“The problem with problem loving is that we become satisfied with discussing the problem and uncomfortable with imagining solutions.” — Dr. Shawn Ginwright, author of The Four Pivots.
This keen insight from the book, The Four Pivots, really caught my attention. As a consummate “fixer” most of my life, I would dive headfirst into “problem-solving” mode for myself and others — without an awareness that I wasn’t being helpful in most cases. The root cause of my fixing pattern was — discomfort.
I learned this from my childhood. It was how I believed I was contributing in a positive way to my chaotic family environment. As a kid, I was “managing upward” trying to help co-regulate, calm and deflect my parents’ wildly uncertain behaviors. These childhood patterns often contribute to both our strengths and our roadblocks as we enter adulthood.
My problem solving pattern got honed in some very positive ways — I am resourceful, able to see both big picture and the smaller one at the same time, and I am highly attuned to problem prevention.
The roadblocks to my “fixer” pattern were that I often solved the wrong problems, disenfranchised people from their agency to solve their own problems, micromanaged others thinking I knew what’s best, and disempowered others from asking for the help they truly needed and preferred.
Add to this combo that I am a strong type A who is always busy and thrives on the “doing” and you can readily understand that I could become a steamroller with the best of intentions but doing more harm than good.
In his book, The Four Pivots, Dr. Ginwright brings into focus how doing our own self-reflection and self-discovery work shifts us to the healthier side of who we really are — growing up and growing into our more authentic, grounded selves. Released from the problematic components of our old behaviors, patterns, beliefs and biases, we can move with greater ease into our unique gifts and talents.
As both an enlightened and reformed helper, I often use this quote about teaching a man to fish as my anchor when I am interacting with someone who is in struggle or overwhelm. It serves to remind me that a bandaid is a temporary solution for recurring, problematic reactions or responses to life. How can I best support another person to find their own long-term solutions?
While reading Chapter 8 (entitled “Possibility”) of Dr. Ginwright’s compelling book, I had a rather profound “aha” moment. Reflecting on some of my experiences with others over the decades, I could now easily recognize that a core issue was in fact — problem loving. People often rebuke a possible solution or strategy to tackle a problem that just keeps happening over and and over again in their lives. Now I get it — there was innate satisfaction in discussing the problem, ad nauseum — and a lot of perceived discomfort by taking personal action to change. Two more quotes readily came to mind:
To admit that we might need to change, to let go out of outgrown armor and patterns, does require us to be honest with ourselves — and that is a very vulnerable space to enter. Just thinking about makes us uncomfortable. So we just might find it easier and more satisfying to stay stuck, to keep complaining, and to keep repeating the same patterns. Far less vulnerable to simply project onto others all the work we probably know we need to be doing for ourselves — and on ourselves.
Dr. Ginwright offers this profound truth: “No fundamental change has ever come from problem fixing.” If our focus is solely on what we don’t want, we only turn our attention to eliminating. By reframing “problem fixing” to “possibility creating”, we shift our focus (and our thinking) to imagining and articulating what would feel really good, supportive and meaningful to us.
Here again, Brene Brown’s teachings and Dr. Ginwright’s work intersect: Language matters! Dr. Ginwright states that we should be mindful and avoid defining the world we want by articulating what we don’t want. Brené Brown teaches us that “clear is kind” — it is far better to state calmly and clearly what our boundaries are and what are needs are than to hope that other’s will be mind-readers.
When our focus is on eliminating what we don’t want, we tend to lean heavily on negative words and terms: Things never work out. It’s a constant struggle. It’s an uphill battle. Why so confrontational?
If we reframe our situation and come at it with imagination and creativity, we not only paint a different picture for possibility creating, we more naturally use language that supports this more affirmative approach: What can we invent to make this easier? Can we turn this job into a playful game? What big idea can you contribute? What if we discover something better? We are open to possibility!What does support look like for you? How can I best help you?
I could not help but think about incredible difference this profound shift could make in family dynamics and in personal relationships. Leaning into a pivotal change — infused with imagination rather than resistance would become a pathway for cooperation, encouragement and teamwork.
The reality is that possibilities are limited when we aren’t receptive to trying new things, exploring a different approach, setting priorities and owning our go-to patterns. People are reluctant to invest their time and energy in us if we stay stuck in our status quo of problem loving.
What is so revelational about this reframing approach is that it quickly gets us to answer the all important question — what is the endgame? If we are just hitting the repeat button on the same pattern, is it working for us? Are we moving forward and making progress toward a goal, just treading water, or losing traction?
Rather than complaining about what is not working and turning our focus on eliminating problems, we can try this new approach. Re-imagine, re-frame and get creative. Positive affirmation along with a genuine commitment to meeting change with enthusiasm and ingenuity will also foster more cooperation, teamwork and support. People are more inclined to invest their time and energy into us and our relationships with this transformational approach.
Listen to this remarkable podcast conversation with Dr. Rick Hanson, Forrest Hanson and Terry Real, family therapist and best selling author, to learn how quickly Terry gets his clients to shift their relationship dynamic and embrace change in a positive light:
It has been nothing short of remarkable to witness the transformational changes in my friends as they have been embracing self discovery and personal growth. A few friends proactively embarked on their journey due to a feeling of discontent or because life through them a curveball. Others were drawn in as they witnessed their friends showing up with more confidence, more energy and passion. No matter the on-ramp, these friends made a commitment to positive changes.
Not surprisingly, their circle of close friends also shifted and began to mirror the qualities and values that support mutual growth. Conversations went deeper which resulted in stronger bonds of trust and connection. It is proof positive that the energy we put out into the world comes back to us.
Elevate your energy, your goals, your curiosity and you soon discover you are drawing “like kinds” onto your path. It’s the law of attraction. It’s also the hot tip that James Clear offers in his book Atomic Habits: surround yourself with the kind of people who possess the attributes and traits you wish to cultivate.
This transformation and the resulting positive shift in family relationships and friendships is a natural progression in the personal growth experience. This had been – and continues to be — my own experience. It is also what fuels my daily practices of self-awareness and personal growth.
I remember being very immersed in Pema Chodrun’s teachings years ago, and two things really stuck with me. The first is that when we commit to doing our personal development work, we make it easier for others to pursue their own. The second is that when you begin to show up differently with family and friends, it will take a while for them to accept those changes; if and when they do, they have the potential to evolve as well.
About two years ago, I wrote about how excited I was that so many of my teachers, authors, mentors and resources were intersecting into the developing space of contemplative neuroscience. Awareness, mindfulness, meditation were becoming integrated into neuroscience, mental health, therapy and personal growth.
Today I am excitedly observing the positive impacts of individual personal development spreading out into communities through the stories my friends are sharing with me. Individually these friends have done a lot of personal growth work; collectively they are making a huge contribution to others as a direct result of their own inner work.
It does not surprise me at all that my friends are change agents. All along they were committed to being helpful, supportive, contributing members of their families, workplaces and communities. The personal growth work that they have done in recent years has served to make them much more skillful, empathetic and magnetic to others. And the others that are seeking them out for guidance are those that are equally committed to positive change.
Perhaps that is the most noteworthy difference — People can sense the groundedness in my friends and they hunger for that peace, calm and authenticity.
Collectively we have experienced several years of uncertainty, disruption, confusion and major challenges. There is a growing interest and need for support, tools and resources to help cope with it all. It is no wonder that the negative stigma once associated with mental health and therapy is rapidly shifting — and the demand for mental health services, counseling and therapy is on the rise.
This is precisely where Pema Chodrun’s two part wisdom is really rising to the surface. With so many people in struggle right now, those who are further along on their personal growth journey are beginning to stand out in the crowd.
Pema’s wisdom coincides with the research of Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Dan Siegel. We need relational scaffolding in our families and our communities — now more than ever. This respectful, empathic and non-judgmental scaffolding has been in decline for decades. Unfortunately social media has amplified the disconnection and created more roadblocks to embracing our differences and discovering our shared humanity. As Brené Brown shares with us — it is hard to hate someone close up. Face to face, heart to heart, shared experience conversations are the ones we truly need — these are the ones that build relational scaffolding. Dr. Perry also calls this relational and emotional webbing — and it is an informal and integral part of the mental health support so urgently needed right now.
Several of my friends are business and life coaches. Their businesses are thriving because people are clamoring for better tools and life skills to help them navigate their own intersections of personal life and work life. Because my friends have done so much of their own inner work, they have a sixth sense about behavioral patterns and past traumas that might be unconsciously causing some of the problems. But it is not just their awareness of these potential roadblocks, it is the ease they possess with hearing uncomfortable stories, their tenderness when vulnerabilities are shared, their non-judgment and deep empathy for all that another person is navigating. Major breakthroughs are occurring with their clients because my friends are paving the way, lighting the path and leading by example.
Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead certification program is built on this premise — Do the brave work, have the hard conversations, lead with whole hearts (aka shared humanity). In his compelling new book, The Four Pivots, Dr. Shawn Ginwright draws a very connected line to our own inner work and the relationship it has to transcending and transforming our collective systemic problems.
As Pema Chodrun says, we have to know ourselves well before we can truly begin to know others. It is our own inner work that expands our capacity to be fully present with others and to be able to listen to understand. We shed our old behaviors, beliefs and armor that prevented us from being better listeners — and we have more bandwidth to not let our own experiences distract us from learning from another’s different experience.
This is another noteworthy observation — those who know themselves well often are more comfortable with paradox, they are able to be with tension of opposing ideas and experiences and find the common thread.
It is not only my friends who are professionals in coaching and counseling, it is also those who do compromise the community scaffolding that Dr. Perry and Dr. Seigel espouse. People just like me who are practicing self awareness and personal development in a committed way. My book club friends, my longtime friends and some new acquaintances support each other on our journey. We share our favorite resources including books and podcasts and we have a lot of long, deep conversations. We learn so much from each other’s stories and we expand our capacity and curiosity as a result of the diversity of other’s trials and tribulations.
We support each other with breaking old habits, are growing more comfortable with holding each other accountable to our desired goals and the new habits, patterns and responses that will get us there. We often remind each other of how far we have come on our journey. We encourage, we listen, we hold space and withhold judgment.
As my friend Diane Brandt would say “the blessings go both ways” in these relationships. It is true that even a seasoned personal growth student will learn something new when they are supporting another person in their healing and growth. This is the “mirror” work that Dr. Shawn Ginwright emphasizes in his book, The Four Pivots.
Over the past year or so, I have witnessed that as my friends are showing up quite differently in life through their own personal growth journey, they are also attracting new people into their friendships and community endeavors. They delight in sharing with me the deeper, richer and even more challenging conversations they have with both old friends and new. My friends are sharing their personal experiences of mindfulness and awareness with others. They are offering all kinds of resources and wisdom to those who express an interest in their own personal development.
As I reflect on where we all started on our journey and where we are today, I am filled with a renewed sense of hope and optimism for the future. My friends and I represent a thin slice of what is happening all over the globe as people are realizing that change is most definitely in order. For every single one of us who commits to cultivating more self awareness and doing our own work with a growth mindset, we are planting seeds of positive change in the hearts and minds of others. I am seeing this in action, in a microcosm of my circle of friends and family. Small actions, done consistently over time compound in the most transformational ways. We all can make a meaningful difference.
Hugh Jackman shared a personal experience about meeting up his longtime friend after a few months of being apart — and noticing almost immediately that something about him was strikingly different. “Whatever it is that he has, I want it, ” Hugh thought to himself.
Hugh Jackman was a featured speaker on the last day of a 4 day summit that I participated in this past week. I was drawn to the summit by the extensive list of presenters and the wide array of resources — all under the heading of “The Healing Power of Relationships.” While most of the presenters were experts in their fields of neuroscience, mindfulness and meditation, trauma and childhood development, Hugh was “one of us” — an eager student of personal growth.
If you are a fan of Hugh Jackman through his various acting roles, you are probably drawn to his charisma, talents and easy going personality. Trust me, if you had witnessed him sharing his personal stories and his self-discoveries so vulnerably in this summit, you would be an even bigger fan. A fan of another human being that is evolving into the best version of himself — and inspiring others to do the same. Just as his longtime friend did for him.
You see, that “difference” that Hugh was seeing and feeling emanating from his friend was this grounded sense of calm and authenticity. Hugh’s friend explained to him that he’d been working with a therapist, Terry Real, and that it had been a game-changer for him. Hugh was all in.
Take note — it wasn’t that there was a major crisis that prompted Hugh to meet with Terry. It was seeing a change in his friend that inspired him. This is not at all surprising. It becomes very evident to others when we’ve undergone a significant change, especially when it is related to personal growth. The secret: it’s co-regulation.
When you are in the presence of someone who is calm, has good energy and an innate sense of empathy, you feel it. In fact, those attributes will bring you into alignment with them. Of course, you’d have to be paying attention to consciously recognize it, but there’s no doubt that your heart rate would slow and any tension you were feeling would dissipate somewhat. That’s co-regulation.
This works in reverse too. Frenzied, disregulated energy is super magnetic and stickier than fly paper. A toddler throwing a a temper tantrum and an agitated parent rarely leads to a quick deescalation.
What Hugh Jackman learned as he took a deep dive into self awareness and personal growth with Terry Real is that our relationships and experiences have impacted us all throughout our lifetimes. Unbeknownst to us, some of that emotional baggage and the habits we’ve developed actually weigh us down, distract us and even set us off on a wrong course. Furthermore, we are learning that some of the age-old parenting models and myths we were raised on were wrong. We can thank neurobiology, neuroscience and psychology for these transformational breakthroughs.
Hugh was quite honest about what he discovered and uncovered about himself through his sessions with Terry. Things that surprised him, things that didn’t really surprise him but were hard to reconcile, ways he was responding to life that created the anxieties he was trying to avoid. The truth is that to get to that place of authenticity and grounded calmness, it is necessary to discard what isn’t working. We literally can “lighten up”.
When we drop the armor we use to protect ourselves, unpack the habits and behaviors that aren’t matching the adult we want to be, and realize that old myths were so wrong — that’s when our true authentic selves get to come out and flourish.
Hugh Jackman was most enthusiastic about how his life has changed for the better since working with Terry. He’s more present in his daily life, more relaxed and fluid with his time and creativity, deepening his relationships with his wife, his kids and his friends (especially his male friends). He wants to spread the word about the game-changing, transformational benefits of personal growth work and the healing power of our heathy relationships. His participation as a guest in this 4 day summit was testament to his commitment to inspire others.
I’ve shared in prior posts a few of the things we got wrong that may have pre-disposed us to developing habits that have not served us well: Believing that showing vulnerability was weakness, that we should live a life without reflecting on regrets, or that “sucking it up”, “pushing through” our emotions was the best way to move on after heartbreak or adversity.
A big myth for men was that they should not show “feminine” emotions. While “anger” was perceived as acceptable and manly, “sensitive or crying” was not. This melted over into parenting and we believed that soothing our little boys when they were scared or hurt would turn them into sissies.
Dr. Dan Siegel was instrumental in blowing the lid off both of these harmful misconceptions. Children, regardless of gender, need to be soothed and supported when they are scared or hurt. In fact, we actually help to build their grit and resilience by being proactive in acknowledging what they are feeling and assuring them. This proactive approach also helps a child develop empathy and compassion for others. Bullying, entitlement and power struggles are rooted in a lack of empathy.
As for our wide array of human emotions, both Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bruce Perry reinforce the importance of learning how to be with our emotions, to process and learn from them and respond in an appropriate way. Naming emotions helps our children create emotional agility and self-regulation. Stuffing or dismissing emotions only puts them in a dark closet that will eventually spring open and cause major havoc.
Generations of men were incorrectly taught that vulnerability is weakness and showing emotions is unmanly. Is it any wonder that men may have a hard time showing empathy, struggle with emotional regulation, and deal with confusion when they are hurting or fearful. Not to mention all the challenges they face when trying to navigate the emotional landscape of their partners and children.
Gender simply does not matter when it comes to emotions, vulnerability, empathy and connection. What does matter is teaching ourselves and our children the skills and tools to better understand how our emotions, vulnerability, empathy and innate need for connection are instrumental for our healthy relationships.
This brings me back to co-regulation. Many of us grew up in homes that did not have a lot of positive co-regulation. Because prior generations of parents did not have the knowledge and resources we have today, there were many disregulated emotions and unhealthy parenting practices. We grew up vowing not to behave like our parents, but without an awareness of the root causes of so much confusion and dysfunction.
During the 4 day summit there was a fair amount of time given to both big T and little t trauma in childhood. We all developed some form of adaptive child behavioral patterns when we were little. With young developing brains and limited language, we developed habits to help us make sense of what was happening in our lives. Terry Real shares that we just did not have the capabilities of a fully developed prefrontal cortex to help us.
Yet all too often, we are still constrained by those adaptive childhood patterns. We are simply unaware that we are confined by these childhood patterns; things like people-pleasing, conflict avoiding, perfectionism, hyper vigilance and anxiety. This is where a counselor, therapist or even a trusted friend can really be of value. Once we become aware of these adaptive child patterns, we can begin to break old habits and move into the freedom of truly being ourselves. I have a feeling that this is also what Hugh was witnessing when he saw the transformation in his friend.
When we shed those old patterns and step into our fuller selves, it is so amazing. No longer encumbered, we can readily identify our needs, set boundaries, stop excessive worrying and time travel. We can truly feel comfortable in our own skin. We can be more fully present.
Grounded confidence comes from knowing ourselves well. This creates an inner calmness. Eliminating patterns that were distracting brings a lot more clarity and sharpens self-awareness. Learning to have compassion for ourselves fosters empathy for others.
When we know ourselves well, we have a much clearer lens with which to see others. It makes it so much easier for others to be vulnerable, and show up as their true selves. Our connection with others can deepen because we are open now — to listening to understand (rather than defend or respond), to be curious rather than judgmental and to be empathetic to what they are feeling (even if it quite different from our own experiences). This is co-regulation. We meet others where they are.
Hugh Jackman shared that he is part of a men’s group that is committed to personal growth work and supporting each other through all aspects of their lives. His friend that introduced him to Terry Real is very quick to “see through” an “I’m OK” response from a buddy and is fearless about going deeper to support his friend. Together, they have forged the relational scaffolding that Dr. Bruce Perry advocates for — the empathetic emotional support we all need to survive and thrive.
What I am so inspired by is the number of men who are embracing personal growth work, cultivating more self awareness and recognizing that old paradigms are relics of the past. These are the men that are proactively involved in raising their sons and daughters with equanimity.
Definition of equanimity: mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.
You can watch Hugh Jackman’s interview — it begins at hour 6 on this YouTube presentation (Day 4)
It is often a sudden realization that we are not having “fun” anymore that sparks an awareness that something needs to change. We reach a point where we just stop in our tracks and acknowledge that for all the effort we are putting in, we aren’t really getting back what we thought we would.
This is a recurring theme in the books I am reading, the documentaries and TV series I watch, the pivotal stories of the people who inspire me. Brene Brown called hers a “mid-life unraveling”; Dax Sheppard talks about hitting “rock bottom” multiple times; my new friend, Joe Stone, had a revelation after failing to accomplish a physically taxing triathlon challenge he’d set for himself.
These moments are “wake up calls” for our life. Truth be told, we most likely have many of them throughout our lifetime. Sometimes we just need to make an adjustment. Other times it is a full stop, transformational shift in how we are actually engaging with our one precious life.
In a recent interview with Ed Mylett, successful country musician, Brett Eldredge, shared that his pivotal moment came when anxiety and panic attacks were more prevalent than the joy he thought he would be having, even as he was living his big dream life. At age 36, he was feeling the heavy demands that came with success. He shared with Ed in his interview that he struggled with imposter syndrome and being a longtime perfectionist.
He hid it well – at least to the outside world. His social media posts were upbeat, frequent and playful. He kept the hectic pace — giving engaging interviews and dynamic live concert performances fueled by his perfectionist ways and others’ expectations.
Brett’s wake up call came when he finally said to himself — “This is not a way to live. I’m supposed to love this thing.” He confided that he was playing a lot of “what if” games in his mind, and was totally self-doubting. He was destroying himself mentally.
It’s moments like this, when we really ask the question– “what is going on?” When we are doing what we love but it is not loving us back. When we are not feeling the joy, the good energy, the deeper fulfillment. Moments like this are the wake-up calls.
Ed Mylett asked Brett what he did after this realization. His response – “I had to get out of my head and into my life!”
Brett’s first instinct was to get outdoors. He started to create a new routine for himself. One that would help him get grounded, more in touch with the present moment. He started taking morning hikes.
The Greater Good Science Center has long promoted getting out in nature as one of the best resources to restore peace of mind and boost our creativity. Brett was heeding his natural instincts when he implemented morning hikes as a part of his new daily routine.
Brett was born and raised in Paris, Illinois – “a great place to be from,” he says. He had a great childhood for which he is very grateful. He also acknowledges that he may have taken on some of his parent’s patterns. His mom was a “worrier” and his dad had a tenacious work ethic with high standards for practice to ensure success.
Ed Mylett interjected that he too had a great childhood and a dad who not only loved him but really wanted to keep him safe. Ed is pretty sure he heard “be careful” at least 5,000 times over his father’s lifetime. One day at age 45, Ed asked himself if that message held him back a bit.
Ed firmly believes that “patterns, beliefs and even limiting beliefs were installed in us as children, by loving, well-intentioned people.” He points out that our emotions are neither negative or positive, but too much emotion can paralyze us. He coined a catchy phrase about this childhood installation of patterns and beliefs. Ed says they are “caught not taught”.
Brett could relate — he recognized that his perfectionism, his high anxiety that led to imposter syndrome and panic attacks might have been rooted in what he picked up as a kid. With therapy, and a lot of digging in, he cultivated greater self-awareness.
Personal development work gets a big jumpstart by identifying behavioral patterns and recognizing how emotions can derail us, especially if they get a full head of steam. We can’t fix what we are unaware of — which is why becoming more self-aware is so important.
Brett supported his personal growth efforts by listening to people who inspired and educated him. He wanted to learn and grow. He started listening to motivational podcasts, including Ed Mylett’s. He discovered books that supported his journey. I confess I smiled when I heard that he had recently read “Breath” by James Nestor (and yes, it is in my personal library).
One of the most powerful change agents for personal growth is finding good role models and surrounding ourselves with people who are on a similar path. As Ed Mylett pointed out in his conversation with Brett, “The more you learn about people who are successful, the more you will begin to believe you can be successful too — because they are not much different from you.”
Brett shared that he seeks out the people who have a message he can believe in and who have a willingness to keep growing, readily admitting that they don’t have it all figured out either.
Finding resources that are relatable and authentic helps us build our personalized toolkit to support our healing, learning and growing. There is an abundance of motivational and educational podcasts. Often those podcasts will be the springboard for discovering other motivators, authors, specialists – and tools. The more you know, the more you grow.
As Brett was becoming more aware of how he could be distracted by thoughts, the “what if” game, and mind travel, he also realized just how much time he spent on his phone. What started out as checking email or texts turned into a boatload of wasted time needlessly scrolling. He realized that the scrolling was driving his anxiety through the roof; the continual dopamine rush was unhealthy.
Ed Mylett chimed in and said our phones and social media are “presence stealers“.
Since Brett was committed to being more present, he took a drastic measure and got a flip phone. He just wanted to disrupt the cycle, the old habitual pattern of reaching for the phone, and getting lost in it. Eventually he did return to an iPhone, but he has a timer for his social media use — and has someone else set the passcode so that he can’t override it. Now that’s commitment to a new habit.
All we have to do is a take a look at our daily screen time to realize that our devices are getting far more attention than we’d like if we were being honest with ourselves.
If you think you don’t have time to invest in a walk, mindfulness practice, exercise, read a book or have a face to face conversation, take a look at that screen time usage –and then reclaim control of your time and attention.
Discovering just how much of our attention we waste every day is such an important topic. Not only are we not fully present for about 50% of our daily life, we are often mentally foggy and overwhelmed. It’s not just our devices, though they are a big component of the larger problem.
We need to gain a better understanding of how our amazing brain works and we need to train our attention so we can operate at an optimum level. The book, Peak Mind, by Dr. Amishi Jha is a premier resource for anyone who wants to master their skill of focus and mindfulness.
Our attention has become a valuable commodity. Advertisers and news media are voraciously vying for it. Think of your attention like your money — where are you spending it?
Brett Eldredge has made a committed shift for his mental health. To help him get out of his head and into his life, he established a structured routine to “armor” himself up for the day. Like all of us, he starts with ordinary things like making his bed and brushing his teeth. Then he amps up his mindfulness — He gets natural light for his eyes, does a 10 minute meditation, journals (the good, the bad, whatever he is feeling) and he sets an intention for the day.
Brett’s morning routine sets him up for navigating his day, centered and calm. He is more aware, more attuned and intentional. Having a daily mindfulness practice is like charting your course for the day. Brett calls this his “armor”. It is his compass that keeps him on the right trajectory no matter what life throws at him throughout the day.
Mindfulness practices provide us with a strong foundation– and scaffolding — to keep us grounded, in alignment with our values, and emotionally regulated as we go through our daily life. Setting an intention reminds us of how we want to be showing up in life, for ourselves and others. Paying attention to our attention unhooks us from wasting this valuable resource, and reduces mind travel, anxiety and distractions.
We feed our bodies so we have the energy to get through the day. We exercise so we are strong and fit physically. Imagine how much more we would gain with each day if we tapped into our amazing brains and supported it as diligently.
Brett shared with Ed that as he was struggling to gain some traction with these changes he needed in his life, he’d have these moments where he remembered how complete strangers pulled him through tough things in his life. He’d think about some of the most random conversations he’d had at tough points in life. Those little moments that just turn things around a bit – – kindness, a word of encouragement, a nugget of hope, a fresh perspective. He knew that these folks probably had no idea that they offered him a foothold — just by showing up.
He is learning to both “reach out for help and to reach out to help”. Brett offers this insightful wisdom: “Be open to that connection. That’s everything.
Their conversation turned to how Brett’s music is a form of storytelling — and how his songs help others get through some of their tough times. Brett humbly acknowledges that he is aware of this. “There is always somebody that needs to hear the message you are about to say. I look for that person in the crowd – the one that is broken or in a tough spot.”
When we lean into our vulnerability, we do open to connection. We get to know ourselves better and what we need the most when we are facing hard times. This gets to the heart of common humanity and deepens our empathy for each other. Pema Chodrun teaches that when we do our own personal growth work, we become a source of inspiration to others and we become helpmates to them. We connect with each other through our stories, where we see our own experiences and emotions reflected back to us.
This interview with Brett Eldredge and Ed Mylett was intended to help others. Both Brett and Ed were fearless about going “deep” with honesty and vulnerability. They also laughed a lot, acknowledged and celebrated each other’s contributions to making the world a better place. We need to have and hear more of these kinds of stories, especially from men. These stories about our “wake up calls” in life urge us to stop hitting the snooze button. Instead, hit the pause button — do some reflection and dig a little deeper to discover what you stand for and who you really are.
“We are all put on this earth to connect with one another.” — Brett Eldredge
Sitting comfortably in my cozy chair in front of the warm glow of my crackling fireplace, I was curled up with a cup of tea and my newest favorite book, Peak Mind. Each page revealed such fascinating stories to support the research on mindfulness that neuroscientist Dr. Amishi Jha wrote about.
I knew from personal experience that mindfulness and meditation were game-changers for my own life over the past 5 years. Yet reading these compelling stories about the dynamic impact mindfulness practices had on military leaders, as well as medical and business professionals had fully captivated my attention.
My mind drifted (with my permission) to another book, The Four Pivots; Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Ourselves by Dr. Shawn Ginwright. The four transformative pivots are: Awareness, Connection, Vision and Presence. His book is grounded in cutting-edge research and Dr. Ginwright’s insight and lived experiences. He addresses the power of doing our own mirror work to help us uncover hidden biases and discover new perspectives. He stresses the importance of our need for connection with each other.
These same attributes are found in mindfulness – they are the very premise of Peak Mind. It was becoming more evident with each page of Peak Mind that “owning our attention” through mindfulness practices could bring about dramatic results not only in our personal lives, but also in our communities. Dr. Ginwright’s book and Dr. Jha’s book fit together like puzzle pieces for what is possible — and what is so urgently needed.
I allowed myself to “mind wander” imagining communities where skillful practitioners of mindfulness were woven into the fabric of our neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, businesses, law enforcement, etc.
I returned my full attention back to my book to make a most surprising discovery.
At the bottom of page 251 of Peak Mind, Dr. Jha begins to unfold the story of Sara Flitner, a strategy and communication consultant who decided to run for mayor in 2012 — in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. For those of you reading this who are not aware, I live on the other side of Jackson Hole, across the Grand Teton Pass, in Victor Idaho.
My curiosity went on high alert — what is Sara Flitner’s story? If she is featured in Dr. Jha’s book, mindfulness must be a key component of her story. Is it possible that someone running for mayor in a neighboring community had a transformational mindfulness experience embedded in her story? My full attention was captured. I read on.
Here’s the excerpt from Peak Mind that begins Sara’s story:
Sara Flitner enjoyed running her own company, and she loved applying her skills, like critical thinking and empathy, to solving complex problems. She saw a lot of issues in her community –Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is adjacent to the tourist meccas of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Jackson had one of the highest socioeconomic divides in the nation, and with that came issues of high rates of depression and substance abuse, homelessness, high stress and more. Sara thought she might be able to make a difference through her leadership and by influencing policy. She felt passionate about trying to move the needle from inside the system. Her goal, she says now, was to “infiltrate positions of power with compassion, civility, and basic decency and regard for fellow humans.” (Excerpted from Peak Mind)
I stopped reading to let all that wash over me. I allowed myself a little “mind wandering”…..
In my creative imagination, I conjured Sara Flitner calling Brene Brown at some point in the past and over coffee and a few hearty laughs, they brainstormed a new kind of leadership. While Brene Brown didn’t publish Dare to Lead; Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts until 2018, it certainly seems as though both Sara and Brene were on a similar wavelength about a growing need for a daring new approach to leadership.
Sara Flitner decided to test the waters with her mindfulness-based approach to leadership — and she won the Jackson Hole mayoral election in 2012.
When Dr. Jha was researching Sara’s story, she asked the pointed question — “how did it go?” Sarah laughed, “I walked right into the eye of the storm.” She discovered the reality of just how divisive politics are, even on a local level.
It seems evident that the community (the voters) wanted the same things that Sara offered in her platform. Perhaps they were using their own imaginations to envision something better for their community, their neighbors, their children. Maybe they did have a deeper realization of the interconnectedness of everyone that contributes to making Jackson Hole and Yellowstone a “bucket list” destination for the millions of tourists who visit every year. There may have been a growing awareness that socioeconomic disparities could no longer be ignored.
I’ll interject that when you live here, you come to personally know the young people who comprise a large percentage of those that make our successful tourism sector run so smoothly. These enthusiastic hard workers operate ski lifts, provide childcare, give ski and snowboard lessons, are the clerks, wait staff, maintenance and cleaning staff of stores, restaurants, hotels and more. In the summer months, they are outdoor activities guides and national park employees. We know from conversations that these young adults struggle with limited affordable housing, rising gas and food prices. Our interactions expand the awareness of the disparities right in front of our eyes within our communities.
In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown urges us to move closer to each other and says that “people are hard to hate close up”. I’d add that people are hard to “ignore” close up. I’d like to think that this was happening organically here in Jackson Hole when Sara Flitner ran for mayor. That there was a growing awareness of how interdependent the entirety of the population was and how it was possible, even necessary, to do better.
Yet a big roadblock to implementing change was the impediment of politics. Does a loyalty to party and resistance to change create blindspots to common ground and civility? Or could it be that not using our incredible brains to their fullest potential is the real roadblock?
“It’s heartbreaking to see the kind of suffering we’ll lay on each other when we act like there’s some kind of budget for compassion or empathy. We have this attitude of “I’ll save my compassion for the people I like, not for you. It’s primitive brain reasoning, when we have — right here in our own heads — much more advanced technology available to us.” — Sara Flitner
Throughout her two year term as mayor, Sara relied heavily on her mindfulness practice to help her navigate through painful, difficult and disillusioning times. She shared with Dr. Jha that “her mindfulness practice threw her a “lifeline” because of the way that it helped her connect with others and get things done – especially when those interactions were adversarial and fraught with conflict.”
Sara Flitner was on to something big when she recognized that “primitive brain reasoning” was a major roadblock. This is profoundly true not only for the community challenges we face, it is emphatically true for us as individuals. We are often unconsciously “stuck” on the default mode of our most incredible brains.
To fully unpack the default mode of our brain and how our implicit biases get embedded in long term memory — and how quickly they get retrieved when we are in high stress situations — I urge you to read Peak Mind. Here are some key takeaways:
The brain is in “simulation mode” at all times. Simulation mode gives us the mental models that guide our thinking, decision making and actions. The key ingredients of simulation mode are memories of events of our past, fragments of those memories, plus everything else we have learned and remembered. Then we add our capacity to think, reason and forecast! All of this happens fast — in the moment as events are unfolding.
Dr. Jha explains that part of the reason our simulations (i.e stories) are so powerful is that they become a kind of shorthand for framing a current situation or problem. This shorthand efficiency frees up cognitive resources to do other things. BUT these simulations/stories constrain information processing. They capture and keep our attention locked onto a subset of data. The result? Our perceptions, our thinking and even our decisions are constrained.
Why does this matter? When our simulations/stories are wrong, then our resulting actions and decisions can be skewed wrong too — because of the way our simulations/stories interacts with our attention.
One final caveat — our simulations are so effective that we get fused and persuaded by them. If a key ingredient of our simulation is a stressful memory, our brains and bodies react as if it is a real and current event — and we will experience the release of stress hormones. We will actually begin to “feel” we are currently experiencing the simulated event.
If you let all of this sink in, you can comprehend how crucial it is for first responders, law enforcement, surgeons, military personnel, firefighters and others in high stress jobs to not get caught in “simulations.” The life-saving and life altering real life stories of these very types of professionals will have you on the edge of your seat when you read Peak Mind. One bad decision made because it is based on a wrong simulation can have devastating results.
It should be easy to comprehend how using our brains to their fullest potential — as the highly advanced technological operating system it actually is — would be a game-changer for our individual lives and for our collective problem solving.
The two biggest roadblocks to tapping into all the functions and features of our brains is (1) Being unconsciously stuck in default mode and (2) being unaware of how we are wasting our attention. It would be like having dynamic safety and navigational components in your new car and never using them.
The reality is that many of us are going through life on an outdated auto-pilot. Lots of tiny dysregulated emotional responses can erode our most valued relationship. They also spill out into our workplaces and communities.
As humans, we are hard-wired to co-regulate each other — and we are wired for connection. The key to getting us to operate at a higher and more rewarding efficiency level is to “upgrade” our most amazing brain. Neuroscience is providing us with the knowledge and the tools to install the upgrade. Mindfulness practices are the foundational core.
Over a year ago I blogged about how so many invaluable diversified resources were intersecting in the personal growth arena. It is becoming evident that those same resources are melding together to forge an evolving infrastructure for socioeconomic change as well.
I see this unfolding organically with my friends who are committed to personal growth, self-awareness and mindfulness. I’ve seen the positive impacts their inner work has had within their families, their careers, circles of friends and their community involvement.
It is also evident in the books and podcasts that feel like pieces of a bigger puzzle — each subject offering insights and knowledge that fit together with an improved framework for coming together to address complex, nuanced issues with clarity, compassion and creativity.
Right here, in my own community, there is yet another meaningful example of this positive change. Sara Flitner, former mayor of Jackson Hole, continues her mindfulness influence and outreach:
Sara founded Becoming Jackson Whole, an organization dedicated to training leaders across all arenas — community service, health, education, business, law enforcement and more – in the kinds of evidence-based mindfulness skills that help build resilience and enable people to thrive personally and accomplish more professionally. (excerpted from the book, Peak Mind)
The Becoming Jackson Whole website has a blue banner across the top that reads “We’re on a mission to make mindfulness second nature in Jackson Hole.”
A coordinating banner on the About Page shares this: “Helping our community respond to the challenges of our times with focus, compassion and resilience. Empowering leaders to create change.”
Guess who provided the training for these local community leaders? Dr. Amishi Jha, author of Peak Mind. I’ve come full circle with my story of how I discovered that a subject near and dear to me — mindfulness — was actually making a difference in my own community. It might explain why I’ve discovered so many people at the local book store and coffee shops who are reading similar books and who readily engage in the deeper conversations I thrive on. What I know for sure is that the more people become discerning about where they are placing their attention, and the more skilled they become at tapping into the full potential of their brains, the better for all of us.
Peak Mind will open your eyes to how you utilize your ATTENTION and how to take control of it.
The best primer I have found for revealing the incredible benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness practices.
The Four Pivots connects the dots between the personal growth work we do for ourselves and how it shifts our awareness and perspectives when thinking about — and engaging in — meaningful social changes
For anyone transitioning into a new chapter of their live, this insightful book will help you discover how purpose can be both a source of groundedness and fulfillment.
When I was a little girl, a guidance counselor once asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answer — “A good mother”.
A better goal might have been to be a “a good enough” mother. Not only is this a great bar to reach for, it is grounded in the reality that we will make mistakes and that learning never stops. I wish I had known just how much my children were going to teach me — about myself, about their uniqueness, and about human nature.
Like most of my friends, I went into motherhood striving for perfection. But parents are messy, babies are messier and life doesn’t go on pause during child-rearing years. This reality is precisely why I find Dr. Dan Siegel’s research so reassuring.
What a relief to know that there is no such thing as “perfect parenting”. It is a figment of our imaginations! Dr. Siegel tells us that the emphasis should be on “showing up”, being present for our children, making them feel seen and safe.
In The Power of Showing Up, Dr. Siegel explains how parental presence shapes who our kids become and how their brains get wired.
My book club friends and I had a good laugh about the truth of his findings. We could all relate to “old school” parenting styles that explained how we got “wired”. And why it’s taken us so long to unravel the resulting consequences.
We are so grateful for all that we are unlearning and relearning — about how a child’s brain develops, how emotions show up in our bodies and the importance of providing supportive resources for children to process their experiences and emotions. Even (and especially) if their emotions and experiences are much bigger than our own in any given moment.
As grandmothers, we are now showing up for our adult kids and our young grandchildren in much better ways. We often lament that we wish we had known then what we know now. We are having a lot of “aha” moments as we attend to our own personal development; especially when we share our childhood stories with each other.
This morning, I came across Nedra Tawwab’s post about motherhood and it touched my heart in a big way. Nedra is a beautiful soul, a noted expert in setting boundaries and a “lead-by-example” therapist.
Nedra’s insight that “parenting others is re-parenting yourself” resonated deeply with me. I do believe that we often treat our children with greater sensitivity around the very parts of ourselves that are most fragile. In that way, we are offering them protection and a safe place while also taking comfort in our awareness that this is what we’d hoped for — and what we needed when we were young.
As we become more attuned to the needs of our children, we begin to better understand ourselves and how events of our childhood impacted us. This introspection comes when we look at the world through our children’s eyes.
Self-awareness and self-compassion go hand in hand when we are “walking beside a younger version of ourselves” and reparenting ourselves to heal and grow from the insights.
It is an invaluable opportunity to discover more about ourselves and a launchpad for showing up for our children in healthier ways. Often this inner work makes our parenting job a lot less stressful. We can let go of our own fears or misconceptions which gives us more space and clarity for addressing what our child’s unique needs are.
This is an exciting time to be a parent – we know so much more now than we ever did about a child’s brain development, about their limitations for emotional regulation when they are young, and about healthy attachment styles.
Based on the latest brain and attachment research, The Power of Showing Up, shares stories, scripts, simple strategies, illustrations and tips for honoring the 4 S’s effectively in all kinds of situations – when our kids are struggling or when they are enjoying success; when we are consoling, disciplining or arguing with them; and even when we are apologizing for the times we don’t show up for them. Demonstrating that mistakes and missteps are repairable and that it’s never too late to mend broken trust this book is a powerful guide to cultivating your child’s healthy emotional landscape. –– Amazon Books
Now we know — the goal is not to be perfect — The goal is to be present, to offer a quality of presence that makes a child feel safe, seen, soothed and secure. That is the definition of an outstanding “good enough” parent.
We are flooded today with confusing messages about toxic positivity, memes of self care that look more life self-indulgence, and labels of all kinds that limit not only how others see us, but how we view ourselves. We spend a lot of time trying to live up to expectations, curating a persona that looks good on social media, and checking off the boxes of what we believe equals a successful life.
What we are learning is that the demands for our time and attention are greater than ever — and that we have unwittingly succumbed to a new age “peer pressure”.
It’s increasingly hard to be our “authentic selves” — and what does that even mean?
I think it means “being comfortable in your own skin” — intimately knowing yourself — and meeting the moments of your life in a wholehearted, genuine way. It’s hard to do that when outside influences are so strong.
We get little inklings throughout the day that we are a bit untethered from ourselves, when we realize we are wasting time on things that don’t matter much (like doom scrolling or hopscotching from one website to another), losing our patience over something minor, and feel like we are treading water rather than making forward progress on a legitimate goal. We say “yes” when we want to say “no”. We walk on eggshells or white knuckle our way around people and situations.
Then we let our inner critic chime in, reminding us that we are falling short;
This ramps up our anxiety levels;
And to counter it all — we try harder.
We push through all of it without a moment’s thought to one compelling question: Is this working?
It turns out that “trying harder” and “focusing on the positives” may be doing more harm than good. Powering through our states of exhaustion and hard emotions is not the answer. All that accomplishes is a stockpiling of unresolved issues that contribute to the stress cycle. Our bodies keep score and we get further away from being our authentic selves.
There is an ever-evolving body of scientific evidence that is coinciding with the practices of mindfulness revealing some hard truths. Stuffing our emotions, not processing adversities, and numbing our pains are clearly detrimental to our overall well-being. Trying harder and pushing through does not make us stronger, more resilient and fearless. It makes us sick, clouds our thinking and keeps us stuck in old narratives.
It turns out that self-compassion is the rudder we need.
I can almost see the eye-rolls now… Self-compassion probably sounds like a bubble bath, being alone with a book on a sunny beach, or indulging guilt-free in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
Actually, self compassion requires really getting to know ourselves. It is hard work AND the benefits are game-changing for improved quality of life. Kristin Neff, renowned resource for self-compassion, offers the three elements that comprise self-compassion practice:
Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment
Common Humanity vs. Isolation
Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification
It becomes very evident as you take in this list, that a different lens shifts our perspective. Self-judgment, isolation and over-identification take us down a very narrow path; one that often creates blind spots, insecurities and disconnection from our true selves.
Why is it that other people often see us much differently than we see ourselves. Those who see our potential or know our true hearts are using much different lenses than the limited ones we use.
I’m discovering that the mentors, coaches and guides I am drawn to are incredibly skilled at self-compassion, and in turn they are then more compassionate and empathic toward others.
Those people who impact my life in positive ways inspire and encourage me because they have overcome hard things, and yet they grew softer, wiser and kinder from those adversities.
Self-compassionate and self-aware mentors are the best teachers because they don’t give us the answers — they encourage us to find our own.
Each of us has a vast array of different experiences and emotions — and an even more complex menagerie of how we’ve coped with them. Our lives may not be exactly the same, but we do see parts of ourselves and our experiences reflected back to us in the stories that others share with us. This is the strong foundation we need when we are undertaking self-compassion work. We get the support, education and encouragement we need from others who have done, or are doing, the work.
The many experiences and emotions we have accumulated over our lives shapes the narrative of who we are. It is the “narrative” of who we are that limits our self view.
In a recent interview on the Typology podcast, author Aundi Kolber asks an insightful question to help us dive in to the current story we are telling ourselves that has roots in our childhood: “What type of accommodations did you need to make in order to get your needs met?”
Think back to your childhood environment. How did you make sense of your world as a small child?
While many people had relatively good childhood experiences with loving parents and fond memories, a lot of people did not. Some grew up with uncertainty and chaos due to alcoholism, mental health issues, financial instability, grief, emotional and physical abuse. It’s really hard for little children to make sense of their world when there is no co-regulation, no consistency and no return to safety. As a result, those children grow up being hyper-vigilant, people pleasers, harmonizers or bullies.
Even kids who grow up in stable home environments are not immune to experiences that shape their narratives in profound ways; divorce, loss of a parent, grandparent or friend, changing schools, big injuries or serious illnesses. Every single one of us has dealt with the inevitable realities of life. Some of those realities are super hard. If we did not have the resources we needed as kids to process our emotions and the events, they get lodged in us.
They get lodged in two distinct ways: In our nervous system — and in our memory.
Remember that this is happening unconsciously when we are young, with a brain that is not fully developed and an equally limited ability to regulate our emotions. This is the birthplace of emotional triggers and behavioral patterns.
So when author Aundi Kolber asks what type of accommodations we needed to make in order to get our needs met in childhood, she is also asking us to become aware if we continue to make those accommodations as adults.
What we are learning now thanks to neuroscience, psychology and neurobiology is that we can do a lot better job at supporting our bodies, our brains – and each other — by processing these hard emotions and experiences as they are happening to us. We can shift the narrative that shapes us because of these life adversities but we must be proactive.
Now that we know better, we can do better. Start with experiences and emotions that are unfolding right now. Help yourself, and your children, to acknowledge and accept reality, to honor all those big emotions and to hold space to process them.
“Even though trauma is becoming more normalized to talk about, there is a BIG disconnect. Just because you go through an experience that has the POTENTIAL to become a traumatic experience, doesn’t mean it will. It is what happens AFTER that experience that will have a really big impact to the extent that it stays stuck in your body.” — Aundi Kolber, Author of Try Softer
Everyone of us needs resources to support us through the challenges of life and the emotions that accompany them. Stuffing our emotions or powering through them is no longer an acceptable way to deal with the really hard parts of life. If we have everything we need for our bodies and brains to complete a stress cycle, it does not need to become lodged as trauma in us.
This is how we develop emotional chronicity — by providing calm co-regulation and a return to emotional safety. This is how we proactively attend to those developing little brains and bodies. This strongly influences childhood narratives in a much healthier way. We can hang a “no vacancy” sign on the place we once lodged unprocessed, painful memories.
When we have a greater self-awareness AND a toolkit to resource ourselves, we become better teachers for our children. This is the path to breaking generational cycles of poor emotional regulation and unprocessed traumas.
“Because kiddos don’t have a fully formed brain and their nervous system is not able to regulate through especially really overwhelming experiences, things that might not be traumatic to an adult have the potential to be highly traumatic to kids…..especially if they don’t get the support that they need.” –Aundi Kolber, Author of Try Softer
This work feels a lot like the messages we get onboard an airplane before takeoff. “Put your own oxygen mask on first, then assist your small child.”
Changing how we attend to ourselves in the face of hard, painful experiences starts with self compassion. Self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Imagine you are parenting yourself; picture yourself as your child — and you will be transported to that place where you organically offer these very comforts to others. Give them to yourself. Put your oxygen mask on first.
Aundi Kolber says that a basic understanding of our nervous system is profoundly empowering — “it’s like having the keys to your car.” She enthusiastically explains that our bodies are “freaking amazing” and that we are designed to get through difficulties and survive. The more we understand how to tap into both our brains and our bodies to assist with its full capabilities, the smoother a ride we will have. Self-compassion is like regular maintenance. The repair work we need to do requires us to “get under the hood.”
Aundi introduces us to the Window of Tolerance: the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively. Our “window” is that range where we can feel our feelings or have an experience and are able to tolerate it.
When we are in our “window of tolerance” we are typically able to receive, process and integrate information; we can respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty.
It is when we move out of that window that our body takes over and sounds the “all hands on deck alarm” in order to protect us — we fly out the window and go up into Fight, Flight or Fawning. Aundi says that anytime we go outside our window of tolerance, the highest part of our brain – the executive function – goes offline and is not available any more. We no longer have full access to our brain.
It’s like a rollercoaster….we go up into the danger zone of fight or flight and if we can’t resolve things there, we head down into dissociation. This state of dissociation will be very familiar to many — it is where we feel disconnected from our body, we might feel numb and we definitely are not fully present.
It’s easy to see that a little child starts out with a small window of tolerance. Any childhood experience that took us out of our window of tolerance (without support or resources to process it), becomes stored, like all our other memories. Anytime something reminds us of that experience (a smell, a raised voice, a facial expression, a car accident, an ambulance, something breaking, etc), that sends the trigger to our body that it is happening again. Lots of little unresolved traumas, or big T trauma will cause our window of tolerance to narrow. Our bodies are on red alert all the time.
Our stories live in our bodies. Our childhood experiences that were not processed and integrated, get stored into our nervous system and memory and we created a story to go with it. In doing so, the size of our window of tolerance may be too small for all that we are dealing with as adults. There may be times when daily life stressors push us out of our window of tolerance and we find ourselves overreacting to things that shouldn’t bother us so much. We wish we had more bandwidth.
The good news is that we can expand our window of tolerance. As an added bonus, in doing the work to expand it, we can also do some serious housecleaning in the process. We can process and purge ourselves of old narratives. We can change the story we wrote as kids and enjoy one better suited for adulthood.
It all starts with self compassion and self-parenting. We gather the resources we need, including safe people who can support us – and we do the hard work. We attend to unprocessed trauma. We neutralize it, integrate it and gain more safety, more agency over how our bodies and brains respond to triggers.
Our bodies are designed to move through pain. The reason we hurt so much, get triggered by old stories and get stuck is that we haven’t let our experiences and emotions move through us. That’s how it is supposed to work. Accept, feel, process, neutralize, integrate and let go. It’s only hard work now because we have waited so long and it’s fossilized in us. When we take proactive steps to deal with our current life experiences and emotions, it actually takes less time in the long run.
Most importantly, we extract the life lessons that guide us rather than the stories that misdirect us.
“If you want someone’s attention, whisper” — Skip Davis
Thirty years ago, for no apparent reason, I decided that I needed to get serious about my physical health. I committed to working out on a daily basis. As a busy mom of three kids, ages 5, 15 and 16, with a full time career, I’d let myself slip into a “I’ll do it later” mindset and never really made the time to exercise. It wasn’t a New Year’s resolution, not a workplace challenge, or even a sense that I didn’t have the strength and stamina for yard work like I once did. In that decisive moment, I can’t really say what it was. Whatever it was, I heeded the nudge and began lifting weights and running. I might have wondered silently if my impending 40th birthday was the impetus for getting in shape.
The last thing I expected on my 40th birthday, was the discovery of a lump and soon thereafter the diagnosis of breast cancer. What I do recall ever so clearly is the awareness that intuitively my body had known in advance that I needed to be ready for the fight of my life and it had cajoled me in to doing the necessary prep work.
Intuition and instincts….what gifts they are.
My intuition and instincts had gotten buried under the daily demands of a busy life. Like many moms of my generation, I believed the advertisements and theories that we could have it all, do it all. I learned a hard lesson though — you can’t really give your best to others if you aren’t taking care of yourself first. There is a very big hidden cost to juggling too much, sacrificing often, and burning the candle at both ends.
It was somewhat revelational to me that when I started carving out time for a 5 mile run or a 45 minute weight training session, I actually felt more energized, a little more patient and sillier with my kids, and I was paying more attention in general. In fact, it may be the very reason that I discovered my lump in the first place. I was paying attention.
Brene Brown often asks her guests on Dare to Lead “what is one lesson that life teaches that you just have to keep learning over and over again?”
In my case, it is “trust your intuition and your instincts.”
It was 2015 and I was 63 years old, taking my two granddogs for bedtime walk under the hazy full moon rising in the darkening Arizona sky. I noticed my shadow on the stucco wall and in that moment, my intuition spoke to me. My life was feeling just like that flat, one-dimensional grey shadow. What happened to that happy, sunny, energetic girl who embraced life with enthusiasm and resilience? I missed her.
This time, I was more attuned to my intuition and instincts and if I was truly honest with myself, I’d been getting little signs, navigational buoys and even flashing warning lights for quite a long while. Glennon Doyle, in her book Untamed, calls these nudges “the knowing”. My friend Judy and I call our nudges “instinct and intuition”. Judy often reminds me of the importance of acting on our “nudges”.
I have a few friends who have come into my life since 2015 who also felt their own “knowing” in various ways — wanting something a little more out of life, needing to find deeper connections, or feeling a sense of complacency that nudged them to find a new interest. One thing we discovered that we had in common was a genuine desire to be at our best for whatever unfolded in this chapter of our lives. Judy and I often remark that in our wildest of imaginations we would never have envisioned a global pandemic would have been on the horizon. I do remember telling her that because of all our inner work over the prior 4 years, we were far better prepared to face it.
Over this past week, I have been fortunate enough to have long conversations with most of those friends who are on this personal development path with me. When we take stock of the many events that have unfolded in our lives over the past few years, we are deeply grateful for the ways in which we met these moments with greater awareness, calmness and improved navigational skills.
My late husband Skip would often say “The future belongs to those who are prepared for it.” That was the very message that my intuition and instincts were sending to me back in 2015 — “be prepared for the future; be strong, resilient, compassionate and resourceful. Be your best.”
It is no surprise that my good friends were receiving similar intuitions and instincts.
It is no wonder that we felt motivated and supported by each other.
The sharing of stories, books, podcasts and other resources has contributed to our growth spurts in meaningful ways.
My friends and I recognize that we turned down the volume on our intuition and instincts by accident. We’d gotten so busy with the “doing” that we forget about “being”.
This is just one of many benefits of living a more mindful life — paying attention to our attention –– helps us rebalance and rediscover what is most important in our lives.
I am deeply grateful for the friends who link arms with me on this journey, for their warm hearts, their open minds and intricate, intimate stories that become the mirror for all of us to see our own lives reflected back in each other’s experiences.
Spring is my favorite of the four seasons because it is so rich with fresh starts, new beginnings, awakenings and growth. As a young girl, I loved the fact that my birthday (April Fool’s) coincided with spring. Bluebells and lilies of the valley bursting through the ground felt magical to me, like anything was possible. Being able to open the windows and let fresh air fill the nooks and crannies into each stuffy room felt so revitalizing. Warm sunshine and cool, crisp air became a “hot fudge sundae” moment to be savored.
Back in the day, April signified a time for a major refresh indoors — the annual spring cleaning tradition. It meant some serious deep cleaning and purging of toys and clothes we’d outgrown. The house was infused with sunlight, more space, a lighter energy and a clean, appealing scent. A soft spring breeze would make gauzy window curtains dance. A vase of pale purple lilacs was the finishing touch. I can still smell their delicate fragrance and be transported back to the “fresh start” feeling associated with spring cleaning.
Recently I listened to Michael Singer’s podcast “Taking Care of Your Inner Environment”. His message was chock full of relatable metaphors including one that reminded me of spring cleaning.
We tidy up our homes, declutter and deep clean them. When we step back and admire our work, we find a deep sense of satisfaction and a pride in our abode. It’s like we have waved a magic wand and transformed our home into a blissful place to entertain, recharge, unwind.
Michael Singer invites us to do the same with our internal self. Why not declutter inside and create an inner self that can move with greater ease through the realities of life?
“Very few people work with themselves on the inside. If we don’t do that inside work, then what is going on inside can be a real mess. People don’t even understand what a mess it is, because they aren’t aware that it doesn’t have to be that way. They are moody, sensitive, they don’t get what they want, they are afraid. It’s an uncomfortable commotion inside.Just as it is our responsibility to keep our house clean and make our bed it, it is also ourresponsibility to take care of our inner environment. It’s the exact same thing.” — Michael Singer, from his podcast
We live from the inside out. Whatever is going on inside of us, consciously or unconsciously, is going to be impacted by something that happens outside of us.
“Because people are not straightening up inside, they accumulate an entire collection of stored things from the past that bothered them. This is unfinished business. As a result, events that unfold outside come in and stir up discomfort, disturbances and fears. Anything that is stuck inside of you is going to drive you crazy.” — Michael Singer, from his podcast
Picture this – we might be hoarders! We just might be hoarding old memories, past experiences, unresolved conflicts and that beat up cardboard box of insecurities our inner critic likes to rummage through. This is the unfinished business Michael is talking about — the multitude of things we’ve stuffed in the basement and attics of our inner self.
The ironic thing is that many people spend a lot of time and effort trying to keep the outside world from getting any glimpses of all that accumulated junk. As Michael points out, this strategy is not the least bit effective.
We simply cannot control outside events. The reality of life is that things will change — and some of those changes will be uncomfortable, even painful. We cannot build a life that has only good things and none of the discomforting things.
Maybe this is why I find Spring to be so meaningful. After all, Spring is fearless when it comes to pushing through once frozen ground, stretching both fragile roots down and pushing delicate leaves and buds up. Spring does the hard work. She knows it is worth it. Spring welcomes paradox — the hot fudge sundae moments of warmth and cold. Spring can hold two opposing moments and value them both. Spring rushes head first into the fullness of her season, bursting with color, textures, scents. She goes softly when it is time to hand the baton to Summer with a wink and a promise. It is this ebb and flow of nature that Spring reminds us of…take the good and the bad together — it is life. We can do hard things and we can grow.
“If we had our way, we would never grow. We would build a little life that is in a box filled with all the things we are comfortable with, hop in and lock it up! Growth comes from things that are not comfortable.” — Michael Singer, from his podcast
Michael compares this inner housekeeping to physical training we might undertake. The motto at the gym is “no pain, no gain.” Yet we shy away from adopting that same motto for our emotional and mental well being. Brene Brown reminds us that people will do anything not to feel emotional pain — even causing pain to others. Offloading our pain onto others is a horrible strategy. Hoarding it is an equally bad option.
We can’t let our fear of feeling some emotional pain prevent us from doing the inner work. Taking care of our inner environment is doing the heavy lifting of accepting reality, fully experiencing what is happening and honoring the right to learn from it. No pain, no gain.
What we have been learning in recent years from Brene Brown’s research, neuroscience and psychology is that powering through big hard emotional experiences is NOT strength and it surely is not in our best interests long term. It is exactly why we end up with a basement and attic full of accumulated discomfort.
We need to fully experience and process the hardships and losses in our lives as they unfold. When we learn to do this, we grow. We only bring into our inner world the invaluable residue of what we have learned from the experience. That’s the rich compost for a grounded, meaningful, more peaceful life.
“Working on yourself means learning from the realities of life, learning from our discomfort. Honor what has happened, accept it, experience it and become a greater person because of what you learn and how you grow from the experience.” — Michael Singer, from his podcast
Michael Singer offers a powerful reframing that helps us approach emotional processing in a whole new light. Rather than thinking of how painful it is, think of it as a challenge — like training for a marathon or mountain climbing experience. Or you might approach it like a game of chess — what strategies can you employ to win?
People go out of their way to challenge themselves in other areas of their life. That’s why we love a good competition. What if we changed our mindset about life’s difficulties?
Right now I am feeling a bit like the mom that sneaks veggies into the Mac and Cheese. Is anyone shying away from a good old fashioned challenge? A chance to win? To move from victim to victor?
Michael’s reframing changes not only our mindset; it also changes our energy from resistance to receptivity. We get excited about a challenge, we get motivated. We get it and we own it. We say to ourselves, “I’ve made a mess inside and I am going to clean it up!”
Here’s another refreshing insight. Michael says we can ease into this new paradigm by dealing with the realities of life that are unfolding in the present moment. Set yourself up for success by working on the things that are causing you discomfort right now. In other words, don’t be putting more “stuff” in the basement. Step one is stop adding more clutter.
Lead with this new mantra when you are practicing genuine emotional processing as it is unfolding: “I want to be open and receptive, to be able to handle the reality that is in front of me — and finish it off.” (credit to Michael Singer)
Once you are more nimble with processing current experiences, you may want to get into that attic or basement and pull out the dusty older stuff. Learn what you can and then toss it. I have found Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart to be invaluable for this deep clean. With an expanded emotional vocabulary and a better viewing lens, I can go back and revisit old experiences in a healthier way. I keep the treasures and discard the cobwebs.
Imagine how much lighter you will feel emotionally, how much more expansive your inner world will be and how much more discerning you will be about what you keep inside.
Now…get to it! It’s time for some major spring cleaning!
For quite some time, I have been thinking about all the stratifications that we each have under the surface — the ones that are hidden not only from others, but even from ourselves. These stratifications are biology, biography, behavior and backstory — and they can snag us, keep us stuck or sometimes even pull us under when the seas of life get tumultuous. If you’re curious about how to move through life more fluidly, with less drag, read on.
This image of an iceberg seems fitting for what I’ll be unpacking. The surface is where we believe we are operating each day. The reality is that the stuff below the surface is always present, either consciously or unconsciously. The more self-aware we are, the lighter the undertow of what’s below the surface.
In Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown defines these stratifications as the layers of our biology, biography, behavior and backstory. We are continually adding to these layers as we go through life. Brene implores us to to examine them so that we can become more self-aware.
If we pull back the layers and tease apart the entanglement that occurs as we drag these layers unchecked and unconsciously through life, we begin to more clearly understand the weight and the complexity of all that lies under the surface of each of us. Why wait for a mid-life unraveling as Brene calls it?
I marvel sometimes that we human beings can have a meaningful, interactive conversation with each other, let alone be in relationships, be parents, friends, co-workers and leaders. A peek under the surface at another’s stratifications would be revelational — and even daunting. The buried treasures are the very things we need to make deeper connections, build resilience and move through our lives with greater ease.
In my most recent post, I shared some of the game-changing insights about our superpower, ATTENTION. The entire time I was reading Peak Mind and writing that post, I was thinking about something very profound: If we are already losing 50% of our lives because we aren’t really “paying attention”, what happens when we numb our pain, hide our true feelings and needs, walk on eggshells, and react to false narratives and beliefs? How much of the remaining 50% do we lose with armor, addiction, baggage and unconscious patterns of behavior?
Is it any wonder that there is an urgent call to “find your authentic self?”
Picture Jacob Marley, dragging around that long and heavy chain for most of his life.
The chains are intended to represent his sins in life, accompanied by his guilt for failing to help his fellow man. His lack of compassion.
He forged the chain himself.
This image seems an appropriate metaphor for the stratifications we have under the surface. Quite honestly, some were not of our own doing, but just ways in which we learned to make sense of our world.
Other parts of our stratifications can be attributed to baggage we’ve collected over our lifetime, unprocessed emotions, insecurities and triggers. Hidden underneath all that heavy stuff are the very things we want to be more aligned with — our innate gifts, our strengths, resilience and joy.
Let’s take a deep dive under the surface and explore how biology, biography, behaviors and backstory impact us today. We operate unconsciously because we simply aren’t fully aware of how we are showing up and why. Armed with self-awareness and introspection, we can make informed choices about personal development.
Outgrown behavioral patterns originated in childhood when our brain development did not yet able us to operate in a “top-down” fashion. We were using immature brains to make sense of our lives. Not only that, we had limited language which hampered our ability to articulate complex emotions. All too often, as children we were told to suppress emotions or get over it. Bottled up emotions are bound to explode at some point. So, we developed both behavioral patterns and reactive responses. This hampered developing emotional agility and good coping skills.
Here’s a sampling of typical behavioral patterns: Conflict avoider, people pleaser, shape shifter and perfectionist. We may go through life withdrawn, hyper vigilant, overly anxious or temperamental. We may have a fear of abandonment or of not being worthy; or we may be confrontational or overly complacent.
The coping strategies we relied on to navigate our childhoods rarely serve us well in adulthood. In fact, these “go-to” behaviors hold us back from growing emotionally and psychologically. Very often, these behavioral patterns are some form of armor that we use to protect us from feeling vulnerable. We were most vulnerable as children, especially if the very people we relied upon to keep us safe, did not do that. So, we armored up. We found creative ways to navigate and mitigate.
While they may have worked in childhood, they do not help us function in a healthy, proactive way in adulthood. They become the “drag” that shows up as resistance, a lack of confidence or not even knowing what we really want from life.
Our behavioral patterns are interconnected to our “attachment style”. Simply put, attachments styles are expectationswe develop about relationships with others based on the relationship we had with our primary caregiver.
Our attachment style is a great place to start when pulling back the layers of our biography. It offers insight into how we are showing up in our most important relationships.
This chart highlights the attributes of the primary caregiver for each of the 4 attachment styles and the corresponding ways a person will respond in their adult relationships.
The huge benefit of coming to terms with both our behavioral patterns and our attachment style is that we free ourselves from things that no longer serve us. We often go into adulthood with concrete ideas about the things our parents did that we will NOT be doing. But we are unaware that unconsciously we are bringing along the patterns — both our own and those of our family. We lived in a Petri dish of family dynamics for nearly two decades. We won’t shake off old habits overnight — especially if we aren’t paying attention to them.
We can take affirmative steps to untether ourselves and find a better way to go through adulthood. This work starts with self-awareness. It is also how we break unhealthy generational cycles. Dr. Dan Siegel is a great resource for parents who want to understand their own attachment style and develop healthy, secure attachments with their children.
There’s a little more to biography than attachment styles however. Our feelings arise from an emotional experience — and we surely accumulated many emotional experiences during childhood and adolescence (and all with a brain not yet fully developed).
The study of moods and emotions helps reveal the porous boundaries between conscious and unconscious mental processes.
What gets stored consciously in our memory banks are the tangible details of our experience – the one we can articulate with clarity years later. What gets unconsciously stored is the nuanced physiological and emotional responses associated with that story. This is where we find ourselves “triggered” by a present day experience that is quite different from a past event yet feels familiar.
Did you know that our brain might not distinguish between an imagined stressful situation and one that is actually happening? Our brain will produce stress hormones — adrenalin and cortisol — in both situations unless we help it to make the distinction. As Dr. Amishi Jha explains in Peak Mind, our brains are trainable.
New brain imaging research shows that “imagining” a threat lights up similar regions as “experiencing” it does. This research confirms that imagination is a neurological reality that can impact our brains and bodies in ways that matter for our well-being.” — Tor Wager, Director of the Cognitive and Affective at CU Boulder, senior co-author of Your Brain on Imagination, White Paper published December 10, 2018.
If we could take a cross-section of our accumulated emotions and experiences, we would see clearly how the layers formed – from our childhood environment, to how we made sense of it; to the behavioral patterns we adopted and the armor we used for an added safety measure; to our brain and body’s responses, and the memory banks we filled. This is also a heavy “drag” on us as we go through life. These stratifications are our own Jacob Marley chains.
All of this brings us to backstory. Biography, Behaviors and Biology are all intertwined in the narratives we created as children to help us make sense of things; they are equally intertwined in the stories we tell ourselves today when we are feeling insecure, shamed, triggered, uncertain or vulnerable. Our inner critic often engages as a co-author in our stories, much to our detriment.
There is a shadow being cast from our backstory onto the experience we are having today. Most of the time, we are completely unaware of it.
Imbedded in the layers of our biography, behaviors and biology is our history. Brene invites us to get inquisitive, to ask “what brought this on? Because the clues we need to unravel the present moment from our entangled past, lie in this deeper exploration of our layers – the stratifications of emotions and experiences we have accumulated over our lifetime.
For decades, I have combed the shelves of the “self-help” section of libraries and bookstores. I even stumbled across Jon Kabat-Zinns book “Wherever You Go, There You” are back in February, 2000 — but I wasn’t ready to “receive” all the wisdom imbedded in his book about mindfulness and meditation. When I was reading Atlas of the Heart, I marveled that Brene Brown included his work in her own research and writing.
In fact, as I have written in prior blog posts, so many of the resources I have cultivated for my own personal growth work over the past decade are now intersecting. The tool box for self-discovery and personal development is chock full of readily accessible, integrated resources.
One inspiring difference are the game-changing breakthroughs in neuroscience that have become the foundation — and the impetus — for all of us to take self-awareness seriously.
And the serious work of cultivating greater self-awareness begins by pulling back the layers, performing a “Marie Kondo-like” purge of patterns, armors and coping skills that are not sparking joy and harnessing the power of our most phenomenal organ — our brain.
What has me so excited and energized these days is witnessing young parents leaning into all that we are learning from neuroscience, incorporating personal growth and mental well being as a part of their overall self care, and proactively teaching their children to express and process their emotions in healthy ways.