you!