For centuries, people have applied mindfulness to everyday life as a way to enhance clarity and focus. Today, we can apply this tool to better relate and respond to our busy minds, that are sometimes too full to interact or even function.
Simply put, mindfulness is awareness. Awareness of our current, present experience and not that of past (regrets, sadness, loss) nor future (worries, fears, anxieties).
When we find ways to better respond and relate to our overwhelmed minds, do we really ‘fix’ the problems holding us back?
Not exactly ~ like many other worthwhile aspects of life, this is a practice, and that involves repetition. It includes the recognition that life involves suffering. This is not about pushing away these anxieties, worries, losses, regrets and sadness, but finding a way to make room for them all.
How can we do this? Invite ourselves into this moment.
The past has passed.
The future is not yet here.
All we have is the present, which can bring us some peace ~ perhaps in forgiveness (past) or calm (redirecting from future worries). This is mindfulness.
By identifying these very elements (anxiety, regret, anger, panic) as they approach, and without their attached story, we are already giving ourselves room to return to the present. We do it with softness, kindness and without judgment.
This is mindfulness.
We can mindfully wash the dishes, brush our teeth or take a walk. Keeping our awareness on what we can see, touch, hear and experience. This is mindfulness.
Life is never still ~ the mind is never still. Awareness is always still.
Settling into the present may liberate us from the busy mind (perhaps taking us into the past or future).
“Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Most of us are forgetful ~ we are not really here a lot of the time. Our minds are caught up in worries, fears, anger, regrets and not mindful of being here. We are caught up in the past or in the future, which sadly results in us not living our lives fully in the present moment.
It is human nature for our minds to wander ~ it’s just what it does with thoughts and the stories that accompany them. When we recognize that our mind has wandered, we can access mindfulness to bring ourselves back ~ without judgement or criticism and stories; just accepting we are back and have the opportunity to start again.
We bring ourselves back by opening our eyes to what is in front of us, our ears to what we can hear and allowing our minds to experience this.
Think for a moment about all of the birds outside our window that we may have silenced by the active mind, or the sunsets and sunrises missed when worries flooded our minds.
If we mindfully return to the present, even for a moment, we have stopped talking (not only the outside conversation, but the inside talking, our mental discourse).
Then, we can fully awaken to what is in front of us while, even briefly, the rest seems to settle. We become aware of something, such as a flower, and we can be liberated from the anger, despair, worries and fears that previously took us away.
Whether it is hardships from the pandemic, civil unrest, political discourse, loss of a loved one, fear of the future, or many other aspects of life, it sometimes may feel there is no end in sight to the pain that life can sometimes bring. Finding continued hope through the burdens of daily life can often feel daunting, uncertain, and just out of reach. Through the recent year, many people may have found themselves uttering these simple words either to another or to themselves:
Ex: “ I would like to… but I don’t want to get my hopes up”…
While the simple rhetoric is often over looked, the profound impact on our lives is not to be underestimated.
Hope: “ (A belief that things can be better than what they are”) is one of the most powerful aspects of human life. The instillment of hope can offer peace in a moment of chaos; comfort in a moment of fear; and courage in a moment of despair. The loss of hope, or (hopelessness) often results in a person loss of will to live.
Maybe this past year you have found yourself not planning, not hoping out of fear of disappointment. Maybe you have felt lost, overwhelmed, or out of control. Maybe you have lost a family member or loved one and need to find a way to some how keep moving forward. The joy of hope is that it is accessible to all who seek it, and is found all around us. May I offer 3 principles of Resiliency to help you increase your hope, and in turn, increase your ability to manage hard times in your life.
We commit to the challenge ahead of us. We commit to the strength, the endurance, and the help needed to survive. Asking for help is not weakness. Everybody in life needs help. Most of all we commit to not let our burden consume us, destroy us, or allow us to lose our selves in the process. We tell ourselves, “ no matter what happens, I will be ok”.
A main source for unmanageability and discourse is caused by trying to control things that are out of our ability to control. Learning to let go of what is out of your ability to control, and having the courage to do something about what you can control can drastically reduce the out of control feeling life can bring.
Much of the research about resiliency and hardiness speaks to how we choose to look at a situation. Some are financial, others physical, some trauma, others mental health related. Challenge, adversity, and pain are essential to provide opportunities for growth. Seeing our problems through a lens of opportunity rather than suffering can help provided a new perspective of hope that will allow us to face our trials with gratitude.
Symbols of hope can often provide something that reminds us to have hope in a moment we need it. Find something that inspires you, makes you feel happy, or gives you courage to keep moving forward. Symbols of Hope include:
A favorite quote,
A person you look up to
A deity, religion, or spirituality practice
Surround yourself with little things that bring hope into your life. As we move into a new year I am reminded of a statement from Viktor Frankel:
“ We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”
Frankl, V. E. (2006). The meaning of life. In Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy (p. 108). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Brene Brown has said “Choose courage over comfort. Choose whole hearts over armor. And choose the great adventure of being brave AND afraid at the exact same time.” (Emphasis added)
After months of living through the pandemic, homeschooling two of my four children, having a newborn and busy toddler vying for attention during homeschooling, working over Telehealth, quarantining from family and friends, kissing my husband goodbye as he goes to works with sick people, and managing my own thoughts and anxiety about the world I have learned a very important lesson. You can feel brave and afraid at the same time.
My emotional journey the last several months has been sporadic. At times, I have felt very hopeful and optimistic. Other times, I have felt sad and anxious. After experiencing an anxiety attack in April, I realized I had to change my thought process. My mantra became “cautious but not fearful.” I pushed fear away and decided to let hope reign supreme. Gone were the days of worrying about what would happen if my parents contracted the virus. Say goodbye to stressing about exposure to people, and what it would be like if/when my family got sick. My mind was aware of the hospitals and medical staff, but I would not let that transfer into fear and worry. I let myself think that if I felt any fear at all I was letting fear win. I was wrong.
What have I learned about myself during this pandemic? I have learned that I can feel brave and afraid at the same time. In reality, the worried and stressful thoughts were and are still coming at regular intervals. The difference is when the fear comes, I no longer hide from it. Pushing the fear/worry/anxiety down gives it more power. Locked in the recess of your mind fear-or whatever you would like to call it-is biding its time until you are not ready for it. Then BAM out it comes with a lethal vengeance. Covid-19 has taught me to acknowledge the fear. When those fearful thoughts come into my mind I identify them and acknowledge their existence. Instead of running from the thoughts, I put my arm around them and let my bravery take over.
I can be fearful and brave at the same time. I can worry about what is happening across the world and still have hope that it will get better. I can be worried about our healthcare workers while allowing my gratitude for them to overshadow that worry. I can stand in the face of my husband, children, parents, and loved ones contracting the virus because I know that there are people and enough love in my life that will help me get through it. I have learned to hold both of these things in my hands and heart and be alright with that. And Brene is right…it is truly an adventure.
American novelist Wendel Berry expressed a powerful concept in a poem titled “To Know The Dark.”
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
– Wendel Berry
We often perceive the dark as evil, harmful, or wrong. The concept of light vs. dark is an age-old concept. The attitudes around “the dark” have are often conflated with disaster. According to Berry, the label “dark” may be best described by the unknown. We fear it.
It can be uncomfortable to move into the spaces of the unknown. Typically when we approach uncertain situations or areas with caution. Sometimes the best strategy to explore the hidden things is to lean-in to the unknown by embracing without predictability (go without sight). When we do, we find the unknown sings with beauty.
This process isn’t always easy. Some people find companionship helpful. A partner could be a spouse, parent, or close friend. When seeking a companion, its best to find somebody who can offer support, without judgment, or contribute to the fear. Others find it helpful to ask for help from their Divine power for protection and guidance.
What of “dark feet and dark wings?”. Perhaps the exploration of the beauty of unfolding song originates from allowing for the steps through new elements to emerge naturally. Wings typically signify power and movement. Could real change and receiving come from flying with confidence, embracing the tension by thinking of what happens “to us,” is happening “for us”?
Bessel A. van der Kolk, a leading trauma expert, said, “As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”
Through my clinical work over the past 10 years, I have found the body to be one of the greatest teachers in helping clients to connect with, and heal from, trauma that is stored in the body. Stored trauma often manifests itself physically, such as with anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, fear, and other “uncomfortable” emotions. Consequently, our bodies are often feared, rather than embraced as the wise teacher it is.
I have found one of the most powerful tools in helping myself, and my clients, stay in a state of curiosity, rather than fear, of these bodily sensations is the breath. When triggered by these bodily sensations mentioned above the body typically moves into the sympathetic, or fight or flight nervous system. Often, clients with trauma have learned to operate in this nervous system more often than is useful. The breath is a powerful bridge between the sympathetic and parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” nervous systems.
Next time you find yourself filled with anxiety, I challenge you to take four deep “box” breaths, where you breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out of four counts, and hold for four counts. After which, maintain the deep breathing pattern and notice what is happening in your body physically, and breathe into any tension you find. Then, remain curious and ask yourself what is needed to help you feel safe and secure in the present moment. At that point you may ask, “what happens next?” Take note of what inner child wounds or beliefs may be surfacing, and allow yourself to sit with that wound to find truth. Learning to become curious about thoughts that once seemed overwhelming, scary, or insurmountable can be an empowering exercise when you start unwinding unhelpful past conditioning.
Sometimes with trauma, clients may find themselves feeling stuck at certain points of traditional talk therapy. If that has been the case, it is helpful to explore other modalities to help release trauma on a cellular level, such as EMDR. Other movement based interventions such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and dancing have also been found to be helpful in healing trauma. If you have found yourself stuck in processing past trauma, please feel free to reach out to see if we can explore some additional healing modalities. You can schedule by calling 801.944.4555.
I recently listened to a fabulous podcast where Brene Brown was being interviewed. (For those of you that don’t know, Brene Brown is a very well known therapist, researcher, and author. She has written several, brilliant books about embracing vulnerability and recognizing the difference between guilt and shame. Her books have had a big impact on my personal and professional life. I highly recommend all of them.) In the podcast Brene focused on being comfortable in experiencing vulnerable emotions. In particular she spoke about joy.
In Brene’s research she stated that joy was often associated with fear. Her example was simple, but profound. She spoke of a parent lovingly watching their child sleep at night. In that moment of joyful contemplation the parents often reported a high degree of fear right after having the feeling of joy/contentment. What if my child dies at an early age? What if I contract cancer? Everything is so good right now, something has to go wrong soon. When I heard this example I knew exactly what she was talking about! I have had those same thoughts and feelings as I tucked my children into bed. As I thought about it, a lot of times I feel joy I realized it was very often followed up with fearful thoughts that my happiness could only last so long before something went wrong.
The answer to challenging this commonplace problem showed up in Brene’s same research project. She stated there were a number of people that reported after they had joyful feelings they purposely stated thoughts of gratitude to themselves. Instead of leaving the situation feeling fearful and worried, like so many did and do, this second group of people reported feeling joyful, happy, and grateful. These people made mention of giving gratitude to a higher being, a thoughtful spouse, their jobs, health, and many other things that allowed them to feel happiness in that moment.
I took this to heart. Over the last week or two when I have noticed feeling happy with my family, marriage, house, holiday season, or really anything, instead of following up with a negative or fearful thought I immediately stated how grateful I was in the moment for that joyful feeling. What a difference! It seemed like the joy I was feeling multiplied and lingered much longer than when I had chaotically thought about what may go “wrong” next to ruin my happiness. It has made me a better wife, mother, friend, and daughter to practice this easy technique.
This holiday season I challenge you to experience true joy. In those loud or often quiet moments when you find yourself feeling happy, follow those thoughts/feelings up with thoughts of gratitude. Why are you happy? Who helped you achieve that happiness? Why are you grateful for having the joyful feeling? Extend your Thanksgiving list of gratitude into the Christmas season, and notice the difference it will make.
Sometimes in our love relationships, we have been hurt or let down so often by our partner that we begin to develop an adversarial relationship. We are always on guard to protect ourselves from further pain. Our relationship becomes us vs. them in an attempt to wall off our heart from the one who knows us best, and therefore knows how to hurt us the most. Most of the time in these situations, our partner isn’t trying to hurt us. Our partner is hurting themselves and like us, is trying to protect from further pain.
In the book Love Sense, Dr. Sue Johnson describes what happens in these relationships:
“When emotional starvation becomes the norm, and negative patterns of outraged criticism and obstinate defensiveness take over, our perspective changes. Our lover slowly begins to feel like an enemy; our most familiar friend turns into a stranger. Trust dies, and grief begins in earnest.”
She goes on to say that the “erosion of a bond begins with the absence of emotional support”. This is key. In order to keep our most important relationships strong and healthy, we have to actively work on being an emotional support for our partner. We need to be there for them, and we need them to be there for us. Emotional supportiveness creates a teammate mentality. Instead of problems turning into us vs. them scenarios, they are approached with the couple as a team, facing the enemy (or the negative cycle) together.
One roadblock in our ability to be there emotionally with our partner is our hurt and anger.
Anger is a secondary emotion. Its purpose is to act as a shield, protecting our more vulnerable (primary) emotions. If my husband doesn’t call me when he said he would, it’s easier for me to lash out at him in my attempt to make sure he knows how hurt I am. My lashing out is likely to cause him to feel defensive and respond with anger of his own (because he is also using anger as a shield to protect himself). If I take a moment to breathe, and calm myself before commenting on his missed phone call, I might say something like, “when you don’t call me when you say you will, I feel really hurt. I worry that I’m not important to you, and you mean so much to me that it hurts in my chest to think that I don’t matter to you.”
Instead of expressing my secondary emotion, anger, I’m expressing my primary emotion. Fear. Fear that I don’t matter to my partner as much as he matters to me. I’m being vulnerable and asking my partner to reassure me and be vulnerable in return.
If my partner responds to my vulnerability with criticism, it reinforces my view that he is not a safe person to turn to, and the emotional bond is further damaged. If he responds with reassurance, the emotional bond can be strengthened. “I’m so sorry I didn’t call. I got so busy with my meetings that I forgot. I know it means a lot to you that I call when I say I will, and I’m sorry I let you down. You do mean so much to me.”
Dr. Johnson describes three questions that we can ask ourselves and our partners when we are working to strengthen or repair our emotional bonds.
1. Are you Accessible? (Will you give me your attention and be emotionally open to what I am saying?)
2. Are you Responsive? (Will you accept my needs and fears and offer comfort and caring?)
3. Are you Engaged? (Will you be emotionally present and involved with me?)
Dr. Johnson combines these into one “core attachment question”. ARE you there for me?
Sit down with your partner and talk about these questions. Do you feel like your partner is accessible, responsive, and engaged? Are you accessible, responsive, and engaged with your partner? When have you been successful at answering “ARE you there for me”? When have you struggled? Think about the last struggle and look for the primary emotions under the struggle. Try being vulnerable with each other.
The stronger our emotional bond, the easier it is to deal with the frustrations that crop up in every relationship. Sometimes the damage in our relationships has gone on for so long, or is so emotionally painful that we need help in repairing it. Couple’s therapy can help break the cycle of negative interactions and allow emotional bonds to be rebuilt stronger than ever.
The Pixar movie Inside Out goes into the head of a little girl, Riley, who experiences her world through the lens of her emotions, each represented by a unique character, Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy and Sadness. Joy is the leader of this group of individual emotions/characters, and works throughout the movie to protect Riley from sad emotions. Finally at the end of the movie, Joy learns that sadness is was pulls people in, and allows Riley to make the connection with her parents that comforts her and helps her begin to manage all the other emotions that are swirling around in her growing brain. That connection with her parents can also be called secure attachment.
Sadness is a primary emotion, and primary emotions are our vulnerable emotions. Sometimes we don’t feel safe being vulnerable, so we mask our primary emotions with secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are the reactions to our primary emotions that are designed to protect our vulnerabilities, so we sometimes use them to put up walls or push others away. This serves an important purpose in situations where we don’t feel safe, but can cause problems when something happens that causes us to feel unsafe with a romantic partner, a family member, or close friend.
If someone we care about does something that hurts us, we might feel sadness, or rejection, or fear, when we are hurting we work to protect ourselves and mask our sadness, rejection, or fear with anger, disgust, or frustration. We lash out to prevent the other person from hurting us more. This behavior starts us on a cycle of pain and protection.
If we can figure out a way to break the cycle, we can rebuild trust and emotional bonds, and regain that sense of comfort and attachment to important people in our life. Just like in the movie, the key to breaking the cycle is to become vulnerable, to express our feelings of sadness or fear. This can begin to change our interactions, and as our loved ones are able to respond to our primary emotions, we are able to be comforted.
The next time your partner expresses anger or frustration or disgust, try to imagine what primary emotion they are experiencing that is being masked, then respond with empathy to that primary emotion. You may be surprised what creating a safe space for them to be vulnerable does for your relationship!
When Hurt Turns to Anger, Turns to Shame, Turns to Fear: Tips to Start the School Year out Right
It seems to me that every new school year my kids (and yours) face more and more adversity. I often find myself (as a parent) wishing I was better at preparing my children to face bulling, rejection, shameful feelings, and self-confidence issues. My girls and foster children have struggled with these issues. In my research and personal experience, I have found not one thing works on all children, but if I can do my best at consistently being receptive to my children’s emotions, teach empathy, validate feelings, and come up with a way to solve a problem—that works! But first I have to consistently rid myself of my own fears and mirror disappointments and fear in a healthy way. To live well, we must grieve well.
When we are shamed with anger and rage, our underlined emotion or reaction is fear. One fear I will discuss is that of rejection. There is no greater shameful pain of loss than that of rejection. Fear of rejection can result in great loss for anyone. Rejection for someone may mean that they are unlovable or unwanted. When going through a battle of feelings of rejection or loss we (especially children) need social support, feelings of mirrored affection, time, self-talk, and emotional coaching. I will admit, rejection is a hard pill to swallow for me. There is no way to escape rejection or loss in this human life. The important thing is how we deal with it. Here are some tips for getting the ball rolling for success with coaching your child about fear of rejection and bulling.
Fear of rejection is the center of bulling in my eyes. When shame cries out—fear of rejection and hurt screams—and we become a bully, even to ourselves. Many of my foster children bullied and were bullied. Kids and adults sometimes wanted to shame them for their actions and could render no empathy when they were being bullied. Once again, fear of rejection, being left out, being unloved is the root of this pain! Shame or fear does not help children to feel like a worthy person, but understanding and love does. Teach the feeling behind the fear and then strive to help that person change their negative views of themselves.
Validation is number one! First and forth right. This takes TIME. Validate your child’s feelings and concerns. As a teacher, parent, friend, or peer, children need to feel heard and understood, don’t we all. This is a universal concept, but do we really do it? Or are we good at it? I know it takes practice for sure. I have not always been validated in my life and I have had to learn how to do this with my children. In addition, remember to teach your children to validate themselves. People (and the world) are not always going to validate them. So the next thing to teach is self-talk and how to trust and love themselves first so they do not need to bully their self-concept or others.
Stand tall, look confident, tell yourself you are worth it—is sometimes hard to do. Why is that? Are we taught that we should just know that we have worth? It is hard sometimes for an adult to overcome fears and self-talk ourselves to a happier tomorrow, let alone a child. But I also think children now days are very resilient because of parents and caregivers like you that have taught them to stick up for themselves, try a little harder, and be proud of who they are. But some kids just plain and simple have a harder time with self-talk. Research shows children that suffer from ADHD and autism lack skills in self-talk. Yet, I believe like many things, it takes practice. Through therapeutic techniques, these can be taught and improved. Here some ideas. I have used visual aids to help remind kids to rid those bad thoughts that creep in. You can even use a small item (ex. small smooth rock, string, necklace) that they can take to school that remind them that they are special and to self-talk themselves every time they touch it. You can repeat or chant words to yourself while doing an activity like-
“No matter what others say or do, I am still a worthy person.”
“The more I like myself, the more others like themselves.”
“I ______like myself and I am a lovable person.”
“I am special because______.”
Another way to make sure your child’s underlining fear or anger is understood is by teaching skills of recognizing their own feelings. If a child can not recognize what is going on with their body or heart, then they will not be able to regulate themselves. One of my most favorite books is Raising an Emotional Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Phd. Emotional coaching is key in helping your child be more aware of how they are feeling and how safe they feel about their feelings—thus they can self-regulate better. According to Gottman’s research, emotion-coaching parents had children that later went on to be “emotionally intelligent” people. They simply could regulate their own emotions and could calm their heart rate down faster. They had fewer infectious illnesses, better attention, and they could socially relate to others, thus better friendships. When a parent or caregiver help a child cope with negative feelings, such as anger, sadness, and fear it builds bridges of loyalty and worth. Bridges, in my opinion, that will become a foundation of utmost importance for their understanding of their own self-concept.
When hurt, fear or shame turns into rejection of self or others, give your child the tools to combat the bully of the mind or on the playground by giving them comfort, self-talk, and emotional coaching.
– Caryl Ward, CMHC Intern, CFLE
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I saw my grandfather die when I was young and it was very painful because he was like a dad to me. And ever since my grandfather’s death I’ve been having troubles maintaining my relationship with others whether it’s friends or family members. I try to distant myself away from them in fear of getting hurt again. I have trouble letting people in my life and tend to disassociate myself from being involved in a romantic relationship with anyone. As a result, I can’t truly love or care for anyone. Although thinking about my grandfather made me very feel sad and depressed at first, now I’m not as sad as I used to be and I felt guilty for not being sad and I would force myself to think about his death over and over again and make myself feel bad and cry myself to sleep. I also feel pressured by my parents to do well in school and life and it’s almost as if I’m letting them down and becoming that worthless and useless person I was when I stood there and watched my grandfather died. And whenever I feel useless and think I’m such a failure or that I might not live up to other’s expectations, I want to die. I have suicidal thoughts almost everyday and wish I were dead but never actually thought of actually committing a suicide. I also feel irritated very often recently and just want to be left alone. I gave up or got bored of things I used to love doing. This is ruining my life and I think I seriously really need help.