Monthly Archives: March 2014

  • Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing

    Wouldn’t it be lovely to be happy all the time? Waking up with a big grin on our faces, bouncing out of bed and skipping into work every morning for a whole day of joy and laughter.

    Unfortunately, our minds aren’t designed like this. However naturally positive we are, it’s impossible to be in a state of constant pleasure all of the time. Our brains have evolved to preempt possible threats (a leftover from when our ancestors were struggling to survive in a dangerous world) and, sophisticated though they have become, still have a tendency to act like Velcro for the bad stuff and Teflon for the good.

    There will always be times when we are fearful, angry, bored or sad; and depending on our upbringing or genetics, some will experience these feelings more than others. The challenge arises when we do not welcome and accept these natural human tendencies and instead try compulsively to shut them out or make them go away.

    In the attempt to be happy, many of us try all sorts of ways to avoid uncomfortable feelings. For example, when sitting in the car in a traffic jam, we might turn on the radio or start texting a friend - anything to avoid potentially feeling bored or irritated. In a more extreme example, we might turn down an interview for a dream job because we don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we might be anxious or embarrassed.

    As well as trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings, many of us also chase after enjoyable ones, such as pleasure and excitement. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try to hold on to these feelings of happiness, they will, at some point, change or slip away. When inevitably they do, we leave ourselves open to disappointment or despair, or a neverending quest for the next high. In fact, as Russ Harris in 'The Happiness Trap' writes: "The harder we chase after pleasurable feelings, the more we are likely to suffer from anxiety and depression".

    So where do we go from here? Mindfulness-based approaches work on the belief that true wellbeing comes when we learn not to avoid uncomfortable feelings or chase after happiness, but to accept what is. By observing our minds and bodies, and how they react to situations, we practice a kind of self-awareness that allows us to be with challenging thoughts or feelings without allowing them to erode our quality of life.

    So if we’re sitting in the car and notice thoughts and feelings of boredom or loneliness, instead of trying to distract ourselves, we can consciously turn towards these sensations with an attitude of non-judgemental friendly curiosity. We might ask ourselves: What exactly is my mind’s reaction to this situation and what kind of feelings do I experience in the body? Instead of immediately grabbing the phone to send a text, we can become mindfully aware of the arising thoughts and feelings and then make a conscious choice of whether we want to check the phone or instead be with what is.

    The more we practice this, we learn to respond in a more mindful and attentive way to unpleasant experiences, accepting them as just thoughts and feelings that will, as with everything in life, pass away. By noticing and accepting as they arise and pass, we reduce their pull over us. We learn to 'welcome everything and push away nothing'.

    Developing this mindfulness skillpower will mean we don’t have to go through life desperately trying to avoid challenging situations or chasing an impossible dream of constant happiness. It means we can have a choice of how we want to approach the circumstances we find ourselves in... and this will ultimately lead to a richer and more meaningful life.

  • Stories Like These ...

    Depending on what we have experienced in our early childhoods, we hold certain beliefs about ourselves and the world and these ‘stories’ then become firmly established as we grow up. As an adult, we may, for example, hold the belief that bad things are going to happen to us, so (perhaps without realising) avoid tricky situations or anything that might present a risk. Or we may believe everybody will eventually abandon us or let us down, causing tensions in our relationships or even a tendency to avoid getting close to others. We all have such painful 'Achilles Heels' - our soft spots that can hold us back in life or even cause us suffering if we believe them to be true.

    A psychologist called Jeffrey Young of Columbia University has identified 18 themes - what he calls personal ‘schemas’ - that can help us recognise our sore points. While reading through them, you might try bringing a mindful awareness to the thoughts and physical sensations you experience when you come across ones that you identify with. Try not to judge yourself or beat yourself up, but just kindly observe any physical reactions you have to the thoughts.

    1. Abandonment/Instability: My close relationships will end because people are unstable and unpredictable.
    2. Mistrust/Abuse: I expect to get hurt or be taken advantage of by others.
    3. Emotional deprivation: I can’t seem to get what I need from others, like understanding, support and attention.
    4. Defectiveness/Shame: I’m defective, bad, or inferior in some way that makes me unlovable.
    5. Social isolation/Alienation: I’m basically alone in this world and different from others.
    6. Dependence/Incompetence: I’m not capable of taking care of myself without help on simple tasks and decisions.
    7. Vulnerability to harm and illness: Danger is lurking around every corner, and I can’t prevent these things from happening.
    8. Enmeshment/Undeveloped self: I feel empty and lost without guidance from others, especially from people like my parents.
    9. Failure: I’m fundamentally inadequate (stupid, inept) compared to my peers and will inevitably fail.
    10. Entitlement/Self-centeredness: I deserve whatever I can get, even if it bothers others.
    11. Insufficient self-control/self-discipline: I have a hard time tolerating even small frustrations, which makes me act up or shut down.
    12. Subjugation: I tend to suppress my needs and emotions because of how others will react.
    13. Self-sacrifice: I’m very sensitive to others’ pain and tend to hide my own needs so that I’m not a bother.
    14. Approval-seeking/Recognition-seeking: Getting attention and admiration are often more important than what is truly satisfying to me.
    15. Negativity/Pessimism:I tend to focus on what will go wrong and mistakes I’ll probably make.
    16. Emotional inhibition: I avoid showing feelings, good and bad, and I tend to take a more rational approach.
    17. Unrelenting standards/Hypercriticalness: I’m a perfectionist, am focused on time and efficiency, and find it hard to slow down.
    18. Punitiveness: I tend to be angry and impatient, and I feel people should be punished for their mistakes.

    Once you’ve identified the two or three schemas that are most resonant for you, see if you can notice when they reveal themselves in your life. You might find noticing them easier if you have a think beforehand of how these schemas manifest for you - the kind of thoughts, emotions and behaviour they trigger. Then, when those schemas or beliefs appear, see if you can recognise them for what they are: simply stories swirling around our heads. And although these stories might at times feel very real and can bring us much suffering, they might not always be true.

    Do also remember that we all hold such beliefs and can therefore suffer at times. So don’t judge yourself for having them; instead, when they show up, be kind to yourself. By recognising the stories as simply stories and by holding them in a loving space, they will eventually loosen their grip.

    For more instruction on how to respond to schemas with mindfulness and self-compassion, check out Christopher Germer’s: The mindful path to self-compassion.