What is Self? It is the answer to the question: “Who am I?” Whether you call it the Self, the soul, the Atman, or something else, the Self is who we are. It is Consciousness. It is the Divinity that resides within. It is the part of us that (many believe) never dies, always exists in some form even the we leave our Earthly body. Some traditions call the Self “the Witness”. To me this is an accurate description, but incomplete. The Self is ever present, able to act from a place of compassion and curiosity, courage and clarity, connection and creativity, confidence and calm*. When we feel held from within, from a place of calm and non-judgment it is often the Self that is holding us.
So yo may ask, if the Self is all of this and who I am, then what is all of this other stuff? What about the parent in me? What about the partner? The sibling? The child in me? What about what I do for work, my education, or how I like to have fun? Aren’t these all me too? Yes. They are. They are all parts of who you are, but they are parts that can shift and grow. The Self never changes; it doesn’t need to. To me, it is peace and the love of a warm inner embrace.
If you’re thinking, “I’ve never met this Self… I’ve never known calm or peace, compassion or inner love. Does that mean something is wrong with me?” The answer is “no”. It just means you likely have parts of yourself helping you function - they run the show often to protect you (your Self) and help you live. This often happens as the result of intense or (sometimes) extreme experiences. Allow me to explain. We all have parts** - we were born with them. These parts usually take on more “typical” roles like a school part or a sibling part or (for me) a dancing part. When this happens, our parts shift seamlessly in and out without us even noticing much. When something painful*** happens, our parts, intending to protect us take on a protective role to keep us (Self) safe. In some ways, it is great in the moment to have a protector when we need it and in some cases who may help us survive really troubling events and experiences. The problem is that these parts often get stuck in time with the skills available at the time of the troubling events and experiences so that as we age, even though their intentions to help are good, their way of handling things may be ineffective for our current age and situation. I mean, have you ever caught yourself responding to a present life challenge in a way that seems incongruent with your current skill set or age? If we’re honest, I suspect we all have. And that doesn’t mean we or the part doing the protective behavior is bad; everything parts do is done with good intention, even if with a deep underlying intention that may be hard to find. It’s just that the part’s response may no longer be effective or in line with how we want to show up in the world at this time.
So perhaps now we see or in some way understand what is happening, but how do we choose to do something else? In my experience, we can try to train ourselves to do something different, at least for a while. But often times, the underlying concern is still there and there is still a part of us trying to protect us from it. What I have found to be helpful in making these shifts, is working with the different parts of ourselves to acknowledge, accept, understand, and appreciate them, helping them release the burdens of past trauma, time-orient to the present moment, and then help them find a new role when they are ready. This process is what Richard Schwartz developed in the 1980s and called Internal Family Systems or IFS, to honor that we have a family of parts inside, an inner system if you will, with the intention of helping us survive the sometimes bumpy road of life.
As a trauma therapist certified in both Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY) in addition to my training in IFS, I want to say that IFS isn’t the only way to heal. There are a number of effective and evidence-based treatments to help people resolve their past and heal. And while that is true, I often find that when doing EMDR Therapy with clients or even TCTSY we are often met with the multiplicity of the individual, the many parts holding different pieces within the layers of self. And when these parts are acknowledged, understood, accepted, and appreciated, the rest of the work seems to unfold with greater ease. So when you notice a part of yourself that may be acting in a way that is not aligned with who and how you want to be in this world now, perhaps instead of the natural tendency to shame it or push it away, consider acknowledging it and maybe even tuning in to learn more about how it is trying to help.**** As we make space for an inner system of trust and acceptance of our parts, I find the rest - self-love, self-compassion, and skillful ways of showing up in the world - follow naturally from the Self.
* These are the eight qualities of Self from Internal Family Systems (IFS)
** For more information on multiplicity check out Richard Schwartz’s audio book: “Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts: Discovering Your True Self Through Internal Family Systems Therapy” and the book “The Mosaic Mind : Empowering the Tormented Selves of Child Abuse Survivors” by Richard C. Schwartz and Regina A. Goulding.
*** “Painful” is relative to each person. These could be big “T” traumas like abuse, a major accident, or natural disaster or little “t” traumas more unique to the individual like a hurtful look from a caregiver, “failing” at something important to the person, or a friend’s rejection.
**** If this feels overwhelming to tune into your parts or sit with your feelings on your own, consider connecting with your therapist (or finding one) for support and assistance.
Getting plenty of good rest is essential for our well-being. In these busy times, sometimes sleep can get shifted to the bottom of our long list of priorities. And yet, studies show that the negative effects of sleep deprivation are vast ranging from weight gain to increased health problems to decreased sex drive to decreased attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving making it more difficult to learn efficiently.
Many things can interfere with our ability to get good sleep. Some major players include:
So how do we shift our sleep patterns? Here are some important sleep hygiene tips and additional strategies to help you sleep.
In addition to these common hygiene tips, here are ideas to help you fall asleep:
I have found that using these tips really helps improve sleep quality which in turn starts the day with a greater sense of groundedness and calm leading to a more focused, productive day. When I notice I have been feeling off or not sleeping as well, it is often because I have fallen away from some of the above sleep hygiene (especially reading in bed!). The good news is that I also notice when I tighten up my sleep hygiene, sleep improves. My hope is that you try out some of these tips perhaps incorporating one or two at a time as you shift towards greater sleep.
A lot has changed over the past three years. To say we are a country divided is an understatement. One might wonder why a psychotherapist would write about this issue. My answer is that since the 2016 election I have seen an influx of people trying to manage trauma triggers that had long been buried but that have now resurfaced, people trying to navigate family relationships where shared values seem to have fallen away, people trying to manage anxiety from the way our culture have shifted, and so much more. Regardless of how you vote or what party you may or may not support or even what news channel you choose to watch, I think it is clear that we are divided and that the division is not working. It is pitting neighbor against neighbor, brother against sister, friends against friends. This is no way to live.
I won’t pretend I am even close to having all of the answers on how we deal with this because that is not only inauthentic and false but takes away your personal power to reflect on how you want to show up at this time in your relationships and in the world. I will say that over the past three years I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to podcast interviews around how we rebuild, how we connect over commonalities to make our country work again, versus hurling nastiness at people who disagree which only further breaks us as individuals, communities, and as a country. My intention is to share some insight I have gained from my work on this over the past few years in hopes that it helps some reflect and maybe even grow. At a minimum, my hope is that it may help people cope with the increased conflict and division that surrounds us all.
Each and every one of us has grown up in our own unique environment - our family, our schools, our spiritual community (if we have one), our neighborhoods, and our state. We come from different races, cultures, ethnicities, religion or faith systems (including none at all), socio-economic statuses, education levels, political exposure, and so much more. These environments help us build our unique perspective based on our experiences. Often, our perspective matches those environments but sometimes it shifts to something different based on later experiences. These environments, experiences, and perspectives color our perception of the world and the people it in. One of the beautiful, albeit challenging, parts of our democracy is that we are a diverse nation, not just in race or creed, but in such a vast number of ways. This allows us to share ideas and reflect together on rational next steps, honoring our commonalities and sifting through different perspectives to get a handle on what may be best for the majority. This isn’t simple or easy. As Michael Douglas’s character President Andrew Shepherd says in “The American President”:
"America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.' You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free."
Isn’t this the truth? And after the past three years, don’t we know it?! With the growth of the internet and exposure to people other than our own somewhat homogenous groups (at least at times), we have been faced with the task of learning to be in relationship with people whose experiences, values, and beliefs are wildly different from our own. The ingrained ‘skill’ of not discussing sensitive topics like money, religion, or politics has left most of us without effective skills for having meaningful conversations around difference or even just connecting in general with people who may have a different perspective. To protect ourselves, many of us have hunkered down in our camps of like-minded people.
So then how do we have these conversations? How do we bridge these gaps? That is a complex answer and I will try to share what I am learning in a moment. One thing I know both from experience and observation is that yelling, name-calling, shaming, and judgment don’t work. While certain behaviors may not be okay (e.g., racism), it is important to remember that often times people don’t know what they don’t know. They are acting in a way congruent with everything they have been taught and have learned to this day. That doesn’t make racist behavior okay, but the way to change that isn’t shouting “racist” at someone; that just makes them dig in their heals and may make them unwilling to learn more (often for longer than it would have taken without the shame, judgment, and shouting).
A beautiful example of this is in the OnBeing podcast by Krista Tippett titled “How Friendship and Quite Conversations Transformed a White Nationalist”. In this podcast she interviews former heir to the White Nationalist Throne Derek Black (godson of David Duke) and his friend Matthew Stevenson about how their friendship slowly shifted Derek’s strong White Nationalist beliefs to realize that the research shared with him to stand up for the cause was false or misleading and how when all of that was stripped away he was left with hate and bigotry (his words), despite having developed friendships with Matthew and his Jewish friends. I can’t imagine the conversations they had were easy. They certainly didn’t happen quickly and disagreement was definitely present. However, they found ways to connect over their commonality which opened them up to listen and understand each other in new ways.
In some ways it feels easier to just bury our heads and look away or in some way distance ourselves from people who see the world differently. Having done this for a while, I realized something. Not only is the world less interesting when you only talk to people who believe exactly as you do or at least very similarly, but it takes away the beautiful growth opportunity to be able to have courageous and civil conversations about difference. It is easy to write off those different from us as “crazy” or “racist” or “snowflakes” (or some other demeaning name), but it isn’t useful or effective if we hope to shift the division in our country, if we hope to fix the problem.
In his book “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream”, after years of public service first as a community organizer, civil rights attorney, and professor and later as a State Senator, Barack Obama shares his observations of people he met over the years and while campaigning. I want to honor here that I recognize Barack Obama is a Democrat; he doesn’t try to hide that fact nor will I. That said, I think his observations can speak to all of us regardless of where we land politically; I hope you will read this paragraph with an open mind, perhaps allowing the words to sink in and to reflect on how they truly land with you, regardless of who he is.
Obama shared that most people he came across want the same things and hold similar beliefs regardless of race, region, religion, and class (p.7). They want anyone willing to work to have access to a job with livable wages. They want access to health care that doesn’t cause them to go bankrupt if they get sick. They believe every child should have “a genuinely good education” and “that those same children should be able to go to college even if their parents [aren’t] rich”. They want to be safe from criminals and from terrorists. They want clean water, clean air, and time with their kids. And when they get old, they want “to be able to retire with some dignity and respect”. Further, the people he spoke with understood that how they did in life depended mostly on their own efforts. They didn’t expect the government to solve all of their problems and did not like seeing tax dollars wasted. However, they figured government should help.
While we may disagree on how to accomplish these goals, my experience is congruent with President Obama; most people want the same things. Knowing this can shift our dialogues, at least with each other, with the people we know. It may take time for more politicians to be elected who are more concerned about what the American people want and need versus their own political and personal gains. However, in the meantime, we can bridge gaps with each other by honoring that most of us are in fact quite similar. Rather than arguing over difference from an emotional place, we can join over commonality and have civil conversation about options. Rather than feeling attacked because someone doesn’t like an idea we have, we can recognize it isn’t necessarily that they want to deny us a basic right, but rather they may have different ideas about how to get there. That is a much different conversation. It is more meaningful, authentic, and because it can be vulnerable it can lead to deeper connection. As Brene Brown points out, it is hard to hate people close up. She encourages us to lean in and get curious. To listen and to share from a grounded place (as much as possible). That’s how we bridge gaps. That’s how we move towards unity and towards a democracy that works, a democracy in which we can share, discuss, challenge, and reflect on ideas, learning and growing together as a people.
As a psychotherapist, I do need to point out that sometimes vulnerability isn’t safe. There are some people in our lives who despite our best efforts to lean in, get curious, and listen will resort to name-calling, shame, judgment, and the like. Or maybe there is a history of abuse there that makes the dynamic unsafe for these deeper, often vulnerable conversations. These may not be the best people to try these conversations with. As I see it, the purpose of these conversations isn’t to coerce people to believe what we do, but rather to connect over commonalities and understand differences, embracing our diversity. As Lennon Flowers puts it in an OnBeing podcast interview titled “An Invitation to Brave Space”, “We don’t need to confuse safe spaces with comfortable spaces”. Conversations with people who differ from us will likely be uncomfortable. We just need to make sure they are emotionally safe and understand that there is a difference. For sure, there is a chance we will learn and grow in some ways from these interactions in safe spaces; perhaps even more from the discomfort than from agreement. But I see connection as the goal and the rest as just gravy.
There may also be times in our lives when we are struggling where bridging is just not safe or doesn't feel like an option. That is okay too. It is important we trust our inner guidance on the right timing in our lives for this work.
Frances Kissling, a “bridge person” interviewed by Krista Tippett in an OnBeing podcast, encourages us to ask ourselves and others the following two questions particularly when talking with someone who may have conflicting or even the opposite beliefs of us: (1) What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? (2) What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to? During that podcast interview, she and an Evangelical Minister seemingly on complete opposite sides of the abortion issue, demonstrated how a conversation like this may sound. It was fascinating to listen to how there were more things they agreed on than expected and maybe even more that they agreed on than not. Sure, there are likely still points they disagree on. However, following their bridge conversation, understanding each other more fully and connecting in a positive way, they were then able to communicate more respectfully in an honest way about the differences.
My observation is that in our current political climate, things just seem to go back and forth from one set of beliefs to the other depending on who holds the highest offices. This doesn’t seem to be working. What if instead we were able to actually have real conversations that find ways to address issues in a bridged way versus the “one way or the other” type of method. I can’t help but think so many more of us would feel included and heard in government, in our country, and in our society.
There is so much more to say on this topic and I am grateful for the interesting and helpful interviews on working with the challenges currently facing us as a nation through the OnBeing podcast. If you are tired of the division, the fighting, the lack of civility when faced with difference, I encourage you to check out some of the following episodes from OnBeing. They have helped me so much to learn, reflect, and grow in my ability to effectively navigate these challenging times. And as for the anxiety? It is still there. But with a new sense of confidence in being able to more effectively communicate kindly and respectfully with people who may see the world through a different lens, that anxiety has calmed. No one likes to be uncomfortable; perhaps that’s what some of the anxiety is about. As a therapist I can say for certain, it is often through pain and discomfort that we learn and grow the most. So let’s lean in, be curious, listen, and connect. I trust the beauty of unity will follow.
Podcasts from OnBeing (in no particular order)
(1) Angel Kyodo Williams: The World is Our Field of Practice
(2) America Ferrara and John Paul Lederach:
The Ingredients of Social Courage
(3) Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson: Befriending Racial Disagreement
(4) Ta-Nehisi Coates: Imagining a New America
(5) Shane Claiborne and Omar Saif Ghobasj
(6) Darnell Moore
(7) Rebecca Traister and Avi Klein
(8) Arlie Hochschild
(9) Sally Kohn and Erick Erickson
(10) Layla Long Soldier: The Freedom of Real Apologies
(11) Frances Kissling
(12) Eula Biss
(13) Mahzarin Banaji: The Mind is a Difference Making Machine
(14) Cory Booker
(15) Maria Shriver: Finding My “I Am”
(16) How Friendship and Quiet Conversations Transformed a White Nationalist
(17) John A. Powell
(18) Maria Popova and Natalie Batalha: Cosmic Imagining, Civic Pondering
(19) Sarah Bassin and Abdullah Antepli
(20) Rebecca Solnit: Falling Together
(21) Arnold Eisen
(22) Junot Diaz
(23) Ruby Sales
(24) Rachel Yehuda: How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations
(25) Jennifer Bailey and Lennon Flowers: An Invitation to Brave Sapce
A Few Resources for Civil Conversations and Bridge Building
The Civil Conversations Project
“Braving the Wilderness” by Brene Brown
Also note, following each podcast on the OnBeing website are books by those interviewed that may help.
On Labor Day, I sprained my ankle trail running which required me to be on crutches for several days and in a brace with limited mobility for three weeks. During that time, I noticed something. I felt significantly calmer. I felt grounded. I felt a sense of inner peace at a time when things around me were anything but peaceful. Once the brace came off and my mobility improved I noticed an increase in stress and anxiety. As I reflected on this shift, the only thing different was that while I was injured I was unable to multitask; I had to focus on one thing at a time so as to not re-injure myself and well, to stay upright. My lesson? Multitasking doesn’t work for me. As a therapist, I have known for years that our brains don’t actually multitask and that attempting to do so leads to lower productivity and higher stress. And yet as someone who is still working on saying “no” more often (i.e., someone who takes on too much), multitasking was my way of getting it all done - or so I thought.
The process of therapy is just that - a process. In a time of incredibly jam-packed schedules, so many of us want our healing (and really, most things in life) to go quickly or have a magic pill. The thing is, often times the problems and/or challenges that motivate us to enter treatment in the first place have taken years and sometimes a lifetime to develop. Thus, healing from life’s challenges and shifting directions is a process that takes time. Given this, I thought I would share ways to make the most of your time in therapy. Do you have to do these things? Absolutely not. However, the more you take your therapeutic work outside of the therapy office and do work between sessions, the more quickly you will likely heal (versus if you don’t do those things). These aren’t really short cuts to therapy; change takes time. But they can help reduce in-office work or the length of time in therapy.
While the strategies in the previous post are ways to regulate in-the-moment when we pop into anxiety and the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system), in order to prevent these situations from continuing to happen we can make larger shifts in our lives. Whenever making changes to our lives, it is important to take small steps changing one thing at a time so as not to overwhelm ourselves and inadvertently sabotage our efforts. By shifting things slowly over time we can build on our successes. You may or may not being doing some or all of these things already. Perhaps consider adding one or part of one slowly over time.
We all have experienced anxiety at one time or another, whether preparing for a test, prior to a presentation at work, or on our first day of a new experience. We may feel a keyed up sensation in our body, our heart may race, our breathing may be short, and our thoughts may run quickly through our minds. When we experience anxiety, our autonomic nervous system has most likely picked up on a potentially dangerous situation and is letting off of the vagal brake (see previous two blog posts for details on what this means) to prepare us to fight or flee if necessary. Thus, inherently, anxiety is not a bad thing; it is our body and brain’s way of alerting us to pay attention. Anxiety becomes pathological, in other words a diagnosable condition, when it becomes a regular occurrence, interferes with our functioning, and we meet certain other symptom criteria. Essentially, when our anxiety is out of control and is no longer helping us it can be helpful to try some skills to address it.
In helping people with their anxiety, I see two main ways to target it: (1) Short term distress tolerance strategies to help with anxiety in the moment (what some experience as anxiety attacks and others as panic attacks), (2) Shifting ones lifestyle to create more safe-enough spaces for regulation and health.
Perhaps with a greater sense of how our autonomic system works (see previous blog post) we can shift towards understanding how to help ourselves regulate. As before, it is important to understand that our autonomic nervous system uses a process called neuroception to interpret our experience within our environment and then determines which of the three autonomic states is needed. What I find so essential about this is that it happens outside of our conscious awareness. That is, we do not choose our state so there is no shame in what our brain and body choose to do; it just happens based on our experience (i.e., our perceptions of it) and how our brain interprets it.