How to Achieve Deliberate Growth

Our brain’s default setting of a turbo-charged negativity bias may be the very reason that we have so many difficulties — of our own making — as we move through our adult lives. The reality is that we can be receiving a lot of support, encouragement and even love, but be totally blind to it. We can be stuck in the negativity bias and all the good that is pouring over us every single day, simply runs off.

This sounds really hard to believe doesn’t it? Yet we have examples of this truth all around us. Others can take a look at our lives and see the obvious positivities even while we focus solely on dumping out one complaint after another. People hop from one relationship to the other only to discover the same old problems crop up in that new partnership. It’s not the problems we face, it’s the patterns we keep using to deal with them.

And many of our unconscious behavioral patterns are deeply rooted in the brain’s negativity bias. As I shared in my previous post, Deliberate Growth, the negativity bias serves us well in childhood but it does need to be updated as we grow up. Just like outgrown shoes and childlike responses to our emotions, we need to free ourselves from the unconscious default setting of the negativity bias to extract all the goodness from our ongoing lived adult experiences.

During the recent Being Well podcast episode entitled “Making Learning Stick”, Forrest Hanson pointed out that research confirms when most of us are asked about our daily experiences, our tendency is to report on mostly good stuff. And yet, very little lasting microdoses of these good things in our life actually penetrate our brains. The old negativity bias is a stealth collector of the bad stuff — and it blocks the brain from “taking in the good”. Next thing we know, there is a large pile of sticky, murky, opaque negativity getting in the way of activating the positive benefits of all the goodness that unfolds naturally in our lives everyday.

Consider this keen observation that Dr. Hanson shared:

“People are having many experiences in which others are friendly, supportive, appreciative, warm — and still….deep down inside, they feel lonely and uncared for.” — Dr. Rick Hanson

I believe many of us can relate to Dr. Hanson’s insights from both sides of the equation. We may be the ones in our friendships and relationships that are providing support, caring, understanding and encouragement — and yet we sadly watch our loved ones sink deeper into despair. On the flip side, we may be so overcome with our feelings of shame or unworthiness, that we too are unable to actually see and feel the gifts of empathy, love and support being offered to us.

We have to be in “receiving mode” to be aware of these positive experiences happening in our lives. Yet if our brains are unconsciously blocking entry, it’s because the negativity bias and our recorded past experiences have teamed up — and we simply cannot take it in. We are not in “receiving mode”.

This is where the enneagram can be such an effective tool. We can begin to recognize our standard behavioral patterns, and learn “why” we leaned so hard on them in childhood. This awareness of our behavioral patterns becomes the entry point for change. Recognizing adaptive childhood patterns and trading them in for more mature ways of showing up in life begins to disrupt the negativity bias and open the pathway to take in good experiences.

In his therapeutic work on adaptive childhood behavioral patterns, author and psychotherapist Terry Real offers this whimsical yet poignant image:

You don’t want those adaptive childhood patterns driving the bus. Put your arms around them, love them up — and then announce: take your sticky hands off the steering wheel!”

So, let’s circle back. The factory default setting in our brains is a turbo-charged negativity bias. Without upgrades and resets, we take these default settings into our adult world. Over time, the negativity bias of our brains becomes a very strong and powerful muscle. It blocks what we want most — better experiences, more good than bad, progress on our goals, meaningful relationships.

As Forrest Hanson pointed out, it is a long, well established engrained pattern.

And if changing this was easy, we’d all be psychological superstars. But we didn’t even know that, let alone know how to change it. And this is precisely why these new research findings on positive neuroplasticity are so relevant.

Dr. Rick Hanson and his son Forrest made clear that incidental learning is pretty limited. Any brain upgrades and glitch fixes that we want to install and activate are going to require proactive and deliberate practice.

Two things really stood out to me as Rick revealed just how challenging this pivot can be. One is that what we really need to do is change a long-entrenched habit. And that habit has been mostly an unconscious one for most of our lives. Even a seasoned mindfulness practitioner and neuroscientist like Dr. Hanson finds himself often falling back into his age-old pattern in spite of the fact that he is both aware and committed to change. The truth is that habits are hard to break. This is where we can integrate the teachings of James Clear in his book Atomic Habits into our awareness of the negavity bias and strive for small, consistent improvements in pushing it aside to let the good things seep in.

The second thing that really surprised me is that most of the hard work we are doing in the self-help industry and on our personal growth journeys are in fact incidental learning. We may intuitively, and perhaps even accidentally, be able to achieve some elements of lasting change through mindfulness, meditation and learning from podcasts and books — yet it is mostly through increased self-awareness and incidental learning.

This incidental learning often can support us in developing better “states” of being. But the wow factor is that deliberate growth will transform our “states” to “traits”.

This is the dynamic aspect of this new research. We can upgrade our brains through positive neuroplasticity to receive and incorporate more positive experiences and responses and be continually learning from this process as we move through life. And we can develop lifelong traits of inner strengths that will serve us, and our relationships, in meaningful, rewarding ways.

Since there is a world of difference between having a beneficial positive experience AND learning from it, Dr. Rick Hanson developed a method using the acronym HEAL to help us. This HEAL method is a framework for mental learning factors that focus on how we “engage” with our experiences. It is this “engagement” process that makes learning stick.

With incidental learning, we are more passively using tools like growth mindset, openness to new experiences and motivation.

With the HEAL method, we proactively and deliberately engage four steps in two phases:

Phase 1 – Activation Stage:

H – HAVE a beneficial, positive experience. Notice it — being present in the moment and aware that you are having a positive experience. Or, deliberately creating one — like calling up a feel of gratitude or compassion, motivation or commitment

Phase 2 – Installation Stage: (These learning factors MUST underpin any lasting change in neural structure.)

E – ENRICH: Extend the duration, increase the intensity, turn up the volume in your mind, bring all your senses to bear such feeling it in the body, focus on what is novel or fresh about it and recognize its personal relevance to you. For example, feeling included and cared about, valued and accepted)

A – ABSORB: Plausibly sensitize the brain. Fertilize the soil to be receptive to the big enriched seeds that are landing on it. You are deliberately intending to personalize the experience, imagining or sensing what you are about to receiving and making room for it. Focus on what is rewarding, meaningful and enjoyable about it. This increases release of dopamine and epinephrine in your brain which creates lasting neural change.

L – LINK: Link the experience. A common practice in psychotherapy and even every day life, is linking to the positive. We are aware of both positive and negative throughout out day, and we are intentionally making the “positives” bigger. With this practice, you can gradually soothe, ease and even replace the negativity material.

There will no doubt be more studies conducted and more applications for this game-changing new method in the self-help industry, in couples counseling, in parenting practices and in mental health treatments.

This new research takes positivity and optimism to a whole new level. Rather than fighting our turbo-charged negativity bias, and donning armor to protect us from our vulnerabilities, we can learn — and teach — how to grow inner resources of courage, resilience and patience, all while harvesting more of the good experiences and feelings that flow into us every single day.

For those who often push away what they want the most, this just might be the solution they’ve been seeking.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Nuggets of Wisdom – The Gifts of Awareness

I love those “aha moments” that show up in the midst of an ordinary day. Those “aha moments” grab our attention making us more aware of things we sometimes take for granted or are often too busy to notice. Catch an”aha moment” and put it in your pocket! Start a collection of “aha moments” and watch a little magic unfold in your daily life. This Nuggets of Wisdom in this post are about creating more “aha moments” by putting a little more awareness in each day — self-awareness, present moment awareness and other-awareness.

Meditation is one of those practices that begins to show up in your daily life in organic, meaningful ways. Take listening for example — when you meditate, you learn to be free from judging your own thoughts. You become more skilled at sifting out distracting thoughts. You become more attuned to listening to understand what you are truly feeling or experiencing.

When these skills sets begin to show up as you interact with others, you will smile knowing that you are taking your meditation practice from the “cushion to the real world.”

Improved communication and connection with others is a two way street — speaking AND listening. We can become better skilled at both! A skilled listener is non-judgmental and focused on understanding how another person is truly feeling.

Practice on yourself through meditation….then try it out IRL (in real life).

As we hone our skills to become more aware of our emotions, we might be surprised to discover that all too often we are giving those emotions much more control in the heat of the moment than we would prefer. It’s time to tell our emotions that they are always welcome, but they can’t do the driving.

During the course of a normal, busy, routine and occasionally chaotic day, we are going to experience a wide range of emotions. Sometimes when we are just being bombarded with too much to juggle, we inadvertently let our emotions run the show. Often it only makes a stressful situation worse.

Hit the reset button — take a deep, calming breath BEFORE you react/respond. That breath, that pause is often just enough to create awareness that it is your emotions taking over, not your integrity. And guess what? Your kids (and others) are watching…..and they’ll mimic your stealth skills if they see you doing this “reset” in times of stress, being calmer and more reasonable in your responses. That’s a win-win in the daily course of our busy lives.

In her newest book, Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown dives deep into helping us understand how so many emotions can look similar — and all too often, we assume that we know exactly how someone else might be feeling. Then, we respond or react to others from that place — how those same emotions would feel to us. Is it any wonder that we can really make things confusing when this occurs? First of all, we are snagged on our own emotions and that will often pull our attention away from another person and inward on ourselves. Second, we may be putting the brakes on the emotions that another person is trying to process and understand.

Brene introduces a new concept for us to embrace — story stewardship. When we become trusted stewards of others’ stories, we listen with open hearts and open minds, without judgment and with an intention of getting to better understand what their personal experience and emotions truly are.

All of us have stories that are hidden under the tip of our iceberg. It would be impossible for others to know why certain things land so hard on our tender hearts. Not everyone needs to know, or can be expected to understand, these vulnerable parts of our story. It is healing for us to share our stories with someone who has earned the right to know the depths of our experiences. It is also helping others to gain bigger perspectives, to deepen their empathy and curiosity and to release habitual judgments when we have the courage to share our stories.

One of the greatest lessons to be learned from Brene when someone trusts us enough to share their stories, is to ask the question “What does support look like to you right now?” Ask that question and wait for the answer….take it in and really listen to what someone needs. Too often, we are so uncomfortable when others are hurting we rush to fix, to distract or even turn away. Meaningful story stewardship means holding space (even when we are uncomfortable) and asking others what they need.

We sometimes fail to see, or forget about, the best parts of ourselves. When we look in the mirror, we see reflected back whatever our inner critic or racing thoughts deem appropriate to share with us. If you have a trusted friend, a caring parter or a supportive parent who reminds you of your goodness, your grit and your unique gifts, then you are truly blessed. Those people are your best mirrors — the best sources of encouragement when life gets bumpy.

It is not surprising that we often bring the best versions of ourselves to the outside world — to our workplace, our community endeavors, even to strangers in the check out line. Yet we find it more challenging to tap into those attributes with the people we know the best — and often the ones we love the most. If you have a trust buddy that reminds you of this, thank them. If you have someone who has your best interests at heart and holds you accountable to the better version of yourself, you have a committed teammate in life.

We get to be these mirrors for others all throughout life. When you spend time on your own self-discovery, you often enhance your abilities to see the strengths and gifts that others possess too. Speak up — tell others all the goodness you see. The way they make you laugh, how generous they are, how resourceful they are, how they stand up for others…..there are so many ways that each of contribute our unique gifts to the world. Sometimes we all just need a really good mirror!

Nuggets of Wisdom

I started collecting inspirational quotes in my teen years and to this day, I am still fascinated by them. One day, my friend told me that the little nuggets of wisdom I shared with her about mindfulness were like inspirational quotes for her. I laughed and said that my little homemade quotes were like daily gummy supplements for self-awareness. My daughter told me that she likes them because it the perfect way to squeeze a little mindfulness into her crazy busy day keeping up with two young children.

So, I am launching a new component to my blog posts — and aiming to share my Nuggets of Wisdom twice a month.

This first one came to me when I realized that all too often, we inadvertently interrupt others and pull their attention away from the present moment. Just taking a few moments to take stock of a present situation may be all that is needed to realize our comment or story can wait a bit. Don’t break the spell of a mom reading a book to her child, or your partner engrossed in meal prep, or a friend taking a moment to gather her thoughts.

Those moments when we pause and just observe another being focused in their own activity is an opportunity to witness another’s joy, fascination or vulnerability.

We’ve all got behavioral patterns that we unconsciously fall back on– things like avoiding conflict, being a control freak or being a consummate helper, not asking for help. Just like a good purge of clothes that no longer fit or are outdated, a purge of these old conditioned patterns free us up to fully embrace our current life and the person we are striving to be.

I’ve often described this processing as gaining a lot of real estate in our lives for new growth opportunities, richer experiences and more contentment.

Too often we ignore our intuition. Paying attention to our “gut instinct” will usually point us to the best choices. Our best friends and trust buddies will be honest with us, and help us see the blind spots we may be missing. They are good at holding space while we sort things out. Road blocks may be invaluable signs that something isn’t right for us, or that we aren’t quite ready. New beginnings are the springboard for learning, growth and resilience. Fresh starts are like a blank canvas ripe with opportunity.

Any habit that we wish to change does require commitment and daily practice. It’s fun to work on enhancing a personal quality that we want to let shine. I truly believe it is easier than breaking a bad habit too.

Replacing being judgmental with being curious was a quality I worked on. It really shifted my perspective and honed my empathy for what others were dealing with in their own lives.

What quality do you want to expand?

This might be my personal favorite — put a little gratitude in your attitude!

No matter what is going on in our lives, we often have so much to be grateful for, but we are so busy focusing on what’s going wrong that we overlook the obvious.

Take a moment to think about one or two things in your life that you are truly grateful for – and if it just happens to be a person in your life, tell them! A little note, a text, a hug or making them a cup of tea will be a blessing that goes both ways.

I hope you enjoy the Nuggets of Wisdom. I’d love to hear from you with comments, ideas, and your own nuggets of inspiration and wisdom.

Untangled

The definition of mental health is simply this: a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.

What is not so simple is the complex and intricate ways our psychological and emotional well-being get out of balance.

When I started on my personal growth journey, I wasn’t thinking about my mental health. I was thinking about my heartbreak, my derailed dreams and my utter exhaustion. After slogging through a lot of self-help books and meditation magazines, I began to understand mental health in a new light. We contribute to each other’s mental health in our daily interactions and responses. Poor emotional regulation, lack of self awareness and old habitual patterns can suck us into a complex web of familiar but dysfunctional chain reactions. I began to realize the interconnection of members of my blended family and how we were inadvertently triggering each other’s most vulnerable emotional memories.

I could see how my own unconscious behavioral patterns and resulting coping mechanisms were in fact affecting my mental health. As I overlaid how members of my family were also operating unconsciously, what came to mind was the image of intricate, delicate necklaces all twisted and knotted together. Untangling all of this was going to take a committed effort — and it had to start with me. Our mental health was at stake — and it was affecting everyone’s quality of life.

I had plenty of evidence that my anxiety level was high. Stress was running the show and running me ragged. I was now a chronic ruminator, prone to stress eating, had trouble sleeping and was becoming forgetful. I credit my long-time fascination with neuroscience for preventing me from going into denial about the connection between stress overload and old behavioral habits feeding the cycle. I stumbled onto Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D and his teachings on the neuroscience of happiness.

I began learning about rewiring the brain to break the anxiety cycle and create new neural pathways. I discovered that strong emotional intelligence — the conscious ability to regulate our emotions — contributes to better psychological health and lessens the risk of anxiety disorders and depression.

At the same time, I was also absorbing what Brene Brown was uncovering about shame, vulnerability and our need for true belonging. Her research revealed all the things we do to avoid revealing our imperfections — and how debilitating those things are to living a wholehearted life.

Numbing anxieties is not the solution. The point that Brene Brown makes that when you numb pain, you also numb joy was very evident in my personal life. I felt my joy draining from me like the battery on my iPhone when I was in high stress situations. We can numb pain with food, drugs, alcohol, work, suppression and avoidance. None of these choices will solve the root problem. And when we numb joy, we lose sight of the blessings in our lives, the love and support that is already present. Joy provides balance and ballast for our lives.

I have lived with family members who had very poor coping skills and tried numbing to ease their pain. It ultimately led to dysfunction in their day to day lives, illnesses and addictions. Not only did they suffer greatly both emotionally and physically, there was a lot of collateral damage to others whom they interacted with at home, work and even play.

Failure to address and manage our stress will only amplify anxieties and insecurities. It clouds our thinking, distorts reality and creates confusion. Ignoring our emotions and over-reacting to our emotions deteriorates our mental health and impacts our physical health. As Brene teaches, we armor up. In doing so, we just keep adding to our growing iceberg of our core issues. You’ve probably heard that saying “the body keeps the score.” Chronic and life-threatening health issues can develop due to stress overloads.

Here again I had personal experience — extended periods of high stress in my life were the precursors of breast cancer at age 40 and then 18 years later the sudden development of lymphedema in my right arm.

I began to clearly see the big picture and understand the direct correlation between physical health, mental health and overall quality of life. Focusing on getting to the healthy end of the mental health spectrum became a top priority for me. It was neuroscience and rewiring the brain that created the framework for my personal mental health improvement plan.

All mental activity — your thoughts and feelings, joys and sorrows –require neural activity. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Repeated patterns of mental activity require repeated patterns of brain activity. Repeated patterns of brain activity change neural structure and function. You can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind…..to benefit yourself and others. — Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D, Author of The Neuroscience of Lasting Happiness.

The infrastructure I built inside that neuroscience framework consisted of mindfulness to expand my awareness of my behavioral patterns; meditation practice to help me recognize and stop the patterns in their tracks; meditation practice to learn how to let go of racing thoughts, rumination loops, and attachment to strong emotions. I supported my mental health goals with a lot of reading, journaling and deep vulnerable conversations with my trust buddy, Judy.

Brene Brown calls friends that you can confide in with complete honesty and trust “marble jar friends”. You only need one or two of these deeply rooted friends to help you gain traction in personal growth work. They are life jackets and air bags for all of life’s turbulence.

Brene Brown’s grounded research reveals how we have similar behavioral patterns and how/why we developed them. Dr. Rick Hanson teaches us how to retrain our brains to let go of those old patterns and replace them with more beneficial responses. Behavioral science and neuroscience come together to help us diagnose the problems and then heal them.

I took myself out of the entanglement. I acknowledged to myself what was tripping me up. I asked my family to help support my efforts and I held myself accountable for needed change. I blogged about my experiences, the trial and error and the discoveries.

The greatest gift is being a much improved resource for my family and friends now. I was not able to do that in a meaningful way five years ago and I wasn’t even aware of it. The more I learn about myself, the more I am able to discern when others are in struggle. My empathy, acceptance and non-judgment of others has grown exponentially as a direct result of doing my own work.

I am grateful that there is a dedicated collective effort taking place to de-stigmatize mental health. It is a collective problem — we truly are impacting each other’s mental health in how we show up in life. If we continue to drag around unprocessed emotions and trauma, to numb or hide it, we will not break the cycle of impairment. Taking care of our mental health is as fundamental as taking care of our physical health.

We can become advocates of our own mental health just as we are for our physical health. We can also help advance the cause to destigmatize mental health. Mental health is not an “either or” proposition — you are either mentally healthy or you are not — is totally inaccurate. We are all on the spectrum of mental health, just as we are with our physical health. As events and circumstances in our lives change, so does our mental and physical health.

I started on my personal growth journey because I wanted to be “at my best” for whatever the future held for me. At the time, I envisioned grandchildren, milestones and health issues — the good and the bad. I naively thought that “at my best” meant being physically strong and well-rested, no drama and a positive attitude. I was blind to how my past was impacting my mental health and how I was unconsciously reacting to myself and others. I certainly was unaware of how interconnected we all are with regard to mental health. We can do a better job of taking care of each other.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Greater Good Science Center, Berkley, CA – Four Things to do Everyday for your Mental Health https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_things_to_do_every_day_for_your_mental_health

Trauma experiences leave traces on minds, emotions and biology. Sadly, trauma sufferers frequently pass on their stress to partners and children. — Bessel van der Kolk, MD

https://www.rickhanson.net

Dr. Martin Seligman: Check out this interview:

https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/positive-psychology

Breaking the Chain

Over this past year, I gained a deeper understanding of the impact of childhood experiences from one generation to the next.

As I read this page from Clarity &. Connection by Yung Pueblo, I paused to reflect on just how true these words are. Often when I read a page in this book, I do find that I have lived exactly what Yung expresses.

I reflected on my mother whose parenting skills were sorely lacking and how that impacted me from a very young age. If you asked me at age 5 or 10 or even 15 what I wanted to be when I grew up my answer was always the same: “A good mother”.

Most people would just smile and think how sweet. However, a guidance counselor in middle school took it as a red flag. I spent more time in 7th grade in that counselor’s office than the classroom. I drew pictures of a house with a white picket fence, a big leafy tree with a tire swing, colorful flowers lining the path to the front door, three smiling kids and two happy parents, all holding hands. The guidance counselor would give me an odd smile that felt intrusive as he asked me vague questions and and gave me the ink blot test. Looking back, I am sure he knew I was leading a double life – the fantasy image that I drew on that paper and the harsh reality of a very dysfunctional family. He could also see my mother’s reaction when she stormed into his office to yank me out of there. I often wondered if he could hear her yelling at me when we got into the car. A few days later when I found myself back in his office, I was sure he did. Truth be told I was angry at him for putting me into this endless cycle of fearing the consequences of being back in his office while surreptitiously begging for his help, leaving clues on blank sheets of paper. Neither adult seemed to truly care about me. I was Olive Oyl between Popeye and Brutus. The tug of war was between them and my fate remained unchanged. A pattern that would play out in my life for decades.

So it was clear that from very early on I thought this whole mothering business could be handled much better. My framework for this was established with a long list of “what not to do” and it even included all the awful things my mother would repeatedly say that I vowed never to say to my own future children. Imagine my confused relief when I realized that other kids from seemingly functional homes had that same list. The big glitch in building a framework on “what not to do” is that it creates a very shaky foundation.

It set in motion a very complex webbing of reactive behavioral patterns intended to keep me and my brothers safe. I had an imaginary hope chest full of ideas on how to do things better when I was a mom. All those old reactive behavioral patterns became road blocks on my life journey. I can see that so clearly now — at 69 and on the other side of six years of self-discovery work.

Here’s the blueprint for all that generational heaviness that Yung Pueblo writes about — my mother had her own story. I know very little of it except that her own mother’s early death left her reeling and it must have happened shortly after I was born. She went to seances and fortune tellers, numbed her pain with alcohol, cigarettes and bad choices. My dad was overwhelmed by her and afraid of her. He was way out of his league in how to navigate it all. I remember being so angry with him for not protecting me and my brothers, but now I realize that he was every bit as frightened and stymied as we were. Both my parents were armoring up against their own fears and unprocessed trauma.

I grew up too fast, assuming adult responsibilities around the age of 10. Like many young kids, I believed I was the problem — that if I was better, we would somehow magically change into that happy family image I drew on paper for the guidance counselor. My behavioral patterns took root and I became a helper extraordinaire, a people pleaser and abundantly compliant. I took my lived experience, extracted the parts that hurt and vowed to do it differently. I began stuffing that imaginary hope chest with my own blueprint for being a good mom, wife and having a happy family.

I left home just a few days after graduating from high school. Actually, I bolted from home — in broad daylight, while my mom was at work. Packed my few belongings and moved into a third floor apartment on a peaceful street on the other side of town near a local college. I felt so free, in charge of my own destiny for the very first time. Just one little problem, I kept looking behind me (literally and figuratively) to see if trouble was looming. Like I said, it is very hard to build a solid foundation from shaky scaffolding. My mother gave me good reason to keep looking behind. She stole my car — my 1968 Mustang, in the middle of the night. I came out of my apartment in the morning to go to work and discovered my car was missing. She did this a few times, in spite of the fact that I thought I was so clever by parking it discreetly blocks away from my apartment. Those tentacles of childhood distrust just kept reaching out and tapping me on the shoulder.

At that time, I was working as a legal secretary in a law office for $70 a week. My boss was the most kind, sensible, empathic adult I’d met in a long while. He offered me a solution to the repeated stolen car dilemma, pro bono, and sent my mother some legal notice that put an end to her nonsense. It may have been the first time that I truly felt that someone had my back. I wonder if I conveyed to him just what that really meant to me.

My hope chest blueprint was an attempt for me to be the exact opposite of my mother but because I was also looking over my shoulder, I could not really sink down deep into my own core values and fully embrace who I truly was. My learned behavioral patterns kept me tethered to a past full of uncertainty. I carried my parents armor and my own. There was no sure footing, no strong foundation.

That’s how many find ourselves moving forward into life, getting married and having kids — and bringing all our baggage into the new life we are trying to build. Even in the best of families, there are blind spots. I think my parents’ generation had a junk drawer and a skeleton closet. They hid discomfort, dysfunction and trauma. My generation was often taught to suppress our emotions –stop crying, get over it, pick yourself up by the bootstraps. Is it any wonder that generationally we struggle with emotional triggers?

When I married in my early 20’s, I naively believed that my “happily ever after” blueprint was destined to come to fruition. My first husband was the oldest of 5 in what surely looked like the TV version of family perfection. Dad dutifully off to work, while mom in a flowered apron baked and ironed, preening over her children and her gardens. It was only after we were married, and were living with his family for several months that I discovered there were serious cracks in this facade as well.

Looking back now, I can more clearly understand that many of our marital struggles were rooted in the behavioral patterns we both brought with us into a young marriage. Unfortunately, we doubled down on what once worked for us in times of stress. That in turn just entrenched the cycle of our pasts colliding creating that unwanted heaviness that Yung Pueblo describes. Naturally that meant that our three children were exposed to this newer version of the same old thing — and voila now they were developing their own reactive behavioral patterns. Three generations of armor getting heavier by the minute.

Over the past several years, I learned about the findings of Dr. Bruce Perry, a noted clinician, teacher and researcher in children’s mental health and neurosciences. His work on the impact of abuse, neglect and trauma on the developing brain has had meaningful impact around the globe. It became very evident to me that what happens to us in our early childhood years can have lifelong repercussions.

This is why I feel so strongly about the importance of caring for our mental health and emotional regulation. I wholeheartedly agree with Yung Pueblo that when people heal themselves, they heal the future.

Deep conversations with close friends has revealed that my story is not that remarkable. Many had similar experiences and have felt the effects of their learned childhood behavioral patterns throughout their adult lives. I’m hard-pressed to find a family tree that does not have entangled branches of dysfunction, depression, estrangement, insecurities and brokenness.

Take heart, however — We were also well-intentioned gardeners tending those family trees as best we could. We chose to do the opposite of what their parents did, we chose to love more deeply with an understanding it might hurt, we chose to soothe, comfort and nurture. The pendulum may have swung too far the other way. We burned ourselves out trying to do it all and keep everyone staying in the green on the happiness meter. We still lost our tempers, got resentful, exhausted and disconnected. We offered ice cream cones to our children when we should have pulled them in our laps and honored their feelings. We should have done the same for ourselves but we chose a glass of wine or a bag of chips.

My first marriage ended in divorce. We tried couples counseling before we threw in the towel, but like my guidance counselor experience I realize that we were unable to identify the root cause of our problems. So we just lobbed our resentments back and forth, paid the bill and went home to hit repeat. We did not break the cycle. I can look back now through clearer eyes and a wiser heart and see how our emotional armor and old behavioral patterns kept us entangled til we couldn’t actually live our best lives anymore. I also see how our three kids paid a dear price just as my personal counselor told me. She said that my kids might come back to me one day and ask why I did not leave sooner. When I made the decision to divorce, my sons were away at college and somewhat insulated from the months of anxious fallout, but my daughter was now Olive Oyl between Popeye and Brutus. Consider that my daughter was only 5 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and 7 when she became my motivation to divorce to free us from a cycle of insecurities and unworthiness. Those events landed hard in the heart and mind of a young child.

Again, my story is not all unusual. And we have seen this play out throughout many generations. When my son was in the throes of his own divorce, I remember telling him that the long arduous decision making process had consequences for his young daughter and encouraged him and my daughter in law to co-parent from a space of awareness and love. I am relieved that they have done this well and continue to do so. For me personally, this is what Yung Pueblo means when he writes about healing the future. Learning from my mistakes, I share openly with my son and daughter in law. I am striving to help them navigate the challenges of raising a child in a co-parenting and ever-evolving family dynamic. No choosing sides and no ostracizing a child or making her feel “less than.” Raising a child is the hardest job we will ever do.

Embracing life’s realities and the brokenness that will inevitably occur in a caring, supportive, inclusive way is far better than saddling a child with our old emotional baggage. The best gift we can give a child is teaching them to honor their feelings. Holding them in our laps and listening, holding space for them to truly feel the depth of their emotions and feeling safe to do so. Teaching emotional awareness, emotional regulation and modeling it ourselves in daily life is how we heal the future. Do the work — in the present moment.

I had no idea when I dipped my toes into mindfulness 6 years ago what I would be gaining. While I was so focused on healing myself, I was then unaware how helpful it would be to my family and friends in the years to come. I knew that I wanted to get out of a situation that was draining me physically and emotionally so that I could be at my best for whatever life had in store for me in this last chapter of my life. That desire to be stronger, healthier and of clearer mind took me on a journey I could have never imagined. So often I told myself that I wished I had learned this all much earlier in my life, recognizing that it would have not only saved me a lot of heartache, but it may have also meant I did not inadvertently hurt others. There is a quote that says that life brings to you what you need the most — and what I needed the most was to heal from old trauma, drop the baggage and embrace equally my imperfections and my gifts. My discoveries and continued learning are supporting my efforts to help others learn this invaluable lesson much sooner in life.

I am so grateful that we live in a time where the stigma around mental health is falling away. I am so encouraged that counseling and therapies are taking a more holistic approach to mental health, bringing grounded research and more tools into the fold. I do believe that we need to be an advocate for our own mental health as much as we need to be advocates for our physical health.

I have looked back on my counseling sessions and see evidence where childhood experiences were begging to be brought out into the open, but were dismissed or simply missed. Had we all recognized that the warning signs were flashing, we could have done some of this meaningful healing work so much sooner. We may have saved good relationships that were tainted by our past.

Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah recently released their book “What Happened to You?” If we each asked ourselves this question, and then took the time to go back and revisit our childhood with compassion and mature perspective, it would be an invaluable step in breaking the generational line of hurt.

OPRA

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The chapters in this book offer a meaningful personal growth framework: Self-Awareness, Unbinding, The Love Between Us, Growing, A New Life