Tag Archives: Emotion

Approach Rather Than Avoid: Embracing Emotions to Minimize Suffering

Many of the clients who I see in my practice seek support as a result of unknowingly avoiding some or all of their emotional experience. Avoiding a painful or confusing emotion works really well in the short-term. So well that it often comes as a shock to people when it is suggested that they try something different. In real life, avoiding emotion often looks like avoiding certain situations or people, not a particular emotion itself. It is only when people grow frustrated with the results of living their life within these very particular confines that they begin to question what is truly driving the avoidance. Throughout the process of psychotherapy, they can begin to explore what it feels like to approach an experience rather than avoid it. In doing so, great richness can be found in relationships, opportunities for growth and a compassionate, empowered sense of self.

Take the example of a client I am seeing. As a child, she was the victim of prolonged sexual abuse by one of her primary caregivers. In order to survive this horrific experience, it became adaptive for her to eliminate feeling. The emotions one naturally feels were disabled so that she could navigate the world around her. She describes how, as she matured, it was difficult for her to turn her emotions back on in relationships after they lay dormant for so many years. As a result, she felt unable to express her opinions, frustrations and desires to her partner. She found herself avoiding conflict and intimacy. Resentment and hopelessness grew.

In our sessions together, we work toward enhancing her ability to identify her emotions earlier in the “cascade”. For her, this has meant tuning in to body sensations and the “bristly” feeling she experiences as a cue that something is going on for her emotionally. She can now label the emotions that she feels and is working to be able to express them in a way that empowers her. Although this work was initially very frightening for her, bit-by-bit she was able to challenge the belief that “emotions are dangerous” and instead see them as an important part of her psychological landscape.

It can be very confusing to recognize that not only do we avoid painful emotional experiences, but sometimes avoiding pleasurable experiences becomes a habit as well. As can be the case with depression, positive emotions can seem very threatening and the fear of disappointment can drive people to avoid acknowledgment of their own strengths, building healthy relationships or taking care of themselves. Although for the short-term this can result in a sense of self-sufficiency and insulation against pain, in the long-term it can lead to isolation and suffering.

Psychotherapy combines helping clients to see how avoidance worked for some time and how it was adaptive in order to cope with a stressor or painful situation. We talk about how reasonable it is to develop some way of keeping it together. At the same time, we discuss how this habitual way of responding usually does not work over the long term. We talk about how emotions, although powerful, do not have to overpower. My hope is that by cultivating their ability to approach rather than avoid, clients learn how to integrate their emotional experience with their values and long-term goals.

Mindfulness Reloaded

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The beach can be a buffet for the senses

Last week, I was on vacation in Florida. We spent a day at the beach during which I found myself mindfully aware- really awake- to sensations that were previously mundane. I watched my young son playing in the sand and wondered what this was like for him, given that he was experiencing this beach day as a true beginner. I tapped into my “beginner’s mind” and opened my awareness to all sensations equally: the sand between my toes, the breeze on my face, the warmth from the sun, that distinctly oceany smell. When I noticed my mind clinging to any particular sensation, I took note and then expanded outward.

Yes, I think it is easier to be mindful of sensations that are inherently pleasurable and evoke positive emotions. But my overall pleasant experience of the beach was no less interesting. I watched as my mind worked harder than usual to cram all the goodness in, almost bingeing on the details of the experience. Simultaneously, I saw my mind never letting go of the idea and images of what we were not experiencing back in Switzerland (which my mind deemed “bad”): cold, cloudy, wet days of winter. I was aware that my mind was both enjoying the feast while preparing for the famine. There was a hurried and almost gluttonous pace to my practice that day.

Now that I am back in Switzerland (where it is indeed cold, cloudy and wet), my mind often boomerangs back to the memories from that beautiful day. I notice a range of emotions- longing predominant among them. Yet when my awareness widens beyond the images of the beach, I notice the less exotic but pleasurable sensations of contentment, warmth, ease, the breath. I recognize that this is a “famine” that I can manage.

I have heard happiness described as “the lack of sadness.” This definition suggests that the contrast between states is responsible for generating the emotion, or perhaps recognition of the emotion. However, being mindful showcases the possibility of many emotions existing together and that the recognition of difficulty sometimes makes ease feel sweeter. Practicing mindfulness illustrates that the mind is a wonderful, curious and incessantly complex lens through which we experience our circumstances.

As I go forward with my mindfulness practice in 2015, I intend to bring this lesson with me: that experiences can be wonderful and mundane and thrilling and uncomfortable all at the same time. And that the feast and the famine only exist as such because that is how my mind labels them in a given moment. Each experience is colored by the context of our thinking and that is absolutely ok.

Does Mindfulness Numb our Sense of Social Responsibility?

Mindfulness to emotion helps you to respond more thoughtfully than reactively- and perhaps that means reaching out to connect
Mindfulness increases thoughtful responding to emotion- and perhaps that means reaching out to connect

There has been some interesting chatter in the media discussing the impact of mindfulness on people’s willingness to engage effectively in society. Recently, Suzanne Moore of The Guardian suggested that mindfulness is all about the self and neuters impulses that may be useful for creating positive change in the world. She implied that practicing mindfulness may minimize the distress of the practitioner but does nothing to to directly address the distressing event.

In response, mindfulness practitioner and writer Ed Halliwell suggests in his blog that this criticism of mindfulness is normal given recent increasing attention to this practice in the media, and is actually helpful in furthering a constructive conversation. He notes that practicing mindfulness does not cure society’s many and serious imperfections and that, for those looking at the practice from the outside, it can appear to be something of an “opium for the people.”

For those of us who do practice mindfulness and who bring awareness to our very personal experience of living, we know that this is quite far from the truth. In fact, opening ourselves to the emotions and thoughts and body sensations that may be present in a given moment serves to better acquaint us with distress, sadness and other emotions that usually accompany our appraisal of the difficulties of life. When we open to these emotions, we acknowledge and honor them. Even though these emotions may be painful, we invite them in. Otherwise, the temptation may be to ignore, suppress or deny these emotions because of the automatic or habitual belief that we are helpless to change them or that we will be overwhelmed by their intensity. Yet, with practice and courage, we learn to approach rather than avoid our emotional experience and to just observe what is present in our bodies as we do so.

I would argue that this process of emotional awareness, of connecting to emotion in a given moment, actually prompts more action than the alternative. As a result of recognizing what is present for us in our minds and bodies, we may choose to respond in a way that thoughtfully supports our values and the things that we believe in. The motivation to take action is not out of a desire to rid ourselves of emotion but rather to validate our experience, and to connect to meaningful action.

Here is an example. A client described being deeply affected by the death of Robin Williams. She explained that his suicide prompted her to reflect on the suicide of a close friend and that she was experiencing feelings of sadness, grief, hopelessness and anger. She told me that with mindfulness, she could open to these emotions and ride their rise and fall in response to the thoughts she was having. As a result this process, she decided to reach out to her friend’s mother. She told me that they enjoyed a coffee together and reminisced about her friend, sharing a moment of connection to both one another and to the very natural feelings they have about losing her.

My client found that this action did not minimize her own grief but it did help her to feel like she was “in the driver’s seat” of her experience and that she could do something to recognize the loss. Rather than drown in her own suffering, she created a relationship with the pain that allowed her to respond to it in a thoughtful (rather than a reactive) way. And because she was open to her emotions, she was better able to be empathic when talking with her friend’s mother. Ultimately all of these responses supported her values.

Rather than numb our sense of social responsibility and our motivation to change the injustice of the world, mindfulness highlights the feeling and thinking that make it easier to engage in value-driven action if we want to. And as Ed Halliwell points out, even if our practice does not lead us to reach out and contribute to making the world a better place, simply being able to skillfully manage the distress that naturally accompanies membership in this imperfect world is a radically transformative way of breaking the cycle of unproductive suffering.

(Image courtesy of xedos4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

No Place to Land: The Expatriate Experience (Part 2)

Expats have developed strengths that help them to face unexpected difficulties in life
Expats have developed strengths that help them to face unexpected difficulties in life

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” –Mary Oliver, 1990 

Life stressors like divorce, health concerns, child educational issues, and caring for aging or sick parents are very difficult no matter the geographical setting. However, when these issues arise for those who are living abroad, they can seem simply insurmountable. I have found that, in general, expatriates are a hardy bunch. They usually feel ready to take on the challenges that living in a non-native country entails. Often they have experience from their childhoods traveling and experiencing different cultures and changing environments. Or they bravely fall in love with someone from a different country and open themselves to the prospect of a multicultural relationship. Sometimes the expat experience beckons to those who are looking for a fresh start and a chance to cast a new die for their lives.

In any case, those who choose this kind of life are usually prepared for the emotional challenges that characterise it. They are not surprised by days that require dealing with language challenges, reaching outside of their comfort zones, and getting lost for hours. But, throw in one or more of the major life stressors mentioned above and these “expat virtues” can be sorely tested.

A client once described to me how living abroad and dealing with a major life stressor left her feeling like she had “no place to land,” that she felt too disconnected from support in her country of origin but also not intimately acquainted enough with support in her adopted country. As a result, she struggled to carry the weight of the stressor by herself, without knowing how to direct the emotional resources she had cultivated through the challenge of living abroad in order to more effectively manage her experience.

Deciding to take the plunge and live outside of your country of origin for an extended period of time is not unlike dealing with a major life stressor. As you consider what life might be like following a major change, it is easy to get caught up in anticipation of the worst-case scenarios or doubt your abilities to manage what might arise as part of this adjustment. However, if this was where the thought process ended, than no one would live abroad. There is a point at which the thinking flips to consideration of all possibilities in a more balanced way. Regardless of how you think about an event, however, there is no certainty about how these thoughts will correlate to the future. So, there is a self-confidence and awareness of an ability to be flexible in the face of the unknown that is necessary in deciding to live abroad.

Once my client could connect to these gained skills and her own quiet strength, she felt more empowered to manage the stressor and was able to develop a plan to deal with it in a way that reflected her values. She came to believe that she could do it, even when there were days when she encountered extreme challenges to this belief. Concurrently, she created a support system that she could turn to for information and empathy. She admitted feeling surprised that increased self-reliance actually helped her to feel better able to seek support, rather than confirming her initial fear that asking others for help would make her reliant upon them. In essence, with hard work and courage, she created a safe place to land for herself.

Although it can certainly be more challenging to deal with major life stressors as an expat, it is not impossible. Those characteristics that often draw people to living life abroad can also be utilized to cope with unexpected difficulties that challenge emotional well-being. The decision to live outside of your country of origin is one that cannot be made without a great deal of courage, hope and belief in your abilities to cope with difficulty. And though we do not get to decide when and how major stressors will arise in life, the same hard-won attributes that help us manage other difficult situations/decisions can be called upon to help us through.

(Image courtesy of smarnad at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Identifying Emotions

Sometimes a visual reminder is necessaryVisua
Visual cues are useful for planning and problem-solving. But how about using visual cues for emotions?

Practicing mindfulness can help us to get to know and to befriend our experiences, no matter what kind of experience it may be. When first beginning practice, it can be challenging to identify various emotions and their correlated thoughts, body sensations and behavioral impulses.

Identifying emotions is helpful for a variety of reasons. On a physiological level, it transfers energy from the very primal “emotion brain” of the amygdala to the area of the brain dedicated to helping us organize, remember and make sense of information. When we identify and label an emotion, we are essentially activating a part of the brain that can help us to problem-solve, inhibit undesirable behavior or respond more effectively to what we are experiencing. We still may choose to deal with that emotion in a more primal way (say, slamming your fist into the wall) but at least more of our cognitive resources are engaged and this action is more intentional.

Furthermore, once an emotion is identified, you have more information to work with. Rather than trying to slog blindly through a muddy and sort of icky, disconcerting experience, we can instead be more aware of what we’re experiencing, how long it might last, and what kinds of things might be able to make the experience more manageable. That being said, emotional events do not consist only of the “negative” stuff. Greater awareness of joy, pride, wonder, love and all those positive (for most people) feelings can be very useful as well. When we make note of a good feeling, we are essentially saying, “Hey, this is good stuff. I am going to pay attention.” And the more we cultivate emotional recognition, the better we can be at catching and enjoying a similar emotion in the future.

Mindfulness to emotion can be a tricky topic to introduce. We humans are generally great walking cascades of emotion from one moment to the next so pinpointing what is happening takes practice. Plus, we are collections of learned emotional associations that can be triggered by very subtle or even subconscious stimuli, for instance: a barely noticeable but familiar smell -> memory of your first love -> feelings of nostalgia.

One useful tool I’ve found for helping people to practice takes the form of a handy little device, called “Feeling Magnets.” The founders recently offered me a chance to test this little metal box and its myriad magnets with mindfulness class participants. I found it to be a very useful. It is not very technical- always a plus for me- and due to its portability and discretion, facilitates regular emotional checking-in. Plus, it gives the user an opportunity to put words to their emotional experience, explore emotion/behavior patterns and ultimately, to step back and respond to emotions in a more mindful way. Seeing the emotions you are experiencing written in front of you can help to strengthen the neural connections that will ultimately contribute to the building of a new habit: checking-in, recognizing and validating your emotional experience, and choosing how to proceed.

Simple but effective, "Feeling Magnets" help with mindfulness to emotion.
Simple but effective, “Feeling Magnets” can increase mindfulness to emotion.

As a big fan of visual reminders and cues,  I recommend this simple but effective tool to mindfulness enthusiasts and those who are curious about their emotions. Anything that helps us to witness and wonder at the incredible capacity of our mind gets a gold star from me.

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Is Mindfulness Indifference?

It is normal to have lots of questions about practicing mindfulness.
It is normal to have questions about practicing mindfulness

During this weekend’s introduction to mindfulness class, a very useful question came up: Does being mindful mean being indifferent to our experience?

This question struck me as being particularly useful in that it helps to capture and put words to the challenge of being non-reactive to our experience. From our first days, our reactions to our physical and emotional experiences are reinforced: a baby cries when he feels hungry and is fed. As we mature, we learn that not every experience requires action, and not every experience means something about the past or future. For instance, as adults, we know that the sensation of hunger does not mean that we will die if we do not eat immediately. Awareness + maturity = wisdom.

Purposeful attention to what is present in a particular moment is mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes “non-judgment” as one of the attitudes that provides a foundation for practicing mindfulness. When we notice an experience, be it physical, behavioral, emotional or cognitive, it is very common to judge that experience as important or unimportant, worthy or unworthy, or even desirable or not. And judgment leads to action- whether it means simply putting a thought into a certain mental category or engaging in some behavior. Mindfulness teaches us how to simply notice our experience fully, without being dominated by the habit of judgment or action.

If we mistake the equanimity extended to our various experiences for indifference, we risk missing out on a lot of information. We pass up the opportunity to cultivate discernment in our judgments about experiences and make a balanced response to the full range of events unfolding in a particular moment. Indifference implies that the information we gain during an experience is not important and, therefore, not worthy of our attention. In addition, most of us are not naturally indifferent to our thoughts- quite the opposite. So, it is likely that obtaining indifference to our experience would require striving for a different mind state.

Rather, mindfulness helps us to open ourselves equally to all experiences (whatever our judgment about them) exactly as they are. Being mindful helps us to recognize and validate what is present for us in a given moment (even if it does not make any sense or fit with our values), and to respond to that moment with compassion and acceptance. In practical terms, it has the capacity to create some space around our deeply ingrained mental habits, thereby opening up opportunities to do things differently in life.

It is difficult to describe what is like to relate to yourself in this way, which is why the practice part is so important. Although the concept of mindfulness is not technical or metaphysical, we English speakers do not possess the language to easily describe the experience. It is best left to experience to show us how opening to the abundant richness of any particular moment- and letting it unfold exactly as it is- can help in forging a different relationship to thoughts, feelings, behaviors and body sensations.

(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)