Some thoughts about managing the unprecedented time of shelter at home during the covid-19 pandemic are in this video recorded for the South Brunswick High School in mid March 2020.
Dr. McLean -1
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Did you make New Year’s resolutions this year? How are they going?
According to researchers, approximately 50% of the population makes resolutions each New Year. Among the top resolutions are weight loss, exercise, smoking cessation, better money management and debt reduction. However, only about 8% of this group succeed. Does this matter?
Apart from the fact, that we do not ending up with the desired benefit of the change in our lives, when decisions to change our life in some significant way do not work, the experience of “failure” lowers our sense of competence and can feed into negative self-esteem cycles. Lowered self esteem has negative repercussions on all aspects of our life and so these failed resolutions end up being more destructive to our sense of well-being than if we had not made the decision. Nevertheless, change and growth are important. So how do we tackle this dilemma?
Let us first look at why resolutions/decisions to change don’t typically work:
People set unrealistic goals and expectations in their resolutions. The goals and expectations can be unrealistic for many reasons:
1. The goals are too distant from the current situation. In other words, the goal is good but does not take into account the starting point and the context in which change needs to happen as well as the time and effort that will be involved in achieving it. Even if progress occurs if the distance between what is achieved and the goal is too large we continuously feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and have a sense that we are failures. This does not support our effort to continue toward the goal. Instead, leads to discouragement, loss of hope and motivation and worst of all despair.
2. The goal is too large for the brain to handle. A new year’s resolution to quit smoking, start going to the gym, or lose lots of weight, requires the strength of our will to implement and achieve. Too big a goal is equivalent to lifting a 300 pound barbell without any previous training. Research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited. The pre-frontal cortex that handles willpower is like a muscle that needs to be trained. So just like the bicep has to be trained in order to lift weight, so does the prefrontal cortex in the brain. If we start lifting too heavy a weight without training (set too lofty a goal) we are bound to drop everything on the floor.
3. The goal is not specified in terms of specific behaviors, but rather in abstractions. An abstract goal not tied to a specific behavior is nearly impossible for the brain to focus on. There is an important difference between a resolution and a habit and it is a habit that becomes instinctual and sticks over time. Fro example: For a Resolution to Quit smoking you might need to change a habit i.e. Stop smoking that 1 cigarette you have every morning after breakfast; Resolution: Eat healthy food vs. Habit: Start substituting that 1 daily morning pastry for a banana
4. The goals are “rational” but the person really does not believe in them. People do not attend to their emotional response to goals. If the goals are part of the “should” of life we will resist them. That is human nature! So we are already in conflict with ourselves even before we start.
5. People make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves but aren’t “ready to change” their habits, particularly bad habits. So we don’t have any motivation to actually make the change and that accounts for the high failure rate.
6. People think that a particular change will make them happy or change everything: The happiness trap. You may think that if you lose weight, or reduce your debts, or exercise more, your entire life will change, and when it doesn’t, you may get discouraged and then you revert back to old behaviors..
7. Some psychologists propose that many people are making resolutions for external reasons. These individuals think that just because it’s a new year, they’re obliged to say they’ll change their behavior. But once they face the reality of what they’re doing, they give up because they aren’t motivated enough in the first place. Ask yourself: If there were no pressure from others, would you want to change? Studies have shown that people are more likely to succeed in changing their behavior when they are motivated by internal rather than external forces.
So what are we to do?
The unfortunate truth is that change, all change, entails some degree of emotional friction, which in turn generates an activated state we call stress. When we can’t handle the stress we tend to self-sabotage. We are doomed to fail if, other than our well-intentioned resolve to change, we have done nothing to enhance our capacity to either sustain motivation or handle the inevitable stress and discomfort involved in change.
Saying this differently: To change our life we have to first change our mind!
Build Self Discipline: We often tell ourselves – I just don’t have self-discipline. I am lazy! I am weak! This leads to giving up and further despair and self-recrimination. The reality is that: You’re not born with self-discipline; it is a skill which you can develop. Will power is not a character trait.
Like a muscle, you need to develop your self-discipline muscle, one challenge at a time! Essentially, you build self-discipline by willfully enduring the transient discomfort of changing who and what you are. You do that by finding big and small ways to support and encourage yourself. Starting today, instead of reflexively feeling a need to minimize or escape the friction involved in change, recognize instead the need to endure it. Bottom line: Don’t bail! So before you focus on your goal, focus on training your brain.
1. Find internal motivation: Set goals because you desire them and not because it is an expectation/demand from the outside world and a set of “right” things/shoulds.
2. Use emotions wisely: A logical message with no appeal to emotion doesn’t create a strong enough response within us. We are persuaded by reason, but we are moved by emotion. Several studies conclude that up to 90 percent of the decisions we make are based on emotion. We use logic to justify our actions to ourselves and to others. However, understanding how we truly feel is critical. Living without self-awareness is like driving your car at night with the headlights off – technically, you can still drive, but you will eventually have a collision. So how do you really feel about your goals? Do you believe in them? Do you want them? Are they coming from you? Do you feel forced to adopt them? Are you anxious about them? Are they overwhelming?
3. Don’t fall for the happiness trap. Assuming that if I achieve this goal or have that outcomes in life will make me happy is a mistake. Happiness is an internal state of mind and being. Gradually de-couple your happiness from external events and as you can learn to loosen your attachment to circumstances and feel good regardless of what happens. So instead of getting happiness from circumstances, you bring happiness to circumstances. Happiness will then support the achievement of the goal not vice versa.
The flip side of the of happiness trap is the belief that if I am less happy it means I made a suboptimal choice in the past. That’s a very disempowering belief. The truth is that you always have power in the present moment — in fact, that’s the only place you do have power. So no matter how big any particular decision seems, the truth is that every moment is a process of decision-making. There really is no wrong path, no fatal decision that will totally disempower you. You can always choose again.
4. Think small. The “cognitive overload” research suggests that attending to more than 1 New Year’s resolution is near impossible for your brain to handle. Instead,
a. Analyze everything you’ve thought about to change and pick the one thing that’s most important for you.
b. Then, let go of everything else.
c. Then divide the resolution up and make the goal a habit first. And most importantly, make it a tiny one. For example, if the resolution is lose weight then the small habit might be: every evening after work, go for a 2-3 minute run or walk around the block. If the resolution is: Manage stress the habit might be: Meditate for 2-3 minutes every morning after you wake up. By immediately breaking down each resolution and seeing what the smallest habit could be, your chances of succeeding will be 50% higher. You make it so easy and simple for yourself to create that habit that there is almost no way you can fail with it.
5. Use positive reinforcement. Once you get used to making small things happen, begin to recognize your capacity. Focus on the carrot, not the stick – positive feedback and rewards increase your chance of success. We now have lots have research that outlines how clearly positive feedback on any of your new habits will increase the likelihood of your success with your new habits and resolutions.
a. Appreciate yourself for changes in your habits. Rewards that make you feel great are a sure fire way to increase your self-esteem and bring you success in other areas of your life too.
b. Celebrate your success between milestones. Don’t wait the goal to be finally completed.
c. Moreover, forgive shortfalls. Better to do the best you can than wind up jeopardizing your growing capacity for believing in yourself. When it comes to building trust, it’s better to lose the battle than the war.
6. Cultivate optimism. No one’s life is without negatives. The key is to train yourself to focus on the positives. Don’t let insecurity suggest there are no positives. Positives may be eclipsed by a habit of pessimistic negativity, but keep looking: They’re there. Pessimism is a habit and if we realize it’s a choice we might be able to find the positive.
7. Be patient: Brain scientists have discovered, through the use of MRIs, that habitual behavior or default behavior is created by cognitive patterns that create neural pathways and memories. So to engage in new behaviors, you have to change your thinking and “rewire” your brain. Trying to change that default thinking by “not trying to do it,” in effect just strengthens it. Change requires creating new neural pathways from new thinking. It takes time and effort.
8. Find external and internal supports:
a. Have an accountability buddy. Find someone close to you that you have to report to, if possible.
b. Focus on the present. What’s the one thing you can do today, right now, towards your goal?
c. Be mindful. Become physically, emotionally and mentally aware of your inner state as each external event happens, moment by moment, rather than living in the past or future.
d. Keep a sense of humor. And finally, don’t take yourself so seriously. Have fun and laugh at yourself when you slip, but don’t let the slip hold you back from working at your goal.
e. Repair and recover. The process of change is not linear. There will be ups and downs. The key is to celebrate your ups and recover from the downs.
Change is a process and not an outcome!
“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform”…. Tich Naht Hahn.
Tich Naht Hahn talks about our capacity to love as transformative. He says, “When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others.”
Furthermore, the paradox is that with expanded hearts, “we accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.” In fact, he states that, “Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.”
But how can we expand our hearts? How do learn to really listen and understand? Listening without reactivity and with open-ness is a skill which we can all develop. This skill interestingly requires us to tune into ourselves, connect with our own emotions so that we can manage our own reactivity to be available to listen to another. Over the last few decades, developments in psychology and neuroscience have taught us a lot about our emotions. As we understand emotions more, therapists are teaching people that understanding ourselves with compassion and building our capacity for happiness is the only path to a life of joy and deep connection with others. This agrees with Tich Naht Hahn’s teaching which says, “when we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness.”
According to him, four elements constitute real truthful love — loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity both for the self and for the other. Self acceptance and compassion is very hard for many of us. He offers, “trust that you have a good and compassionate nature. You are part of the universe; you are made of stars. When you look at your loved one, you see that he is also made of stars and carries eternity inside. Looking in this way, we naturally feel reverence. True love cannot be without trust and respect for oneself and for the other person.”
In sociology and psychology, self-esteem refers to an individual’s overall emotional estimation/evaluation of his or her own worth. While self-concept refers to an idea of a cognitive understanding of who we are, self-esteem is the evaluative dimension based on our judgment of “worth/value.” Self-esteem incorporates attitudes and beliefs regarding value and is intrinsically liked to the emotional and psychological experience of the self (for example, “I am competent,” “I am worthy,” “I am a failure,”) and generates emotions such as triumph, despair, pride and shame. It tends to be a global assessment and not restricted to specific behaviors or capacities. So for example, if we have low self-esteem (LSE) we might say “I am worthless” rather than “I am really not good at X task and need to get some training or more experience to do better at the task. Branden in 1969 defined self-esteem as “the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness.” According to Branden, self-esteem is the sum of self-confidence (a feeling of personal capacity) and self-respect (a feeling of personal worth).
I will add that good self-esteem is based on an accurate assessment of the self and one’s capacities. Too high a valuation of the self (inflated sense of self) can lead to problematic behaviors and distress in our lives as much as too low a valuation of the self (LSE). Often, what appears to be an inflated sense of self masks LSE. In either case, preoccupation with self-evaluation narrows our perspective making it harder for us to see others more fully. This can affect the quality of our relationships adversely.
The LSE cycle of negativity: Believing that we are lovable and knowing that we are loved is a basic need for all of us. There is considerable evidence at this point to convince us that mammals seek safety and validation in relationships and when they receive it, they can access their full potential and be their best selves. When people have LSE they fall into a negative cycle:
a. Failing to find positive validation internally, LSE can drive people to become desperate in seeking reassurance that we are lovable. However, the desperation can make us hypervigilant (overly sensitive) and overly focused on the behavior of others as a sign of our own lovability. The narrow focus is accompanied by attribution error and we inevitably, mis-assign meaning to that behavior. The mis-assignment is colored by the low sense evaluation of the self. Thus, when (and not if) the other person does not act in ways that we think would indicate love/appreciation for us, LSE sufferers either: 1) try harder to please in order to win the love and attention of the other 2) become angry when it feels as if the other is withholding or not meeting needs, or 3) feel we must be deserving of this treatment because of our essential un-lovability or in-adequacy.
b. OR …. We choose partners/friends who are unable to give of themselves in ways that are warm, nurturing, and loving. This can happen both because LSE leads us to believe that we are un-deserving/incapable of finding better partners, or because these “toxic” people are familiar to figures in the past whose constant negative feedback still resounds in our ears and who contributed to the development of our LSE. These others re-inforce the negative feedback and cannot counteract the LSE.
c. OR both
d. When positive feedback is actually forthcoming LSE makes it difficult to accept and sometimes, no amount of genuine positive validation can affect the entrenched and rigid negative valuation of the self.
LSE is damaging. Depression and anxiety are often co-related with LSE and frequently behavioral problems related to anger, substance abuse, poor relational interactions, and workaholism can occur with LSE. Eating disorders have also been linked to LSE. Some signs and symptoms include:
Chaotic and unsatisfactory relationships
Lack of self assertion
Passive aggressive behaviors
Poor communication skills
Promiscuity and sexual dysfunction in relationships
Self sabotaging behaviors
Needing to wear a mask and lack of authentic self expression
How good is your self esteem? Take Sorensen_Self-Esteem_Test.
You can break the LSE cycle anywhere! If the LSE cycle is holding you hostage think about breaking it at any one or all of its connectors. Here are some starting points and they can help you generate your own ideas:
1. Take responsibility for your life
2. Look inward for true validation and an accurate assessment of your self
3. Accept the things that cannot be changed and grieve the loss
4. Accept the validation you receive from others and let the positive influence you
5. Pick supportive people and build relationships with them – find mentors and friends
6. Doubt your automatic assumptions and ask others for their motivations rather than assuming it is about you
7. Do things to build your capacities and competencies and value that experience
8. Sometimes you have to “fake it till you make it” so try on feeling confident – use the exercise GROW below.
Please complete the following sentence:” if I were more confident, I would be able to…..”
“What would that look like”? “What would that feel like”?
G: This is your GOAL. Now,
R: What is the reality/current state? What internal resources do I have?
O: What do I need to do? What are my options?
W: What help/support do I need and how can I get it.
Make an action plan ——- Commit to it.
Shame and Guilt: Similarities and differences:
Both shame and guilt are negative experiences that are aversive and associated with the self-appraisal that one has done something wrong. Both are frequently linked to interpersonal transgressions (a person is hurt or harmed in some way by our actions) or situations in which some social or culturally acceptable mores has been violated (e.g. public urination when intoxicated). Both are methods of socialization and used in acculturating children to obey social norms and treat other people in socially desirable ways.
Despite these similarities guilt and shame are distinctly different emotions that have differing impact on the self and our interpersonal relationships.
In fact, shame and guilt have different implications for our mental health and behavioral responses to the world. Research shows that shame is linked to: substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, depression, relationship violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. Guilt is inversely correlated with those things.
So what is the difference between guilt and shame?
One important difference is the globality of focus. Guilt is typically attached to a particular action and does not condemn the entire self, whereas shame spreads out from the particular misdeed to encompass the self as a whole. In guilt, the negative affect and remorse remain linked to the particular action; in simple terms, one can regard oneself as a good person who has done a bad thing. Thus, guilt may therefore be far less debilitating and demoralizing than shame in which the experience is that one is wholly a bad person.
Secondly, the experience of guilt generates pro-social action tendencies. Since it is linked both to empathic recognition of the other person’s distress as well as to anxiety that one might lose the relationship/social bond with the other due to a transgression that hurt someone or because one’s mis-deed’s will lead to negative judgment rejection by others. It is an aversive state that promotes an appreciation of the other person’s perspective, insofar as the guilty individual reflects on how his or her transgression has affected the other person and how particular reparative acts (such as an apology, confession, other reparative action) will offset the harm and possibly restore the other’s positive attitude toward oneself.
Shame, in contrast, involves feeling that the entire self (rather than just one particular action) is bad. Since shame involves critical, painful scrutiny of the self as a whole, no simple apology feels like it would resolve such a far-reaching and complex predicament. The helpless distress that this produces might make one feel that talking about the situation would lead one to dwell on this latest reminder of one’s deficient person-hood and not lead to repair. Researchers have found that the only responses that seem to minimize the subjective distress of shame are:
(i) to ignore the problem,
(ii) to deny one’s responsibility,
(iii) to avoid other people, or perhaps
(iv) to lash out at one’s accusers
Such responses would obviously be unlikely to have the prosocial, relationship-enhancing effects and do not include empathy and perspective taking to appreciate the impact of one’s behavior on others. Thus, shame is less relational than guilt and leads to a preoccupation with the self and limits one’s ability to take the perspective of others. It is therefore easier to be with people who are prone to guilt than those prone to shame.
Dealing with guilt therefore requires the ability to hold something one has done, or failed to do, up against who one wants to be. As long as it does not take on a pathological flavor, mature guilt is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive. Shame on the other hand, is about a sense of self. Shame is about protecting an idealized version of the self. If that ideal implodes, it can’t be rebuilt. Any little thing can send the person into a tailspin they’re anxiously waiting for a mistake, or the publication of a mistake, to torpedo their entire identity. People who feel guilt have more hope when they make mistakes, they can do a little leg work to make up for their mistakes, and feel okay again.
Do men and women respond similarly when shamed? Do women feel more shame?
Research suggests that:
(i) Women feel more shame than men,
(ii) Typically, women have dealt with shame through introversion and self-hate. They experience “shame-shame loops”, i.e. being ashamed of being ashamed, which makes them more ashamed of being ashamed, which leads to more shame, and so on. This circular process often results in withdrawal or depression.
(iii) Men have been more likely to exhibit extreme anger and violence as a consequence of shame. They tend to experience “shame-anger loops”, i.e. becoming angry that they are ashamed, and ashamed that they are angry, and so on. This creates an emotional loop that feeds on itself and often culminates in antisocial acts and relationship violence.
Causes of Shame and Healing:
Shame is about inner badness – a sense that one’s self is bad, unworthy, unlovable, defective etc. To the extent that a sense of self begins to develop early in life, frequently feelings of shame are a result of a childhood environments that did not contribute to the development of a healthy sense of self. Experiences of loss, neglect, and abuse are often identifiable in people who are prone to shame, but subtle ways in which one is shamed in the formative years can also contribute to the development of a sense of one’s self as inadequate and unlovable. Examples abound and include betrayal by others and a broken trust through disapproval or humiliation as well as parental withdrawal and rejection shown by looks of contempt cause instantaneous shame reactions in children. A child who believes that his parents favor a sibling often believes that there is something basically wrong with him or he would be the chosen child. Shame also occurs when the parents have high standards of behavior and react with anger or embarrassment when the child does not live up to expectations. Punishment for failure and humiliation over the child’s expression of vulnerability, distress, crying or pain typically create shame. Criticism, cruel teasing and ridicule further reinforce the child’s beliefs of unworthiness. Harsh parental discipline of a coercive nature creates fears of abandonment in the child and a sense of unworthiness. Sometimes identification with a parent who lives in shame induces shame based responses in the child.
Healing From Shame:
1. Understand: The first step is to begin to understand where one’s sense of shame came from and to appreciate the context in which it developed. The purpose of gaining this insight is not to blame others. Understanding the origins of one’s shame allows us to begin to attenuate the blame we automatically assign to the self and start to develop compassion and empathy for the self.
2. Recognize and Face: Facing the shame requires recognizing how and when it gets stirred. The recognition alone creates a gap between the experience of shame and the automatic behavior (withdrawal, attack, giving up, avoidance etc.) that it generates. When shame can be seen as a signal and it can be recognized and named as it arises, it loses its power to automatically dictate behavior. When you see the shame coming up you might be able to ask yourself, “what should I do? Shall I engage in my usual way to avoid/get rid of this horrible feeling or can I try to tolerate/assuage/ manage this feeling in another way? If I could be compassionate toward myself, how would I support myself at this moment?”
3. Use guilt: Convert your shame into mature guilt. Shame is the feeling that you are not good enough and that there is no hope for you. Guilt is the feeling that in this particular regard your are not doing something you should be doing. Can you identify what it is you “should” be doing and find a way to support yourself to do it?
To illustrate: Margaret feels shame that she is not the sort of person who can ever excel at in her studies/work. Whatever happens, a poor grade/ a critical performance appraisal by her boss, she senses that this is because she is “basically inadequate,” so she withdraws and stays to herself. She makes no effort to talk to her teacher/boss, figure out what she could do better, change her major/job, get additional tutoring/coaching, recalls her previously failures and avoids the subject at parties. Changing the narrative from shame to guilt requires the courage to re-evaluate herself as “guilty” of inertia and poor training. She then begins to create and achieve goals that are possible for her. So if she sets certain standards, and then if she doesn’t achieve them, she can rightly feel guilty that she is failing and can increase her efforts to succeed, or redefine her goals. She has moved into consciousness that her worth can be defined by realistic possibilities, not held hostage by “hidden” demands of shame-making expectations.
4. Find support: We know who we are (develop a sense of self) when we see the reflection of ourselves in the eyes of the other. Thus, this journey to heal shame and accept the self as loveable, worthy, adequate and desirable requires developing relationships with those who can reflect those aspects of the self. The success or failure of your journey to heal shame can be influenced by the ability to surround oneself with those who think you are lovable, who support you, who back you up in the way you lead your life, and who can convey to you that they are for you even when they don’t like your behavior. However, more important than having these people around you is to allow them to influence you! When they provide positive reinforcement and support don’t discard/minimize/reject or otherwise ignore what is being offered even if it is difficult to trust and take in positive feedback and support. No one can help us heal if we are not open to healing.
Compassion and empathy are the antidote to shame!
Research suggests that self-compassion and resonant empathic connection with others can act as an antidote to self-criticism—a major characteristic of those who experience intense shame.
1. Neurological benefits: Self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. Similarly, relational safety in a secure relationships has been shown to be related to the release of oxytocin. Self-criticism, on the other hand, has a very different effect on our body and activates the bodies stress-response which sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol. Over time increased cortisol levels lead to depression by depleting the various neurotransmitters involved in the ability to experience pleasure. The practice of self-compassion has been shown to decrease symptoms, including, self-criticism.
2. Psychological benefits: Self-compassion encourages us to begin to treat ourselves and talk to ourselves with the same kindness, caring and compassion we would show a good friend or a beloved child. It enables the development of healthy self-esteem and self-regard that are essential for effective functioning in life and enhanced mental health.
3. Relational benefits: Shame is alienating from others since it generates withdrawal or aggressive behaviors. Compassion toward self and others are attractive behaviors and help us enjoy the benefits of positive support and caring and feel less isolated and alienated from others.
Practicing self-compassion: Be patient with yourself it takes time and understanding!
There is no magic pill. Healing shame requires a conscious practice of overcoming the grip of negative self-related emotions every time they come up.
• Begin to generate compassionate feelings toward yourself and soothe yourself in positive ways. Write them down and read them to yourself frequently.
• Begin to replace self-criticism with kind self-acceptance and understanding
• Begin to create a nurturing inner voice to replace your cold, critical, bullying inner voice
• Begin to generate alternatives to your self-attacking thoughts, including stimulating underdeveloped pathways of the brain—pathways that stimulate inner support and warmth
• Help yourself to develop appreciation for yourself, including feeling pride in your accomplishments–pride is the opposite emotion from shame
• Encourage yourself to practice accountability versus self-blame, self-correction versus self-criticism.
• Allow others to impact you in positive ways and surround yourself with supportive others.
An Exercise in self compassion:
1. Think of one of your most shaming experiences from childhood. Now think of what you wish someone had said to you right after that experience. What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at that time? Write this statement down on a piece of paper.
2. Imagine that someone you care very much about, someone you admire, is saying those words to you now. Hear those words in your ears. Take those words into your heart. Notice how those words make you feel.
3. Now say those words out loud to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words. How does hearing yourself say those words out loud make you feel? Can you experience both the compassion from someone else and the self-compassion toward yourself.
In essence, in order to heal your shame (past and present) you need to provide for yourself nurturing, encouraging words to counter the typically self-critical words you normally tell yourself whenever you make a mistake, disappoint yourself or someone else, or in some way fall short of your own or someone else’s expectations. Self-compassion involves telling yourself what you most need to hear at the moment—words of understanding and encouragement.
Downloadable Brochure: Shame and guilt
Do you think that being sad is a sign of weakness or that allowing yourself to feel anger is destructive? Do you bury your hurt or pain? Do you avoid “negative emotions? If so, you may be losing important information and psychic energy that could empower your life.
Many of us equate emotions with behavior and in trying to avoid conflict or the “negative” expression of emotion we actually disavow the experience of emotions. So perhaps, the questions is: Is there a difference between emotion and behavior? Can we feel angry and not engage in unproductive/destructive behaviors? Can we feel sad and not lose our strength? You may ask, why do people have angry outbursts, or become paralyzed when they get anxious or choose unhealthy behaviors when “negative” emotions come up? Furthermore, why should we feel these aversive feelings in the first place?
We know from neuroscientific research that emotions are hard wired in the part of our brain that we share with other mammals. So, whether we like it or not, we feel them and whether we acknowledge or recognize emotions or not, they affect our behavior. For example, in his book Affective Neuroscience, Panksepp explains that there “is good biological evidence for at least seven innate emotional systems….” which are genetically encoded into the subcortical neuro-circuitry of the mammalian brain. These are SEEKING (expectancy,anticipation, desire); RAGE (frustration, anger, body surface irritation, restraint, indignation); FEAR (anxiety, pain, threat, foreboding); PANIC/GRIEF (separation distress, social loss, loneliness); PLAY (rough-and tumble carefree play, joy); LUST (mating,copulation); CARE (nurturance).
Perhaps, the wish for disavowal of emotions lies in (i) how we view emotions, and (ii) whether we recognize them as separate from our behavioral responses. Thus, if we can view emotions as information providing systems rather than value laden and therefore, desirable vs undesirable or positive vs negative, then we can use them to enhance our lives. In particular, we can consciously increase behaviors that intensify and prolong “happiness” emotions (such as seeking, play, and care in Panksepp’s system) and adaptively respond to the emotions that we call “negative” or “aversive” (such as rage, fear, panic or loss).
When emotions are unrecognized, we lose our capacity to use them intentionally. We engage in behaviors that are driven purely by the physiologically based action tendencies of those emotions which are automatic and physiologically driven. For example, fear primes us to fight or flee. Similarly anger primes us to act while sadness pushes us to withdraw. For example, if we do not notice that some thought or event has led us to feel disconnected from our partner and triggered the fear of abandonment, we may react automatically to the fear with a fight/flight response. We may therefore become verbally nasty/withdrawn much in the same way as if a lion was standing in front of us triggering our physiological fear response. If instead we can recognize what we are feeling, we then have a choice with respect to our behavior. We might be able to calm our emotionally activated nervous system and ask our partner for connection in a way that will be inviting and likely to receive a positive response.
The goal is to drive a cognitive wedge between emotions and behavior. Use your emotions as signals, use your cognitions to understand the information your body is signaling and use your behaviors to build a life that supports you. Use your cognitions to help you integrate i.e. understand your emotions and choose your activities in the world. How does one become aware of emotions? Here are some strategies.
1. The simple answer is to slow down and yet, it is the most difficult thing to do.
2. Give yourself at least 20-30 mins of active self-soothing before you react to a situation. Self- soothing can take the form of deep breathing, doing something that gives you pleasure or a sense of competence, connecting with someone who makes you feel good, recollecting a memory of a happy moment, exercising, thinking about positive moments in the day, doing something positive for others or yourself.
3. Cultivate the attitude of curiosity and interest in yourself rather than judgment and condemnation.
4. Employ retroactive analysis. At first, you will need to revisit events in which you have already “behaved” and see if you can deconstruct them. Ask yourself, “what happened here? Can I go back and figure out what I was feeling?” Write down thoughts and feelings to the best of your ability and see if you can see the link between your behavior and the emotion that had come up for you. Ask yourself, does this behavior support me or could I have chosen another action? After you have completed a few such analyses you will start to see a pattern emerge.
5. Over time and with lots of practice, you will start to see and understand your emotions clearly and use them to guide your behavior to support your wellbeing.
Adolescence is a complicated time of identity development when every aspect of an individual’s sense of self is examined, redefined, and integrated. It is an important developmental stage and can be stressful for the teen and the family. However, it can be a time of great growth, creativity, and success and does not have to be a time of family conflict and crises!
Transform the parent-teen relationship from distressing to successful. Empathy on the part of parents is first step. Developing an understanding of the multiple demands on our teens helps to foster empathy. There is now a great deal of brain research that tells us what is going on in the mind of our teens. We also know that the teen body is undergoing tremendous hormonal shifts. At the same time, as teens approach the verge of adulthood, their social and academic lives require attention, clarity, and energy for which they do not yet have the skills. Parents can become their best allies, supporters, and partners in navigating this complicated life stage successfully with minimal distress. This powerpoint provides information and suggestions that can help you build a constructive and rewarding relationship and avoid becoming opposing poles in ever present conflicts and mood fluctuations.
Download powerpoint: Promoting Success, Reducing Stress Final