Softening inside I see I'm holding my breath again Easing into discomfort have I been clenching my jaw this whole time? Curious observation of the chatter my mind coughs out blaming myself for involuntary spasms of verbal self harm adopted long ago Swollen eyes and softly parted lips hang on one word: forgiveness a gift gathering dust waiting to be offered up All my inner struggles are opportunities to love myself anyway to love the world anyway Perfection would be too easy little broken things bring beauty the syrupy sweet emotion that saturates me when I'm given what I do not deserve
Our thoughts and inner chatter come at us so quickly that it’s hard to realize what is an objective truth and what is a distorted or biased perception of that truth. The events that play out in front of us don’t necessarily have an emotional undertone or meaningful significance, yet we are so used to assigning these things to every little event in our lives that they feel inseparable. The rejection we might face from a loved one is so immediately followed by our thoughts about what that rejection means, that it feels impossible to distinguish between the two.
I don’t think it has any immediate benefits, but I do believe in the long term just making a conscious effort to pull real moments away from our automatic perception of them is a valuable practice. It can feel pointless and frustrating to do so at first. Just cognitively realizing that rejection, for instance, does not mean we are unworthy of love, doesn’t make our conditioned reaction feel any less true or painful in that moment. This is just the first step though. Eventually once we’ve worked on recognizing and accepting that distinction, then I believe we will be able to move on toward challenging our painful perceptions and subconscious convictions.
It has been interesting for me just to notice how violently my mind resists the very idea of my immediate reaction being a choice or something I could view differently. There is a physical sense of revulsion in my body. My heart closes tightly. My mind attempts to shut down this new direction in my thought patterns. Despite how painful a belief might be, I find myself clinging to it desperately instead of being open to reevaluating the situation. Isn’t that a curious thing. Why am I so stubbornly trying to maintain a way of thinking that causes me so much suffering unnecessarily?
I think the answer to this question is that somehow, part of me has developed this stimuli/reaction cycle as a form of self-protection. It doesn’t seem to make any sense how genuinely believing someone couldn’t or shouldn’t love me could be protecting me, but that scared little animal inside of me must have some basis for mistakenly thinking it will. Even our most hateful inner voice is ultimately just trying to keep us safe. It is just afraid for us. It’s up to us to work every day to push through that fear and show ourselves that we don’t have to hold on to these harmful inner narratives any longer.
One way I’ve learned we can distance ourselves from the intensity of these upsetting thoughts is to speak to ourselves as if we were someone else. Internally addressing ourselves in the third person, saying our own name instead of I, can provide a mental cushion of space between the emotional energy of the thoughts and our conscious awareness. A question I’ve been posing to myself in this way is: “Rachel, what are you making this mean?”
Framing the question in this way is actually a reframing. It has become so automatic that we’ve lost the original question we’ve been answering which would be “what does this mean?” After being confronted with an uncomfortable reality such as rejection, the small voice of fear inside whispers this follow up question in it’s desperate attempt to make sense of things and create a story around what’s happened. Our well worn response to the situation is our answer to that question.
Even though I might feel as though I am constantly doubting myself, I never seem to doubt these explanations and narratives I create around the moments of my life. Why not? Part of the problem is I’ve somewhere along the line lost the ability to recognize I am the one creating this particular meaning. After years and years of unwitting reinforcement, the voice that tells me how I have to think or react doesn’t feel like it’s coming from me anymore. It doesn’t feel optional. It feels like a hard and unavoidable truth.
When I ask myself “what are you making this mean,” it is a reminder, however surreal it may seem at first, that I’m deciding to add qualifiers and opinions to otherwise neutral events. The way I see a situation is not the one right way, or the only way to see it. Really there are an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to interpreting the experiences we have in life. It might feel like those possibilities are extremely limited at first, but the more we encourage our awareness of their existence, the more we will feel capable of pivoting our perceptions towards ones that better serve us.
At the end of the day, I don’t believe there is necessarily any objective truth in this insane experience we can life. All that matters, all that is, is what you believe. It’s not easy. Sometimes I don’t even feel like it’s possible. But even so, I do believe it is worth the effort to help ourselves see the world and our own lives in a way that brings us joy, peace, self-love, and equanimity. What else could be more important or meaningful? Even on the days were my battles with inner demons and mental illness feel like a living example of Sisyphus, I know the only thing to do is keep going.
It’s taken me a long time to even recognize the things I say about myself are not objectively true, rather self-perceptions. Even with this realization, it can still be hard to challenge these beliefs. Most of them I have carried with me for as long as I can remember. That’s part of the reason why they feel so true and unchangeable. Today I wanted to list out a few of these limiting beliefs I have about myself and break them down in the hopes that I may begin to see them in a different light.
My Limiting Beliefs:
- I am easily overwhelmed.
- I am flaky/unreliable.
- I am unworthy.
- I am broken.
- I have poor communication skills.
- I’m a bad person.
- I am incapable of making decisions.
- I am easily angered/upset.
I am easily overwhelmed:
I think it’s important for me to preface this by acknowledging that reframing limiting beliefs does not have to mean that I completely deny these felt characteristics. I don’t have to reframe this to be the exact opposite (I am not easily overwhelmed.) I don’t believe that would serve me either. It needs to be a little more creative and nuanced than that. Rather than feeling badly about being “easily overwhelmed” I may start to view this quality a bit differently. Maybe it’s not that I’m easily overwhelmed, but that I am sensitive and feel things deeply. This isn’t necessarily a different thing, but for me, it’s a more positive and pleasant way to regard myself. One framing feels like a deficit, a weakness, while the other feels like a strength.
I am flaky/unreliable:
I might reframe this narrative to something like: I am spontaneous and ever changing. The first statement makes me feel guilty, but the second phrasing allows me to feel good about myself. There is nothing wrong with being spontaneous. It’s good to constantly shift and reevaluate and go with the flow from one moment to the next. There are definitely benefits to being consistent and commitment oriented, but there are also benefits of handling life differently.
I am unworthy:
This one if very hard for me to grapple with. I can’t recall when exactly I made this determination about myself. I feel this thought lingering over me always. It really inhibits my ability to flourish in life. You can’t enjoy the good things that happen to you or all that you have to be grateful for when you feel unworthy of it. This one might be best reframed as: The good things I have in life inspire me to be better every day. My passion and effort to improve are what count.
I am broken:
This one has also been with me for as long as I can remember. I catch my inner voice repeating questions like why am I like this? or why can’t I be normal? all the time. In some ways, I think this belief stems from my sense of awkwardness and social isolation as an autistic woman. I see my differences and label myself “broken” because of them. But different does not mean broken. I am unique. Differences and diversity make the world a fuller, more interesting place.
I have poor communication skills:
Unlike a lot of the other beliefs I hold about myself, I don’t think I began verbalizing this one until recently. I was often frustrated by interpersonal relationships, but didn’t really understand why they always seemed to go wrong. I think the main cause of my “poor communication” is fear. Therefore, I’d like to change this one to: It’s okay to speak from the heart even if it sounds awkward or embarrassing. I am practicing and improving my ability to connect with others every day.
I’m a bad person:
This one, although I do feel it, I imagine would shock a lot of people. I recognize that they are lots of people that are doing worse things than me, but that does not change the way I perceive myself. I have very high standards for myself and the people in my life. I also struggle with black and white thinking. These two factors lead me to view myself as wildly imperfect and therefore “bad.” What’s more interesting is the fact that I am ascribing this label to myself based more on my inner thoughts than my actions. Even though I don’t often act from anger or jealousy or greed, I know that I feel these emotions often and judge myself for it. However, thoughts are not crimes. Immorality is based on action, not emotions. And doing a few bad things or making the wrong decision from time to time does not make me view anyone else as a “bad person” so why should I apply different standards to myself? I am doing my best. Imperfect does not equal bad.
I am incapable of making decisions:
This belief tends to hold me back a lot in life as well. We are presented with decisions every day, and I make each one of them more stressful than they need to be by berating myself with the belief I am incapable of making them. Rather than thinking of this as a negative, I can see this as another strength. I am a careful, thoughtful, and considerate person. I like to analyze every decision thoroughly before taking action.
I am easily angered/upset:
There are positives and negatives of everything in life. Sure, I might feel anger more easily than other people, but on the other hand, I am a very passionate person. My passion is something I really value about myself. Getting angry is just a sign that I care. It’s how I respond to and deal with those difficult emotions that matters.
The next time I catch myself mindlessly repeating these familiar self-judgements, I hope that I can remember that there are other ways to view these aspects of myself. Things don’t always have to be true or false. There are so many different ways to view the same situations, circumstances, and aspects of ourselves. It will be hard at first. I’ve believed these things without question for my entire life. I won’t be able to let them go in an instant. But with persistence and practice, it will get easier.
It has long been said that if your time is not being occupied with something productive, you will find yourself getting into trouble instead. I feel that the same applies to the mentally ill mind. According to an article by Origins, higher IQ is not only associated with “more and earlier drug use,” but also with more mental illness including anxiety and depression. My intelligence has always been something I take great pride in, but I also understand that it can be a curse at times.
It’s difficult to tease apart correlation and causation, but in my personal story I would say that high intelligence led to mental illness beginning at a young age, which then led to early drug use as an attempt to disassociate or slow my mind down for a while. I still love to self-medicate, but I believe that mentally healthy people have no interest in using drugs. If you are happy, you don’t feel the need to take any amount of risk in order to find relief, so why would you?
In recent years I’ve been keeping myself pretty busy. It seems like each and every moment is filled with a task or activity for me to direct my attention toward. I’ve begun to actually fear not having anything to do. I know I will start to worry, ruminate, and subsequently spiral if I’m left with nothing to occupy my mind for any significant amount of time. Even once my daily habits become too routine to demand much of my attention, I begin to notice negative, stress-filled thoughts clouding my thoughts.
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.Proverb
The original quote is referring to keeping the physical body busy so that we don’t start making mischief. This is a lot simpler than keeping the mind busy, and that is especially true for highly intelligent minds that need a lot more stimulation. It’s a beautiful thing when my mind is set to work on a difficult problem or complicated task. I am energized, focused, and engaged. However, it isn’t always easy to find something my mind deems worthy of it’s full attention.
Depression and anxiety can make it hard to focus. And that inability to focus exacerbates the anxiety and/or depression. It is a viscous cycle that sometimes feels impossible to break. Similarly, depression and anxiety can cause us to lose interest in even things we once greatly enjoyed. This also makes it harder to find things to occupy our minds adequately. It’s quite difficult to focus on anything that you aren’t interested in or motivated by.
I think this is one of the reasons that I enjoy reading so much. When I’m reading, my brain is fully engaged in the story unfolding before me. My anxiety all but disappears while I’m losing myself in a book. It’s also a relief when we can redirect ourselves towards thinking about other people rather than our own problems. It requires a lot of attention and thoughtfulness to help others or work with them to solve their problems. Other people are always interesting and complex in their own way, which makes them excellent opportunities to get out of our own heads.
Sometimes my anxiety won’t allow me to focus on anything else. It tells me that it’s concerns and fears are urgent and pressing and must be at the forefront of my awareness. Then the difficult thing becomes not only finding something I’m more interested in to do, but to convince myself that it’s safe to redirect myself to that other task or train of thought.
If you notice yourself sinking deeper into depression or working yourself up into a frenzy whenever you have a lot of free time on your hands, consider implementing some safe guards to help prevent this pattern from occurring. When you find yourself in a good mental space, make a list of some activities that you enjoy or tasks you’ve been wanting to work on. Then when you have spare time, you’ll be able to refer to your list even if your mental illness has raised it’s ugly head and already begun to affect your ability to think clearing and redirect your attention.
In these stressful and/or depressed states, none of the items on your list are likely to sound very appealing to you. Just pick one and do it anyway. Trust that if you surrender to the task and allow your mind to be fully immersed in it, inevitably you will start to feel better. Don’t worry about the quality or outcome of whatever you decide to focus on. Remind yourself that it’s the focused attention you’re after, nothing more. Mental illness tends to fester in an unoccupied mind. A focused, busy mind is a happy, healthy mind.
At the beginning of my yoga practice nearly 8 years ago, I felt that I was irrevocably changed. I could hardly believe the powerful shift I began to notice within myself. A daily 7 minutes was all it used to take to completely transform my mental state. A sense of gratitude, humility, and awe seemed to follow me wherever I went. My heart felt open for the first time in my life. I experienced a new sense of self-acceptance that I had previously thought impossible. My only hope was that some day I might become a yoga teacher as a way to repay the universe for bestowing this gift upon me by sharing it with others.
Driving home from the Saturday morning class I’ve taught for three years now, all of that seems like a distant memory. I feel bitterness, stagnation, regression, apathy. Not only do I suffer greatly from these states, but they also illicit a strong sense of imposter syndrome. Who am I to teach yoga? Who am I to promote meditation and gratitude and self-love? When I seem to have utterly lost my connection to everything. I know that no one is able to avoid these experiences forever, but I had hoped they would pass over me more quickly. I have been waiting for so long now. I fear that my rejection and refusal of them has kept me trapped beneath their weight. Despite this I feel helpless to free myself or accept where I am.
Nothing feels right anymore. Nothing feels worthwhile. I can hardly remember what it was that once sparked such joy inside my heart. I no longer enjoy my morning writing ritual or my daily drawing sessions. These few hours used to be what I looked forward to, the passion that kept me moving forward. I was filled with such energy and inspiration, pride and contentment and gratitude. These were my natural reactions to many parts of my life that have now lost all color. I often think that this is a sign that the things I’ve been doing are no longer serving me, that it’s time to come up with different habits and hobbies that do bring me happiness. Yet when I search my mind for a new direction, a new interest, I find nothing. “What’s the point?” is the only reply I am able to hear echoing back from the walls of my hollow heart.
I can’t even remember now how long it’s been that I’ve felt this way. It seems like a lifetime. I’m trying to take comfort in the fact that I do generally become more depressed and withdrawn at this time of the year. The lack of warmth and sunlight finally begins to grip me once the holidays have passed. It’s always so hard to convince yourself it’s just a transient state of mind when you are currently being consumed by it.
I think it would suit me to slow down and take notice when I find myself in these difficult periods. Rather than keep pushing myself to produce, to create, to transcend, it’s time for me to draw back, to let go, to be still. Intellectually I know that to have balance, I must incorporate rest. There is always a part of me that fears it. I’m afraid that if I stop moving, especially when I’m feeling down, that I’ll never get back up again. I’m afraid that momentum is the only thing keeping me alive, keeping me sane, and just barely at that.
The worst part is feeling as though I’ve completely lost all the progress I was so proud of a few years ago. It’s as though all of my effort, all of my lessons were for nothing. I feel like I’m right back where I started. Worse even, because now I’m also beating myself up for backsliding. A persistent shudder of shame and self-denial has been my constant companion for the last few months. And part of me feels at home here to be honest. A snide inner voice says, “See? This is just who you are. How foolish you were to believe that you could change.” Even when I know it’s not true, I have succumb to this voice. I’ve allowed it to suffocate all remaining self esteem.
My last hope is holding out until spring. While my heart may not even have the strength to long for the sun, part of me still has faith that there is healing to be found under its powerful rays. It is inevitable that some day soon, this long dark night of the soul with be flooded with light once more. I pray that it will be enough and that I can sustain myself upon my last scraps of inner strength until then.
Every day I wake up I choose love, I choose light, and I try.The Submarines – You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie
What are we supposed to do when we cannot trust our own minds? This is where I believe faith comes into even an atheist’s life. At least for me, this is where I try to practice faith. You might be asking, well why wouldn’t you trust your own mind in the first place? If you are one of the lucky few who have no mental illness, then you may never encounter this dilemma. However, for someone like me, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, there are many times I’m left unsure of whether something is a genuine concern or if I’m spiraling into delusional, distorted perceptions and over reacting. It can be extremely difficult to tell the difference. Not only that, even if I determine logically that I am being a bit dramatic, it doesn’t make it any easier to calm myself down emotionally or silence my racing thoughts.
This happens to a certain degree every single night. As the day dwindles away, my brain is running low on my natural mood stabilizing hormones and dopamine/serotonin stores. I am always at my lowest and most stressed in the evening hours when I am physically and mentally tired. Even though I am consciously aware of this skewed perception at the end of the day, I never fail to fall pray to the thoughts and worries that arise. I know that no matter how serious my problems appear at night, if I just allow myself to sleep on it, I’ll have a completely different and more balanced opinion and perspective come morning when I feel energized and refreshed again.
It’s important for us to pay attention to our moods and thoughts at different intervals of the day, month, and year. Eventually we may notice a pattern. For instance, as I mentioned, I feel more vulnerable to anxiety in the evenings. I also feel much more susceptible of falling into depression during the winter months. I become more irritable and emotional about a week before my period each month. Once we notice these factors and the way they affect our thought patterns and sensitivity, we can begin to acknowledge when we may not be in a great place to make big decisions or judge a problem or situation accurately. Then we can try to adjust our actions accordingly.
Now, I said try to adjust, because even once we notice and acknowledge these patterns, it’s not as easy as you might think to convince ourselves we’re being irrational in the moment. Last night I felt like the world was falling down around me. I couldn’t stop thinking about financial concerns. I was distraught about my elderly dog’s health. I was ruminating on the way the seemingly minuscule issues of today could potentially snowball into unavoidable catastrophes decades in the future. What if my parents die? How will I afford retirement? What if I develop health issues? Should I leave the job I love for a better paying one? What if that’s a mistake? All of these basically unanswerable questions were swirling around in my head demanding to be answered and planned for accordingly right now. All of these concerns felt terribly urgent despite the fact the day before they weren’t even on my radar.
The deceptive part about anxiety is that it does serve a real, evolutionary purpose. Stress feels urgent and important because in our past as a species, it was. We weren’t made to be able to ignore these mental signals. It wasn’t an option to distract ourselves or even simply sit in our anxious discomfort when it was a life or death situation. Back then, we really did need to act immediately in order to survive. So don’t be too hard on yourself if it seems impossible to talk yourself down from these mental states. Your brain and body aren’t broken. They are simply doing what they were designed to do to protect you. It just doesn’t exactly transfer over well to our modern, often long-term, problems.
This is where faith comes in for me. I don’t exactly know what I am putting my faith in exactly. Maybe I am just having faith in myself. After all, how many millions of times have I felt like I was going to burst into flames if I didn’t solve all of my problems immediately, only to realize it wasn’t that bad the next morning? How many times have I feared I wouldn’t be able to cope with a worst case scenario, only to discover I’m much stronger than I ever believed I could be when I actually have to face one? I’ve made it this far. I have to believe in myself and trust that no matter what happens, I’ll be able to handle it somehow, even if I don’t know the exact details in this moment.
It’s may be hard, but in the moments when we find ourselves most likely overreacting or stuck in a distorted perception of ourselves or the situation at hand, we must practice faith. Just try to notice how your body feels instead of trying to “fix” everything so you feel better. Breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders. Give yourself a massage or activate a few acupressure points. Notice when you get tangled in your thinking mind and gently draw yourself back to the physical sensations in your body. Your brain is most likely telling you: You can’t just breathe. It’s not safe to allow these feelings. We have to do something! Don’t let these worries dissipate. They are too important. Notice whatever inner dialogue that arises to try to convince you of the urgency of the moment. Say to yourself: I know these thoughts feel really big and important right now. But I also know I am not at my best mental state to judge that at the moment. I’ve felt this way many times before. I trust that, just as it was those times, everything is going to be okay. I am okay. I am safe. I have faith in my future self and his/her/their ability to handle each issue as it presents itself. I don’t need to be prepared for every eventuality before it arises.
You’ve got this. I believe in you.
Feel your feelings. This is one of the new popular phrases floating around the internet. But it’s never really made clear what is meant by these words. A lot of us resist this advice for that very reason. Why would I want to feel my feelings? I’ve been taking such pains to avoid them for most of my life. What isn’t explained is that these mental loops that we are labeling as “feelings” are not, in fact, our feelings. They are the cascading cycles of inner dialogue that we have built up in response to our feelings. These thoughts are really want we desperately want to avoid.
The way to escape these thoughts isn’t by pushing down our feelings or trying to numb them through distraction or substances, it’s to direct our minds away from the words and into the physical sensations we are experiencing. This is definitely something easier said than done, but it’s a practice worth putting effort into. Watch your mind as it tries to move back into thinking instead of feeling. I did this with my anger just the other day. I moved my awareness into my body. I felt the tightness around my heart, the heat in my face and neck. Then after just a few seconds, my brain was back to narration, finding ways to justify and bolster these uncomfortable sensations. Again and again, I had to keep putting down these words and picking up the actual feelings I was experiencing instead.
It’s quite difficult to remain in silent sensation, especially when it’s not a pleasant one. The mind is so good at labeling and explaining and creating stories. It’s an odd experience to not focus on defining and labeling everything. I’ve spent my whole life searching and trying to learn the words and explanations for what I go through every day. That’s the reason I got a degree in psychology. It may be helpful to have a background of knowledge about these things, but sometimes even that isn’t what we really need. Sometimes all we need to do is allow and be present with whatever is there, whether we can define it or not.
Learning that it’s safe and beneficial to trust and allow the physical sensation of my emotions without constantly analyzing has opened the door for me to accept this level of awareness in my relationships as well. I have a tendency to become fixated on what the other person may be thinking or feeling in regard to a shared experience or out interpersonal bond in general. I become overcome with worry that they perceive our relationship differently than I do, that I like them more than they like me, that they are unhappy, upset with me, etc. In order to relieve myself of this anxiety, I search for ways to reassure myself through explicit, verbal communication.
However, I often notice that even hearing the exact words I am looking for from the other person, I find myself unable to trust their words alone. I revert back to internal analysis, worrying, and skepticism. Giving myself permission to accept my own feelings for what they are at the simplest, most primal level, has encouraged me to do the same with other people. Ultimately we will never know what another person truly thinks or feels about anything. We have to eventually trust our interpretation and move on.
Like most things, this lesson is magnified while under the influence of psychedelics. Whenever I’m tripping with someone, there are phases where I feel we are perfectly in sync. Everything is easy. I feel connected, understood, and loved. Then a thought will arise or some slight friction will occur that leaves me questioning. Have we really been on the same page? Am I just being delusional to think they’ve understood me thus far? A dark cloud will appear for a moment, but will quickly pass as I allow myself to trust and enjoy again.
Our lack of trust in our emotions and our perceptions is what causes most of our stress in modern times. I think the fear behind this is primarily the fear of being wrong in our assumptions. We want to guard ourselves against every possibility. This is an impossible task, though. We will never be able to verify the validity of our perceptions and interpretations. Therefore, the best thing we can do for ourselves as well as those we love, is just accept, allow, and be present for whatever may arise. Give yourself permission to enjoy your experiences even when you can’t explain them, put words to them, or back them up with empirical evidence. Some things are meant to be felt, not spoken or explained.
Affirmations have become a big part of my life in the last year or two. Even though I still find them cheesy and cringe worthy a lot of the time, I know that they work. I’ve seen the roll they’ve played in my own life. Honestly, we all use affirmations every day whether we do so intentionally or not. I guess the word “affirmation” implies intention, but unconsciously we are all repeating beliefs and self commentary every moment of the day. Sometimes it’s only after recognizing the intense emotional reaction we have towards positive affirmations that we realize just how toxic and self harming our own have been all this time.
One of the trickiest parts about affirmations for me is finding one that I can fully believe. Imagine you start off by saying to yourself “I’m perfect just the way I am.” If you don’t believe it, then not only is that affirmation not helping you, it could be hurting you instead by subconsciously reinforcing your disbelief in that statement. A simple reframing can make that affirmation a bit easier to embrace, especially in the beginning. “It’s okay to be imperfect.” “I can love and accept myself even though I am imperfect.” Still, this requires a lot of thought, time, and inner work. A lot of us just are not in a place where we feel able to do that just yet.
This is where the high five habit comes in. I heard about this amazing idea on a podcast the other day. The High Five Habit is also a book written by Mel Robbins. She was the guest on this podcast, and she explained how she came up with the method and how it works in our brains. Her personal story moved me to tears, because I have been the lead in that story many times. She found herself in the bathroom critically observing her reflection above the sink, picking out and attacking all of her perceived flaws. She was exhausted and depressed and for some reason that not even she is able to fully explain, she gave herself a high five in the mirror. Robbin says the woman staring back at her looked like she needed it. She laughed at the absurdity of it, but the next day she found herself excited to meet herself again in that mirrored image. But why?
Robbins discussed this phenomenon with Marian Diamond, the woman who discovered neuroplasticity. (I had no idea this earth shattering discovery was made by a woman, but we’ll circle back around to that another day.) From what we know about neuroscience at this point, the high five habit seems to make sense. The high five is something that we have so ingrained in us as a positive action. We associate it automatically with reward, team building, approval, success, etc. It doesn’t matter who is offering this gesture or in what context, the action alone triggers that reward pathway in our brains.
We’ve all heard the expression “actions speak louder than words.” The high five habit is a particularly powerful example of that. Unlike verbal positive affirmations, it doesn’t really matter what our background thoughts are. We could still be displeased with the person staring back at us, we could be thinking “I don’t deserve a high five. This is stupid. This will never work. I feel like an idiot.” Regardless of our inner critic, this physical movement overrides all of that the moment we make contact with our reflection’s raised hand. Now the “habit” part of it is committing to give yourself this high five at least once a day for five days. Apparently that’s all the time it takes to begin to notice a difference.
This is only my third day of this practice, but I can say that it makes me laugh or at least smile each time I do it. And if that’s all that comes of it, I’d still say it was worth the try. It might feel silly, but that’s another thing I like about it. It reminds me not to take myself and my life so seriously. It also helps me in that moment to realize that I am not just these thoughts and the tyrannical inner critic. I am a human being who is doing the very best that she can. I am the frightened woman staring back at me, asking for reassurance and support. We are all deserving of the compassion and forgiveness we have learned to withhold from ourselves. The high five habit reminds us of that.
One of the most common misconceptions I encounter when it comes to meditation is that the goal is to “clear your mind.” Not gonna lie, I thought this was the purpose for the longest time myself. Yet this is a very unfortunate misunderstanding that can cause people to give up on the practice all together. It seems like an impossible goal, and that’s because it is. Our minds are meant to always be thinking. We should be grateful for that fact and all that our brains do for us in every moment. There is no way for us to completely turn off our inner thoughts. And there is no need to. Meditation is not about doing that at all.
There are many different forms of meditation, but to my knowledge, none of them have the intention of emptying your mind of all thought. Meditation is about focus. It is training our brains to pay attention. The object of that focus really doesn’t matter. Regardless of what you choose, the intention is to keep bringing your mind back to that object. And I say bringing your mind back because it is inevitably going to wander and stray from your point of focus, especially if you are just beginning your practice. Our job while meditating isn’t to criticize or judge ourselves when we notice this wandering. It’s just to notice. That’s it. Our minds are our most powerful muscles, and just as other muscles need training and exercise to become stronger, so do our minds.
Sounds easy enough right? Well, I’ve always found one of the most fascinating parts of meditation to be just how difficult that really is. Doing nothing should be a simple task, but when you actually try to do it, you realize just how conditioned we are to always be doing or at least planning something. You realize how oddly uncomfortable it is to do nothing. You start to see all the ways your mind and body want to rebel against it. And while it does get easier with regular practice, there will always be days where it feels like the first time all over again. Those days that you find the hardest are the most important of all.
The hard days give us the opportunity to witness how we treat ourselves, how we speak to ourselves when things don’t go the way we want them to. Even though the brain may revert to it’s favorite hurtful comments, this might be the first time you’ve ever been present enough to really notice what those are. There are a few reflexive phrases my brain likes to throw out that, until I began meditating, I had no idea I was even saying to myself, let alone how often. It makes me think of that common school yard taunt: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. You can tell how dated that saying is, because now we have learned that words can hurt us too, even the words we say to ourselves. In fact, the way we speak to ourselves may matter most of all. Because these are often the words we take as gospel truth and believe without question.
While meditation alone does not necessarily help us to reframe this negative self-talk, being aware of that internal dialogue is the first step in doing so. The longer I practice meditation, the quicker I am to realize when I am being cruel to myself. Whereas before I either didn’t notice at all or felt too enmeshed in those painful feelings to extricate myself from them, now it is as if I can take a step outside of myself even in intense moments. The benefit of that space is that I am able to use it to choose a different path.
Now rather than piling on insults when I’m already having a bad day or have made a mistake, it’s easier for me to offer myself understanding and compassion instead of criticism. A lot of the repeated commentary inside my head is downright shocking to me when I examine it. There are so many deeply held unconscious beliefs I’ve been holding onto for years that when I lay them out in front of me seem absolutely awful. Meditation hasn’t stopped these thoughts from coming up, but it has helped me catch them when they do. And that alone has made a tremendous difference in my day to day life.
So while meditation is not what a lot of people imagine it to be at first. It is still one of the most valuable practices that I’ve incorporated into my life. It has allowed me to begin to heal in ways that I never thought possible. It has allowed me the space to craft an entirely new relationship with myself, which in turn helps me strengthen the relationships I have with other people in my life. It is one of the most beautiful gifts that we can choose to give ourselves each and every day.
Take a moment to think about all the little ways in which you withhold tenderness and compassion from yourself on a daily basis. It may take you a while to even register what those actions might be. We have become so used to disregarding our needs, that we lose sight of how cruel we are actually being to ourselves sometimes. When you stop to reflect, you can begin to see how you might be reinforcing thoughts of unworthiness and self-hatred without even realizing it.
For example, I caught myself being unkind the other night as I prepared my dinner. I was heating up leftovers like I often do after work. As I took the hot plate our of the microwave, I noticed that instead of getting pot holders or making sure I didn’t burn myself, I just rushed to set the plate back down in the other room before the pain became too great. Now this is something I do all the time. I guess I can’t be bothered to add on the extra step of finding something else to grab the plate with besides my bare hands. I don’t know what was different about that day, but as I hurried to set the hot plate down, I realized how unkind I was being to myself in that small, unconscious gesture.
Would I allow a family member, friend, or other loved one to risk burning themselves in that way? Of course not. I would insist that they protect themselves and avoid any unnecessary pain or discomfort. Yet I never felt the need to offer myself that same grace or consideration. How sad, I thought. How unkind I have been. Am I not to be included in the category of “loved one”? Why not? Do I not claim to love myself? Why was I not behaving as if that were true? How had I so easily been overlooking these opportunities to be gentle with myself?
After realizing the subtle cruelty of that common occurrence, I started to wonder in what other ways I had been neglecting myself. I began to notice small acts of unkindness everywhere I looked. There are many times when I’ll force myself to wear an article of clothing that is uncomfortable just because it looks good. I’m also guilty of things like: forcing myself to workout even when I’m feeling sick, biting my nails until my fingers are hurting or even bleeding, aggressively picking at my skin, mentally berating the reflection I see in the mirror, shaming myself for feeling confident, being silly, or even just dancing, etc.
The more I think about it, the more ways I notice I’m being unkind to myself on a daily basis. I’m saddened not only for all these things I’m realizing, but also for how long it took me to realize them. Looking back, I’ve done these things for as long as I can remember. As a teenager I remember not wearing sunglasses or sunblock, white knuckling through injuries in order to keep up with my 8 mile daily run, even performing intentional self-harm. The craziest part is knowing that I would never put up with someone else treating me this way, nor would I stand idly by and allow my loved ones to treat themselves with the same disrespect.
I’m slowly working towards becoming more mindful of these small, hurtful gestures. It helps to imagine how I would feel if someone else was in a similar situation. Then I offer myself the same consideration and kindness that I would offer them. I think without even being aware, a lot of us are the most abusive person in our own lives. What a difference it would make if we could bring a soft, loving intention to the little things we do each day.
The next time you notice yourself experiencing discomfort, anxiety, sadness, shame, etc. Ask yourself, am I contributing to the state I’m in right now? If so, how might I offer myself comfort instead? Instead of thinking “what a pain” when I have to take the time to protect my skin from a hot surface, I will think “here you go, dear, I love you, and I want to protect you.” Just because it’s us doing it to ourselves, that is still no excuse to cause suffering or be neglectful. The way we treat ourselves is just as important, if not more important, than the treatment we receive from other people. What are some of the ways you might offer yourself more love and compassion where you’ve been withholding it? How might that make a difference in the way you feel as you move through your day? Make an effort to be kinder toward yourself in small ways as well as in larger ways. Because you are worth it. And even if you have a hard time believing that, think of it as practice. Practice self-love and self-compassion so that you might more easily be able to extend that same energy to others in your life. Or even better, do it for the people in your life that love you. Treat yourself the way they would want you to be treated.