Tag Archives: difficulty

Slowing Down

The Grand Canyon did not form overnight
Slow but concerted effort can create incredible change- in a landscape or in human behavior

The other day, I was late for work. I missed the metro and here in Switzerland, when you miss your first mode of transportation, you can be sure that you will also miss your connection. So, there was nothing to do but wait for the next metro and catch the next train to Lausanne.

Knowing that you will be late is an uncomfortable feeling. For me, there is a simultaneous rush of anxiety and irritation and helplessness that sets my heart pounding and shortens my breath. It is safe to say that I find this experience extremely aversive and do what I can to avoid it. But then I remembered something that I say so often in my practice: When you feel the impulse to avoid, try approaching instead.

And so, I relaxed my body, brought my focus to the breath and then watched the anxious thoughts flooding through my mind. By slowing down and intentionally investigating my internal experience, I found that I could step back a bit, remind myself that even though my thoughts felt like facts, they likely were not. I could bring in a different “voice” to counter these anxious thoughts: If I came to work 15 minutes late, I would still have enough time to prepare for my first client and even if I didn’t have enough time, I have enough experience to be able to manage just fine.

Once the wave of “lateness distress” peaked, I decided to see if I could enjoy this small gift of time I had unintentionally received. I channeled my first mindfulness teacher, Dr. Andy Moore at the University of Wisconsin, who once told us that “If you’re late, you’re late. There is no amount of thinking or worrying that will get you there any faster.” It was so nice to be able to stroll to my connecting train, observing the rush of the morning commute. I listened to the street musicians in the terminal. I stood in a sunny spot on the platform. Honestly, I enjoyed myself!

And three days later, I remember those pleasant moments more than I remember the stress. Even though I do not intend to try and be late in the future, I do feel more empowered to manage this experience when it inevitably happens again. Research indicates that it does not take major changes to routine or behavior to form new habits, it just takes brief but repeated moments of intentionally trying something different. This post is headed by a photograph of the Grand Canyon because I think it is a nice metaphor for what can be created as a result of slow but sustained effort. Turning toward difficulty with kindness and self-compassion can become more routine and automatic with the help of gentle intention practiced over time.

For me, slowing down is a habit I hope to cultivate- even in the face of difficulty and unease. And how about for you? What ways of thinking or behaving would you like to deepen in your life?

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)

Mindfulness as an Antidote to World-Weariness

There is so much beauty to be noticed
There is so much beauty to be noticed

The first thing I saw when I read the paper this morning was an article detailing the killing and butchering of a young giraffe at a zoo in Denmark. There were gory pictures of the animal being chopped to pieces in front of on-looking children and then the carcass being fed to a lion. Throughout this morning, I saw the pictures again in my friends’ Facebook feeds and on various online news sites.

As consumers of media and livers of life, we are regularly bombarded with disturbing images, experiences and details from the world around us. At times, it can seem that there is so much pain and suffering in the world that we are powerless to stop it or to suggest that life can be beautiful and filled with wonder. It is true that if you look for it, you can find just about any atrocity you imagine. Likely, there is even a Twitter account, Facebook profile and blog that will keep you updated on this atrocity as it unfolds.

And that is where mindfulness comes in. Being mindful reminds us that we can choose where and how to focus our attention. We can intentionally bring our awareness to the goodness that happens with just as much consistency and intensity in this world as war, injustices, and brutality. We can focus on the small acts of kindness and subtle heroism that restore our sense of humanity. This does not mean that being mindful fosters denial or inaction. Mindfulness enables recognition that our compassion is best activated when we feel hopeful and empowered rather than raw and depleted.

Mindfulness helps us to recognize how we respond to any stimuli, including the entire array of emotional experiences our bodies and brains enable us to have. In a moment of world-weariness, we can check in with ourselves and notice that fear and sadness and anger are activated. And rather than pushing it aside with cynical numbing, we can open to and embrace our ability to feel empathy, to feel genuine connection to others who may be suffering. And then, we can decide how to respond effectively to these feelings.

When you catch this world-weariness in yourself, it can serve as a cue to reach out and connect with someone you care about, or make a thoughtful donation to a charity of your choice, or engage with your community. Or perhaps, it will cue you to simply replenish depleted stores of resiliency by taking some time away from the internet, making a cup of warm tea or going for a jog. There is goodness and gentleness in the world- maybe more of it than we recognize as it is not often celebrated or remarked upon. If we cultivate an ability to seek out goodness and contribute to it, this will help to counteract vulnerability to being overwhelmed by the real difficulties in our society.

 

You Can’t Run Away: Mindfulness as Freedom from Exercise Addiction

Mindfulness made sport fun again
Mindfulness made sport fun again

 

The following experience is generously contributed to this blog by a mindfulness enthusiast who wishes to remain anonymous but hopes that sharing this story may inspire others to try something different in their lives.

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These days, I can’t remember the last time I went to the gym. Even so, if I close my eyes, I can still recall the drumming of footsteps on the treadmill, the distinctive smell of sweat and disinfectant and coffee, and the damp strain of my perspiration-soaked teeshirt. Throughout the formative years of my life, exercise was a constant companion, so much so that when I could not exercise, I felt jittery, couldn’t sleep, wasn’t hungry. What many people call “discipline,” for me became “addiction.” It is with hindsight that I now recognize that my quest for fitness, and the time and mental energy involved in maintaining this elusive quality, was not healthy. In fact, it interfered with my functioning and the quality of my life.

In university, I  often chose a workout over studying for exam. I meticulously planned my daily academic routine around a two-hour allotment of gym time. During a summer research tenure abroad, my first thought was “how do I find a gym?” Anxiety-driven runs punctuated even the seemingly all-encompassing early days with the man who became my husband. He regularly found amusement in my early morning treks through massive unplowed snowdrifts to the nearly empty gym.

My desperate quest was not about weight or appearance (for the most part), but about wanting to maintain evidence supporting my narrow view of what an athlete should do. Since discovering my penchant for long-distance running in middle school and the recognition my success in this area garnered, I became obsessed with maintaining work out regimens that I felt revealed my level of fitness. No matter that very often these regimens were actually sabotaged by the extreme dedication I showed in their pursuit: the six stress fractures in high school, the anemia that depleted my energy, the dehydration that resulted in a miles -long blackout running along a busy road, and the fatigue and depression from being trapped in an endless loop.

If I couldn’t run exactly 7.6 miles per hour for 45 minutes on a treadmill with a 1.5 percent incline that day, I was obviously just days away from muscle atrophy and loss of cardiovascular fitness and ultimately, losing my identity as an athlete. Vacations were plagued by anxiety and furtive runs were crammed in among planned pleasurable pursuits. My mood could swing from post-workout elation to an extreme irritability resulting from what felt like the worst cabin fever imaginable.

With the benefit of hindsight, I recognize that each workout was avoidance of what I feared most: being unfit and what that could mean. And if I weren’t fit, or an athlete, or dedicated to the pursuit of my physical maintenance, I did not know who I was. It took having a child and a move abroad to face this difficult reality but by the time I chose to steer my life in this direction, I was ready for change.

However, the real key to unlocking the cage of exercise addiction was the practice of mindfulness. At first I found the practice of sitting with myself, with no distraction, for minutes at a time, to be exceedingly uncomfortable. But, I made it my goal to confront my doubts about this motionless mental exercise and keep on practicing.

It was by establishing a regular mindfulness practice that I finally became more comfortable in my skin, doing whatever my body happened to be doing, feeling whatever happened to be present during that moment. When I could not exercise, I directed my attention to the movement in my body during routine activities like walking to the grocery store, doing the laundry or washing dishes. Additionally, I opened to the anxiety I felt, befriending it and getting to know its ebbs and flows. Rather than this increasing my anxiety, this approach helped me to manage it and continue to live the life I valued. By facing my fears, I gathered evidence that the worst would not happen- that I would still be a human being worthy of connection, value and belonging.

With time and mindfulness and doing things differently, I have slowly and steadily forged a different relationship with exercise. I recognize that it is not the exercise itself that caused the problem, but rather my relationship with it and its power to influence how I felt about myself. I am grateful that these days, I know I am a hard-working and healthy person who makes the time to invest in the things that I find important: friends, family, my work, and even, sport.

In high school and college, I was a competitive runner and triathlete. In high school, I placed in the top ten for my state’s cross country run. After repeated injuries, I started swimming and found triathlon to fit nicely to my interest in exercising as much as possible. A simple formula developed: a good race = pride and a feeling of accomplishment; a bad race = anxiety and self-punishment. After this frantic roller-coaster ride of a life, I decided to abandon competitive sport. For some time after college, I was so paralyzed by the threats posed to my self-image by athletic competition that I refrained from racing competitively at all.  I preferred the quiet, easily controlled and anonymous comforts of the gym. I convinced myself that sport was overrated and that I simply enjoyed working out.

But I missed the community of sport, the joy of a big road race and the enthusiastic supporters clapping as the runners passed their front lawns. I missed the dialogue and the thrill of connection to the world of my sport. I now realize that this approach to managing my anxiety was not satisfying.

Now, I practice mindfulness during my run. I intentionally choose to run for the love of movement and from the moment I start to lace up my shoes, I am tuned in to my experience. During my runs, I experience a sense of freedom and the feeling that each step is a gift. I am grateful to be outside, to be moving, to be in my body and with my thoughts. When I am uncomfortable, I adjust my body to compensate. Rather than try and maintain some arbitrary metric that I can use to compare myself to during the next run, I open to the sensations in my body and decide how to respond to them. And I compete! I smile at the supporters and feel proud that I am engaging with the community around me. I open my eyes and look at the things I pass as I am running. I notice if my mind gets stuck on anxious thinking or comparing and bring the focus back to my breath or to the sound of my feet on the pavement.

It is thanks to both sport and mindfulness that my relationship with myself and with exercise is balanced and flexible. Most days, I am comfortable in my own skin and can respond with compassion to impulses that do not match my values. I am happy on the days that I can get in a run but am equally content when days pass and my main activity is building a Duplo tower with my son. I am grateful that even in the early stage of this new way of relating to exercise, I already feel stronger and more powerful than I did when I was more physically fit.

(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Being mindful when the clouds roll in

A perfect day makes being mindful seem easy
A perfect day makes being mindful seem easy

In Switzerland, we all have had those days when it is breathtakingly, this-just-can’t-be-real beautiful. There is a full blue sky, framed by the mountains and usually some body of water that makes the view eerily reminiscent of a postcard or scenic calendar. And, on days like that, it is easy to connect to the moment- to exist in a moment of absolute appreciation for the world around you.

But, as in our emotional lives, it becomes more challenging to be mindful and intentionally move our attention to our experience when the blue sky is clouded. It doesn’t come as easily to check in with what’s going on right here, right now when what you’re noticing is… cloudy. Or, downright uncomfortable.

However, the more we practice moving the spotlight of our attention to our internal experience- whatever weather conditions may be present- the more information we can gather about how to effectively respond. When we take time to really look at that cloudy sky, perhaps we will decide to take our umbrella when we go outside, or stay home and take a warm bath. Or perhaps we will notice that the clouds are not as dark and ominous as we thought.

Like the flow of the weather, many of our thoughts, feelings, and body reactions are transient. Getting to know the patterns of our behavior, minds and bodies can help us to cultivate self-compassion and enhance our ability to problem-solve. Mindful awareness provides the opportunity for you to find spaciousness between you and your internal storms, and thus to respond more effectively rather than automatically. With practice and patience, making it a habit to check-in with yourself can eventually become as routine and informative as checking the weather.