Many of us can relate to the struggle to attend to emotions when immersed in a high stimulus and service oriented work environments (parenting young children included!). We rarely feel safe enough to express emotions to others and often lack time away from the stimulus to allow us to feel and integrate emotions as they arise. As a result, because we cannot tend to the emotion, despite feelings of urgency to do so, the stress response gets activated. When stressed, it hampers our ability to mindfully step back to navigate the perceived challenge in front of us. If the threat feels intense and we cannot respond to the associated emotion, we will likely react by flighting (anxiety and hostility), fleeing (depression and avoidance), or freezing (disconnecting and dissociating).
Consider the analogy of the phone as the emotional messenger. Emotions are telephone calls bringing us information. If we answer the phone, we receive information unique to us in that moment.
If we avoid answering the phone or turn the ringer off from a place of freeze, disconnecting from the feeling altogether, we block the message from coming through and lose the opportunity to connect to and tend to the felt needs of the body.
If we react to the ringing of the phone from a place of fight and/or flight, instead of answering it, we are likely to activate others by anxiously running around alerting everyone that the phone is ringing. We may even fuel shame by blaming ourselves for the ringing phone, or hit others over the head with the phone in anger.
If we habitually block the message, ignoring (freeze) or reacting (fight-flight) to the phone of our feelings instead of answering it, we miss an important opportunity to connect to the emotion to tend to the wound that lies beneath it.
There are two intertwining and equally important avenues to address our emotional challenges. Adapting the systemic/contextual stimuli and adapting how we respond to our internal stimuli.
Knowing that stress results from a need that feels threatened, it’s helpful to explore exactly what that need is. What we often find is that those events that really get under our skin, activating us quickly and chronically, relate to a past experience when that need was not met. As a result, the current situation gets emotionally fused with an event of the past (emotional transference). Stepping back enables us to de-fuse the situation, getting to the root of the threat so that we can properly tend to it.
The RAINN (Brach, 2013) framework provides a process to help us receive and respond to emotions. When we are empowered to tend to our emotions, we gain agency, buffering us from chronic stress and hostility both of which emerge when we feel out of control.
Recognize: We can recognize and cultivate an awareness of when we feel anxiety, resentful, disconnected, etc.
Allow: We can allow whatever (refraining from labelling them as good or bad) emotions emerge, staying with our body as they come and go instead of resisting, distracting, or dissociating from them.
Investigate: We can cultivate a sense of non-attachment by exploring the felt sense, following its ebb and flow, noticing how it presents in the body, enabling us to get a sense of the core fear beneath it.
Non-attach: Investigating enables us to see the emotion as an ‘other’, it is not me, it is simply a messenger for me to consider. Non-attachment diffuses the sense of threat as we are no longer identified and fused to the feeling.
Nourish: Once in a position where we can step back, we can come to the emotion from a place of agency. With agency, we can provide unconditional positive regard inwardly (self-compassion), the core ingredient necessary to enable the emotion to pass and the wound beneath it to heal.
Once we tend to the emotion on the personal level, we are far more likely to feel empowered to enact the changes necessary on a cultural and systemic level. A focus on the systems and contexts surrounding us is just as important as the inner work. Working on the outer from an empowered and whole place promotes agency and ensures that the contexts in which we live and work promote or at the very least do not prevent human flourishing.
As a third generation settler, I’ve struggled to connect to truth and reconciliation efforts. While I support the cause, it has never felt applicable to my personal day to day life, until recently…
As I’ve started to awaken to who I am, separate from conditioning, I’m also awakening to the dehumanizing nature of the system we live and work in. This rigid, perfectionistic system is a living breathing result of colonization (establishing control over people/forcing assimilation to one way of being) and the truth is, I spend a good part of my day reinforcing it.
Colonization Hurts (everyone)
Ironically, I’ve spent years working on inner reconciliation, making peace with adversities from childhood, making amends with those I’ve wronged, and by updating old and unhelpful belief systems. No matter the inner work, I recognize that I walk around each day forcing myself into the neat little boxes prescribed to me from a young age. I don’t enjoy stepping into these boxes. They feel rigid, predictable, and lifeless. To fit inside, I must make myself small, quieting my inner voice so I can assimilate. Once inside the box, I don’t feel good. I feel oppressed, held down, ashamed because my real self does not feel welcome there. I must quiet my authentic self, instead taking on the ideal display prescribed to me. Inside this box, my emotions feel threatening because they tell me to get out, that it’s not safe, that I don’t fit there. I’m feeling threatened because I know these emotions are important messengers, telling me what needs to be done to heal, to self-actualize into my most authentic and best self, but, that box is all I’ve known for so many years, I’m too afraid to step out. What if I’m alone out there? What if I shed the walls around me, revealing my true self only to face rejection? And then, after ruminating on these thoughts, I freeze, immobilized from acting, and so I stay in the box. I retreat to a feeling of safety, clinging to the familiar walls, finding comfort in the predictability they bring.
In this individualist culture, we like our boxes. There is the box we work in, which we spend much of our lives serving feverishly, rewarded by extra letters that bolster the power and respect of our birth names. Then there are all the other boxes that we hop in and out of, the church box, the parent box, and the gotta look socially competent box.
I spend most of my day moving between boxes, wearing them like a well-insulated jacket and then removing it when it no longer serves it’s purpose. And what purpose is that? I want to be accepted and loved, I want to feel like I belong to something bigger than myself. Each box holds a promise of a sense of belonging and somehow, that deep primal need seems to justify putting my ‘real’ self to sleep. Waking up feels dangerous. I’ve served this colonized system for so long that I’m afraid to be free of it. I’m afraid that if I step outside of the walls, I …. I don’t know, and that not knowing terrifies me.
And then it happened…I found people like me, people that want to step out, be free, be seen and in that seeing, to love and be loved, sans boxes. Even more exciting is that this box burning work is infectious and sure enough, an entire community is emerging all around us.
It’s time to open our eyes to the consequences of colonization. We all carry trauma from this colonized system we live in. To genuinely reconcile with others, we must first face our truth, reconciling with who we are in this world and how in our sleepiness we continue to contribute to colonization.
I am coming to know that we are more than the boxes we hide in. We are so much more…
We all need people. Let’s be each others’ people…
Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 2011) interweaves with Maslow’s Theory of Unmet Needs (1943) and Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 2012), impacting what and how we perceive stimuli, our ability to emotionally regulate, to be in authentic relationships, and to mitigate or interrupt the stress response. Polyvagal theory shifts us away from the idea that compulsive behaviours reflect a lack of willpower. Quite the opposite, when unaddressed, the nervous system directs behaviour before our thinking mind can intercede. Behaviours reflect the state of our autonomic nervous system (Flores & Porges, 2017). Relating this process to what is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the nervous systems is reacting to a past threat before our conscious mind can objectively evaluate the situation. Once the brain floods with chemicals, we are often unable to make objective decisions, causing us to react before conscious choice can occur. In this way, when activated, depending on the intensity of the felt threat, conscious choice/willpower is not a part of the equation.
In terms of how we attain homeostasis, according to Polyvagal Theory, we retrain these neuropathways through social interactions that feel safe. When we as a community understand Polyvagal Theory, we have a great opportunity to rewire our neural pathways through relationships of unconditional positive regard. Rewiring neural pathways in a group setting improves our ability exercise secure attachment, as opposed to anxious or avoidant reactions. When we practice this new way of being with others, being witnessed and received with unconditional positive regard, we are more apt to then integrate the shift outside of the circle. Embodying this secure (not avoidant or anxious) way of being with our people empowers us to keep trying to show up, expressing our authentic self with other people and in other contexts.
When we authentically show up in community with others who feel safe, we are working in tandem with neuroception, inhibiting the stress response, and promoting an ability to thrive as our authentic self (Flores & Porges, 2017). Because connection is at the heart of healing and reframing, the work of our time is to shift from our individualist and often disconnected ways, enabling us to collectively heal from trauma. Perhaps from an individualist lens we believe we are safer alone but given the current mental health crises emerging amid individualist cultures, the flaws imbedded in this way of being is clear. Through connection we have a far greater ability to heal from past trauma, surrounded by people who remind us that we are whole and so abundantly and inherently worthy of love.
Thriving brains navigate challenges before they become stressors. They self-regulate and they make conscious choices that promote wellness. In reality, we frequently carry unhealed past adversities and live and work in over stimulating and often energetically toxic environments, all of which takes an immense toll on our neurology. To objectively and creatively work with our neurology, we may need to explore and accept vulnerabilities that may not be immediately changeable, so we can focus on what we can change. From this place of acceptance, we can spring into action in a new empowered way.
Our brain cells communicate through electrical patterns called brain waves, categorized as alpha, beta, delta, gamma, or theta. Each of these patterns represents different states of consciousness, depending on whether we are relaxed, sleeping, meditating, concentrating, alert, frightened, etc. We frequently measure these waves via a non-invasive electroencephalography (EEG). When in states of stress and anxiety, we tend to operate from high frequency beta waves. When relaxed, we operate from lower frequency brainwaves. The good news is that we can transition between these states via mindfulness, meditation practices, and binaural beats. Training our brains in this way has many benefits such as promoting relaxation, enhancing performance, reducing stress, pain, migraines, and a host of mental health related problems (Cruceanu & Rotarescu, 2019; lee et al., 2019; Rebadomia et al., 2019). By training our brains using meditation, neurofeedback, binaural beats, or other entrainment tools, we learn to recognize when we enter lower frequency brain wave states and with practice, we can mindfully shift into more productive states. We spend most of our day operating from predominantly from beta wave states, which is often fitting, keeping us alert and focused as we move throughout our day. However, when Beta waves are dominant, especially in higher frequencies, they limit creativity and can cause hyper alertness, which fuels stress, anxiety, and burns up our energy. In this high alert state, our nervous system is more likely to get activated, pushing us into fight-flight or freeze, and reducing our ability to objectively act.
Depending on our neurology, mindfulness/meditation history, and unique preferences, what works for one individual to shift out of Beta wave states, enabling us to relax and gain important insights, may or may not work for another. For instance, those who regularly practice meditation will have a greater ability to maintain the concentration needed to shift with traditional sitting meditation methods. Some need a physical ritual like running, walking, yoga, sweeping, etc. to shift to lower frequencies. Others prefer repetition and vibration using chants such as ‘OM’ to transition to other states (Anand, 2014; Harne, & Hiwale, 2018). From Beta, we can move to:
Alpha waves, commonly accessed via mindfulness, promote a relaxed state of alertness that promotes reflection, relaxation, and cognitive performance (Cruceanu & Rotarescu, 2013; Rebadomia et al., 2019). With practice, we can sink deeper into the lower frequencies.
Theta waves promote memory consolidation (Reiner, Rozengurt, & Barnea, 2014) and a greater ability to recognize unwanted prejudices towards others, enabling them to act counter to ingrained instinct hey can recognize the difference between the rational course of action and the ingrained instinct (Cavanagh, Guitart-Masip, Huys, Frank, 2013). In Theta, we are more likely to practice non-attachment, enabling us to objectively navigate challenges, and to re-orient ourselves via renaming and reframing.
Gamma waves are the subtlest of the brainwave frequencies, requiring a quiet mind and yet when in this state, we are highly active, with enhanced focus, heightened senses, consciousness, compassion, and a greater felt sense of inner and outer connection. We can access and sustain gamma waves by practicing a variety of focused loving-kindness practices (Berkovich-Ohana, Glicksohn, & Goldstein, 2012; Lutz et al., 2004). Within this frequency, promoting open-heartedness, we are likely to feel more connected and a greater sense of wellbeing. Because Gamma waves promote feelings of well-being and connection to self and others, those who lack time in Gamma states are more likely to feel disconnected and depressed (Khalid et al, 2016).
Delta waves promote relaxation and sleep modes. It makes sense that those who operate in high frequency beta states, rapidly burning energy stores, may subconsciously gravitate to rituals to shift to a more relaxing state.
Our mental health and related behaviors and rituals are closely linked to brain wave states (Newson & Thiagarajan, 2019). Some conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder typically occur in individuals who are more lower frequency dominant: delta and theta, with decreases in alpha, beta, and gamma (Newson & Thiagarajan, 2019; Travis, 2019). In terms of addictions fueled by high frequency beta states, the addictive behavior is likely shifting the brain in a helpful way. Our behaviours and rituals span a variety of culturally acceptable and not so acceptable activities and mind altering substances. Whether labelled bad or good, if we objectively explore our behaviours, we may find they are indeed shifting us into the more focussed or restful state we are craving. These shifts may be described as ‘zoning out’ or ‘switching gears,’ but in neurological terms, we are transitioning between brain wave states (Newson & Thiagarajan, 2019). Given these behaviours or rituals may be serving us in this way, if we want to make changes, reducing harm, we will be far more successful if we can replace them with new rituals that serve us in this same way. Furthermore, to interrupt unwanted habits, we often need to re-orient ourselves, relating to the behaviour in a new, non-threatening way. Genuine and lasting re-orientation typically happens in lower frequency brain wave states when our sense of threat is low, we are relaxed, and open hearted; this is why hypnotism can be so effective in interrupting habits (Li et al., 2017). Essentially, if we hope to change behaviours, it is important to consider how we can self-compassionately and creatively work with our neurology to set ourselves up for success.
Think of an activity that helps you relax. Quite likely, the mental and/or physical ritual you are thinking of is putting you into an alternate brain state that is enabling you to shift to a preferable state of consciousness. If a habit is helping us move to a more restful brain state, we can expect resistance when we try to break it. For example, if you want to change a habit that is currently the one tool that helps you switch gears, zone out, tune down, etc., you will need to find a substitute, reducing reliance on the unwanted behavior. This is where we get to try on several tools, play with them, see what resonates, and cultivate a new habit from there.
Chakras are portals to the human energy field. In the west, the consideration that chakras impact mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health is relatively new, lacking familiarity and research. However, a few studies show a significant connection between one’s spiritual connection, as reflected in chakra theory, and the expression of physiological and psychological pathologies (Curtis, Zeh, Miller, & Sequoyah, & Rich, 2004; Drapkin, McClintock, Lau, & Miller, 2016). In the many areas of the east, chakras are a significant contributor to spiritual, emotional, and physical wellbeing. In Sanskrit, the term chakra means wheel, representing the symbiotic and holistic nature of the energy centers in our bodies.
While there are many Chakra models, a commonly adopted model in the west describes seven core energy centers, each of which has its own vibrational frequency and function that contributes to wellness. Much like a river that becomes stagnant when unable to flow, when energy blockages occur, diseases can fester. Even if you don’t resonate with Chakras, guided meditations are a great way to develop concentration, enabling you to sustain mindfulness. Furthermore, the loving-kindness component in many of these practices are an excellent way to cultivate self-compassion.
Relating Chakras to Maslow’s theory of unmet needs (1943), each of the Chakra centres represents a basic human need. When we avoid or ignore our inner signals, often drowned out by the noise of thoughts and external stimuli, energy gets trapped in the body, and much like the river analogy above, causes blockages that impact our ability to maintain emotional, physical, and spiritual homeostasis. When these blockages occur, held up by an unmet need, we experience a sense of threat, which triggers the nervous system to mount a stress response. Depending on the intensity of the sense of threat, those struggling with PTSD (many of us in various forms and frequencies!) are then at risk of emotional transference, whereby the event is fused with an unresolved past threatening event or belief system.
We, whether in the east or the west, whatever our income, social status, theoretical and political beliefs, all long to feel secure in our ability to have our physical needs met (Root Chakra), to feel safe (Sacral Chakra), to be loved and to belong (Solar Plexus Chakra), to have unconditional positive regard/Esteem for self and others (Heart Chakra), to express our ‘real’ selves in the world (Throat Chakra), to self-actualize into our most connected, meaning filled, and empowered self (Third eye Chakra), and to feel held by benevolent forces greater than ourselves (Crown Chakra).
When a need goes unmet that feels primary compared to what may feel less pressing, we will often fixate on the most primary need, neglecting the others until we resolve it. These primary needs are not always linear, depending on cultural conditioning, core wounds that need tending to, and a variety of other seen and unseen complexities. For instance, we quite likely will prioritize needs such as food, shelter, warmth, and safety, paying less attention to a esteem and connection. Or perhaps we have a long held belief system that we are somehow not good enough, causing us to prioritize the approval of others, ensuring we attain an ideal image to do so at the cost of our ability to self-actualize into our most authentic and empowered self.
I’ve been working on getting self-compassionately curious. Recognizing, allowing and then letting go of judgmental thoughts so I can look deeper (with an open heart) into what lies beneath my sticky points. Doing this can be immensely empowering as we peel pack the layers and really get to the source of the needs that drive our desires and impulses.
Can you recall an area in your life that that brings you frustration, where you feel and see an obvious area that needs tending to (could use some serious self-care), but you have little to no desire to develop the necessary habits required to resolve it? Consider what other primary unmet need or haunting belief system may be crying out for tending, subconsciously trumping/blocking desires to tend to other needs.
As a westerner, I touch on the concept of Chakras and recognize the risk of cultural appropriation in doing so. To mitigate any distortions that can occur as a result of plucking practices from one context and dropping them into another, I encourage you to research the principles and history from which the practices emerge.
“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch” (Palmer, 2000).
Part of coming to know our essence is understanding what sparks our desire. Recognizing and expanding desire and meaning enables us to see through our cultural conditioning, tapping into deep intuitive knowing. Often, it is not an entire activity or event that inspires us, it is certain qualities or a mix of qualities within the topic or format that resonates with our sense of meaning and piques our unique interests, pulling us more fully into the moment. Besides the more obvious pleasure associated with play, engaging in play as adulthood is also a good stress management strategy.
Playfulness is the ability to transform our environment to make it more enjoyable (Barnett, 2007).
Those that are more playful are less likely to perceive stimuli as stressors and are more creative, adaptive and are also less likely to devolve into isolating and escape oriented reactions (Magnuson & Barnett, 2013). Adults who play are more likely to feel satisfied with life and are more inclined to seek enjoyable activities and to be more active (Proyer, 2013). Finally, while mental fitness benefits are more obvious, those who self-identify as playful are also more likely to maintain their physical fitness (Proyer, Gander, Bertenshaw, & Brauer, 2018).
Now that I’ve highlighted the role of expanding desire, sparking an ability to engage in play, reflect on what qualities spark your sense of desire. Think of one activity that excites you. Perhaps something that resonates with your inner child as you recall the days when you acted from your essence, easily engaging in play. Do you remember getting lost in a specific activity as a child? Can you recall what qualities of that activity sparked your desire, the moments you caught yourself smiling, laughing, or immersed in a sense of timelessness?
What quality of that moment captured your attention in this way? How might you expand this quality in your life now?
What are the obstacles to engaging in play or in letting yourself feel and respond to desire?
What belief systems may be stopping you?
What actions are necessary to navigate the obstacles?
When will you take these actions?
Start small as you practice noticing and responding to what sparks your desire. Practice self-compassion when you notice yourself quenching desire. In this way, every action and reaction is a learning and loving opportunity.
Referring back to the cup illustration (previous blog), imagine each area of self due to heal/remember wholeness is a cup. With each nurturing practice, we add another drop of water to the cup. Eventually, the cup’s surface tension grows to a point that it can no longer remain bounded by the walls of the cup and an undeniable shift occurs. Try several practices, find what resonates with you, invest in developing a nurturing habit and trust that in time, just like cup illustration, the shift will come.
Centreing is about coming back to your center, the unchanging essence of who you are. There are several centring strategies and I recommend you find one that feels natural and enjoyable. For example, below are a few centring techniques:
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude” (Maya Angelou).
Optimism is a significant component of sense of coherence as it relates to a general sense that all things will work out and a reasonably expectation that the future will turn out favourably because of a sense of control over the outcomes that matter most (Antonovsky, 1979; Lee et al., 2019). Not only does optimism reduce our likelihood of suffering from chronic stress, a host chronic health conditions and mental health ailments (Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010), it may also increase our lifespan by 11 to 15% and improve our odds of us living well into our 80’s and beyond (Lee et al., 2019).
In the typical human brain, there is a heavy negative bias, meaning that negative events have a far greater emotional impact on us than positive ones, and that negative events linger longer in our memory than positive ones. This negative bias is significantly higher for those who are struggling with depression (Gollan, Hoxha, Hunnicutt-Ferguson, Norris, Rosebrock, Sankin, & Cacioppo, 2016). While negative bias was helpful in keeping us safe in primitive times, it is not so helpful in our modern everyday lives. Becoming more optimistic requires a conscious effort to be mindful when positive events occur, to bring our attention to the positive feelings that result; taking a moment to breathe it in and relish in them. With practice, we can train our brains to pick up on, even look for, the positive aspects of our day, which counter balances our negative bias.
Optimistic individuals habitually reappraise workplace stimuli in a positive light and identify opportunities within challenges. We can learn to be more optimistic, cultivating a habit, where we mindfully choose to reframe our perspective. By doing so, we choose to view the world from a mindset of abundance rather than from a mindset of fear and scarcity. By practicing mindfulness, we are more likely to notice the positive parts of the day such as breathing in the bright blue sky as we look up from our desk or hearing a bird’s song as we walk from our car to our house. Once we notice the positive, if we take a few moments to attend to it, acknowledge and breath into the way it is making us feel, we are training our brains to focus on the positive rather than fixating on the negative.
Health and human service work is riddled with events that bring up ethical and or moral dissonance. Most people come to these professions because they want to help others. Feeling unable to do what work sets up serious internal conflict in us. We need to either resolve this dissonance or optimistically re-orient ourselves. Otherwise, we will gravitate toward pessimism and hostility. For example, in a recent qualitative study (Dames, 2018) with novice caregivers, Candice reflected on her workplace challenges, “we push people out the door because the hospital is exploding…knowing they will fall and come right back…the guilt for me is a product of an overwhelmed system.” Similarly, Mary stated, “there is just such a general lack of resources. It can feel like sometimes there is just nothing you can do for them.” Mary and Candace’s’ stress is a product of moral injury, leading to a felt lack of control. Even in these situations that seem unchangeable, if we can act, even in a small way, we bolster our sense of self-efficacy, preventing us from spiralling into feelings of hopelessness.
“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us” (Helen Keller, 1929).
While a tendency toward optimism has more well-being benefits than a tendency toward pessimism, sometimes using pessimism to make a change is more important than accepting a situation as it is and re-orienting ourselves around it. In other words, taking a step back to critically appraise if there is something that can be changed is important; if so, take the steps to change it, if not, accept it and optimistically re-orient yourself. This critical appraisal of events that are causing us discomfort, which may lead to pessimism, enables us to assess the stressor and to determine if we can make a change to remove it. If we apply optimism in every situation, without this objective assessment, it can prevent us from making beneficial changes. To illustrate this point in the research, Troy (2015) showed a significant relationship between stress, context, and whether we tend toward optimism or positive re-orientation (Troy, 2015). If workplace stress is uncontrollable, where you cannot change the thing or event triggering the stress, employing optimism is the most effective skill to use (Troy, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2010). However, if you can control the stressor or change the context to resolve it, then it is more helpful to employ your self-efficacy to change the context, rather than to positively re-orient your emotions about it (Troy et al., 2010).
Self-efficacy, also an important component of sense of coherence, is the confidence and resulting ability to achieve our goals. Context and self-efficacy determine our ability to manage stressors. Our workplace context is often littered with stimuli, and it is self-efficacy that prevents us from perceiving those stimuli as stressful. When we reframe our situation optimistically AND tap into a sense of self-efficacy, we are more likely to make changes when we can, and if things cannot be changed, to accept and positively re-orient ourselves. The Serenity prayer reflects this sentiment:
God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other (Sifton, 1998).
Aligning with trauma informed practice principles, choice is a luxury for many. When we come to a challenge with confidence, enthusiasm, and optimism (high sense of coherence), we have a greater ability to view stimuli objectively and are more likely act in ways that are congruent with our values and goals. When we come to a challenge with low sense of coherence, often related to unresolved wounds (trauma) and old belief systems from the past, we are prone to perceive the stimuli as threatening. When threats feel intense, we trigger the nervous system, causing us to react out of fight-flight or freeze, limiting if not completely disabling choice. When this happens, we are far more prone to react subconsciously, doing or saying things that don’t feel congruent to our values and goals.
To cultivate choice, imagine each effort to come to know, attune, strengthen, clear, and align as one more drop into our resourcing cup. The fuller the cup gets, the more our sense of coherence and congruence develops, all of which are investments in the cultivation of more choice in our day-to-day perceptions and resulting actions. We may not feel like the individual drops we add to the cup make a difference, but in time the surface tension builds to a point that it can no longer remain as it is. Eventually, one of those individual drops will cause an undeniable shift, moving us beyond the walls we felt confined by. There are many areas, old stories in which we are developing or evolving beyond, each with its own cup, slowly filling drop by drop. As we intentionally invest ourselves, we add another drop. We can trust that in time, emancipation will come, providing us a new found sense of awareness and freedom. When these overflows occur, perhaps more familiar as an ‘ah ha‘ moment, old belief systems evolve and we awaken to a new way of knowing that deeply and completely changes our perceptions and resulting trajectory.
When we understand this ability and inability to choose, we can offer compassion and forgiveness to ourselves and others. Because we all share in this human experience, we can at some level relate to the sense of powerlessness and shame that comes when we react from fear. In this way, we all experience this form of emotional transference, whereby an experience reveals an old wound from the past and it suddenly feels fresh. Even seemingly small challenges can pull us back to the intensity of the feelings associated with that first core wound, underscoring old and often misguided belief systems, and resulting in spontaneous projections that emerge in a variety of harmful ways. What if we could look beyond the shame of our reactions, self-compassionately and curiously tending to the wound that lies beneath? What if we saw the experience as a gift, providing an opportunity for healing? As we heal the wounds beneath, we promote a greater ability to respond with a different orientation in the future. In these ways, drop by drop, we cultivate choice.
A recent meta-analysis of over 40,000 college students from North America and the United Kingdom found that perfectionism, whether self/socially/or other prescribed is on the rise, especially among our younger generations (Curran & Hill, 2019). Societal pressures are further compounded by professions with idealized standards imbedded in their culture, setting an unsustainably high bar for its members.
Simply described, perfectionism is the dogged pursuit of absolute flawlessness (Frost et al., 1990) and the driving force behind co-worker hostility. Maladaptive perfectionism and particularly socially prescribed perfectionism can create toxically stressful environments for those who do not fit neatly into the status quo (Jahromi et al., 2012). Current healthcare culture often promotes tendencies toward perfectionism; as a result, high levels of anxiety and depression are commonplace (Jahromi et al., 2012).
Most of us will have experience with perfectionism, some may slip in and out of it in milder and more adaptive forms, while others will spend every waking hour driven by a compulsion to attain a standard that is unreasonably high. In the more adaptive form, striving for perfection can benefit us as it motivates us to complete work and produce the best product (Harari, Swider, Steed, & Breidenthal, 2018). When in its more adaptive form, we keep our high standards to ourselves as opposed to socially prescribing our ideals onto others. We are more likely to be self-motivated, goal oriented, more willing to adapt to obstacles that may delay achievements, and to find satisfaction from our accomplishments (Ellis, 2002). The downside of perfectionism, evident in its maladaptive forms, is the natural inclination to hold others to the same idealistic standards, which can cause unreasonably high expectations (Melrose, 2011). If we cannot meet these idealistic standards, detrimental mental health effects often result (Melrose, 2011). These health effects often correlate with fears of criticism and failure and when left unaddressed can lead to moral injury, emotional exhaustion, and eventual burnout (Chang, 2012; Gould, Udry, Tuffey, & Loehr, 1996; Sevlever & Rice, 2010).
Two perfect doors. There are two dimensions of perfectionism, ‘excellence-seeking,’ whereby we are driven to achieve high standards and ‘failure-avoiding,’ where we are driven to avoid shortcomings. Both versions are ultimately driven by the same core factors such as black and white thinking, a compulsive need to attain lofty standards, and self-worth evaluations contingent on one’s achievement of their idealized standard (Harari, Swider, Steed, & Breidenthal, 2018; Hewitt & Flett, 1993).
Perfectionism spilling into the workplace. When mired in perfectionism, we are likely to dissociate from emotions, often ignoring and internalizing fears of worthlessness, shame, and failure (Petersson, Perseius, & Johnsson, 2014; Shafran, Cooper, & Fairburn, 2002). Over time, this habitually defensive way of being will cause an overall lower tolerance for exposure to stress (Ellis, 2002; Petersson et al., 2014). These maladaptive forms of perfectionism lead to self-destructive behaviours, which extend into prescribing the same unrealistic expectations onto others (a phenomenon called socially prescribed perfectionism). Socially prescribed perfectionism uses shaming tactics to pressure others to live up to unrealistically high standards and when culturally reinforced, it has toxic effects on workplace morale, resulting in a chronic workplace stressor.
Perfectionism and sense of coherence (SOC) inversely link (Rennemark & Hagberg, 1997); those who have a low sense of coherence score have higher perfectionism scores; therefore, improving sense of coherence buffers us from extreme forms of perfectionism (Rennemark & Hagberg, 1997).
When we fall into states of fight-flight or freeze, we cannot objectively work through difficult thoughts and resulting emotions, often leaving them unresolved, fuelling the same old cyclical event-response behaviour. However, the theory behind exposure therapy is that by re-imagining the event at another time, when we feel safe and supported in our environment, we get another chance to work through and update the old (and often no longer true) thoughts. To feel and then release the associated emotions.
Several therapies that have shown promise in the research as tools that help us go back to the stressful event so we can re-experience from a more confident and empowered orientation (with a higher sense of coherence). As a result, we can feel the emotions that need to be felt and with practice, upgrade old belief systems that fuelled the stressor in the first place. Doing this re-exposure work after the stress response passes, is a great way to prevent future or reduce the intensity of future triggers. Others will want a more formal therapeutic environment to facilitate the feelings of safety necessary to stay present and connected (avoiding triggers that promote dissociation).
Two popular therapeutic tools that support re-exposure are EMDR and CBT.
EMDR involves eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which as the title suggests can involve a variety of techniques to direct the eyes back and forth while re-imagining a triggering event. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) brings awareness to the relationship between thoughts (conscious, automatic, core beliefs beneath) and behaviours. This technique works toward behaviour change through self-monitoring, scheduling, and exposure-response prevention.
In an extensive meta-analysis of studies over the past decade, researchers (Khan et al., 2018), found EMDR and CBT to be equally effective at reducing depression but EMDR was superior in its ability to reduce anxiety and PTSD symptoms.
Ultimately, re-exposure practices, whether or not part of formal therapy, are an excellent tool to work with past traumas projecting into the present day, reducing their intensity until they are no longer a perceived threat. We can practice with this tool on our own or with another, reducing our future risk of falling into fight-flight-freeze when a similar situation arises.
Kristin Neff, a seminal researcher on Self-Compassion, developed a short and affirming exercise called the self-compassion break (2019) and it is a favourite of mine. For this adapted exercise, you begin by closing your eyes and recalling a person or event that is triggering a stress response. Focus on the situation, engaging your heart and mind so that you experience the stress of that moment. From this space, you will talk to yourself just like you would talk to a dear friend. You will begin by mindfully reminding yourself that:
1. “This right now is a moment of stress” (or hurt, pain, suffering, whatever sounds most natural for you).
2. “You aren’t alone, these feelings (pain, suffering) is a normal (natural) part of life.” “Other’s struggle in this way too.”
3. Think of a phrase that you most need to hear right now, something that expresses empathy and kindness. For this, you can speak in the I, or continue to speak to yourself as you would a dear friend, whichever enables you to receive it best. For example, you might say:
“you deserve compassion in this moment”
“I fully love and accept you as you are right now”
“May you forgive yourself for not knowing then what you know now. Making mistakes and learning and growing as we go is part of life.”
“May you have the courage to be imperfect.”
“Even though I feel…. I deeply and completely love and accept myself.”
This self-compassionate exercise reminds us that difficult emotions are a part of life, that we are not alone, and that we are deserving of unconditonally positive regard.
Neff, K. (2019). The Self-Compassion Break. Retrieved from https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/
… like a diamond, pressed down time and time again, until all that is left is a powerful gem, shining for all the world to see. May you take this journey, fully and deeply realizing that the path that led you to today, the suffering you continue to feel, is no longer a threat to you my friend, it is a vehicle to awaken to a new, more authentic, and more empowered way.
May this journey help you cultivate a community of individuals that will remind you of who you are when you forget, that provide you with a mirror that fills you up with a felt sense of unconditional positive regard, so that you can freely express your magnificent self.
May you cultivate a love so deep inside you so you can find rest in an inner home, that safe place where you are so filled with unconditional positive regard from others and for yourself that it spills into the world around you. This is the journey through suffering, awakening to a new way…
… like a diamond, pressed down time and time again, until all that is left is a powerful gem, shining for all the world to see. May we take this journey, fully and deeply realizing that the path that led us to today, the suffering we continue to feel, is no longer a threat to us friends, it is a vehicle to awaken to a new, more authentic, and more empowered way.
May we cultivate a community of who witnesses who we ‘real’ly are, reminding us of who we are when we forget. May we allow ourselves to believe and receive a felt sense of unconditional positive regard so fully that we can mirror the same inwardly. From this place of safety and acceptance, we will have the courage to freely express our magnificent selves.
May we cultivate this love so deep inside us that we find rest in an inner home, that safe place where we are so filled with unconditional positive regard from others and for your that it spills over onto this sacred planet and the precious beings that move upon it. This is the journey through suffering, awakening to a new way.
May we step into the river of life, letting go of the effort to calculate and control how and where it flows, surrendering to the point where we find joy in the means of the journey, trusting in a benevolent and enriching end.
And finally, may we let go of the old belief systems that rely on willpower and perfectionism, fueling all sorts of unnecessary suffering. Let’s choose a new journey, one full of opportunities to fuel ourselves with endless pools of unconditional (unconditioned) love, acceptance, desire, and even fun – fuelling our confidence to express ourselves in this magical world. From this place of joy and wholeness, we can truly love and serve one another and this gracious planet we share life with.
Between unresolved trauma and biological imbalances, dropping into the inner space to self-soothe can be too painful, making it difficult, and for some even impossible, without an intervention. We all have unique needs. Some people may resolve much of their anxiety and depression by removing the the emotional charge of past trauma, using cortisol lowering tools, and engaging in mindfulness, while others will need something more to drop in, to self-sooth. There is no shame in reaching out for external support to work with our biology, promoting greater contentment, optimism, and objectivity (all components of sense of coherence). In fact, many will find that when they find an intervention such as a particular therapy, a supplement or medication that works for them, they wonder how they have survived so long without it. Canadian data is limited but according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (Pratt, Brody, & Gu, 2017), 17% of Americans between the ages of 40-59 years and 19% of people over 60 use anti-depressants to treat symptoms stemming from anxiety and depression. Females are more likely to take antidepressants than males. To be clear, medications, including herbs and the supplements that provide the building blocks that enable us to produce important chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, are not the focus of this curriculum, but they are additional and often necessary tools to manage biology and emotions, enabling a greater ability to self-soothe. For these reasons, medications and external therapies are worth mentioning.
Besides traditional pharmaceuticals and therapies, plant-based remedies are emerging in the research, many of which are showing promising results. For instance, we can support our brains ability to make serotonin (associated with happiness and contentment) and dopamine (associated with a sense of reward/pleasure) by focussing on specific foods and supplements that bolster the key amino acids necessary to support their production. We also now have access to a host of botanicals, adrenergics, and nootropics, which can reduce the production and management of stress hormones.
Though not yet mainstream (or approved by Health Canada), an emerging example of how people are using natural remedies is the use of Cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive component of hemp and marijuana, working for many to reduce the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression (Corroon, James, Mischley, & Sexton, 2017; Soares & Campos, 2017; Zuardi, Rodrigues, Silva, Bernardo, Jaime, Hallak, Guimarães, & José, 2017). An example of a supplement that can work with our biology to bolster serotonin is 5-HTP (Kious, Sabic, Sung, Kondo, & Renshaw, 2017). Among those that can bolster Dopamine are L-Dopa and Tyrosine (Lampariello, Cortelazzo, Guerranti, Sticozzi, & Valacchi, 2012).
Ultimately, if we are committed to thriving, we must be open to our unique needs, removing barriers in whatever way we can; doing so, is another way to practice self-compassion.