Remember that thing I said about spring in my last (and first) post? That it can be unpredictable and tempestuous? Well guess what, so can your brain – which is another good reason why aiming for spring-like internal weather is more realistic than wishing for eternal summer (unless you’re Buddha – in which case: dear Buddha, I promise I will start a proper meditation practice soon. No, like, for real. I will blog to brag about it, watch this space.). So there will be days when everything just seems bleak. Maybe bad stuff is actually happening, or maybe it’s just one of those days – which doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you. To quote neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of “The Upward Spiral” and of the neuroscience blog “Pre-Frontal Nudity” (is that the best blog title ever or what?), “everyone has depressive tendencies to a varying degree”. We all get up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes.
OK, so you woke up with your mud-tinted glasses on this morning. You’re making your way through a sticky swamp of negative emotions: worry, anxiety, fear, shame, hopelessness – choose your usual suspect. What do you do? Well, if you’re like most of us, you try to make these icky emotions go away: you stuff them back down with food, chase them away with a new pair of shoes, scream them away by lashing out at someone else. It’s what we do – we try to anesthetise the bad stuff. The problem is that this numbing, apart from being potentially fattening (and/or illegal, depending on your numbing method of choice), has another major disadvantage – you don’t get to choose what you numb. “We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light” says Brené Brown in her book “Daring Greatly”. So as you’re “taking the edge off” your anxiety with that fifth bar of Snickers, you also dull your “experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity and empathy”. Which, if you’re an aspiring Spring Minder, just won’t do, because we want all of that amazing stuff in our lives, right? OK, slowly, slowly step away from the vending machine / put down your wallet / delete the excoriating email you were about to send to an unsuspecting colleague, breathe deeply, and read on.
Strategy No. 1 – (Self) Love is All You Need
Remember you’re not the only one feeling like this – we all go through rough patches (even Buddha!). Try to be kind to yourself on these muddy, stormy days. If the concept of self-compassion is so alien that you don’t even know what it means, ask yourself how you’d like to be treated by an ideally compassionate parent and try to give yourself that same level of love and kindness. Dr Kristin Neff writes and speaks beautifully and compellingly about self-compassion: if you have five minutes, take her “Self-Compassion Break” (written and guided audio versions are available on the site); on your lunch break, go somewhere quiet and dive a bit deeper with the 20-minute “Self-Compassion / Loving-Kindness Meditation”. Now isn’t that better?
Strategy No. 2 – Face the Fear
When we’re anxious, we often run away from our fears and try not to think about them, which ironically makes us even more anxious: the fear is like a big dark bear right behind us; we don’t look at it, but we know it’s there, just waiting to grab us, which makes us – you guessed it – more afraid. In his 2009 book “The Mindfulness Solution”, Harvard psychologist Dr Ronald Siegel suggests a brave alternative; what if, instead of hiding from our fear, we faced it head-on? In fact, what if we tried to deliberately generate some anxiety and practiced just being with it? Dr Siegel’s website has a link to a guided exercise called “Stepping Into Fear” that takes about 20 minutes; it’s uncomfortable, but not nearly as scary as I would have thought. Turns out that was a teddy bear rather than a Grizzly behind me…
Strategy No. 3 – It’s Not You, It’s Him (or Her, or Them)
You know that voice in the back of your head, the one who just told you self-compassion is for sissies and, in any event, you don’t really deserve compassion anyway? And maybe “who are you kidding, you’re not brave enough to face your fears”? Yes, that one. That’s not you. That’s a sneaky fellow (or gal, or entire cast of characters) called your inner critic, and when they’re really active they can turn your lovely spring into a mighty shame storm. So what do you do? Well, you turn the tables on them: name and shame’em, with a little help from author (and inner critic slayer extraordinaire) Tara Mohr. Take ten minutes, a piece of paper and take them on!
It can be tough to identify your inner critic, because they sound just like you; maybe you’re just being realistic about your own limitations! There are tell-tale signs that can help you: if the voice speaks in definitive pronouncements (“you will never…”), is focused on shutting down movement and change, or is paranoid, defeatist, or panicky, chances are it’s your faithful friend the inner critic. This short article by Tara will help you sort out who’s who.
Then, have some fun getting to know the inner critic: what (and, more intriguingly, who – your mother? Your mother-in-law? That nasty first boss?) do they sound like? What would be a good name to give them (tip – the funnier, the better)? Draw them if you feel like it. Recognize that they’re just thoughts, voices – not the truth. And usually, once you’ve realised that, you also realise just how absurd, and patently wrong these voices are, most of the time. Check out this article for more tips on handling the Critic Squad, while I have a word with Mrs Responsible Adult, who’s busy telling me a good mother would be cooking dinner for the children right now, not writing silly blog posts.
Strategy No. 3 bis – Find Your True Comforts
Ok, I’m back. And I know I said three tips in the title of the post, but I really love this one and wanted to share it, except it’s not really quick – so do it over a rainy weekend afternoon. And we’ll go back to Brené, because that’s where we started, (which is where my Critic Squad goes “you don’t really have any ideas of your own, do you, you’ll just recycle other people’s for as long as you live”. They’re on fire today – just chill, guys, ok?) for an alternative to numbing. Have a think and try to identify the things that really bring you comfort when you’re down, things that nourish your spirit, and leave you replenished instead of worse off than when you started (which is what usually happens after we numb). A helpful way to differentiate between numbing techniques and real comfort, Brené says, is to check whether they leave you thinking “I can’t believe I just did that” – if they do, you’re probably not on the right track. So what are yours? Maybe it’s taking a walk in the park, maybe it’s having an exquisite piece of cake (probably not five, though. No, definitely not five), or wearing your best clothes even if you’re staying in today, or doodling – or writing that silly blog post you’ve been thinking about.
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