how to deal when your inner critic is an asshole {self-talk first aid}

inner-critic-self-talk

This little beast goes by many names: Negative self-talk. Inner Critic. Inner mean girl/shit-talker. Limiting beliefs. Shame spiral. Your "gremlins".

It's that all-too-familiar voice in your head that knows just what to say to take you down a notch (or five), whether it's when you've made a mistake:

"Way to go. How stupid can you be?!  They're going to know you're a complete fraud now!"

Or even when you're doing well:

"They seemed to like the presentation.. but they're probably just complimenting me to be nice, not because they mean it. I'm nowhere near as good as Marie, and I'm sure I never will be even if I work my ass off."

Ok, let's pause for a second.

Take a breath.

Even just reading those words, do you notice anything happening in your body? A tightening of your chest, clenching your jaw — pit in your stomach?

Shaming yourself hurts, not only at the mental/emotional level, but at the physiological level, too. And one huge reason for that is because, as humans, we have not yet evolved to the point of self-awareness that we can clearly see our thoughts as just that — thoughts. Strings of words in our minds, which really should only be given any weight when they are somehow useful to us.

Instead, we give them a lot of credit and tend to automatically buy in to whatever idea they're selling us.

There are many different approaches to working with self-talk, and I'm not shy about my bias towards an acceptance-based approach rather than a traditional cognitive-behavioral approach of changing and eliminating "negative" thoughts. While I love the CBT framework of "ANTs" (automatic negative thoughts), I don't necessarily agree with the idea that we should aim to just kill all the ants because they're "bad." (I guess this is true at the literal level too, unless they're inside my house — then, sorry guys.)

Following this metaphor, let's say I have ants in my backyard that don't actually do anything harmful to my yard or myself, unless I step right in their mound and just leave my foot there for them to crawl on. This is very similar to your thoughts, because a thought itself can't actually harm you — it's just a string of syllables in your head, remember? The problem is that when we forget they're just thoughts that don't have real power to control our actions and our lives  — and we buy into them, hook, line and sinker — it's sort of like standing hopelessly in the ant pile. Also, if you spend lots of time, energy and money trying to get rid of those damn ants, instead of finding a way to coexist outside with them there and enjoy the sunshine, well... that's a lot of beautiful days you're missing out on unnecessarily.

Therein, one of the traps you can fall into as you're trying to improve your self-talk is that sometimes the more you focus on "getting rid of" the negative self-talk, the louder it becomes — and it can also make you feel like a failure, when in reality, humans inherently aren't equipped to turn thoughts a feelings on and off like a faucet.

We are great at problem-solving with external issues. (Dirt on the floor? Sweep it up! Need to drive over that body of water? Build a bridge!) But when we try to apply this same logic internally, it doesn't work out so well. (Don't like feeling guilty? Make it stop! Oh wait... it's still here. Have a drink - or 5! Go shopping!) Yeah... our methods for "getting rid of" difficult thoughts and feelings tend to backfire and create even more problems for us.

I could go on forever about this topic (which is why Self-Talk First-Aid is one of my coaching programs), but for now, here's an experiment to try out:

Every time you notice yourself in negative self-talk (or inner critic, or whatever you want to call it at this point) over the next week, simply make a statement to yourself: "Oh, there's that thought again. I'm having that thought that _______."

It might sound silly or way too basic, but you'd be surprised how powerful it can be to remind yourself that whatever Greatest Hits criticism of yourself that's playing is just a thought. Once you have more awareness around that, you can also remember that the thought is A) nothing novel or helpful that you haven't already heard 1000 times before, B) probably not giving you great advice, and C) mostly just arising because it's part of your default mode at this point.

Try it out and let me know what you think! And if you have any favorite go-to strategies to deal with your inner critic, I'd love to hear about them in the comments. 

WholeYou episode #3 - dealing with difficult thoughts

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We're now on episode 3 of WholeYou!

Thank you all for your comments and thoughts on our first two episodes. We really appreciate you taking the time to listen and connect with us on these topics so far. If you like the show, remember to subscribe on iTunes so you don't miss one!

In Episode 3, we’re talking about how to deal with difficult or 'unhelpful' thoughts. Just like emotional literacy, this is stuff that we usually are NOT taught in school or as a part of growing up , which is why it’s such an important topic for channels like this podcast.

What we cover in episode 3:

  • Why we don't label unhelpful thoughts as "negative"
  • How avoidance can make things worse - "What we resist persists."
  • Does “thought-stopping” work?
  • Why you can't just “affirm” your way out of painful experiences
  • Physical, mental, and spiritual tools to help you “defuse” from unhelpful thoughts
  • The power of curiosity and just observing your thoughts
  • Lauren's experience in a float tank

We’re interested in how you relate to this topic and what resonates with you from this episode — so if you take a listen, please leave a comment with your thoughts, questions, or as always, ideas for future episodes. You can also share your thoughts on social media with the hashtag #wholeyoushow!

So, go ahead and take a listen:

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Things we mention in this episode:

More from Valerie

More from Lauren

*Music credit for our mini theme song is Little Idea from Bensound.com. Thanks, Ben!

6 types of spiritual experiences (part 2)

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In part one of this post, I gave a brief intro to The Spirituality of Imperfection, and the first three types of spiritual experiences that authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham outline in the book:

Release, Gratitude, and Humility.

If you haven’t already,hop on over to check out that postfirst. (I split it into two posts so it wasn’t super long!)Here, I’ll continue with describing the other three types of experiences:

Tolerance, Forgiveness, and Being-at-home.

Tolerance

“When we accept ourselves in all our weakness, flaws, and failings, we can begin to fulfill an even more challenging responsibility: accepting the weakness, limitations, and mixed-up-ed-ness of those we love and respect. Then and only then, it seems, do we become able to accept the weakness, defects, and shortcomings of those we find it difficult to love… Spirituality begins with this first insight: We are all imperfect … Tolerance begins with vision—the ability to see the world in a way that is somewhat ‘different’…This vision, of course, goes beyond the grudging mere ‘tolerance’ of ‘putting-up-with-because-I-have-no-choice’ of a non-spiritual vocabulary. The essence of tolerance lies in its openness to difference.”

I’ll admit that I do cringe a little when I see the word “tolerance” because of exactly what the authors point to in the above excerpt: that it seems to bear a connotation of “begrudgingly putting up with” each other, rather than doing our best to whole-heartedly accept each other, flaws and all. However, I do think that the authors’ meaning of “tolerance” falls more in line with the idea of “openness,” as they note, which has a softer feeling to it.

In a coaching session recently, I shared with a client an example I read somewhere (I believe in one of Russ Harris’ writings on ACT) about how to distinguish between “tolerance” and “acceptance.”Imagine that you’re going to hang out with your closest friends: would you want them to tolerate you being there, constantly checking to see if you’re still there and wanting you to leave? Or would you want them to accept your presence, flaws and all? I know to some degree it's semantics, but language is also powerful and can have a very tangible impact; for instance, I don’t think society should aim for just “tolerance” of LGBT friends and family. Rather, we need to accept them whole-heartedly, because that’s how we strive to treat people we love, even if we don’t always agree with them.

I also love the authors’ point that we cannot truly accept others’ shortcomings if we are not willing to practice acceptance of our own. “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete” — Jack Kornfield.

Forgiveness

“Resentment is the poison of the spiritual life…The opposite of ‘resentment’ is forgiveness. The main spiritual shift that takes place in the event of being forgiven/forgiving is thus a new experiencing of self; blaming others falls away, and we begin to accept primary responsibility for who we are. Forgiveness comes when we let go of the feeling of resentment by surrendering the vision of self-as-victim.”

I have seen resentment so powerful that it caused a loving mother to lie to everyone (including herself) and continue down a steep path of life-threatening alcoholism, ruining any chance of saving her marriage or having custody of her children. Her resentment toward her husband and other family members was palpable, and though it was a significant focus of her treatment, she was not in a place where she was spiritually open to releasing her grip on these resentments and moving toward forgiveness. I wish this story were unique, but it’s not—which is why resentments are a core component of Steps 4 and 5 in AA and other 12-step fellowships. I have been fortunate (and feel a little spoiled, frankly) to say that I have never been abused or betrayed to the point that I have built up strong resentments in my life. Most annoyances or “mini-grudges” have been insignificant or short-lived.

In the work that I do, though, I regularly bear witness to women who have have been treated horribly, often by those who are supposed to love them the most. No wonder resentments form. Especially if abuse or neglect occurs in childhood, a child has no choice but to be a victim of that situation because they are fully dependent on the adults in charge of them. As an adult, being victimized happens, too — but as Kurtz and Ketcham assert, we will continue to hold onto resentments if we view ourselves as victims. There is a key difference in acknowledging that you have been victimized in a situation (and healing to become a survivor), versus living your life from a victim stance, feeling that things just happen to you rather than taking responsibility for your choices.Again, I’m not talking about acts of violence. We’ve all known (or at times, been) that person who constantly complains about their situation but doesn’t seem to take any real action to change it.

To move toward forgiveness, you must take responsibility for yourself and decide that your wellbeing is more important than being “right” or constantly playing the “I’ve been wronged” tape in your head.As the old adage goes, holding a grudge is like letting someone live in your head without paying any rent.

Being-at-home

“Modern humankind feels homeless in the deepest meaning of the word: not in the transient sense of having no place to sleep for the night, not even in the wider sense of poverty’s homelessness, but in a monstrous, universal sense of having no place wherein we fit… the experience is of lost souls circling endlessly… for only in finding that ‘fit’…does one find a place to rest, a place to hide, a place to be one’s-self—a home ... A spirituality of imperfection helps us find that experience, that fit. First, by accepting ourselves as imperfect and essentially mixed, we fit into our own being. And second, by applying the spirituality of imperfection to our relationships with others, and especially to family, we learn to ‘see’ all relationships in a different way, and so learn how to fit with others, how to find a real home.”

I can hear Brené Brown’s voice in my head right now saying, “As humans, we are hard-wired for love and belonging.” And as usual, she’s right. Not only are we wired for this from an evolutionary / survival standpoint, but from an emotional standpoint, too. We long to feel “a part of” and are most deeply wounded when we feel “separate from.” Now, this doesn’t mean we want to be around each other all the time! Believe me—in this phase of my life I’m realizing more and more that I am truly an introvert who has masqueraded around as an extrovert for much of my younger life. I like having lots of alone time. But if I don’t feel connected to others at a meaningful level (and that does include some quality time with them on a regular basis), I feel very alone and disconnected from life. The assumption that introverts don’t like being around people is one of the most common myths about this group.

To me, “being at home” means having a handful of people in my life with whom I can show up as all of who I am without fear of rejection. It means feeling at-home in my body—which does not mean thinking my body is perfectly beautiful, but rather that it is my body and I am embodying it and respecting it because it is a significant aspect of me and my earthly experience.

I also have to remember that, at times, I will feel that familiar loneliness creeping in and start to believe the thoughts that I do not truly belong, that I'm not really wanted— but thankfully, I now have tools to deal with those thoughts so I don’t run rampant with them. I have a husband and other people in my life who will talk me off that cliff. Like most of life’s most important lessons and all six of these spiritual experiences, part of my spiritual practice is the forgetting-and-remembering, again and again.

Which of these 6 types of spiritual experiences do you feel most comfortable with? Which is most difficult for you to open up to?

3 reasons you shouldn't try to be fearless

fearless

In the personal growth world as well as overall popular culture, the idea of being “fearless” is often praised. We hear things like, “you have two choices in any situation: love or fear.” And we’re told that if we don’t choose love, we’ll diminish our power and not lead the abundant lives we deserve. Makes sense in theory, right?

But I’m not buying it. As a therapist, I work with clients who have gone to tremendous lengths to avoid, cover up, or anesthetize fear. (In many cases, this started as a survival mechanism to cope with trauma.) We’re a culture of professional numbers and avoiders. We become so obsessed by the idea of “happiness” that we think feeling other emotions means that we’re somehow failing. But by putting pressure on yourself to be somehow “fearless,” it’s likely that you’re actually hurting rather than helping yourself in the long run. Here’s how:

1. You’re more likely to play it safe by keeping your dreams and aspirations small.

If you’ve conditioned yourself to believe that fear is bad, how will you ever truly step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself, when that likely entails falling down or failing numerous times along the way?

In her book Playing Big, Tara Mohr shares that one of her biggest lessons about fear came from Rabbi Alan Lew, who explained to her that Biblical Hebrew uses several different words for fear. The first is “pachad,” which is “projected or imagined fear.” This is the type of fear that happens when we catastrophize, obsess over the worst case scenario, or believe irrational thoughts our minds tell us, like “if you don’t nail this presentation, your career will be destroyed.” The second word for fear is “yirah,” which Rabbi Lew described as “the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting.”

Learning about this helped me better articulate what I already knew to be true: that fear in some contexts (pachad) needs to be reframed and challenged, and fear in other contexts (yirah) is a natural part of stretching yourself into the uncharted territory of bigger dreams. If I never experience yirah, I know I’m cheating myself out of living up to my potential.

2. You reinforce blanket judgments about “positive” and “negative” emotions.

I understand what people mean when they say “negative emotions” (typically they’re alluding to sadness, fear, anger, guilt, shame, and loneliness), but what is it that really makes them negative? I like to reframe these feelings as “challenging” or “difficult,” because even calling fear a “negative” feeling is making a lot of assumptions -- and as we just discussed in #1, it certainly isn’t always negative.

Practice taking the judgment out of the fear you’re experiencing, and instead, describe what the feeling is like. Do you feel your pulse racing, your face hot? What would happen if you allowed yourself to sit with that feeling and breathe into it, rather than insisting that it needs to go away immediately? How would you respond differently to the feeling?

3. You’ll be focused on “what you want less of” instead of “what you want more of.”

If you believe that you should be fearless, you’ll do whatever you can to anesthetize that feeling when it inevitably shows up -- even if it’s something that leaves you worse off in the long run. I often ask my clients, “What are the things you do to try to get rid of or avoid fear and other difficult emotions?” Their answers almost always include isolating, emotional eating, shopping, bingeing on Netflix or social media, excessive sleeping, drinking, and smoking. On the more severe end of the spectrum, they mention drug use, cutting, hooking up, compulsive exercise, bingeing, and purging. Almost every time, they say that these behaviors they use to try to numb the feeling actually end up making them feel worse in the end.

When you’re so focused on what we want less of in our lives (like fear), that’s where your energy and actions are centered. This leaves little time and energy for focusing on what you want more of, like connection, spirituality, adventure, play, learning, and giving back.

I’m all for choosing love… but I’m also for befriending fear. Let’s have the courage to not be fearless.

i'm done settling for "good enough"

The first step towards getting somewhere...

(Image Credit: Inspirational Collages)

After taking an unintentional hiatus from the blog, here I am again, feeling much more energized about writing and what I have to say. I’ve been on a bit of a self-improvement kick, and I’m looking forward to sharing about all that I’m trying out and learning. As a therapist, I usually have at least five self-development or psychotherapy books on my nightstand at all times – and piles more waiting for me on my bookshelf and Amazon Wish List. But most of the time, my goal in reading those books is much more about my desire to learn and be more effective with clients than it is to improve myself. It seems obvious that “practicing what I preach” would be way more effective than just trying to learn and apply theories and interventions in my clinical work – and it’s not like I don’t ever do this – but I realized that I was truly not engaged in my own personal growth.

If I did do something for myself (like read one of those books, listen to a podcast, journal, etc.), it was often with the motivation of becoming a better therapist – and ultimately trying to squash my insecurity about not being a “good therapist” because I’m too young/not insightful or creative enough/not educated enough... the list goes on. And while doing those things might indeed help me become more skillful in my job, I was starting to feel stuck in my life -- in the only area that I was constantly striving for growth, it was because I was too caught up in the “hustle” for self-worth and confidence (as a clinician), something I regularly caution clients about. I’ve been told by more experienced therapists who I admire that the thing that’s helped them the most to feel confident in their work is the therapy and personal exploration they’ve done for themselves. (The other thing I hear: "You just gotta rack up the miles." Amen to that.)  I came to acknowledge that in my own half-assed attempt at doing this "work on myself", my motivation was backwards. I have to first genuinely want growth and exploration for me – and if it happens to have a positive impact on the work I do, that’s just a bonus. And I'm finally at a place where I authentically want it.

The problem was that I had become okay with living my life at 70%. I gave most of my motivation and focus to my job, and with the limited energy I had left, I participated in choir and other activities at my church, occasionally exercised, took care of basic adult responsibilities (housework, running errands, paying bills, preparing meals – notice I did not say “cooking”, not most of the time at least), watched shows on Netflix, and occasionally socialized with friends. I hated getting up in the mornings (more on that in the next post), and sleep/sleeping in had become one of my greatest joys. While I have a lot of gratitude for the people and things in my life, and a wonderful partner to share it with, I had gotten stagnant and complacent with being 70% alive and engaged. I’m reminded here of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I read a couple years ago (and could probably benefit from reading again). She wrote about her frustration with knowing that she had a good life but not feeling fully engaged or appreciative of it, and her yearlong challenge to reengage, supported by the latest research on happiness and fulfillment. I feel like I’m embarking on my own sort of happiness project, but it feels more like a Wake Up to Your Life Project – heck, I’ll call it my WUTYL (“wuttle!”) Project! As a DBT practitioner, I’m totally down for cheesy acronyms.

It’s not that I feel like I’m lazy or don’t work hard – anyone who knows me well will tell you that’s not true. I just – like most people with the luxury of having basic needs met – got so caught up in the day-to-day grind that I stopped questioning what I was really capable of and whether I was intentionally shaping my life to be what I wanted it to be – or if I was buying into self-limiting beliefs that this is the best I can do, that I am just not one of those “extraordinary” people, and that this is just the way my life is, it’s pretty good, and that’s good enough for me. I had convinced myself that zoning out on Netflix or tumbling down the online rabbit hole was “self-care” because I needed to relax after a hard day of work in a field that’s notorious for burn-out, not to mention the 2-hour daily commute. I had also convinced myself that moderate “success” was fine, because a person’s worth is not measured by their bank account or how impressive their resume is. (Oh, and don’t forget that I’m just not one of those extraordinary people.)

Although I do believe that a person’s worth is not measured by their professional or financial success, I was using this as a reason to not challenge myself. I had confused settling with self-acceptance – and while I’m totally on board with the latter, I’ve decided I’ve had enough of the former.

I’m compelled at this point to say how grateful I am for the work I have already done on myself. I’m obviously not exempt from the familiar “not good enough” tapes that play in my brain, but both through my own life experiences and through my work as a clinician, I am usually able to put those thoughts into perspective and recognize they are just part of my brain’s natural evolutionary process of making sure that I don’t get excluded from my tribe. I do feel that in many ways, I have developed internal strengths of self-compassion and self-acceptance – and if I didn’t have that foundation, desires for personal growth would probably just be more of that self-worth hustle. But now is the time to challenge myself to build on other strengths that I haven’t focused on as much.

This personal growth journey is something that I just sort of stumbled into over the past couple of months because I was ready internally – ready to get unstuck and become more intentional about being the best version of myself. As I write about my ongoing experience on this blog, I hope that reading it can be inspirational for others who are also feeling stuck or frustrated about the gap between your current life and the life you want and know you could have. I’m also going to free myself from the pressure of feeling like I have to cite lots of research and books to back up what I’m writing about this journey. There are plenty of great books out there that have already done that, and if I focus on that, I won’t be as focused on what I’m sharing about my personal experiences. But I will certainly cite as necessary, and mention the books, blogs, or articles that are helping me the most. Come back (soon, I promise!) for my next post, where I’ll write about some of the practices that have been most helpful for getting me motivated and committed to WAKING UP to my life.

I would also love to hear in the comments if anyone can relate or if there have been any practices that have had a lot of impact on your own personal growth -- so I can keep adding new elements to this experiment!