Embracing Fear

“We master our fears by embracing them, not by subduing them.” ― Arianna Huffington

 

  Manneken Pis  in Belgium, 

Manneken Pis in Belgium, 

Every year I choose a word for the year. In 2015, my word was fearless. I chose it because I wanted to eliminate fear from my life—completely and totally eradicate it. Without fear, I imagined I would leap tall buildings and right wrongs and make the world my oyster—in other words my life would be a beautiful cliché of never-ending accomplishments and obstacle-crushing successes.

You can guess how well that turned out.

After struggling with this idea for an entire year, I have some thoughts. Fear, in and of itself, is not bad. We need fear. Fear protects us from harm. I fear snakes, partly because they are scaly, but also because some are poisonous and can kill you.

Fear is also important in our emotional life. I might fear that this bout of depression will never end so I finally call my doctor. Or I might fear divorce so I get myself and my partner to a couple’s therapist to work on our issues.

The problem with fear is that it can be a loud, obnoxious bully that shouts down our more logical and grounded parts of us. With just a smoldering look and flexing of its muscles, even the most brave among us can become quivering wimps.

In addition, fear doesn’t play by the rules of polite society. It brings up past failures, disappointments, and even past fears. It often strikes when we are at our weakest—in the middle of the night, sitting beside a sick child’s bed, or just as you stand to give a presentation at work.

What doesn’t work with fear is to deny its existence or beat it into submission. Believe me, I’ve tried. Fear just seems to come back bigger and stronger. But like with most bullies, if we face fear straight on and show it some curiosity and compassion, it will eventually calm down. Curiosity might be asking questions like: Why is fear showing up now? What does it looks like? What is it saying? Can you imagine treating your fear like a small, frightened child and picking it up and placing it in your lap?  What if you gave it comfort instead of fighting it?

By acknowledging our fears instead of ignoring them or trying to squelch them, we illogically calm them enough to give us a little breathing room.  In this space, we can better evaluate the validity of our fears’ underlying concerns. Maybe it would be a good idea to see a doctor, go to therapy, or call a friend to check on them. Or maybe not. Curiosity and compassion are a better guide in life than anything that fear might suggest.

  • What fear keeps you awake at night or wakes you early in the morning?
     
  • What does your fear look like?
     
  • When is your fear most likely to strike?

No. NO. NO!

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.” ― Henry David Thoreau

 

thoreau-florence.

Sometimes before we can say “Yes,” we have to say “No.” If you have been around a toddler for any length of time you know just how strong the push to learn to say “no” can be. It seems to be wired into us, and is a crucial part of our development.

I remember when my son was a toddler; I asked him if he wanted a piece of a banana. He shook his head back and forth, looked in my eyes, said “NO!” all the while reaching out to take the banana. I think this has stayed in my mind, not just because of the incongruity, but also because it became a bit of a turning point for me in terms of really understanding that learning to say “no” is a process. We aren’t born knowing how to protest.  It’s a skill we have to learn over time.

Somewhere along the way, “no” became a dirty word, especially for women. While I can’t remember ever having been told that I shouldn’t say “no” (except to sex, drugs, and rock and roll), I was admonished (both overtly and covertly) to be more agreeable or pleasant.  This was code for “be a nice girl, don't make a fuss, and do what others want.”

As adults we might be more sophisticated in our protests but we often have parts of us that still need to say “no” before they can say “yes.” Sometimes clients need my permission to loudly and emphatically say “no”—and sometimes even “Hell No.” This might look like a long list of reasons why they cannot make changes in their life, or even anger that I might suggest that I see hope in their story. Or it might be saying "no" to things that were done to us as children or things that are happening in their adult life that they are afraid to protest.

In an odd paradox, change is often made possible when we protest making the the very change that we desire.

  • What do you remember about the messages around saying “no” when you were growing up?
     
  • What are you saying “no” to right now?
     
  • What are you not saying “yes” to?

Is There Room for Joy in the Midst of Pain?

“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it. ”   ―Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich-Nhat-Hanh-therapy.jpg

It was one of those perfect spring evenings in Texas: a clear blue sky and gentle breeze. My young-adult son came over for dinner, my husband grilled some steaks, and we sat outside talking, laughing and debating (our family often bonds over well-crafted arguments).

As we debated the state of politics, I had one of those surreal moments—the kind where you step back and observe what’s going on as if an outsider peering in. I looked at the two men I love most in the world and felt unspeakable joy—joy for their presence in my life, for the man my son is becoming, for the steady presence of my husband.

It was just a moment, too quickly interrupted by some outrageous claim that drew me back into the debate—but it is those all-too-fleeting moments of joy that make life precious.

Everyday I have the honor of working with people who are hurting and in pain. Their struggles are real and often overwhelming. But sometimes it is important to focus on what’s working in people’s lives.

This can be difficult when mental illness is viewed as only a medical problem. When you have a medical problem, like a broken arm, you go to the doctor, get an x-ray and a cast, and you go on your way. Problem diagnosed and fixed.

Emotional pain isn’t like a broken arm. We can’t see it on an x-ray, and there are no tests to pinpoint most problems. Emotions aren’t fixed in eight, insurance-approved sessions. Study after study has shown that what heals people’s emotional problems is the relationship between a client and a caring and attuned therapist.

I want to connect to all parts of my client—the painful and hurting parts as well as—and just as importantly—the parts that are working well. Clients are often surprised when I ask them what’s working in their lives. They often look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. They have just described the pain and hurt that has devastated them, and here I am asking about what is going well. But human beings are complex, multi-layered beings (like a parfait, as Donkey observed in Shrek) who rarely experience only a single emotion, like sadness, anxiety, fear, or pain.  I believe that helping clients acknowledge they are more than their pain is helpful.  Nurturing a spark of joy, even in someone’s darkest hour, can be an important part of healing.

I’m not saying that when we’re depressed or anxious we should slap a Pollyanna-like smile on our face, put on some pink lipstick and skip through our day pretending nothing is wrong.  Far from it.  The Ostrich approach to pain doesn’t work.  What I am saying is that therapy that focuses solely on what is wrong in a person’s life, or worse yet, views a hurting human being as broken or sick, does not address the whole person. Even in our lowest moments, there is hope and joy to be found somewhere in the parfait of life. I believe that my job as a therapist is to hold that hope until my client can hold for it for themselves.

Healing comes from allowing ourselves to feel both the pain in our life as well as the joy and recognizing that both are equally true and valid.

  • What’s working in your life right now?
     
  • Can you remember a time when you stepped back and observed yourself in a situation and felt joyful and happy?
     
  • What or who is a source of simple joy for you?

Dealing with Shame

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.” –Brené Brown

 

brown-istanbul-counseling

We’ve all felt it—the soul melting rush of shame. It happens to nearly everyone, and it can happen at any time. Sometimes you can see it coming. Maybe you’ve been shamed by someone before so you anticipate it. But sometimes shame appears out of nowhere and slaps you in the face, leaving you gasping for breath.

Shame, as with all emotions, originates in our bodies before it shows up in our conscious awareness. The brain signals our adrenal glands (located on top of our kidneys) to release a large amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is part of the mechanism responsible for getting us ready to stand and fight or run and flee. Cortisol causes major arteries to constrict, which causes our heart rates to elevate. Cortisol also sends glucose to our major muscles so that our muscles have fuel and are ready to flee. All of this happens in a fraction of a second, beyond our conscious control.

We can’t prevent our response to shame anymore than we can prevent the flight or fight response when we see a bear. Thanks to this response, we run away from the bear and only later, when we’re safe, does the overwhelming fear register in our thoughts. The part of our brain responsible for responding to fear is unable to distinguish between different types of danger, so our response to shame functions in much the same way as our response to a bear. Our bodies sense danger, and we react.

Shame registers in our brains as a threat because it makes us fear that we will be socially ostracized and cut off from others. So when shame strikes and we are consumed with what others might think about us, we are not being petty or over reacting. Our panicked response to shame is a basic and fundamental need for social acceptance and connection.

So what on earth can we do? Are we doomed? Of course not, biology is never absolute destiny.

First, I believe it is important to realize that we’re feeling shame by identifying the signs our body is showing us—increased heart rate, flushed face, etc. While there are some common signs of shame, we all experience shame differently. For me, it starts at the top of my head and feels like someone has poured a bucket of warm water on me. My breath becomes shallower and my face feels warm. I’ve had clients describe their palms getting warm, or a sensation that begins in their stomach and spreads out.

Second, after we realize that what we’re feeling is shame, we can take a few slow, deep breaths. This helps reset our nervous system. Slow, deliberate breathing is a signal to our bodies that the danger has passed (because we can’t relax in the face of danger).

Finally—and this is the most important step—find a trustworthy friend or therapist and tell the story of your shame. Really! Out loud. Say the thing you find shameful to another person who has earned the right to hear it. “I made a stupid mistake at work and feel so ashamed.” “I said an inappropriate and really mean thing to my child out of frustration, and I hate myself for it.” Speaking our shame out loud removes the secrecy and judgment that surrounds it.

A word of caution is important here: Choose carefully the person to whom you tell your story. Are they good listeners? Have they shamed you before? Have they shared their stories with you? Speaking our shame out loud is a vulnerable act, and we need someone who will handle our shame with care and tenderness.

Brene Brown is a shame researcher. If you have not watched her TedTalk, Listening to Shame, click on the link and watch it now. She has a lively and engaging speaking style, and more importantly, she has solid research-based evidence behind what she says. Her research has shown that the best response is to speak our shame to someone who has proven worthy of hearing it. Shame cannot live in the light of our connection to others.

Think about that for a minute. It might initially feel counterintuitive—the last thing we want to do is expose our secret feelings of shame to others, right? But upon second thought, isn’t she right?  Exposure really is the key to unlock the prison of shame.

Shame is a universal experience. We may not be able to control our initial response to it, but we can take positive actions so that shame does not control our lives. We can regain our equilibrium by recognizing shame and calming ourselves. And then most importantly, by speaking our shame out loud to a trustworthy companion, we loosen its chains.

  • Can you think of a time that you experienced shame?
     
  • How did your body respond to shame? What were your bodily sensations?
     
  • Do you have a friend, therapist, counselor or partner that has earned the right to hear your shame stories?

Asking Questions

I love questions. I can ask questions about anything. If I am in engaged, I’m asking questions. I have tried to curb this habit over the years, but sometimes I just can’t help myself and the questions just pour out.

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