50 is the new 60

30-40-50-60-thirties-forties-fifties-old-birthday-ecardI don’t mean to sound negative, but I’m tired of hearing that 40 is the new 30, and 50 is the new 40.

I’m 51 and I feel like 60.

I exercise. I eat fairly well. I take my Centrum Silver one-a-day vitamin. But anyone with chronic health problems will tell you,  the everyday struggles can age you.

I wanted to write a whole post about this, but I lost steam. So instead, I’m rereading some of my own blog. Here are a few posts on taking care of yourself when you’re in pain, or just not feeling well for whatever reason.

Tiny Dreams A reminder to those of us struggling with chronic pain or illness of the need to adjust our expectations (dreams) to fit our current reality. Very short post, with some really nice comments.

People tell you to dream big

but maybe it’s the tiny dreams that matter.

Sometimes my dream

is just to make it through the day.

Coping with Chronic Illness…Compassionately My interview with author of How to Be Sick, Toni Bernhard (be sure and read the whole interview; Toni is awesome):

I always tell people that the single most important thing they can do is to be kind to themselves. I look at it this way. We control so little in our lives, but the one thing we can control is how we treat ourselves. I see no reason for us not to be as kind and gentle with ourselves as we can be. It’s not our fault that we have health problems. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured. It will happen to everyone. This is how it’s happening to us. I’ve had so many people write to me and say the single most important thing they got out of my book was to give up the self-blame and forgive themselves for being sick or in pain. Many people have said they didn’t even realize they hadn’t forgiven themselves until they read How to Be Sick. Those emails always touch me so much — just to know I’ve been of help to them.

Leaving Judgment Behind A post about a story I told to my husband, who then told it to someone at work, and how it made a difference.

My influence may be less direct, but no less meaningful. And maybe it’s not about producing a quantity of work…maybe its about being as compassionate as I can be, to myself and others, and seeing where that leads me.

A Horse with No Name A quirky little post where I lament that there’s no colored ribbon or bracelet for people without a firm diagnosis.

I’m thinking about all the people who aren’t sure what’s wrong with them. They’ve been to specialists, had all the tests, and carried their MRIs down many a hallway.  I  wish there was a ribbon for people like us. I even went to a paint store to look at paint chips, in hopes of finding the perfect color name for our ribbon. The best one I found was “Mysterious Mauve.” It’s a subtle mix between gray and purple. Beautiful.

Today, know that I believe you. I know you’re not crazy. Doctors do the best they can, but they’re human, too. They make mistakes. They don’t have all the answers. They don’t always have a name for what we have, but that doesn’t make it not real. As Toni said in her interview, “The single most important thing we can do is to be kind to ourselves.”

And maybe 60 isn’t so bad; with age comes wisdom.

I “hang out” the most on Facebook. I’d love it if you join me! You can click here or over on the side (no one ever sees it over there).

 

Self-Compassion and Setbacks

madewithover-12I originally wrote this for Psychology Today, but I think the information may also be useful to my awesome readers here.  Haven’t we all had the experience of trying to change something–maybe exercise more, quit smoking, or eat healthy? We do great for awhile and then boom, we “mess up.” How do we keep a setback from turning into a major relapse, and along with it, feeling awful about ourselves? Here are some gentle suggestions (on Psychology Today, they’d be called “tips.”  Oh, and they’d also be numbered.)

Expect setbacks. Change takes time, and often frequent tries. For example, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most smokers require 5 to 7 attempts before they finally quit. Did these people fail the 5 to 7 times prior to the final cessation of smoking? Or were these attempts part of their eventual success? Consider thinking of all of these tries as part of the process. It’s all good.

Check your stress level.  An increase in physical or mental stress may be the culprit. For example, if you’ve been sick with the flu, your resistance may be lowered leaving you more susceptible to setbacks. Other kinds of stress, such as work or family problems can leave you feeling drained and less able to cope.

Follow your self-care policies. I’ve learned the importance of making my self-care activities a priority by writing them down, almost like a policy. Everyone’s “policy” will vary, but mine includes things such as getting enough sleep,  time outside in nature, etc. Too often, when we get busy, the things we need the most are the things we let slide. This makes us very vulnerable to a setback. (Here’s a list of over 80 self-care ideas.)

Keep practicing. If your recovery or behavior change plan  involves specific activities—journaling, meditating, walking —make sure you don’t stop doing these things, even if you’re doing well. Sometimes it’s the good times, not the stressful times that take you off guard. Author Judi Hollis makes an apt analogy: “The tight rope walker, so well practiced he almost performs while sleeping, is the one facing slips or near misses. The newly trained aerialist or acrobat exhibits stringent caution. It is the seasoned performer, lulled into false confidence, who takes the fall.”

Identify your personal warning signs. You might notice an increase in physical symptoms, such as a frequent upset stomach, headaches or heart palpitations. Maybe you notice a lot more negative self-talk. Perhaps you find yourself drinking more, worrying, or being irritable. Everyone’s early warning signs will be different, but it’s important to notice any possible patterns.

Recognize it early. This follows closely with identifying your personal warning signs. The sooner you can catch yourself in a setback, the sooner you can get yourself back on track.

Recommit. Remind yourself of your goals and what you deeply care about. Recommit yourself to doing activities aligned with your values. Don’t give up!

Realize you’re human. Psychologist and author Kristin Neff identifies a sense of shared humanity as one of the three main components of self-compassion. We’re all imperfect; it’s part of being human. Remind yourself that setbacks happen to everyone.  It’s okay to make mistakes. You’re not alone.

Live in the gray. Life is a paradox. I like to remind myself that I’m doing the best I can at any given moment, AND I can do better. It’s not a beating-myself-up kind of “I can do better” but a gentle nudge.

Seek out support. If you’re feeling badly about yourself for “screwing up,” your first instinct may be to hide in a hole. But this is exactly the time when you need to reach out to your support system. And if you don’t have one, you just need to look on the Internet and do a little searching, and you’re sure to find someone going through a similar situation.

Remember, life is not linear. Don’t think you have to progress in a perfectly linear fashion. Most people cycle in and out of change. As writer and creativity coach Jenna McGuiggan notes, life is often “one step forward, two steps back, and three to the side for good measure.”

Give yourself credit. Remind yourself of the steps you’ve taken, regardless of how small they might seem to you. I’ve always liked this Chinese proverb: “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”

Don’t let it snowball. Relapse prevention experts use the term abstinence violation effect (AVE) to describe a particularly dangerous form of black-and-white thinking. The classic example is the person on a diet that eats something not on the plan, and then thinks, “What the heck, I’ve already blown it so I might as well keep on eating.” Be on the lookout for this. Try self-soothing statements such as: “It’s okay. One slip up doesn’t mean I have to throw in the towel.” This is not a time to berate yourself. Instead of piling on the criticism, calmly tell yourself that something needs to be adjusted. Maybe you’re being too rigid with yourself… Maybe you need to back off a bit…

You can always begin again.This is the most powerful message I’ve learned from studying meditation. I am a complete novice, yet I’ve already gained so much. Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness, talks about this idea of “beginning again”. When meditating, our mind begins to wander. This is normal and to be expected. What matters is what we do when it happens. This is, as she says, “the magic moment”. Do we beat ourself up? Do we tell ourself we’re a failure? Do we give up and say it’s too hard? Or, do we learn that we can bring our attention back, with gentleness and kindness, again and again? To me, this is a metaphor for life. We don’t have to wait until Monday to start eating healthy again. We can make the choice to honor our intentions with the very next bite of food we put in our mouth.

Regardless of our goals, slow and steady progress, even with a few setbacks sprinkled in, works just fine.

Chronic Resilience

51QsZGoNEEL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-67,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Why do I have chronic pain? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years now. I’ve been to surgeons who told me they could cure me, so I’ve gone that route–two back surgeries, one cervical and one lumbar. I’ve had a world-renowned physician tell me I had thoracic outlet syndrome (see this lovely post by my husband). I’ve had a physical medicine doctor tell me I had too little muscle between my shoulder blades and needed to work out more.  (Well, I’m stronger but I still have pain.) I’ve tried physical therapy. I’ve tried massage.  I’ve taken supplements and tried acupuncture. Recently I’ve had a doctor bring up the possibility of fibromyalgia.

In addition, being the psychologist that I am, I’ve explored every mental aspect of this pain thing. I’ve been to therapists and psychiatrists. I’ve read books that said I needed to release some anger.  I’ve learned to meditate and manage my stress. I’ll latch on to one theory, only to find another, and chase that one like a dog chasing after a rabbit. It’s exhausting, and not very productive.

Sunday I was having a bad day and the ruminating began. Why am I in more pain today? Did I sit too long in one position? Did I type too much? Did I work out too hard? Am I stressed out about something?

I tried to distract myself from my worry by surfing the Internet, and I stumbled across a soon to be released book called, Chronic Resilience: 10 Sanity Saving Strategies for Women Coping with the Stress of Illness by Danea Horn. Thanks to Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature, I was able to read some of the first chapter. It was so what I needed!

The author has a chronic health condition and had gone through similar soul searching. She writes, “I searched my psyche for feelings and thoughts that needed to be healed. I prayed to increase my faith…I read book after book, until I had a bookcase filled top to bottom with answers, none of which seemed to miraculously fix what I envisioned as broken.” Years later she asked herself, “Why am I still dealing with the same crap I’ve been dealing with for years?” (I really relate to that question!)

madewithover-10Then it hit her. The answer was simple: She realized that she was human. We come into this world with bodies that can get sick, experience pain, and eventually die. We do anything to resist these truths. We want to think we have more control than we do. She writes, “Each page I turned in all those books was a search for how to get out of being human.”

Of course, I know this. Yeah, I’m human. We’re all human. But somehow, reading her words, it hit me in a profound way. I didn’t cause this. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Hey, I think I’ll spend the next seven or eight years going to doctors, having surgeries and taking pills.” I think far worse than the pain has been the questioning of my sanity.  (Although I do remember feeling kind of oddly disappointed when my last therapist told me I was normal–just a normal person with chronic pain.)

So, I am super excited to get her book (official release day is tomorrow, August 1).  I love the title, Chronic Resilience. When I first became interested in psychology, I wanted to know what made people go crazy. The more I learned, my question became, “Why don’t more people go crazy?” Life can be hard, yet people survive, and even thrive. From reading the sample on Amazon, reading an interview she did, and looking at the table of contents, the idea isn’t that we have no control. The idea is to let go of asking “Why?” and instead focus on, “What can I do that’s useful?” And for me, I think all this psychoanalyzing has gone too far.  The next time I get stuck in a worry groove asking “Why?” or  “What have I done?”, I’m going to gently tell myself, “Hey, you haven’t done anything wrong. You’ve already got the answer. You’re human.”

Ahhh. To use Danea’s words,  I can feel “all of the cells in my body let out a collective sigh of relief.”

Please join me on Facebook. There’s a button over on the side, but no one ever sees it.

Embrace Change

I hadn’t done a craft project in months, thanks to my companion, chronic pain. But a project was SO calling me, it was worth the inevitable flare.

For Mother’s Day, Greg and Jesse gave me a mobile that you attach photos to. When I saw it, I immediately had an idea in my mind of what I wanted to do. (For some reason I didn’t want to simply attach photos to it.)  I ended up cutting an old Kelly Rae Roberts calendar into bird shapes. I had to do one bird, then stretch, take a break, and maybe an hour later do another bird. It was kind of frustrating because I don’t like having to break the flow. But I’m getting better at pacing myself – well most of the time. I don’t have to give up the things I love, but I do have to change the way I go about them. So this project took me several days, but I love how it turned out.

Another thing I hadn’t done lately is do a photo shoot with Greg. We took the mobile outside in our backyard and I gave him instructions that I wanted “lots of green twinkly things” in the background. The only issue is that we have new neighbors and they’re frequently outside. I feel kind of self-conscious doing all the weird photo things we do out there. The weekend they moved in I was throwing colored tissue paper in the air.

I also had him take a picture of me in my new glasses. I’m still trying to get used to the 51-year-old me. I think I look much better without glasses, but that’s not an option anymore. So here’s to embracing change, and trying to do it gracefully.

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Embrace Change

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Begin. Leap. Take Flight.

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and then she learned to hold joy in her heart

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feel your fears and act anyway

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Shine

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Gratitude

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Sunset Mind

I had grand plans to write about every episode of The Self-Acceptance Project offered by Sounds True. Well, that didn’t happen. But today I did have time to watch the episode* featuring psychologist Steven Hayes, Ph.D., one of the co-founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I took away a lot of good stuff I want to share with you.
7993149186_8c5d7a7fbe_z1. Sunset mind. Our brains have the capacity to critically analyze situations, which is great. We need that. But critical mind isn’t appropriate when it comes to things like self-compassion. Instead of critical mind, we need sunset mind. Imagine you’re watching a sunset. Do you say, “Oh, that pink just really isn’t the right shade,” or “I think that blue clashes with the purple.” I can be critical, but even I don’t judge sunsets. I admire and appreciate their beauty, their vastness, and all the intricacies of the merging shapes and colors.

New perspective/intention: Try sunset mind when it comes to thinking about myself.

2. Be willing to stand in the hurricane to do what you think is important. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT-pronounced like the word “act”) is all about taking action in spite of anxiety or discomfort, and doing what you value. I’ve always been good at this when it comes to standing up for others. Here’s an example. I’m typically not one to complain or make trouble, but once when my son was going to see a favorite band, the venue was changed on short notice. The new place required you to be 21 to enter (and this was his high school graduation present–he wasn’t 21). I called the old venue, the new venue, and worked my way up until I had reached a high-up media person with the band. They weren’t able to get my son in, but they arranged for him to meet the band, hang out at a record store where they were doing a promotion, and they gave him free tickets to the Bonnaroo music festival and be a guest in their tent. I know this story might not seem like a lot, and granted, it’s not like I saved anyone’s life or anything, but I would have never been so assertive on my own behalf. I certainly have the skills to make things happen; why don’t I do this for myself?

New perspective/intention: Be willing to stand in the hurricane to do what is best for myself.

4332176853_c30acde1f4_z3. Emotions are here to be felt. You wouldn’t think this would sound revolutionary to a psychologist, but more often than I care to admit, I spend a lot of energy trying to squelch my emotions. My inner dialogue might sound like this:
  • I’m too sensitive.
  • My feelings are too intense.
  • I don’t want to feel this way.
  • I wish these feelings would go away!

Dr. Hayes pointed out (what I already knew intellectually) that a lot of emotions are painful, but also very useful. They can be clues to what you truly care about. For example, guilt, although unpleasant to say the least, can lead you to correct behavior or make amends with someone. He gave an example of a parent who had been on drugs and let some horrible things happen to his child while he was high. The guilt was intense, but needed to be felt. It led to sadness and loss, and eventually connected the father with the will to “walk a higher path” and be a better father in the future. This was not a quick or easy process, but it started with allowing and experiencing painful emotions.

New perspective/intention: Lean into the painful feelings, and see what they’re trying to tell me. And note to self–do this slowly, gently, and back off when you’re overwhelmed.

You can still hear all of the episodes from The Self-Acceptance Project for free online. This was Episode 22: The Human Capacity to Take Perspectives. Tami Simon speaks with Steven C. Hayes, PhD, Nevada Foundation Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada. Steven has authored 35 books and over 500 scientific articles. His career has focused on an analysis of the nature of human language and cognition and the application of this to the understanding and alleviation of human suffering. His work has been recognized by several awards, and in 1992, the Institute for Scientific Information named him the 30th “highest impact” psychologist in the world.

Photo credits: Sunset by Yokopakumayoko via flickr; Hearts by Ladydragonfly via flickr

Hard, But Not Horrible

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A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast with Sharon Salzberg, best-selling author of Real Happiness, talking about “equanimity.” Now there’s a deep-sounding word that I’ve heard, but never really understood. Leave it to Sharon to explain a big concept in a practical way, with a touch of humor and wit thrown in for good measure.

The part of her talk that has stayed with me the most is this story she told. Imagine that there is a quite elderly person sitting in a park watching children play.  Now this is someone who has seen a thing or two—someone who has lived a full, seasoned life. This quite elderly person sees a child who is playing in the sand with a dump truck and a shovel. The shovel breaks and the child “freaks out”, cries, etc. Now how does this quite elderly person, with the wisdom of these years, react? Does he or she go up to the child and say, “What are you crying about. Wait until you have a real problem.” Of course not. That would be cruel. On the flip side, does this quite elderly person fall down on the ground sobbing right along with the child? Again, no. The quite elderly person has the perspective to know that it’s just a toy shovel. Shovels break. That is the nature of life. (By the way, Sharon really did keep saying “this quite elderly person.”)

She said that sometimes people mistakenly think that equanimity is detached and passive. But it’s not. If you are going to tell someone your problems, do you want someone to get as upset as you are? No. If that happened, you’d think to yourself, “Whoa, this problem really must be bad.” You want someone to have BOTH compassion and understanding AND the perspective that this situation is not forever. You want someone to give you a sense that there are options and possibilities…not that you’re stuck.

4257485778_f2f60e67da_zAnyone who has read this blog from the beginning, knows that I’m extremely sensitive. It’s a part of myself that I’ve often not liked and struggled to accept. One particular aspect of this sensitivity that I’ve HATED is that I cry easily. It can be very annoying to cry at inopportune moments, or to cry for so long and hard that your eyes are puffy and red for hours afterward.

In a way, I’ve been the kind of person who really might cry at a broken shovel. Thankfully, I’ve grown enough this past year that I’m not going to judge myself for it. It’s just something to notice and work on.

Since I’ve heard the story about the child and the broken shovel, I’ve been trying to take the perspective of the quite elderly person who has wisdom and perspective. I’ve adopted the phrase, “This is hard, but it’s not horrible.” To me, that phrase validates my experience, whatever it is. Yes, I’m sad.  Or yes, I’m in pain. But that doesn’t mean it will last forever. And it doesn’t mean I can’t handle it.

I am super excited because twice now I’ve been able to stop myself from a full-blown sob fest by remembering this story and saying these words to myself… “hard, but not horrible”. I know that stopping myself from crying is not the goal, per se (although having a little bit of control over my feelings would be nice). The goal is to see possibility. The goal is to sense spaciousness. The goal is to develop balance.

And of course, as I’ve said the words to myself, “It’s hard but not horrible,” I’ve said them in a gentle tone of voice; perhaps the tone of voice that a quite elderly person would use.

RealhappinessbookcoverpicYou can hear the full podcast here, which was recorded live at The Interdependence Project in NYC in 2012. You can tell it’s New York. You can hear sirens and horns honking in the background of the talk.

Sharon Salzberg’s website is here.

I highly recommend her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.

Photo Credit: Matt McGee, flickr, CC and Pink Sherbet Photography 

Waking Up from the Trance of Unworthiness: Part Two

images-4I am loving this Sounds True audio/video series on self-acceptance. For those who learn better by reading, here is part two of a rough transcript of the session with Tara Brach, Ph.D. (I watched on one computer, paused it as I went, and dictated into my phone.) I am breaking it into two posts, as it got a little long. You can still listen to this interview online here. And if you didn’t read part one, you can do so here.

Tara’s first book Radical Acceptance helped me so much on a personal level, and I frequently recommended it to my clients over the years. Her newest book is called True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart. I have already read it once, and I highly recommend it.

In this episode, Tami Simon speaks with Tara Brach, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. Tara has been practicing and teaching meditation since 1975 and has led Buddhist meditation retreats at centers throughout North America. Her audio programs with Sounds True include Radical Self-Acceptance: A Buddhist Guide to Freeing Yourself from Shame and Finding True Refuge: Meditations for Difficult Times

Tami: Do you think our trance of unworthiness has something to do with our contemporary society, or is it something that’s always gone on?

Tara: I think both. We are hard-wired to feel separate and to look for  something to go wrong. It’s called our “negative bias” and it’s designed to keep us safe. But it’s a very quick step to thinking that something is wrong in the environment to thinking, “I’m wrong.” So there is a deficiency mind-set that comes with being human.

But there’s also a cultural component. Particularly in the West, we have very few natural ways of belonging in which we can experience our basic goodness. We live in a fear-based culture that over consumes and is competitive. We are not invited toward feeling contentment. We’re not invited to relax and say, “This moment is enough.” That would stop the economy in its tracks. Our culture feeds the sense that I should be better. I should be more.

images-7The tend-befriend aspect of our wiring is there, too. It’s just not as well cultivated, and it takes training. But once we get that we’re suffering because we are at war with ourselves, there can be a very deep, sincere commitment to embracing our own being and embracing life everywhere.

One way to wake up the “compassion neural networks” is the idea of conscious community: A place where we share our vulnerabilities; we mirror back each other’s goodness; we take inevitable conflicts and turn them into deeper understanding; and we listen deeply. There is a sense of belonging to each other.

Tami: Do you still struggle with self-acceptance in your own life? Do you still go into the trance of unworthiness?

Tara: Yes. Sometimes I will find I am in a bad mood and I’ll scrape below the surface and I realize I’m down on myself. Sometimes I feel I’m falling short as a friend or in caring for my aging mother.  Or I think I wasn’t as present for a talk as I would’ve liked to be. Sometimes if I know I’ve hurt someone, it can feel very “sticky.” The difference between then (say 15 year ago, although it’s been a gradual shift) and now is there is less lag time. I more quickly recognize that I am caught up in the trance–in the thoughts and beliefs of an unworthy self. The other difference is that I recognize the thoughts and feelings, but I don’t believe them as much. The feelings are there and the thoughts are there, but the sense of who I am beyond the self that I am judging is much more alive and accessible. I know that there is a loving heart, a being here, an awareness that isn’t so identified with the unworthy self. But I still have to find my way back.

One of the ways I find my way back, and I talk about this a lot in my teaching, is by thinking about this metaphor:

Photo by macinate via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by macinate via Flickr Creative Commons

Imagine you are walking through the woods and you see a small dog. You think the dog is cute and you approach the dog, wanting to pet it. It suddenly snarls and tries to bite you. The dog no longer seems cute and you may feel some fear and anger. As the wind blows, the leaves on the ground are carried away and you see the dog has one of its legs caught in a trap. Now, you feel compassion for the dog. You know it became aggressive because it is in pain and suffering. (I also wrote about this story in the piece, Leaving Judgement Behind.) You go from being angry, to this poor thing.

I pause and get that in some way my leg is in the trap. The thing I’m judging is coming from a place of pain. Then I soften and I can be present with feelings  and offer kindness to myself. I’m able to loosen the grip and arrive more fully at that sense of who I am when I’m not trapped in the trance.

Tami: I want to tell people about this tool of RAIN that you are known for. Will you explain it?

Tara: When we’re stuck in the trance,  we may have a vague sense that we are there, but it’s so hard to get out that state. We get reactive and we stir things up more. So this acronym of RAIN is this easy to remember handle. When we’re caught in the trance of unworthiness, we can say to ourself, “OK, just pause.”

R, is to recognize what’s going on. All those thoughts of unworthiness are going on right here.

A stands for allow it to be there. We don’t try to get away from what’s going on. We deepen the pause.

I  is for investigate. We investigate with kindness. We bring a gentle attention to what’s going on. This is where we start loosening the grip. For example, when I turn on myself for being “the sick person” I sink below the feelings– I get under the story line– and I realize I have this core belief that if I’m this bad at being sick, I’ll never wake up and be free…I’ll never be enlightened. I can really feel the fear in the body.

N stands for not-identified with the unworthy self. It sounds like a dry concept, but it’s very freeing and liberating.

So RAIN is a way to detangle the trance. And it really comes down to a mindful awareness with kindness.

Tami: In classic Buddhist teaching we are taught that we are not this solid self that we think we are. How do you understand this paradox that we have to accept and be kind to ourself, when there may not even be a self there?

images-3Tara: I make a translation and think of it that what we are accepting is the life that’s right here. In actuality, what we are accepting is this feeling, this hurt, this sadness, this fear, this anxiety, this whatever… We are embracing the lived experience. What happens is that when we do this, the sense of the separate self dissolves anyway. All of us are doing this together. We’re all doing this project of embracing the life that’s right here–it’s pleasantness, it’s unpleasantness, and in doing so, we get the liberating realization that we are way beyond any story we might’ve told ourselves.

Read Part One of Tara’s interview.

 

Waking Up from the Trance of Unworthiness

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I am loving this Sounds True audio/video series on self-acceptance. For those who learn better by reading, here is rough transcript of the session with Tara Brach, Ph.D. I watched on one computer, paused it as I went, and dictated into my phone. I am breaking it into two posts, as it got a little long. You can still listen to this interview online here.

Tara’s first book Radical Acceptance helped me so much on a personal level, and I frequently recommended it to my clients over the years. Her newest book is called True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart. I have already read it once, and I highly recommend it.

In this episode, Tami Simon speaks with Tara Brach, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. Tara has been practicing and teaching meditation since 1975 and has led Buddhist meditation retreats at centers throughout North America. Her audio programs with Sounds True include Radical Self-Acceptance: A Buddhist Guide to Freeing Yourself from Shame and Finding True Refuge: Meditations for Difficult Times

Tami: What was happening inside of you, and in your teaching, that got you in touch with this idea, this need for radical self-acceptance?

Tara: I realized that my deepest suffering was a sense of not being enough, and when it was very bad, even a sense of self-aversion. I saw it in my students and clients.

I believe that the sense of not being enough is the most pervasive suffering in our society.

I had a friend in college who was reading “Learning to Be Your Own Best Friend” and I thought,  “Oh my gosh, I am the furthest thing from that.” And it was even more than that—it was that I didn’t trust myself.

We don’t recognize what I call “the trance of unworthiness”–how much we are trapped in the sense of falling short. And usually it’s on every front in some way. It’s a background noise that’s always saying, “How am I doing now?” Usually we find there’s a gap in how we think we should be and our moment-to-moment awareness. In that gap, we feel like we are always not okay.

noname-1A palliative caregiver told me that the number one grief of the dying is that they didn’t live true to themselves. They lived according to the expectations of others, but not the truth of their own hearts. At the end, there was the sense that, “I didn’t live this life true to who I am.”

If I did a show of hands and asked how many people speak unkindly to themselves, every hand would go up. But I think what we don’t realize is the overall sense we have that, “Something is wrong with me,” and how it pervades our day. It contracts everything. It’s a deep feeling of being flawed and deficient. It’s a trance that imprisons our moments in a way that we’re not aware of.

Tami: What do you think wakes people up from this trance?

Tara: The suffering. For example, if you’re in a relationship and you realize “I can’t really be close to anyone.” If someone got to know me, they’d reject me.

The pain is a wake up to explore how we begin to stop the war against ourselves.

So it’s the suffering that starts as the wake up.

Tami: How do we learn to trust ourselves?

Let me give an example. A woman came up after a class and told me that she didn’t deserve to accept herself because she was not being a good parent to her five-year-old. She was yelling at her all the time and being critical. It’s true, her behavior wasn’t ideal. But I asked the woman, “Do you love your daughter?” She said, “Of course, I wouldn’t be so upset if I didn’t love her.” Then spend some time getting in touch with that feeling of loving your daughter, I told her. That you can trust. (Editorial note: I believe it was implied in the way Tara described the story that eventually radical self-acceptance gives way toward aligning your behavior with what is in your heart.)

We can’t trust our ego self. It is unreliable, out-of-control, striving, and afraid. A true sense of trust comes from connecting with the deeper part of our self, and that takes paying attention.

noname-4Often the pathway to acceptance comes from pausing when we feel unworthy. Training in learning to pause when you feel the suffering is critical. Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. So the first step is to pause.

Next, you have to deepen attention–to get underneath the thoughts and determine what is going on in the body and in the heart.

You have to bring awareness to just how painful it is. I call it the sense of “Ouch!”

It’s helpful to put your hand on your heart. All you need is the intention to be kind to that place of suffering. You can’t manufacture feeling kind, but you can say, “I want to be able to be gentle to this place that feels so bad.” Then there’s a shift. The shift is a move from the unworthy self to a compassionate presence that is witnessing the unworthy self.

In the past decade I have had bouts of sickness that have been very humbling. I can feel irritable and self-centered, and then I start not liking myself for being a “bad sick person”. I think I’m not being spiritual in how I’m being sick. The Buddha called it the second arrow. The first arrow is being feeling sick, and then the second arrow is feeling unworthy because I’m judging myself for not being a good sick person.

In part two, Tara talks about how she deals with her own feelings of unworthiness, the importance of conscious community, and how to use the tool called RAIN.

Kindness Is the Means and End

Sounds TrueThese are my notes from Session 3 of The Self-Acceptance Project at Sounds True.
In this episode, Tami Simon speaks with Geneen Roth, a writer and teacher whose work focuses on using addiction as a path to the inner universe. Geneen is the bestselling author of Feeding the Hungry Heart, and with Sounds True has created the audio learning course When Food Is Food and Love Is Love.

Tami asked Geneen to talk about working with the self-critical voice in our head.  Here are the main points she made.

Step One: It’s really important to normalize it. You’re not alone. Everyone has that inner voice. Some people’s inner voice is just a lot more vicious than others.

Step Two: Disengage or dis-identify with the critical voice. Say, “Oh, there it is again.”

Action: Write out a list of 10 criticisms that you’ve said to yourself in the past half hour. Then say these out loud in the tone of voice that you hear them in your mind. And say it starting with “You.” Such as “You are so stupid.” Or “You are so fat.”  People are shocked when they hear it said that way. This helps you to step back and disengage.

The first step is awareness, because only with awareness can you take action.

1.  The action can be asking your self, “Is this true?” (Is it true what the voice is saying?)

2.  The action can be agreeing with the voice with some type of humor. Example: “You think I ate a lot for lunch. Just wait until you see what I’m going to eat for dinner.” (It’s a way of disengaging.)

3.  This next idea works for some people but not others: You tell the voice to shut the hell up!

Tami pointed out that some of the other presenters have suggested that the inner critic has some function (such as self-protection) and asked Geneen to comment. Geneen said the problem is the moral judgment that so often goes along with the inner voice. When you say, “Hmm. You gained 5 pounds. I wonder what that is about” is a whole a lot different than, “You’re such a failure. You gained 5 pounds.”

The moral judgment that is often tied up in the inner voice blocks you from having any type of clarity or curiosity; it just makes you feel diminished, small and like you want to hide.

People are somehow hypnotized with this belief that if we somehow shame ourselves enough we will end up to be happy, loving, self-accepting people. I ask them, “How does that work for you?”

Geneen RothGeneen has done a lot of work with compulsive eating and body image, and Tami asked her to talk some about that. Her basic points:

If you shame and deprive yourself into losing weight you will end up as a shamed and deprived person who may have  thin hips for about 10 minutes. But the shame and deprivation will lead you to overeat and you’ll gain it back.

Does shame and punishment and fear and guilt work at any level for any kind of long-lasting change? (No.)

The bottom line: Kindness is the name of the game.

Curiosity is the Key

medium_7380729644These are notes I took from Monday night’s session of  The Self-Acceptance Project presented by Sounds True. It’s not a word-for-word transcription, but it will give you the basics. It’s still online and free, so check it out.

In this episode, Tami speaks with Dr. Harville Hendrix, the creator of Imago Relationship Therapy. Dr. Hendrix is the author of the classic book Getting the Love You Want.

I have never read any of Dr. Hendrix’s books, so I’m not as familiar with the concepts he discusses. It was very interesting to listen to him. In some ways, he sounded very behavioral, talking about gathering data and letting the data change your beliefs about yourself. In other ways, he sounded psychodynamic, talking about excavating the self and looking back into your childhood to see where self-limiting beliefs may have originated.

My notes are in order of what he said, but they don’t seem as organized as those I took while listening to Kristen Neff, Ph.D. (click her for those, Compassion and the Self-Critic.) I may come back to this and try to develop this better, but for now I just wanted to get them out there (and not be perfectionistic!).

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The important thing is to think about is what function the negativity serves, and to process that information. Everything we think and do serves a function in our psychic economy. He believes there is some sort of causality in whatever we do. He gave an example of a graduate student who was working on a dissertation. The dissertation was actually finished and the person had received positive feedback from people on his dissertation committee. It is ready to turn in (and has been for months) but the person waits and keeps saying it’s not good enough. The self put down, the statement of  it’s not good enough, prevents the person from experiencing any relational transaction with the professor in which his fears might come true. He is fearing the possibility of negative judgment. Now where does the self put down come from? Usually people can trace it to something early in their lives. Ask yourself other questions such as “What is it related to?” or “What is it protecting your from?”

The second thing is to move out of the limbic system of the brain—the part of the brain where we are always looking for bad stuff to happen. There is a neurochemical response in which cortisol is released and  permeates the sensory system. This makes you feel like you’re in a dangerous state. We have to move out of that system and accumulate data and assimilate the data that is not  congruent with your beliefs. He said that positive affirmations never helped him. The data helped him.

Positive affirmations never helped me. The data helped me.

He also said there is a connection between the quality of our relationships and how we treat ourselves. He said reality is relationship. Reality is connection. If we don’t have a sense of safety in our relationships it’s very difficult to have internal safety.

He also talked about the power of ambivalence. He said when we are in the state of ambivalence our brain doesn’t know what to do. When it’s not engaged in a directed activity, it gets anxious. So ambivalence feeds on itself. When we move from the state of ambivalence to commitment, our brain knows that it has to go to work. If you want to grow you have to become intentional. You have to get on the train and then the brain engages. You collect data and then sort the data. The ambivalence protects the person from some fearful imagined outcome.

He talked about letting love in and rejecting compliments:

1. If I let in the compliment that I did well in, it will establish expectations that I will always do well, and that will be too taxing.

2. People are always insincere.

3.  If I let love in, it will cause me to have to release the architecture of my self-concept.

Again, you have to understand where the defense comes from, and then collect data over and over again in small amounts until you can’t deny the evidence anymore. At some point this will release the defense.

When we change our self-configuration, we have to be open to being a “bigger” person. This opening up can create anxiety.

In neuroscience terms, the brain likes to know what is coming next. If we let love in, we have to be willing to live in mystery. When we are aware of our connection with the rich tapestry of life, we live in joy. When we are not living in joy, something has triggered our anxiety and makes us experience ourselves as separate.