Managing Conflict

Recently the First Person Plural: EI and Beyond podcast featured Professor George Hohlrieser (Lausanne, Switzerland) discussing, How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict.  The podcast series involving collaboration between Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), his son Hanuman Goleman and Emotional Intelligence (EI) coach Elizabeth Solomon, is designed to raise listeners’ awareness through stories provided on interview by inspiring people.   The hope is that listeners can grow in mindfulness and resilience in living proactively within the systems that surround them – within their personal, social, natural and global systems.

George works with multiple Fortune 500 companies as a clinical and organisational consultant.  He recounts during the podcast the story of how he became an accidental hostage negotiator while working for the police.  He has continued working in hostage negotiation (sometimes at considerable personal risk), as well as working with people who are suicidal.  George is an internationally renowned speaker and best-selling author.  His widely acclaimed book, Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance, is undergoing revision and updating and will be published on 30 November 2022.  In the book, he recounts compelling stories of real hostage situations and draws out the psychological principles that enable hostage negotiators to be successful.

Conflict management principles

During the podcast, George explained some of the principles that underpin his approach to conflict resolution and how they can apply to leaders who are attempting to influence others and develop high performance teams:

  • Don’t be a hostage: people can be a hostage to others – their children, parents, teachers, bosses, clients, suppliers or employees.  A hostage thinks they are powerless and the pandemic generated feelings of helplessness in a lot of people.  Not thinking like a hostage involves, among other things, thinking clearly about a desired outcome and establishing a positive mindset about that outcome.   It also involves establishing a secure personal base, not being hostage to your own emotions.
  • Become a secure base: manage your own fight/flight/freeze response so that you are not caught up in what Daniel Goleman describes as the “amygdala hijack”.  Develop calmness so that you “see opportunities not threats”.  George mentioned that in his leadership development programs he does not use the traditional Harvard case studies but tells participants that the case study is “you” – building self-awareness, developing insight and courage and tapping into personal intuition and creativity.  Being calm and secure builds trust – an essential element for conflict resolution and management.
  • Tell it like it is: George argues that you should not “sugar coat” the unsatisfactory situation, e.g. poor performance or inappropriate behaviour.  He gives the example of telling someone that “you are too aggressive with clients – that needs to change”.    
  • Address the conflict directly: George uses the analogy, “put the fish on the table” – drawing from his experience working with fishermen in Sicily who were scaling and cleaning fish on a table, removing the bloody, smelly bits and preparing the fish for the “great fish dinner a the end of the day”  The analogy means addressing the conflict not ignoring it (“not putting the fish under the table”), dealing up front with the messiness of the issues and looking forward to a positive resolution.
  • The person is not the problem: George maintains that you should not “write off” the person(s) involved, e.g. “they are just argumentative, nasty or thoughtless”.  He argues that there is a real problem underlying a conflict situation, e.g. the person may feel slighted or disrespected; they may feel taken for granted when passed over for a promotion or project; or they could be experiencing distress in a home situation.  He illustrated this principle by telling the story about a father involved in a hostage situation – it was not that he was a “naturally violent person” but that he had been prevented from seeing his child (locked out by unreasonable access rules).  The core problem in this situation was the inability of the father to see his child and the solution lay in finding a way for the father to gain access to his child.
  • Identify the “pain point”: George argued that you make little progress in managing conflict if you focus on “selling points” versus “pain points”.  This requires active listening, not trying to persuade.  The pain point is often related to a loss – past, present, future or anticipated.  He mentioned Warren Bennis’ idea of “hidden grief” – that leaders are often blind to their own underlying sense of grief and can be grieving over things that happened many years earlier.  George illustrated this point by recounting the stories of two CEO’s who committed suicide out of a sense of grief over some situation – economic or workplace related.
  • Be caring: listen for understanding and be willing to be empathetic.  Express the desire for their wellbeing and demonstrate a caring attitude.  George suggests that this creates a bond even with people you might consider your “enemy”.  Bonding helps to dissolve conflict.
  • Be daring: learning a new skill such as conflict management takes you outside your “comfort zone”. Be willing to dare yourself as any new talent you desire to develop requires daring on your part – facing the fear, acknowledging the challenge and preparing yourself.  Daring your employees by presenting them with challenging work or projects, develops and motivates them.
  • Ask questions: George suggests that asking questions empowers the other person, even in a situation where a person is suicidal.  Curiosity can communicate care and concern.  Questioning can help to explore the “pain point(s)” and to work towards a solution that they can accept.
  • Provide choice: avoid a “command and control” approach as this damages bonding and trust.  The command and control approach does not motivate – it disempowers and disables people.  It can lead to compliance, but not sustainable change. Provide choice wherever possible so that the person feels a sense of agency in relation to the underlying issue.

Reflection

George’s approach to conflict resolution has been developed through his experiences as a hostage negotiator and working with people who have suicidal intentions.  He has also refined his approach through working with organisational leaders around the world to help them implement the fundamental conflict management principles he has developed.  He emphasises that conflict management involves both caring and daring – it challenges us to move outside our comfort zone to achieve a resolution.   It requires us to avoid relying on positional power and instead employ the personal power associated with integrity, humility and compassion.

His approach requires us to grow in mindfulness so that we gain the necessary self-awareness and insight into our inner landscape to operate from a calm and secure place.  Mindfulness helps us to achieve the emotional regulation involved in dealing with conflictual situations and working to de-escalate the emotional tension involved.  Reflection on our own resentment(s) can assist us to achieve calm, caring and daring.

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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.

Healing Trauma – Dealing with the Visceral Imprint

In a previous post I discussed the complexity of trauma and the need to adopt treatment practices that recognise and respect this complexity.  Bessel van der Kolk in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma, expresses serious concern with the overreliance on medication to treat trauma, especially for returning veterans suffering from PTSD.  He contends that “drugs cannot cure trauma” but only serve to “dampen down” manifestations of a “disturbed physiology” such as violence, overwhelm and uncontrolled anger.  He argues that the side effects of reliance on drug therapy include addiction, lessening the capacity for self-regulation and blocking the senses that otherwise would be the source of pleasure and motivation, emotion and pain. In his view, the treatment aim is not to “blunt emotional sensitivity” but to achieve integration of the traumatic experience into a person’s “arc of life”.

Bessel argues that a traumatised person’s basic challenge in recovery is to re-establish ownership of themselves – the whole person, mind, body and soul.  He contends that this plays out as a fourfold challenge – (1) developing ways to become focused and calm, (2) sustaining calmness when confronted with stimuli such as noise, images and smells that otherwise would trigger a traumatised response,  (3) becoming fully engaged with life and relationships and (4) being open to one’s real self without hiding behind “secrets” that are designed as self-protection (e.g. against shame and self-loathing).  Bessel suggests that the effectiveness of each of the four approaches can vary with the individual and the stage of the healing process.  He illustrates through case studies that the healing journey can be a life-long process with occasional or frequent relapses.

Bessel maintains that, in the long run, confronting the traumatic event(s) in all their horror  is necessary for healing.  However, he cautions about rushing this process without first building a person’s capacity to cope with the fullness of the “visceral imprint” and its related sensitivities (e.g. to specific sounds, smells, thoughts).  Confronting the harsh reality of the precipitating event(s) too soon, when the person is ill-equipped, can lead to an individual being re-traumatised.

Bessel contends that the focus of recovery has to switch from the “rational brain” to the “emotional brain” which manifests trauma in the form of physical sensations impacting the heart, breathing, voice, gut and movement of the body (e.g. resulting in bodily movements “that signify collapse, rigidity, rage or defensiveness”.)  The overall aim is to restore the “the balance between the rational brain and the emotional brain”, because in a traumatised person the rational brain is often overwhelmed by the emotional brain that can “see” danger where it does not exist and inappropriately activates a fight, flight or freeze response

Healing modalities for trauma that recognise the mind-body-emotion connection

Throughout his book, Bessel discusses a range of trauma healing modalities that he has researched and practiced with his clients. His approach is quite eclectic, drawing on both Western and Eastern healing traditions.  He demonstrates through case histories that one modality more than another, or a particular mix of modalities, may prove effective in individual cases.   He appears to adopt a trial-and-error approach to achieve the best fit for a traumatised individual, informed in part by their life skills and the precipitating trauma event.  Some of the healing modalities he adopts are identified below:

  • Controlled breathing – here he encourages slow, deep breathing that that tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and its capacity to reduce arousal and induce calm.  Breathing also serves to enhance oxygen flow to energise the body.
  • Movement modalities – these can include Tai Chi, yoga, martial arts and the rhythmic movement associated with African drumming.  Bessel notes that each of these modalities simultaneously involve not only movement but also breathing and meditation.
  • Mindfulness practices – Bessel points out that traumatised people often avoid their challenging feelings and related bodily sensations.  Mindfulness which generates self-awareness enables the traumatised person to notice their feelings and sensations and the precipitating triggers.  This can lead to emotional regulation, rather than emotional overwhelm which can occur when people try to ignore or hide their real feelings and sensations.  Peter Levine’s “somatic experiencing” approach is an example of a related mindfulness practice that can contribute to healing trauma.
  • Singing – can engage the whole person (body, mind, soul and emotions).  Effective singing requires appropriate posture and breath control, opening up the airways and, at the same time, releasing emotions.  In group sessions with singing teacher, Chris James, I have often observed the spontaneous flow of emotions as people, both men and women, become more engaged and absorbed in the process, learn to let themselves go and find their “natural voice”.  Chris maintains that singing enhances “vibrational awareness”, engenders “self-discovery” and builds “conscious presence”.
  • Chanting and mantra meditationschanting can reduce depression, increase positivity and heighten relaxation.  It has been proven to be effective in helping veterans suffering from PTSD.  Tina Turner found Buddhist chanting to be very effective in overcoming her trauma and re-building her singing career.  Likewise, mantra meditations (that typically incorporate chants) can lead to calm, peace and energy and enable reintegration of body, mind, emotion and spirit.

Reflection

Bessel encourages the use of multiple healing modalities when working with traumatised individuals.  He suggests too that the modalities described above can help anyone deal with life’s challenges, restore balance and build energy.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and related mindfulness practices, we can gain self-awareness, develop self-management and heal from trauma and the scars of adverse experiences, whether in childhood or adulthood.

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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.

Coping with Grief During the Pandemic

Jenée Johnson, mindfulness trainer and visionary leader in the public health space, gave an enlivening and inspiring presentation during the current Healing Healthcare: A Global Mindfulness Summit.  In her talk, Honoring Grief with Your Whole Heart, she highlighted the collective grief resulting from the pandemic and offered processes and tools to cope with grief, whether pandemic-driven or the result of life’s normal circumstances.  She mentioned that she had been well equipped for the pandemic – having the solidity of a house, finances, nutrition, supportive partner, work and a relevant skillset – but she too found the pandemic “unmooring”. 

Jenée experienced the added personal grief of the death of her brother – an experience I can relate to with the recent death of my brother Pat.  However, her brother died not only from the isolation associated with the pandemic but also from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from 9/11.  Jenée spoke of grief, whether personal or collective grief, as depleting and “an energy expenditure”.  She maintained that the pandemic created a “tsunami of emotions” which Dr. Lise Van Susteren describes as “emotional inflammation”.  

Ways to cope with grief

While Jenée acknowledged that the pandemic and associated events impacted individuals differentially, grief was a common outcome – a sense of loss of people, a way of life and/or positive memories.   She contended, however, that there are ways to replenish ourselves, rebuild our energy and achieve emotional regulation.  Some of the ways to cope with grief that Jenée suggested are:

  • Firstly, acknowledge that the reactions of fear, anger and grief are natural human responses.  The challenge is how we manage or regulate these difficult emotions in a time that is constantly unmooring us from our established way of doing things and our regular supports.  The pandemic and personal grief impact our whole human system – our minds, hearts, body and emotions. 
  • Cultivate awareness of everything that has happened to you over the period of the pandemic and subsequently.  Jenée suggested that we need to attend to, rather than hide from, our emotional state.  There is a tendency to shut down and block out painful feelings and recollections but unless we face them, they can overwhelm us when we least expect.  She mentioned that there were times when she cried and wailed after her brother’s death, releasing pent-up emotions.
  • Central to Jenée’s approach is heart-focused breathing.  She stated that when we breathe deeply and release our out-breath we can let go of what is constraining us.  The HeartMath Institute that has pioneered research on the intelligence of the heart has promoted heart-focused breathing and developed a suite of tools, programs and videos to promote health and wellbeing.  They contend that heart-focused breathing contributes to heart coherence which helps to balance mental and emotional energy and activate creativity.  Jenée argued that this form of breathing creates space for energy, enables the pain of grief to move through us and opens us up to flourish and experience joy and pleasure once again.
  • Change our expectations about our capacity to focus and achieve productivity.  Jenee suggested that is not reasonable to expect that we can be as productive during the pandemic as we were before and the same applies to personal grief.  The pandemic and personal grief contribute to a depletion of energy and reserves.  Rather than overload our system with unrealistic expectations, it is important to modify our expectations in the light of our reduced energy levels.  For example, I have to reduce my expects about how many posts I can write per week given my recent grief and the accumulated effects of the pandemic.  Some people have gone so far as to change their expectations about he nature of their work and sought more fulfilling and rewarding work that is less depleting in terms of time and energy.
  • Pamper ourselves with things that relax us – spending more time reading novels or the paper, sleeping in when appropriate, enjoying a massage, purchasing aromatherapy oils or indulging in treats (Jenée admitted that coffee and almond croissants are one of her treats – something else I have in common!).  One of the dangers is to resort to alcohol to dampen our pain (alcohol sales have exploded during the pandemic) and we need to be cognisant of the impact of increased alcohol consumption on our sobriety goals and this may entail a reassessment of the “reward value” of consuming more alcohol in times of grief. 
  • Rebuilding social connections through our recreation and work activities. Resuming social activities such as social tennis or dancing (where permitted) along with walking generates movement which in turn builds up dopamine which makes us feel good.  Sometimes grief brings extended family members together and creates the opportunity to develop new connections or re-establish old ones.  In the workplace, we could begin our meetings with a grounding exercise followed by an emotional “check-in” to see how everyone is coping – putting people ahead of task in these challenging times.
  • Practicing gratitude can generate appreciation and joy even amidst grief and pain. Jenée suggested buying a beautiful gratitude journal and an exquisite pen to cultivate the habit of journal writing and expressing gratitude.  She recommended Robert Emmons’ book, Gratitude Works, for its insights on the benefits of gratitude and its tips on ways to foster gratitude. 

Reflection

Jenée quoted Jon Kabat-Zin when he said that “the challenge of mindfulness is to be present for your experience as it is”, not as you wish it to be or try to make it different by denying the reality of the experience and your related thoughts and emotions.  Mindfulness can build resilience in challenging times as has been proven by extensive research.   As we grow in mindfulness and enhance our self-awareness, we are better able to gain insights into the way forward, develop the courage to face our fears and increase our window of tolerance.  We can experience gratitude, joy, renewed energy, and heightened creativity.

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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.

Overcoming Conditioning: The Road to Sobriety

Veronica Valli and Chip Somers, psychotherapists and sobriety coaches, provide a video podcast which focuses on, “How to stop drinking without feeling like you are missing out”.   Both have recovered from extended substance abuse and share their knowledge, skills and life stories to help others experience recovery.  Throughout the video they explore the false beliefs that lead us to maintain our level of alcohol drinking and that serve to entrench our habituated behaviour.  They explore the outside influences that reinforce our false beliefs and unhelpful/unhealthy habits.  Veronica and Chip offer a way forward for anyone who wants to overcome their conditioning and achieve sobriety – a road to recovery that they have used to help many hundreds of people recover and achieve a truly successful life.  They also offer a Soberful podcast with more than 150 episodes incorporating success stories to help people sustain their efforts to achieve sobriety. 

The power of false beliefs

Chip and Veronica point out that underpinning our habituated drinking behaviour is a set of false beliefs that influence our thoughts and emotions on a daily (even hourly) basis.  These false beliefs relate to the nature of the rewards offered by alcohol drinking and the fear of exclusion through living a boring life if not drinking.  The fundamental false belief is that alcohol is the passport to a promised land – the land of fun, excitement, relaxation, a sense of connection and belonging, sex and romance.  The power of this belief is fuelled by our conviction that this is the desired land – the place we want to be.  Associated with that is the fear that if we stop, or even reduce, our alcohol drinking we will be seen as boring and be excluded from the desired land of personal fulfillment.

External influences reinforcing false beliefs

Television advertising with its ability to create colourful and exciting scenarios portray a culture where drinking is the road to inclusion and fun.  The images portrayed in advertisements entice us to sit back and relax with a drink or to party on with others who are having a good time.  Some ads even focus on the pain of exclusion for those who are not part of the drinking set.  Wine and beer advertising through social media, text messages and email is continuous and unrelenting, promising the ”good life” if you participate and partake.  Newspapers offer special advertisements that encourage you to sign up for weekly/monthly shipments of alcohol at special discounted prices. If you happen to join a wine club, they are very ready to make you “one-off offers” that are “specially designed for you” – and they can make this very targeted by tracking your frequent purchases.  A culture of drinking permeates our society and it is very difficult to break the hold of this cultural entanglement.

The road to sobriety

Both Veronica and Chip stress that the road to sobriety can be a long journey where the early stages can be quite difficult as we try to break the hold of our false beliefs and the influence of family, friends and peer group that can hold us back – sometimes with the disarming comment, “Oh come on, don’t be a bore!”   

One of the primary ways that Chip highlights to begin the road to recovery is a “reality check” or what is often called “a cost/benefit analysis”.  Chip insists that we face the reality of the costs of drinking alcohol for us personally and don’t downplay or overlook the negative impact on family, friends, work output, social relationships, health and wellbeing and overall productivity.  Facing the reality of our lack of sobriety can be painful and entails a thorough reassessment of the reward value that we consciously or unconsciously ascribe to drinking alcohol.   

Veronica focused on the need for social support to reinforce our efforts to achieve recovery.  She maintains that social support is necessary to reduce the likelihood of falling back into old habits or the stop/start pattern that can develop when we go it alone.  To this end, Veronica offers a Soberful Facebook group and a paid online Soberful Life Program with monthly workshops, support meetings, training videos, and podcast discussions – all facilitated by professional experts and established authors in the field of sobriety.   

In her latest book, Soberful: Uncover a Sustainable, Fulfilling Life Free of Alcohol,Veronica offers other ways to begin the journey to recovery and sustain a life of sobriety.  She highlights the emotional skills needed to sustain our recovery efforts and identifies effective strategies to manage the difficult emotions that we often try to avoid or numb through alcohol.  She discusses in detail what she describes as the Five Pillars of Sustainable Sobriety which she identifies as movement, connection balance, process and growth (this is also offered as a free Masterclass). 

Reflection

The road to sobriety is very much an individual journey and both Chip and Veronica have travelled this road over many years in their earlier lives.  They have experienced the challenges, the setbacks, pressures and the big and small victories.  Veronica found that journalling and meditation (undertaken over more than 20 years) have helped her to sustain her sobriety and Chip highlighted the positive influence of “expressing gratitude for what he has” as a sustaining force.

One of the ways to recovery involves a process of reflection on what “messaging” we give ourselves on a particular occasion when we chose to drink alcohol.   We can review, for example, whether our behaviour was motivated by a reward mindset – just one or two drinks to reward ourselves for overcoming a difficult situation, achieving a successful outcome, celebrating an anniversary or birthday.  Bringing awareness to our personal messaging helps us to identify the specific motivators that underlie our habituated behaviours. 

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, listening to podcasts, participating in workshops/programs or meditating, we can grow in self-awareness and identify the drivers behind our habits, including the habit of drinking alcohol, and develop the necessary emotional regulation to enable us to achieve a desired state of sobriety.

I have personal experience of the damaging effects of alcohol through my experience of an alcoholic father who lacked any support mechanism for his post-traumatic stress syndrome resulting from three and a half years as a prisoner-of-war in Changi.  After a marriage breakup and a successful remarriage, he became a model of sobriety, giving up drinking alcohol completely, and keeping fit by walking for an hour every day.

This family history has motivated me to avoid alcoholism.  However, I still feel the pressures, internal and external, to have a regular glass of wine (a variable regularity governed, to some degree, by my life circumstances at the time – such as the recent death of my brother Pat Passfield).  My strategy to move towards my desired level of sobriety is to reflect on what motivates my behaviour in particular circumstances and to do a reality check covering the real cost of the occasional drink (e.g. on health and relationships). 

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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 Overcome being Imprisoned by Self-Neglect

Edith Eger in her book The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the prison of self-neglect”.   Habituated behaviours that underlie self-neglect can arise through adverse childhood experiences, an abusive relationship or a deficient developmental environment.  Edith suggests that self-neglect often arises because of unmet childhood needs – specifically the need for “attention, affection and approval”.   Our own needs are neglected in order to fill the gap left by unfulfilled childhood needs.  So we pursue the “A’s” (mentioned above) at the expense of our present needs.  An aspect of self-neglect is the avoidance of expressing strong emotions for fear of causing  discomfort to others.

Factors leading to self-neglect

We might have had parents who offered conditional love – on condition that we met their high standards in sport, academic or other achievements.  Their expectations about our performance can create a dependency whereby we are forever seeking approval or acceptance.  We might have suffered neglect as a child through the conscious choice of parents or their own adverse circumstances.  This can lead to our continuously seeking attention.  In one of my workshops, one participant proved to be continually disruptive through constant challenge to anything other participants said.  It turned out she was seeking attention and approval because she was denied this as a very young child – being expected to contribute meaningfully to adult conversation when still very young.

Sometimes self-neglect can arise as a result of the role we played as a child or young adult.  Family circumstances may have led to our being the “responsible one”, “the carer” or “the earner”.  These roles may have been necessary at the time but the unspoken expectation that comes with the role can continue into adulthood.  Edith recounts the story of a client who was imprisoned by the self-expectations that arose as a result of a childhood role as the “reliable one”.  This led to continual self-neglect in pursuit of other people’s needs – often unexpressed but assumed.  The result was personal burnout as well as depriving others of the opportunity to develop independence.  Sometimes creating dependence on ourselves fulfills our desire to be needed.  This was something that Gabor Maté discussed as contributing to his need to be a workaholic medical practitioner.

Gabor maintains that underlying many addictions is an unmet need arising from early childhood.  The addiction, whatever form it takes, is an ineffectual way to address the pain arising from parental neglect, abuse or inattention.  His “compassionate inquiry” approach is designed to unearth the early triggering event(s), the resultant negative self-message and the reward sought through the addictive behaviour.

Overcoming the imprisonment of self-neglect

The fundamental rule to freeing ourselves from the prison of self-neglect, is to begin to put ourselves back into the picture, to have self and our needs as part of the equation when trying to decide how to spend our energy and time.  Edith suggests that there are a number of ways to do this:

  1. Savour the things and people in our life that bring us joy.  We can start small with a few minutes each morning spent appreciating the little things in our life –  noticing a new leaf or flower on an indoor plant, reflecting on a picture or painting that generates positive feelings, or valuing a person who has shown us kindness, thoughtfulness or generosity.  Savouring what is good in our life can extend to appreciating the development of our children, accomplishments and rewards, the wonders of our subconscious mind, the capacity to think and create and our relationships (even our relatives).  We can actively seek to let joy into our lives.
  2. Appreciating nature – nature has a healing power and enables us to cultivate all our senses and develop our sense of wonder and awe.   In nature, we can be lost in the beauty, the sounds, the textures and the smells that surround us.   We can actually find ourselves in this process of being lost in something immense and awe-inspiring that is beyond ourselves.
  3. Edith herself adopted an affirmation that expresses something of her uniqueness and what she has been able to contribute to the world.  We can all find the words to reflect the positive things we have contributed to others and what makes us a truly unique person.  In the process, we can value the people who helped make us who we are – our parents and their positive traits, our mentors and their wisdom, and our teachers who willingly shared their knowledge and insights.
  4. Reflect on an occasion where you were asked for something or to do something.  Ask yourself what were your thoughts and feelings at the time.  What was driving your choices?  How much of looking after yourself was reflected in your response.  How could you have responded in a way that did not involve self-neglect, e.g. expressing your true feelings.  Are there habituated behaviours that you engage in that continually overlook your own needs?
  5. Explore the balance in your life.  Edith suggests that we keep a record (for a short period) of how we spend our day in terms of how we allocate time to work, play and love.  Does work absorb all our time and energy at the expense of our needs for nurturing, relaxation and time to ourselves.  How often do we allow ourselves to become absorbed in a hobby, creation or charitable activities or just enjoy social activities with friends or family.

Reflection

With the busyness of life, it is so easy to lose ourselves through self-neglect. There are often hidden forces underpinning this neglect, so self-exploration is important to unearth what drives our behaviour.  As we grow in mindfulness through observation and reflection, we can gain the necessary self-awareness and insight to understand ourselves and develop the courage to make changes to the way we live our life. 

Edith maintains that we do not change until we are ready to make the change and often this is driven by a need to change habits that no longer serve us in a positive way.  Any changes we make to our behaviour, no matter how small, need to be reinforced by savouring our achievement.   From Edith’s perspective, change involves the process of “finding the real you”. 

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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.

Expressing Emotions or Being Imprisoned by Avoidance

Edith Eger In her book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the imprisonment of avoidance” – the refusal to express challenging emotions.  She maintains that avoiding feelings through suppression leads to depression – the opposite involves release through expression.  We can supress our feelings for many reasons, e.g. to avoid the pain and hurt of recollection or to protect others from seeing us as vulnerable and suffering. 

If we are suffering from past hurts or trauma we can try to shield loved ones from the discomfort that comes with the expression of strong feelings.  In the process, we are not being honest and we are also depriving them of the opportunity to express empathy and love.  We can also unconsciously train our children to avoid the expression of feelings when they are hurt or upset.   We can try to diminish their feelings out of our own discomfort or sense of sadness.  We might say, “Don’t cry, there will be other opportunities to go to parties”, “You’ll forget about this tomorrow”, “Look how many friends you do have who let you play”, or “Let’s get some ice cream and make the pain go away!” (we can try to substitute something  pleasurable to avoid the expression of pain and hurt, thus setting in place habituated avoidance behaviour).

Edith suggests that sometimes we suppress our feelings by trying to convince ourselves that we are happy and joyful when this is patently not true.  We might even resort to affirmations to hide our true feelings.  This form of subterfuge only acerbates our feelings because it denies our reality – the depth and breadth of our true feelings.  Edith encourages us “to feel so you can heal” because “you can’t heal what you don’t feel”.   Sometimes our underlying feelings can be mired in resentment and can be unearthed through a guided reflection.

There is a real cost to ourselves in avoidance.  Despite our very best efforts, emotions are embodied – they manifest in our bodies as physical tension/pain and/or result in emotional or physical illness.  By not living our truth or accepting the reality of how we are feeling, we undermine our own integrity and personal integration.   Edith provides a detailed and graphic example of the impact of unexpressed feelings on a women who experienced incomprehensible violence by a family member.  Her life was lived in fear and loneliness because she never owned up to her feelings of rage, anger and deep fear of the perpetrator.

There may be times in conversation with a friend that we withhold a true expression of our feelings about some matter relevant to our relationship with them.  Edith suggests that we can revisit the conversation mentally, work out what we should have said and then approach the relevant person at a suitable time and in a neutral place to express our real feelings.  We could even start by practising with restaurant waitresses and expressing our honest feelings about a meal (rather than hiding our true feelings because we do not want to hurt or embarrass them). 

Facing up to our feelings and naming them provides a real release.  Edith suggests that we can practise this by stopping ourselves at any time during the day and naming our emotion, whether positive or challenging,  in the present moment.  This is not only a form of mindfulness practice but is also a way to increase self-awareness and develop honesty about our feelings both to ourselves and others.

Edith explains that sometimes this challenge to express rather than supress feelings appears overwhelming.  She writes about her inability to face the Auschwitz Museum for fear of the pain of recollection of her parent’s murder and her own torture and starvation as a prisoner in the concentration camp.  It took her a lot of courage after 10 years to visit the Museum and she describes in detail what she felt when confronted with images of emaciated people, the cattle trains and arrival platform.  She found herself cringing and curled herself up into a tight ball in a dark corner of the Museum – overwhelmed by grief, pain, anguish and anger.  However, revisiting the trauma and owning the depth of her feelings provided a new level of release to enable her to be even more productive and helpful in her ongoing work as a trauma consultant – she had finally gained release from the imprisonment of avoidance.

Reflection

Edith’s own life experience, which she shares so freely in her books, bears out how difficult it is to free ourselves from the imprisonment of avoidance.  It may take many years of progressive inner work, and trying out various ways of overcoming our entrapment, to achieve some degree of freedom and realise ease and joy.  However, suppression leads to ongoing suffering and depression.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasingly self-aware of the different ways we avoid expressing our true emotions, develop the courage to own up to these emotions and achieve the resilience required to break free of the imprisonment of avoidance. _________________________________

Image source: 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.

Changing Our Inner Landscape to Achieve Freedom

In her book The Choice: A True Story of Hope, Dr. Edith Eger tracks her journey from imprisonment in Auschwitz, to her physical liberation and, finally, her personal freedom from the imprisonment of her “inner landscape”.   She had been transported to Auschwitz by cattle train with her parents and sister and had experienced unbelievable maltreatment through torture and starvation following the murder of her parents in the gas chamber the day after they arrived at the concentration camp.

Edith contends, in concert with her mentor and friend Viktor Frankl,  that “our worst experiences can be our best teachers”.   In her later book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, she has detailed practical steps to overcome the mental imprisonment that can occur through grief, anger, guilt, shame and other difficult emotions and experiences.  Edith does not sugar-coat the reality of daily life.  She maintains that traumatic events, setbacks, disappointments, illness and the resultant suffering are part and parcel of the human condition with its uncertainty, ambiguity and challenges.  In alignment with Gabor Maté, she argues that it is not what happens to us in life that determines our mental health, but how we relate to these experiences and their impacts  – and this is a matter of conscious choice.

Choosing freedom over victimhood

One of the 12 lessons Edith writes about in her book The Gift is freedom from “the prison of victimhood”.   She asserts that playing the victim rewards us by enabling us to blame others for our situation and avoid responsibility for our own response to our adverse experience.  This is in line with Judson Brewer’s concept of the habit loop (trigger-reward-behaviour) that provides reinforcement for habituated behaviour such as addiction and cravings.  In the victimhood context, the trigger can be any recollection or trauma stimulus event; the reward is avoidance of responsibility (not having to do anything different); and the behaviour can find expression in depression, anxiety addiction, or any number of self-destructive behaviours.   

Edith maintains that a sign of victimhood is continuously asking, “Why me?”.  In contrast, the road to personal freedom requires the question, “What now?” – given what has happened what do I need to do to survive and what do I want to achieve in the future.  This goal-directed response builds hope and energy to move forward.  The alternative is to wallow in the continuous self-story of “poor me!”.   Edith who has extensive experience as a clinical psychologist and trauma counsellor provides many accounts in her book of people, including herself, who have been able to make the choice to exchange victimhood for energetic hope and achievement. 

Edith reinforces the view that the pursuit of inner freedom is a lifetime task and she commented that even as she wrote her book, The Gift, she still experienced “flashbacks and nightmares”.  She told Gabor that his Holocaust experience would always be with him because of the embodiment of trauma.  They both agree from their own personal experience, their work as clinical psychologists and trauma counsellors and their underpinning research, that what is required to find freedom is inner work.

Edith also contends that the pursuit of inner freedom is a never-ending process of finding your “true self”.  It is a journey of self-discovery – of unearthing our inner resources, enlisting our creativity and clarifying our purpose in life.  It ultimately involves identifying the ways we can make a contribution to the welfare and wellness of others.  Edith found her path in her writing, her counselling work helping others who have experienced adverse childhood experiences and trauma and public speaking such as her TED talk, The Journey of Grieving, Feeling and Healing.   In her book, she also describes the journey to freedom from victimhood of her eldest daughter who experienced brain injury as a result of a serious fall.  Edith points out that her daughter, at one stage, actually challenged her for treating her daughter as a victim.  As Edith comments, we can assign a victim role to other people as well as ourselves, thus locking in a negative and disabling self-belief.

Reflection

I am confident that we can each identify a period in our lives, even the present day, when we felt like, and talked like, a victim.  Very few people have lived their lives free of adverse childhood experiences or other traumas – whether they involve a  relationship breakup, hurtful divorce, death of a loved one, serious injury and disablement or diagnosed life-threatening chronic illness. 

As we grow in mindfulness, we can explore our inner landscape, grow in self-awareness, identify our negative self-talk, and develop the insight and courage to pursue our personal freedom and our life purpose.

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Image by Petya Georgieva from 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.

Managing Fear and Anxiety through Mindfulness Meditation

Diana Winston, Director of the Mindfulness Education Division in UCLA, provides a guided meditation podcast on the use of mindfulness to manage fear and anxiety.  She suggests that our fears can be real (e.g. a physical threat) or imagined (e.g. anxiety about some perceived future scenario which may never happen).  Fear is focused on perceptions about the present moment whereas anxiety tends to be longer term and related to imagined adverse futures in whatever form they may take.

We can be fearful about the risk of contracting the Coronavirus, COVID19, and experiencing the associated debilitating effects of this pandemic.  We might also be putting off our meaningful work because of unfounded rationalisations about what might go wrong.  We might have found that a generalised state of anxiety has disabled us and  that our fear response has blocked us from our creativity and capacity to perform at a competent level.  Our fear response can be manifested behaviourally as fight, flight or freeze.

In the guided meditation, Diana offers a four stage meditation process to address whatever form our fear or anxiety takes.  She maintains that a mindfulness approach can not only increase self-awareness and regulation of our emotions but also enable us to restore our centredness and strengthen our wellbeing and the associated ease.

The four-stage approach to managing fear and anxiety through mindfulness meditation

Diana’s four stage approach incorporates becoming physically grounded, exploring what is happening in the moment, accessing the “wisdom mind” and extending loving kindness towards yourself.  The processes in each of the four stages can be summarised as follows:

  • Stage 1 – This involves establishing a sense of physical groundedness by feeling your feet on the floor and experiencing the solidity, physical support and stability beneath you.  The associated feelings can be strengthened by picturing the solid earth beneath, no matter how much your are above ground level at the time of the meditation. ‘
  • Stage 2 – Here you are encouraged to face the fear in its various manifestations – bodily sensations, racing mind and unsettling feelings.  The core question is, What does fear feel like?  Do you experience increase heart rate, sweating, headache or a “clenched stomach”.  What thoughts are generating your fear and/or anxiety and what negative thoughts and worldview are you adopting?  What is happening for you emotionally, e.g. crying, withdrawing, being angry and/or aggressive or experiencing inertia?
  • Stage 3 – Once you achieve a degree of calmness, you can seek to access your “wisdom mind” which deserts you when you are in turmoil.  Mindfulness can provide a pathway to wisdom and open the door to our intuition and creativity.  Sharon Salzberg  maintains that meditation can stimulate our innate wisdom through recognition of agency, appreciating moments of joy and richness, identifying boundaries of control, strengthening our sense of connectedness (replacing a sense of aloneness) and assisting us to deal effectively with difficult thoughts and emotions.
  • Stage 4 – Here you are encouraged to tap into loving kindness towards yourself – providing understanding, a non-judgmental stance and reassurance. You can extend towards yourself the same thoughtfulness, forgiveness and generosity that you show towards others in need. 

Reflection

If we are anxious, we may need to explore a range of regular practices to restore balance in our life.   Judson Brewer, in his book Unwinding Anxiety, maintains that mindfulness does not stop anxious thoughts or change them but “changes our relationship to those thoughts and emotions”.  He offers a “mindfulness personality quiz” to help you identify your behavioural patterns and provides ways to “train your brain to heal your mind”.

Meditation and other mindfulness practices such as chanting help us to reframe our life and overcome adversity by developing insight and resilience.   As we grow in mindfulness, we can deepen our self-awareness, regain control over our thoughts and emotions and build the resilience required to live in these challenging times.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from 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.

Compassionate Inquiry as a Healing Mode for Trauma and Addiction

Compassionate Inquiry is a psychotherapy method developed by Dr. Gabor Maté to help people suffering from the effects of trauma and addiction to experience “deep healing and transformation”.   Gabor is a world authority on trauma and addiction and has developed his method after many years in family medical practice, covering the whole range of human experience from obstetrics to palliative care.  He found through his counselling sessions conducted each day after his clinic hours that trauma underlay many of the numerous physical and mental illnesses he encountered in his medical consultations.  Gabor intensified his research in related fields and explored his own addictive behaviour and its trauma-induced origins.

Gabor acknowledges that his early efforts at therapy were inadequate because he had not been trained in the area.  However, he persisted because there were very few people offering a psychotherapy approach to addiction and trauma – even psychologists, in the main, trained in the medical model, adopted a symptomatic approach and related medication treatment.  They did not explore the root cause of the addictive behaviour or the distorting impacts of various traumas experienced by people, especially in early childhood.

Compassionate inquiry to heal addiction and trauma

Gabor learned through his early experience that healing lay in enabling the client “to experience the truth of themselves within themselves”.   So what he attempts to achieve is not just an intellectual exercise – it involves engaging the whole person, their distorted perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.  He maintains that his approach is compassionate even though he interrupts people, challenges assumptions, and explores aspects that are painful for the client.  He believes that it is not his role to make the person feel good but to help them to genuinely face their pain and the truth about themselves. 

Gabor stated that often therapists are dealing with their own trauma and addiction issues (as he was in his early stages) and are not able to be totally present to the client nor able to control their responses to what the person is saying or doing – their help is not offered unconditionally.  He suggests that therapists need to work on themselves to ensure that they do not contaminate their interaction with their client/patient because of their own unresolved issues.  He stated that therapists who display anger or other challenging emotions undermine the healing process for the other person.

Paying attention to the cues

There is one very important aspect to paying attention to the cues provided by the client’s words, actions and non-verbals – and that is the issue of consent.  Gabor seeks consent to explore behaviour in-depth with the person he is working with but he also checks that he has consent to continue when the going becomes challenging.  He argues that the person will give some cues if they are too uncomfortable and these should be used to confirm ongoing consent.  In a podcast conversation for Banyen Books, Gabor said that he exceeded the consent boundaries in his earlier days as a therapist when he would drop into therapy mode with his family members – who outright rejected his approach given that they had not given consent. He soon realised that they wanted him as a spouse, parent, friend or supporter – not as their therapist.

The other key aspect of paying attention to cues is that they give the therapist insight into what is really going on for the client.  Gabor illustrates how “unconscious metaphors” (such as the sun revolving around the moon) can indicate that the balance of dependence and inter-dependence is distorted in a relationship between daughter and mother.  The daughter might be “carrying” the mother, thus creating a traumatic experience of missing out on maternal support in the early stages of development.   Gabor maintains that metaphors a person uses are instructive, even if employed unconsciously.  He uses this cue to explore the meaning of the metaphor for the client and the underlying thought processes and emotional component. 

His compassionate inquiry approach is designed to get at the “basic human need” that lies unfulfilled in the person he is working with.  He argues that no matter what the words or behaviour of the individual (e.g. aggressive or obnoxious) there is a ‘real human being underneath”.  He uses the words of Marshall Rosenberg when he describes addiction as “the tragic communication of a need”.   The challenge is to enable the client/patient to go inside themselves and confront the uncomfortable and painful truth that they are futilely pursuing an unmet, and unacknowledged, need deriving from adverse childhood experiences or adult traumatic events.   Gabor spontaneously illustrates his compassionate inquiry approach in a podcast interview with Tim Ferriss.

Gabor makes the point that his approach does not involve having people tell detailed stories about their traumatic events or adverse childhood experiences, he consciously chooses to focus instead on the impacts of these events/experiences in terms of the person’s distorted perceptions, false self-beliefs and/or addictive behaviour.  He sees his task as staying present to the person and their “here and now” experience so that he can “mirror back to them their true selves”.  Gabor’s compassionate inquiry approach is supported by Bessel van der Kolk, a global authority on trauma, who has used attachment research and neuroscience to develop innovative treatments for adults and children who have suffered from traumatic events.  Bessel contends that his research demonstrates that to change the way we feel we need “to become aware of our inner experience” and then learn to “befriend what is going on inside ourselves”.

Training in compassionate inquiry

Gabor maintains that compassionate inquiry requires an “unconditional determination to understand a person”.   He offers several training courses for people who want to develop the requisite skills and personal wholeness to be able to offer compassionate inquiry in their therapeutic/consulting practice.  He indicated that experience with these courses shows that participants gain insight into themselves as much as learning about the compassionate inquiry method.  Gabor often uses inquiry into the experiences of individual participants themselves to illustrate his perspective and process.  He offers a one year, online course in compassionate inquiry over 12 months, as well as an add-on certification process for those who want more advanced training.

An alternative to the online training is paid access over a 1-year period to Gabor’s recorded seminars based on a weekend workshop conducted in Vancouver in 2018.  The four videos involved cover more than 9 hours of training by Gabor.  Free access to Gabor’s perspective and methodology can also be gained by exploring his YouTube Channel, which includes his interviews and his TED Talk.  Gabor’s website also provides additional resources.

Reflection

With his compassionate inquiry approach, Gabor provides a methodology that a skilled facilitator with adequate training and immersion in his approach, could employ to help people who seek assistance with addiction and/or the effects of trauma.  Compassionate inquiry practitioners are available in multiple locations around the world.  Gabor also offers CI Circles facilitated by a certified CI practitioner for anyone who wants to learn more about CI concepts and practices and to engage in self-inquiry.  The Circles involve self-reflective journalling and a willingness to  share insights and disclose present moment experiences, somatic and otherwise.

As we grow in mindfulness and associated self-awareness through reflection, meditation and guided inquiry methods, we are better placed to help ourselves deal with the impact of traumatic events from our past life and to assist others with similar needs.

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Image by John Hain from 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.

How Trauma Impacts Our Behaviour

Dr. Gabor Maté, world authority on trauma and addiction, has produced a film titled The Wisdom of Trauma.  In the film, he draws on his research, his own experience of trauma as a child of the Holocaust and the addiction and trauma stories of others.  Through this wealth of evidence, he challenges several prevailing myths about the nature of trauma and addiction.  For instance, he maintains that addiction is not just an inherited illness nor is it a basis for blaming an individual.  He takes a more compassionate approach and suggests that we need to understand the true nature of trauma and addiction.

In essence, Gabor maintains that trauma is not external catalytic events such as adverse childhood experiences or adult traumatic events.  In his view, trauma is what happens internally, not externally.  Fundamentally, trauma is the “resultant dissociation from self” that occurs for the individual.  Gabor describes this as a “loss of authenticity” in that the traumatised individual can no longer access their intuition or gut feeling and as a consequence tend to engage in self-destructive behaviours such as addictions in different forms including alcoholism, drug addiction, workaholic behaviour, or addiction to sex or shopping.  These injurious behaviours are a form of escape designed to avoid personal feelings that are too painful to face.

The traumatised person loses the capacity to deal with their emotions and seeks diversions that they hope will bring freedom, a renewed self-esteem, a sense of completion or aliveness – which are all legitimate pursuits of healthy humans.  So the addiction is a way of solving their fundamental problem – a basic disconnection from their real feelings.  The addictions do not bring freedom or wholeness but serve as an imprisonment and deepen the feelings of hollowness and meaninglessness.

Gabor contends that for the traumatised person, their healthy orientation has never been expressed in life through meaningful relationships.  He argues that we have to see addiction as a response to trauma and look beyond its external manifestations and “see the wound that is right inside that person”.   Gabor encourages us to look beyond “what is wrong with a person” to what has happened to them in their life, including their early childhood.  His compassionate approach is spellbindingly expressed in his book, In the Realm of Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Recovery from trauma and addiction

Gabor illustrates through his film and books, amazing stories of recovery from addiction. He shows that the wisdom that lies in trauma is awareness of how our response to everyday interactions throws light on our fundamental traumatised thinking such as “I am not worthy of respect” or “I am not lovable”.  Gabor asserts that recovery from trauma and addiction requires “compassionate inquiry” that enables a person to face their fear, let the truth inside themselves out into the light of day, and gain insight into the drivers of their behaviour, including their distorted worldview.

He illustrates how addiction and healing were manifested in his own life.  His trauma experience as a child during the Holocaust, hiding with his mother and being passed over to others for safe keeping, led to his belief that “the world doesn’t want me”.  He realised with the help of the compassionate assistance of his wife, that his workaholic behaviour as a specialist medical doctor was designed to “to make himself needed”.  The continuous affirmation of his contribution to peoples’ health and wellness served as personal validation and cemented his addictive behaviour.

Reflection

Gabor demonstrates that if we do not address the fundamental problem of dissociation from our feelings, we will not be able to achieve recovery from our trauma and associated addiction.  Trauma has a way of surfacing in distorted perceptions and inappropriate, sometimes high risk-taking, behaviours.

Gabor suggests that each of us examine situations where our response to some stimulus leads to an over=reaction on our part,  e.g. when a waitress tells us we cannot change a menu item or a tradesperson does not turn up when they promised.  He encourages us to look beyond our reaction to the personal belief that is being played out, e.g. “I am not good enough for people to pay attention to my needs”.  He would encourage us then to explore what traumatic event(s) led to this fundamental self-belief.  In the film, he illustrates this process by sharing part of his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss where he explores Tim’s self-belief (“I am not worthy of respect”) deriving from adverse childhood experiences.

 As we reflect on our life and our responses to everyday events, we can grow in mindfulness and develop increased self-awareness, insight and self-compassion.  We can also enhance our empathy for others who are addicted and develop the courage to take compassionate action, inspired by the work of people like Gabor, who with Vicky Dulai, founded the Compassion for Addiction group.

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Image by Jubair Bin Hasan from 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.