Disconnection from Childhood Trauma: A Potential Determinant of Depression and Ill-Health

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, identified seven social causes of depression including the loss of connection to other people.  One of the surprising findings in his discussions with researchers and his colleagues, was the link between obesity, childhood trauma and depression.  In the final analysis, collectively they established that in many instances unresolved childhood trauma was a determinant of obesity and depression. 

Obesity and depression

Johann drew on the ground-breaking research of Dr. Vincent Felitti, Founding Chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine of Kaiser Permanente – a fully integrated medical provider offering not only health care plans but also services such as specialist medical practitioners, a dynamic medical school, mental health services and education and an affordable housing initiative.  Kaiser Permanente views a healthy life for all as a cause to pursue, and is a pioneer in offering seamless health services along with leading edge research into preventative methods and treatment approaches.

Kaiser Permanente commissioned Vincent to undertake research into obesity because it was becoming the major factor in the growth of its operational costs.  Vincent started out by using a specialised diet plan supported by vitamin supplements that was designed to help obese people lose weight.  This approach appeared highly successful on early indications, but Vincent noticed that the people most successful at losing weight were dropping out of the program and returning to their eating habits and becoming overweight again.  Additionally, they often experienced depression, suicidal thoughts, rage or panic. 

Research by way of interview of 286 participants dropping out of the obesity program established that most had been sexually abused or experienced some other form of childhood trauma.   Obesity was their way to deal with the aftereffects of childhood trauma, including fear of sexual assault and the desire to hide their shame.

Childhood trauma and depression

Vincent was surprised by the findings of the initial study and realised that research of childhood history as a determinant of adult ill health had been avoided previously because of shame, secrecy and the taboo nature of the topic.  Yet his early findings established that childhood trauma played out powerfully decades later in terms of emotional state, biomedical disease and life expectancy.  He found, for example, that 55% of participants in the obesity study had suffered childhood sexual abuse.

The link between obesity, depression and childhood trauma was not well received by the established medical profession.  The video, A Tribute to Dr. Vincent Felitti, highlights the scorn he experienced when first announcing his findings at a medical conference and demonstrates the resilience of a man who had the courage to back his research and the bravery to pursue his creativity.

Vincent was convinced that he had to undertake research with a larger and broader sample of people to establish the credibility of his findings.  Through Kaiser Permanente’s processes of capturing the medical history of patients he was able, in collaboration with Dr. Robert Anda of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), to add additional questions relating to life history.  The questions picked up on the 10 types of childhood trauma identified by participants in the earlier study. The 17,500 participants involved in the second study were representative of the broader population of California where the study was done.  They were middle class with an average age of 57 and were employed.

The research titled the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE) highlighted even more surprising results.  Two thirds of the participants in the research program had experienced one or more traumatic events.  One in nine had experienced 5 or more adverse childhood events.  They also established that the higher the number of different adverse childhood events experienced by an individual (their ACE Score), the greater the likelihood of that person committing suicide.

Typical strategies adopted by individuals to cope with the impacts of childhood trauma only exacerbate the problem of ill health, e.g. smoking or over-eating.  Vincent maintained that the experience of chronic, unrelieved stress affects the nervous system and the brain and can produce “the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in a person’s body”, leading to suppression of the immune system.

What can be done about childhood trauma?

I have previously discussed principles and guidelines for trauma-informed mindfulness practice.  Johann Hari, in the section of his book on reconnection strategies offered several strategies that could have a positive effect on the negative impacts of childhood trauma, such as obesity and depression.  His recommended reconnection strategies include social prescribing and reconnection with nature, meaningful work and meaningful values.

Vincent Felitti, too, was concerned that people who had experienced childhood trauma need some form of hope about their ability to redress its negative effects.  He decided to do further research involving medical practitioners who were treating patients through Kaiser Permanente.  He provided them with a few simple questions to ask patients that related to life history and covered childhood experiences, and asked them to express genuine empathy and respect for the patient. 

Vincent found that the participants showed “a significant reduction in illness” once a patient shared their story of childhood trauma with a doctor.  He thought that the explanation for this was twofold – (1) the person was sharing their story with another person for the first time and (2) the recipient of the disclosure was a trusted authority figure who treated them with kindness and respect.  He postulated that the intermediate effects related to the fact that the experience removed the shame and self-loathing associated with the adverse childhood event.  The association of the childhood trauma with the experience of humiliation was broken. Vincent acknowledged that this was an area for further research.

Vincent argued that the ultimate solution to childhood trauma lay in “primary prevention” and advocated for the integration of their research findings into primary care medical practice.  He also supported the development of a life experience questionnaire reporting on childhood trauma as a part of a patient’s medical record that could subsequently be viewed by the treating doctor.  A healing conversation could take place if the patient was willing and able to share their story.

David Treleaven warns, however, that when dealing with someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is imperative not to tackle the trauma experience head-on.  He advocates a trauma-sensitive mindfulness approach.  Sam Himelstein also cautions against the use of direct questioning and talking where a person is outside their window of tolerance

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through research, meditation and reflection, we can begin to recognise the impact of our own experience of childhood trauma and address the negative impacts it has on our own life and relationships. We can also become sensitised to the experience of others who have experienced adverse childhood events and take this into account when dealing with individuals and groups who are seeking to use a mindfulness approach to improve their quality of life.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Be With Stress Rather Than Avoid It

Dr. Nate Klemp and Eric Langshur provide an interesting perspective on stress management in their article, Being With Stressful Moments Rather Than Avoiding Them. They contend that if we use mindfulness to do away with or avoid stress, we are not being mindful – we are not being with what is. They contend that our beliefs about stress frequently impede our capacity to deal with stress in our lives – our beliefs serve as a disabler rather than an enabler. Nate and Eric suggest a process that enables us to be with the stress rather than avoid it.

Stressors take many forms

There are many stressors that can occur in life through adverse situations, damaging relationships or one-off conversations. What is a stressor for one person may not be for another, partly because of the self-stories that we perpetuate. Our experience of stress varies over time – in one period of our lives, we can be relatively stress-free, while in another we can experience a range of stressors that build up and make us lose our patience and equilibrium.

Stress can arise at home through the suffering of a daughter or son, through conflict in intimate relationships or financial problems impacting our quality of life. Stress can arise at work through job overload, role conflict or ambiguity, conflict with colleagues or dealing with an unskilled manager. Stress is cumulative over time with each form of stress adding to another.

Our limiting beliefs about stress

Nate and Eric identify two primary beliefs that impede our capacity to deal with stress and lead us to try to avoid stress – which is an ever-present reality in our daily lives:

  1. The belief that we should get rid of stress from our lives – that we should always be in a state of ease and wellness. This belief can lead us to use mindfulness meditation to avoid stress rather than engage it as it is happening. The authors suggest that denying or trying to remove stress is not being mindful because mindfulness involves being “with whatever is arising, pleasurable, painful, comfortable, or uncomfortable” – not denying what is happening in our thoughts, feelings and bodily experience.
  2. The belief that stress is bad – that is should be avoided at all costs. Research shows that our “stress mindset” can change our experience of stress and that stress, provided it is not chronic, can be good for us because it promotes personal growth, both mentally and physically. Kelly McGonigal suggests ways to make stress our friend.

The combination of these beliefs can aggravate our experience of stress because it can lead us to feel resentful or angry that our sense of ease has been disturbed or destroyed.

Being with stress

Nate and Eric, who are the authors of the book Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Well-Being, offer a process to enable us to be with stress rather than avoid it. They describe this process as Notice-Shift-Rewire:

  • Notice – in common with other meditation practices, their process involves noticing what is. This requires us to be with our full experience – our feelings, our bodily sensations and our thoughts. They particularly focus on the thoughts/mindset relating to “stress aversion” – the desire to be free of all stress.
  • Shift – this requires shifting from judging the experience of stress as “bad” and acknowledging, non-judgmentally, the way we are experiencing the stress.
  • Rewire – staying with what we are experiencing in all its manifestations while letting go of attempts to avoid the stress.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation practices that help us to be with what is, we can develop our capacity to deal with stress, rather than avoid or deny it. The Notice-Shift-Rewire process can help us to be really present to what we are experiencing, more effectively “navigate stress” and build our resilience.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Cultivate a Non-Judgmental Mind

Our mind is continuously scanning and judging our environment for our own good – to keep us safe. However, these judgments are often ill-informed, made on inadequate information and distorted by our assumptions and prejudices. It takes conscious effort to still our mind and become open to what is within and outside of ourselves. Mindfulness meditation and other mindful practices can enable us to open our minds and find the space to develop non-judgmental awareness, self-compassion and connectedness.

The busy, judgmental mind

Our minds engage in an endless process of commenting on our daily experiences – identifying what we like and dislike; complaining about everything from the weather to the quality of service (on the train or bus, or by the shop assistant); assessing others as thoughtless or inconsiderate or insensitive or tactless; worrying about future events; or replaying past words and actions while indulging in regret, shame or remorse.

We make “snap judgments” that colour our perception of things around us and other people. We might consider the woman who cuts in on us in traffic an aggressive person (attribution of a trait), typical of someone who drives a Mercedes (a prejudice or bias) and motivated by the belief that “time is money” (assumption). The reality may be that the woman is normally a careful, thoughtful driver who on this occasion is rushing a very sick daughter to hospital or is trying to rescue a teenage daughter who is stranded on a railway station by herself at night.

The effects of our judgmental mind

The problem with our snap judgments is that they are often wrong and provide a distorted view of reality. They can become habituated and automatic – resulting in our filtering reality so that we do not see what is really going on with people and events in our life. As recent as last week, I assumed that a young woman in my workshop had become intentionally disengaged (based on observation of some non-verbal behaviour). It turned out that she was suffering from a migraine headache.

A judgmental mind is a closed mind – not open to new perceptions or interpretations. When we are judgmental, we fail to listen to others, closing ourselves off from new learning and insights; we block the pursuit of alternative options in our decision-making processes; or blind ourselves to our contribution to a situation that we consider unsatisfactory. A very simple example of this latter effect is forgetting that “we are traffic too“.

Our harshest critic

Our own minds are our harshest critic – we berate our self for an oversight; castigate our self for doing or saying something that we judge as “stupid”; become frustrated or exasperated by our inability to overcome some inappropriate/undesirable behaviour that makes our personal interactions more difficult; or indulge in negativity, only to feel remorse or disgust with our self afterwards.

Our internal talk and incessant inner commentary on our words and actions can become our default mode network blocking out the opportunity to see things anew, develop more successful personal strategies and build supportive relationships. This state of mind can lead to depression and/or anxiety.

Mindfulness meditation to cultivate a non-judgmental mind

Dr. Mark Bertin, a developmental paediatrician, argues that meditation increases our awareness of our self and others, enables us to “face reality” and to cope with life’s challenges with a degree of equanimity. Mark is the author of Mindful Parenting for ADHD.. He provides a range of mindfulness resources for parents, children and adults generally.

An especially useful resource is the 15-minute, guided meditation that Mark provides which he calls Nonjudgmental Awareness Practice. This mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on “something you don’t like that much about yourself, or that you wish you didn’t have”. He stresses the need to identify something that is not too stressful but that causes some degree of discomfort in your life, for whatever reason.

This meditation is simple, clear and highly supportive. I would strongly recommend this meditation for anyone, but especially for those who do not like a lot of talking during a guided meditation. It is the kind of mindfulness meditation that is easy to develop into a regular habit for significant benefit to yourself. Other forms of mindfulness practice that can help to defuse the self-critic are self-compassion meditation or meditations focused on self-forgiveness.

As we grow in mindfulness meditations that explore our judgmental mind and inner critic, we can learn to separate our thoughts from what is real; develop openness to the world around us and others’ ideas, perspectives and experiences; and develop deeper relationships and connectedness with others. The effect of regular mindfulness practice is calmness and equanimity.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Being in the Zone to Facilitate or Lead a Team


George Mumford
, Mindfulness and Performance Expert, maintains that effective facilitation or leadership of a team requires the facilitator or leader to be in the zone – a state of mind where we are hyper-focused and are our most productive, creative, and powerful selves. This state is often experienced by elite athletes, racing drivers and scientists – time seems to stand still, and exceptional performance/deep insight is achieved effortlessly.

The team facilitator in the zone

George, as a high-performance coach, spends much of his time working with elite sporting teams – helping them to achieve optimal performance. He makes the point that every team and location is different, and that the facilitator cannot pre-judge the situation. In his view, you can prepare for the facilitation, but you must be in-the-moment when working with the team.

This requires being in a listening and learning mode so that your response to what is happening is spontaneous and insightful – engaging what George describes as a “resourceful state of mind”. This state requires a person who has developed a mindfulness mindset through continuous mindfulness practice – not through a single daily act of meditation but a continuous process of seeking to be mindful, whatever the situation.

George maintains that everything is changing all the time – your own self-concept, as well as the self-concept of the team members you are working with. As you continuously attempt to achieve your own body-mind-emotion alignment, you are increasing your self-awareness, other-awareness and your self-regulation (so that your negative thoughts do not disable your capability).

I find that as an organisational consultant, the more I develop a mindfulness mindset, the more I am able to design innovative facilitation processes that assist organisation team members to have the conversations they ought to have and to achieve a higher level of performance. There are times when the way forward is clouded by anxiety precipitated by an unusual set of circumstances or mix of team members. Being in touch with these feelings through mindfulness can help to dissipate the anxiety and strengthen the insight, intention and faith (in a successful outcome).

The team leader in the zone

George maintains that you need to be a “mindful person” before being able to be in the zone and achieve optimal leadership effectiveness. Mindfulness enables you to achieve self-awareness, self-management and resilience and to influence others through effective active listening. It assists you to be-in-the-moment and to develop relationships that underpin any form of team effectiveness.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his TED Talk, discusses being in the zone as being in a state of “flow” – a state of “heightened focus and immersion”. In his view, not only does flow lead to effectiveness in whatever arena you operate, but it is also the source of creativity, sustained happiness and fulfillment. He suggests that flow is achieved when you realise a balance between challenge and skill – a challenge that is perceived as extending but manageable together with a skill-set that can be employed adaptively and creatively. Mindfulness helps to achieve the balance between challenge and skill by eliciting self-confidence in your abilities, managing the anxiety associated with new challenges and developing mental and emotional agility. Mindfulness will be essential for developing leadership capacity for the digital age – characterised by uncertainty, ambiguity, disruption and complexity.

As we grow in mindfulness through continuous mindfulness practices, we can be in the zone more frequently and develop optimal facilitator and/or leadership effectiveness. We can be open to the inherent spaciousness of our minds, freed from the anxiety and fear that limits the realisation of our capacities. Being in-the-moment, we are better able to respond adaptably and creatively to changing internal and external realities.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Stop Complaining and Whinging: A Mindfulness Approach

When we complain, we are expressing dissatisfacion with someone, something, or some event. When we whinge we are involved in repeated complaining. Complaining and whinging can become habituated behaviours that are difficult to change. Left unattended, these behaviours can become toxic for ourselves and those around us. However, they can be successfully addressed by a mindfulness approach.

Michael Dawson explains how he attempted to stop his own complaining and whinging behaviour. He decided that he would attempt to stop any form of complaining and whinging over an extended period of 21 days but found that it took him six months to achieve the targeted period. He found that the process of complaining and whinging pervaded his life – at work, at home and en route to various places. The first benefit of his focus on his behaviour was a growing awareness of how often he indulged in making a complaint or whinging – the beginning of mindfulness.

Why is it so difficult to stop complaining and whinging?

Complaining and whinging can very easily become an unhealthy habit. It can be reinforced by others around us. We can use it as a conversation opener – there is nothing surer to generate a response than to articulate a complaint about something. This behaviour is often unconscious and can become a constant part of our life without our being aware that it is happening – unless someone tells us that is what is happening. We can end up complaining about every aspect of our life – the weather, our boss, our life partner, our work, our location, our colleagues, and a former associate or partner. This fault-finding behaviour can become pervasive and very difficult to stop.

Another reinforcing factor is that complaining and whinging activate the negative bias of our brain. The result is that we see only the dark clouds, rather than the “silver lining”. We can develop an unconscious, negative bias that can be further reinforced by social media comments and caustic criticism. It can become hard to resist the temptation to participate in the negative commentary.

The effects of complaining and whinging

The preoccupation with what is negative in our lives can lead to depression. It creates a mindset that is unbalanced and blinds us to what is good, joyful and beautiful in our lives. It can become a deep grove that is difficult to shift because the associated neural pathways have been continually strengthened by reinforcement.

Complaining and whinging can negatively impact our relationships at work and at home. People around us will come to resent our negative bias and, where possible, avoid us or act aggressively towards us. Our negative mindset and its effects on others can lead us to slip into cynicism where we begin to distrust the motives of others, and this, in turn, can drain the energy of other people. So, we end up with a vicious circle, compounded by our lack of internal and external awareness. To avoid self-analysis, we will then begin to blame others for our deteriorating relationships.

A mindfulness approach to stop complaining and whinging

Michael described his mindfulness exercise to stop complaining and whinging in his life. However, any mindfulness activity designed to increase our awareness of our undesirable behaviour in this area can be a useful means to stop this habit.

If you regularly write a diary, you can make complaining and whinging behaviour a focus of your diary entries – recording how often these behaviours occur and what the catalysts are for your repeated behaviour. You might also reflect on an incident where someone you interact with regularly makes an observation about you such as, “you are always negative”.

At other times, you might meditate on a recent conflict that has occurred and explore whether you had engaged in expressing a complaint or whinging about something the other person has done or failed to do. The aim is to firstly raise your awareness of what you are doing and its effects on yourself and others and then progressively stopping yourself from engaging in complaining or whinging. You can begin to move from reflection-on-action to reflecting-in-action, developing the skill to stop yourself in the course of engaging in this negative behaviour.

If our complaints are directed at the clutter in our life, we can learn from Marie Kondo’s philosophy of developing a mindset focused on what brings joy to our life. In her book, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying, she identifies ways to develop a joy-oriented mindset through our approach to tidying our house. This requires reflection on what brings joy to us from amongst our collections of clothes, books, papers and miscellaneous items.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection, self-observation and guided sorting, we can become more aware of our complaining and whinging habit and develop the motivation to change our behaviour to improve our own quality of life and the richness of our relationships. By adopting a mindfulness approach, we can develop self-regulation, a sense of self-control and calmness.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Pillars of a Meaningful Life

In the previous post, I discussed how making meaning in our daily lives contributes to well-being. I also drew on what Dr. Paul Wong stated in terms of the need to align our lives with what we consider to be meaningful – in other words, to achieve congruence. Paul is the author of the book , The Human Quest for Meaning: Theories, Research, and Applications. Through his research, writings and presentations, he has developed the concept of the pillars of a meaningful life. He has identified seven of these pillars which I will discuss below.

The seven pillars of a meaningful life

  1. Believing that human life is inherently meaningful – this is foundational, because once you acknowledge that your life has meaning, you can pursue the realisation of meaning in your own life. You can begin to value your work, be grateful for the many things that you have and can do and explore meaningful relationships with people who are like-minded. This can lead to life-time friendships and collaboration. This fundamental belief also enables you to accept that suffering and pain are part of human existence and have a meaning in your life.
  2. A profound self-awareness – understanding at a deep level who you are and where you fit into the greater scheme of things. This understanding and acceptance provides the basis for recognising your potential for contributing positively to significant others in your life and those you interact with on an given day. This means avoiding delusion and being open to your potential.
  3. Exploring what is unique about your passion and mission – discovering your unique purpose. This involves capturing what inspires and energises you and becoming conscious of the challenges and responsibilities that flow from your personal pool of knowledge, skills and experiences.
  4. Pursuing your best self so that you realise your potential – overcoming the negative thoughts and barriers that block your potential. If you are not consciously trying to improve yourself, you can find that you are going backwards. Even small steps towards fulfilling your potential will bring you closer to your best self. This is a life-long journey but leads to a sense of well-being when you have achieved a real breakthrough. It is important to approach this self-realisation task non-judgmentally, avoiding “beating up on yourself” for not progressing as fast as you “should”.
  5. Self-transcendence – contributing to something that is bigger than yourself and that will outlast you. Viktor Frankl suggests that self-transcendence is central to your well-being as it is part of your “spiritual nature”. This involves moving beyond self-centredness and self-absorption to being altruistic and compassionate – ultimately being other-centred, whether the other person is a neighbour, friend or casual contact. Happiness and well-being lie at the heart of self-transcendence.
  6. Relating well to the people who are closest to you – your life partner, your children and closest friends. This “intimacy” is a rich source of happiness and well-being. If you are in constant conflict in this arena, you need to explore the dynamics of the situation and your contribution to the conflict. Relating well entails reflective listening, being thoughtful and aware of others’ needs, and “going out of your way” to help the other person when they are not coping, are ill or saddened by some occurrence in their life.
  7. Having a sense of personal fulfillment when your life is productive – in line with human connectedness. This means, in part, having a sense that you are using the surplus in your life to contribute to the well-being of others. It also means using your knowledge, skills and experience to be a productive and positive contributor to your work team and your organisation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and small acts of gratitude, we can enjoy happiness and well-being, develop rich relationships and realise our potential through positive contributions to our work team and our community.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Valuing Our Work

Michael A. Singer, in his audio program, The Untethered Soul at Work, reminds us of the value of work in our lives. Michael’s emphasis is on how work enables us to grow by removing the internal blockages that disable us in challenging work situations. However, we can value our work on several levels by being grateful for the opportunities it provides for personal expression and interaction with others, as well as for personal growth.

Being grateful for the work we have

Whether we are in paid work, voluntary work or are self-employed, there are many opportunities to value, and be grateful for, all that work provides. At one level, work adds to our sense of self-worth in that we can earn an income and/or provide services to others. If we can keep the end user of our efforts in mind, we can learn to appreciate what it is we do in the form of “work”. For example, in my role as an organisational consultant, I define my work as enabling people in organisations to have the conversations that they need to have about the things that are important to their productivity and mutual well-being.

We often take our work for granted, not valuing the work itself and the opportunities it provides. We can stop ourselves at any time during the day to express gratitude for some small aspect of our work – a simple gratitude exercise. We can precipitate this awareness and associated habit by occasionally making our work the focus of a gratitude meditation. In this way, both our work and ourselves will experience the benefits of gratitude.

Being grateful for the opportunities work provides for personal growth

Work, whatever form it takes, provides us with the opportunity to express ourselves; to use our knowledge, skills and experience to benefit others (and ourselves); and to be motivated to build our capabilities. As Michael points out, it also provides the learning environment for us to overcome the personal blockages that get in the road of our inner growth. Difficult tasks provide us with opportunities to understand ourselves better, develop discipline and realise a sense of achievement in overcoming personal obstacles that hold us back.

Being grateful for the opportunities work provides for developing relationships

One of the major sources of depression is when people feel isolated, cut off from other people. Work enables us to interact with others in a positive and collaborative way and to build constructive and valuable relationships. This benefit can be fully realised if we continuously work on our own personal growth and the development of mindfulness.

We can learn to value each interaction we have with others in a work context (even if we work from home), if we develop the skill to interact mindfully. This means being fully present, openly aware of the other person and engaging in active listening. If we connect and share through mindful conversations, we can create personal and social transformation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on our work and simple gratitude exercises related to work, we can learn to appreciate the opportunities provided to us for personal growth, self-development and self-expression and meaningful relationships. This can lead to personal transformation and contribute, even in some small way, to social transformation. We can contribute to connectednesss in a world where superficial connection through social media and damaging disconnection abounds.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Committed Mindfulness Practice to Challenge our Self-Stories

Tara Brach reminds us why our negative self-stories are so persistent and difficult to dislodge. Sometimes our stories can help to protect us by warning us about real dangers. Often our self-stories are based on an irrational fear that has its origins in our childhood. If we are to challenge these stories and change our negative thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behaviour we need to be committed to a consistent mindfulness practice that unearths the stories damaging our lives and our relationships.

Stories can blind us to creative options

Fear-based stories tend to cloud our perceptions and obscure our thinking, so that creative exploration of options is closed off to us. If we are dealing with difficulties in our relationships or undertaking a challenging task, we can be blinded by the negative self-stories that capture our thinking and lock out consideration of alternative approaches. It is in stillness and silence that we can access our creativity – the noise of incessant negative, inner dialogue can disable us because the embedded fear triggers the amygdala (the most primitive part of our brain) and our automatic fight/flight response.

The starting point for self-exploration

The starting point for self-exploration can be identification of a blockage to taking action on some issue or problem, whether associated with a relationship or an endeavour. If we find we are procrastinating, if is a sure sign that some form of negative self-story is playing in the background, on an unconscious level. As we discussed previously, the challenge is to bring these stories “above the line” – into our conscious awareness.

When we are faced with a perceived threat or the possibility of embarrassment, we tend to fall back on the illusory sense of control embodied in our self-stories and fail to exercise the values that we espouse as important such as “honesty, collaboration and fairness”. Bob Dick, in his research paper on Rethinking Leadership, asserts that in this scenario we try to “control the situation” and, in the process, desert our espoused values. Our sole focus is on self-protection.

Challenging our self-stories through a commitment to mindfulness practice

While ever we remain unaware of our negative self-stories or fail to face up to them when we become aware of their existence, we will be held captive and blinded by them. They can be persistent and pervasive. Addressing them in a single mindfulness session will be inadequate to prevent their recurrence. Negative self-stories are like weeds – you remove them from some aspect of your life, and they pop up elsewhere in a slightly different form. Even with persistent and focused meditation, negative self-stories will not be removed entirely. However, their negative impact on our lives will be reduced with committed mindfulness practice – what Tara calls “dedicated practice”. She encourages us, in the words of Henri Nouwen, “to push aside and silence the many voices” that question our worthiness and basic goodness.

The difficulty in trying to build any new, positive habit is being able to sustain the effort. Without sustained mindfulness practice, however, our self-stories will continue to hold us to ransom and control our beliefs, thoughts and actions. We need to become conscious of the damaging effects of these stories and to frequently recall the benefits of the freedom and creativity afforded to us through mindfulness practice. We can reinforce our commitment by revisiting the sense of expansiveness and self-realisation that mindfulness releases in us.

As we grow in mindfulness, through reflection and committed mindfulness practice, we can engage in self-exploration, unearth our negative self-stories and their damaging effects, experience openness to self-realisation and creativity, and rest in the calmness of our relaxed breathing.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Our Self-Stories Perpetuate Anxiety

We live in an anxious world where the prevalence of anxiety disorder has reached epidemic proportions in Australia, even in primary school children. This increasing level of anxiety disorder is mirrored in the reported experience in America. Underlying this growth in anxiety are self-stories that have a significant, negative impact on relationships. A core problem encountered when trying to eliminate these negative self-stories is the range of forces that keep them in place and cement their hold over us.

Tara Brach, in her course on overcoming negative beliefs and patterns of thought, argues that fear-based stories dominate our mental maps. In respect to our relationships, these stories suggest what we should be and what others should be – an impossible realisation that generates anxiety because of the gap between our self-perception/ perception of others and some idealised reality.

How self-stories are maintained

Tara argues that there are three factors that sustain our self-stories and perpetuate our anxiety:

  1. Our self-stories involve “deep groves in the psyche” – we continuously repeat an inner dialogue that creates neural pathways that deepen over time as the cycle of thought- fear-manifestation becomes more deeply embedded through repetition. Fear generates a biochemical reaction which becomes an automated response and maintains the experience of anxiety as a persistent state.
  2. We are reticent to share our self-stories that betray our uncertainty, anxiety and inability to cope. We keep them to ourselves and, because we do not expose them to the “light of day” by sharing them with others, we become more and more captured by them and identified with them over time.
  3. We cling to these negative self-stories because they give us a semblance of control which is illusory. We maintain these stories because they are reinforced by our distorted perception of our past experience. As Tara points out, we prefer to have “a deficient map rather than no map at all” – even though this gives us a false sense of security. The “disease to please” is one such deficient map.

Breaking the cycle of anxiety-producing self-stories

Tara maintains that it takes a lot of courage, persistence and self-compassion to break down the anxiety-inducing, negative self-stories. The more difficult self-stories to counter are those that are based on a perception that our life situation will only worsen not get better – a precursor to depression.

It takes courage to face up to the self-stories that negatively impact our relationships and to look beyond the stories to what underlies them, e.g. fear of rejection. It takes persistence to continue this self-exploration despite relapses brought on by self-recrimination over beliefs such as “this should not be happening to me” or “I should not be like this”. In the final analysis, it requires self-compassion and self-forgiveness to break out of the vicious cycle of self-talk that perpetuates anxiety.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can throw some light on our self-stories that negatively impact our relationships. With courage and persistence, we can break the anxiety-producing cycle of these stories by accessing self-compassion and self-forgiveness.

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Image by skeeze on Pixabay 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Expose Self-Stories Through Awareness Raising

Tara Brach in her course on negative beliefs and thoughts highlights the fact that as humans we have a “storytelling mind”. We develop “self-stories” that influence the way we view ourselves, perceive others and relate to the world at large. These self-stories evolve over time and exist below our level of consciousness. Tara maintains that we can overcome the limitations of these stories about our self by “shining a light” on them through awareness raising – achieved through mindfulness practices.

Our storytelling mind

Archaeologists, through the discovery of drawings and fossils, argue that humans developed the capacity for abstract thought more than 100,000 years ago. This enabled humans to think about things beyond their immediate observations – to envision, engage in symbolic thinking and develop language.

The capacity for abstract thinking underlies our innate preoccupation with developing stories, especially self-stories. Many of our self-stories, however, are fear-based Joseph Campbell described this propensity for fear as the “survival brain”. We fear physical and or psychological harm because of our human origins. Jacob Ham contrasts the survival brain with what he calls the “learning brain”. The former is totally focused on potential threats and is fearful about new situations and ambiguity, whereas the latter is open to new experiences and the challenges inherent in ambiguity – it is not preoccupied with avoiding mistakes.

Self-stories are unconscious – beyond awareness

Our self-stories develop through parental influences, social factors and our own life experiences. The messages we receive from our parents and society at large, influence the formation of our self-stories which, in turn, impact our relationships and our endeavours. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes these stories as “narratives” that can control our thinking, emotions and behaviour.

While self-stories influence our perception of threats and drive our behaviour, they are below conscious awareness. Joseph Campbell highlights this aspect with his concept of the “Circle of Awareness“. He suggests that we can think of our “self” or “psyche” as illustrated by a circle with a line through it – above the line represents conscious awareness and below the line represents our unconscious. We can increase our conscious awareness (above the line segment) by accessing our unconscious awareness through mindfulness.

As humans we have what scientists describe as meta-cognition – the ability to “think about thinking”. In other, words we have the capacity to access our thoughts, our stories and our internal representations of external reality. This meta-cognitive ability enables us to access our unconscious stories through awareness-raising processes designed to expose these self-stories.

Exposing our self-stories through awareness raising

Tara offers a very simple way to access your self-stories that may be locking you into ways of feeling and behaving. This mindfulness practice can be undertaken once you have grounded yourself through conscious bodily awareness and mindful breathing.

The practice entails picturing a time and place where you were with your parents as a child – e.g. the dinner table, the card table, on the sofa watching TV or lying on the floor with the pet dog. Now you turn your attention to your parents and how they are viewing and interacting with you – are they making eye contact at all, asking your views, listening to you mindfully or are they communicating with you without eye contact, ignoring your presence or talking over the top of you all the time. What messages are you receiving from this “interaction”?

In various, subtle ways, often below their level of consciousness, your parents are communicating messages to you and about you. These messages and others you receive, can shape your self-stories, e.g.

  • I need to go out of my way to attract attention, so that people will acknowledge me and value my opinion
  • I need to be nice and constantly meet other’s needs to be sure that I can be loved and valued (a self-story that can lead to “the disease to please“)
  • I should be “seen and not heard”
  • I will only be accepted when I am successful with everything I do
  • I cannot make a mistake, otherwise I will be rejected
  • Risk is to be avoided at all costs
  • I have to show people how intelligent, capable and accomplished I am before people will listen to me and take me seriously.

Tara argues that when you can name your self-stories, they lose their power to control you – to influence your thoughts, emotions and behaviour.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can expose our self-stories, increase our awareness of how they impact our lives and relationships and reduce their (unconscious) hold over us.

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Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.