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Change

Most of us go to therapy because, at some level, to some degree, we recognise we need to change. Things aren’t working as they are. Relationships at home, at work, or more generally aren’t functioning anymore. We can’t go on as things are.

Some of the time, it is external circumstances that need changing but more often than not, it is something within us, internally that we have to get a hold of. We have become out of touch with who we are; we don’t feel “ourselves”. We have been avoiding facing things for a while. We have perhaps been blocking our emotions. 

Most of us block access to our core emotions with a variety of creative defenses originally designed to protect us from emotional pain and discomfort. While offering us emotional protection, defenses block access to our core emotions, which leads to chronic states of anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems. As adults, we need to relearn to experience our core emotions safely. By doing so, anxiety and depression are reduced and we feel much better.

For example, “Joe” was effectively taught by his father, due to being repeatedly ridiculed, not to show sadness and definitely not to cry. His brain learned to thwart sadness using shame, an inhibitory emotion. But we need to experience all our core emotions to feel vital and authentic and to recover from life’s losses. People who cannot experience sadness get “stuck” and develop psychological symptoms, which are in fact cues that something within us needs attention and care. By working to undo the connections between sadness and shame in his brain, Joe learned to experience sadness once again and felt better in a whole host of ways. Moving through our emotions regulates the brain and nervous system. That is why, when we connect to our core emotions and move through them, we feel more confident, calm, and clear.

What are core emotions? They are largely physical sensations that we come to recognize and name as a particular emotionCore emotions inform us about our environment. Am I safe or in danger? What do I need/want and don’t want? Am I sad? Am I hurt? What brings me pleasure? What disgusts me? What excites me? Core emotions are hard-wired in the middle part of our brains, meaning they are NOT subject to conscious control. Triggered by the environment, each core emotion is pre-wired to set off a host of physiological reactions that prime us for action. Core emotions are brilliant: if we get out of their way, their innate programming tells us what to do to live life adaptively. The core emotions are: sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, sexual excitement and disgust.

What are inhibitory emotions? Inhibitory emotions block core emotions. Shame, anxiety and guilt, the inhibitory emotions, block core emotions: 1) when they are in conflict with what pleases others whom we need like parents, peers, and partners; 2) when core emotions become too intense and our brain wants to shut them down to protect us from the emotional overwhelm. 

What are defenses? Defenses are anything we do to avoid feeling core or inhibitory emotions. Depression is a defense because in that state we are out of touch with our core emotions. There are an infinite number of defenses but some of the other common ones in our culture are: joking, sarcasm, too much “screen time,” criticizing, spacing out, procrastination, preoccupation, negative thinking, misguided aggression, working too much, over-exercising, over-eating, under-eating, cutting, sex, obsession, addiction, etc.

 

The Change Triangle

The Change Triangle, devised by psychotherapist, Hilary Hendel, is intended to help in that immediate moment when something within you, or someone or something in your environment causes you to experience emotional struggle. When you figure out where you are on The Triangle, the idea is that you feel better for two reasons: 1) just from gaining some distance and perspective from your immediate feeling; and 2) from having some direction of what to do to help yourself feel better.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Identify which corner you most closely find yourself.
  2. Pause, breathe, and calm yourself for a few seconds at least.
  3. Try to identify all the underlying core emotions coming up in the moment. There may be more than one. Name each one you can.
  4. Think through the best way to proceed in the moment.

With a little practice, when you ask, “Where am I on The Change Triangle right now?” you will realize that your emotional state is found at one of three corners of The Triangle:

a) Top left corner – Defense

b) Top right corner – Anxiety, Shame or Guilt

c) Bottom corner – Core Emotion

Or below The Triangle, in a calm state of peace and openheartedness – where we all hope to spend much more time. The state below The Triangle is accessed by “listening” to what the core emotion of the moment is telling us, by honoring what it says and by letting the associated body sensations move through freely until they naturally subside. Core emotions are wavelike in nature: rising then ebbing.

This of course is an alternative way to that of working with parts or sub-personalities (see earlier posts) though it is essentially the same: we identify which part we are acting from (step 1 above), we try and separate from it (step 2), notice it from a place of the witnessing self (step 3) , give it some attention, perhaps ask what it needs and then respond by fulfilling that need from the place of a calm, compassionate self (step 4).

Whichever approach you find fits best, or even if you were to use a combination of both, the key is to identify and then safely process or release the core emotion.

This is what can bring about real change.

Neuroplasticity

9 Quotes on Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt. Unlike computers, which are built to certain specifications and receive software updates periodically, our brains can actually receive hardware updates in addition to software updates. Different pathways form and fall dormant, are created and are discarded, according to our experiences.

When we learn something new, we create new connections between our neurons. We rewire our brains to adapt to new circumstances. This happens on a daily basis, but it’s also something that we can encourage and stimulate.

9 Quotes on Neuroplasticity

Check out these 9 interesting, engaging, and sometimes entertaining quotes about neuroplasticity.

Andrew Weil:

“Among other things, neuroplasticity means that emotions such as happiness and compassion can be cultivated in much the same way that a person can learn through repetition to play golf and basketball or master a musical instrument, and that such practice changes the activity and physical aspects of specific brain areas.”

Elizabeth Thornton:

“Because of the power of neuroplasticity, you can, in fact, reframe your world and rewire your brain so that you are more objective. You have the power to see things as they are so that you can respond thoughtfully, deliberately, and effectively to everything you experience.”

Santiago Ramón y Cajal:

“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.”

Craig Krishna:

“Meditation invokes that which is known in neuroscience as neuroplasticity; which is the loosening of the old nerve cells or hardwiring in the brain, to make space for the new to emerge.”

Norman Doidge:

“Everything having to do with human training and education has to be re-examined in light of neuroplasticity.”

Donald O. Hebb:

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Douglas Rushkoff:

“Brains are tricky and adaptable organs. For all the ‘neuroplasticity’ allowing our brains to reconfigure themselves to the biases of our computers, we are just as neuroplastic in our ability to eventually recover and adapt.”

Michael S. Gazzaniga:

“Our brains renew themselves throughout life to an extent previously thought not possible.”

Susannah Cahalan:

“Our minds have the incredible capacity to both alter the strength of connections among neurons, essentially rewiring them, and create entirely new pathways. (It makes a computer, which cannot create new hardware when its system crashes, seem fixed and helpless).”

7 Reasons Why Meditation is Difficult

What is it about something as simple as sitting still and watching our breath that evokes panic, fear, and even hostility? No matter how many reports there are proving the mental, emotional, and physical value of being quiet, there seems to be an even greater number who refuse to give it a try.

Meditation can certainly be challenging, and even more so if we are uncertain as to why we are doing it. It can seem very odd to sit there just listening to the incessant chatter in our head, and we easily get bored if we do nothing for too long, even if it’s only 10 minutes. After hearing a plethora of reasons why people find it hard to meditate, long term meditators Ed & Deb Shapiro have whittled it down to just a few:

1. I’m too busy, I don’t have the time.

Which can certainly be true if you have young children and a full-time job, and all that these entail. However, we are only talking about maybe 10 minutes a day. Most of us spend more time than that reading the newspaper or idly surfing the web. It only appears like we don’t have the time because we usually fill every moment with activity and never press the pause button.

2. I find it really uncomfortable to sit still for too long.

If you are trying to sit cross-legged on the floor then, yes, it will get uncomfortable. But you can sit upright in a firm and comfortable chair instead. Or, you can do walking meditation, or yoga, or tai chi. Moving meditation can be just as beneficial as sitting.

3. My mind won’t stop thinking: I can’t relax.

“I can’t meditate. I just can’t! My mind will not get quiet; it flies all over the place! My thoughts are driving me mad! I’m trying to get away from myself, not look inside.” Sound familiar? Surprisingly enough, trying to stop your mind from thinking is like trying to stop the wind – it’s impossible. In the Eastern teaching the mind is described as being like a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion because, just as a monkey leaps from branch to branch, so the mind leaps from one thing to another, constantly distracted and busy. So, when you come to sit still and try to quiet your mind, you find all this manic activity going on and it seems insanely noisy. It is actually nothing new, just that now you are becoming aware of it, whereas before you were immersed in it, unaware that such chatter was so constant. This experience of the mind being so busy is very normal. Someone once estimated that in any one thirty-minute session of meditation we may have upward of three hundred thoughts. Years of busy mind, years of creating and maintaining dramas, years of stresses and confusion and self-centeredness, and the mind has no idea how to be still. Rather, it craves entertainment. It’s not as if you can suddenly turn it off when you meditate, it just means you are like everyone else.

4. There are too many distractions, it’s too noisy.

Gone are the days when we could disappear into a cave and be left undisturbed until we emerged some time later fully enlightened. Instead, we all have to deal with the sounds and impositions of the world around us. But – and it’s a big but – we needn’t let it impose. Cars going by outside? Fine. Let them go by, but just don’t go with them. The quiet you are looking for is inside, not outside. The experience of stillness is accumulative: The more you sit, then slowly, slowly, the mind becomes quieter, more joyful, despite whatever distraction there may be.

5. I don’t see the benefit.

Unfortunately, this is where you have to take long term meditator’s word for it. Some people get how beneficial meditation is after just one session, but most of us take longer – you might notice a difference after a week, or maybe two of daily practice. Which means you have to trust the process enough to hang in there and keep going, even before you get the benefits. Remember, music needs to be played for hours to get the notes right, while in Japan it can take 12 years to learn how to arrange flowers. Being still happens in a moment, but it may take some time before that moment comes—hence the need for patience.

6. I’m no good at this. I never get it right.

Actually, it’s impossible to fail at meditation. Even if you sit for 20 minutes thinking non-stop meaningless thoughts, that’s fine. There is no right or wrong, and there’s no special technique. Deb’s meditation teacher told her there are as many forms of meditation as there are people who practice it. So all you need do is find the way that works for you (even if you prefer to do it standing on your head) and keep at it. The important point is that you make friends with meditation. It’ll be of no help at all if you feel you have to meditate, for instance, and then feel guilty if you miss the allotted time or only do 10 minutes when you had promised to do 30. It is much better to practice for a just a sort time and to enjoy what you are doing than to sit there, teeth gritted, because you’ve been told that only 30 or even 40 minutes will have any affect. Meditation is a companion to have throughout life, like an old friend you turn to when in need of support, inspiration, and clarity. It is to be enjoyed!

7. It’s all just weird New Age hype.

It’s certainly easy to get lost in the array of New Age promises of eternal happiness but meditation itself is as old as the hills. More than 2,500 years ago the Buddha was a dedicated meditator who tried and tested numerous different ways of enabling the mind to be quiet. And that’s just one example. Each religion has its own variation on the theme, and all stretch back over the centuries. So nothing new here, and nothing weird.

In other words, meditation is not about forcing the mind to be absolutely still. Rather, it’s a letting go of resistance, of whatever may arise: doubt, worry, uncertainty and feeling inadequate, the endless dramas, fear and desire. Every time you find your mind is drifting, daydreaming, remembering the past or planning ahead, just come back to now, come back to this moment. All you need do is pay attention and be with what is. Nothing else.

An image the human brain's default mode network, Credit: Marcus Raichle, Washington University

Neuroscience: The Default Mode Network

(An image the human brain’s Default Mode Network, Credit: Marcus Raichle, Washington University)

The Default Mode Network plays a key part in our sense of self, attachment style and mood. This article taken from Sarah Peyton’s book Your Resonant Self explains where it is located in the brain and why it is so important.

What is the DMN?

The Default Mode Network (DMN) in the brain, is active when we stop doing something (and we are not in the task mode network, TMN). When the brain is not focused on a challenging or attention-grabbing task, we are no longer paying attention to the external world and the parts of the brain associated with this network light up. Our brain automatically brings together memory and thought and integrates both of these with our sense of self. Some scientists have said that the DMN is where the ‘self’ is located; it is the “me myself and I” network. It is self referential, self-other referential, future referential and past referential. It is universal to all humans and it is active immediately, as soon as we stop focusing on externals. It is not only the part of the brain where we “mind wander”; we use the DMN intentionally too. We do this when we are reaching for autobiographical memory, thinking about the future, using our imagination or empathising with someone. It can be active from the moment we wake up; it is the background of our days and is with us continually, even under anaesthesia as well as when we fall asleep at night. It is said to be the night garden in which our night dreams grow. It changes during the day as we integrate the day’s events, and this may be why the way we feel when we wake up can be so different from how we feel when we fall asleep. Interestingly, studies have shown that the two main activities where the DMN is completely switch off is when we play video games or when we smoke.

 

Scientists are still trying to find out exactly which parts and regions of the brain are involved most often. What is most important to know is that the parts of the brain that we use for this automatic integration of self and social connections are almost entirely different from the parts we use when we are concentrating on getting things done in the external world. For example, when we learn to do something new and are not therefore using procedural memory, the DMN goes offline as focused attention comes online. As the task becomes more automatic, the DMN starts to become active again. We could say that familiarity or boredom can be one of the prompting factors to the DMN coming into use.

 

(Figure of the seven different major networks and way the brain uses itself depending on what we are doing taken from Your Resonant Self by Sarah Peyton). Notice how different the DMN is form the others. Especially notice the DAN (Dorsal Attention Network). This is the network that most completely turns off the DMN; it come online when we are doing new or absorbing things like video games

 

DMN: Social Attachments & Predictions

Our social world as humans has become so incredibly complex. Our DMN is always trying to help us to stay afloat socially and keep our important attachments. It is trying to support our wellbeing. Memories don’t just help us to remember things; our DMN seems to use them to make predictions about what is going to happen next and what people are likely to be intending or thinking that helps us grow and move within our families and social groups. It also helps us, from when we are very young, ensure that we got our basic needs met, most especially attachments to important figures in our lives (when we were younger, our parents).

 

The DMN: Anxiety, Depression & Trauma

Many things change the way our DMN interacts with our externally focused brain including anxiety, trauma and depression. A ‘healthy’ DMN, which helps the brain integrate the experiences of life, requires that all regions of the DMN be interconnected and functional. When these interconnections between the DMN regions are disrupted (which can happen due to trauma, anxiety, depression and other illnesses that disrupt brain and neurotransmitter function), we can expect the brain to start spinning “negative” and self-debilitating thoughts whenever it is trying to rest. With early childhood trauma, the DMN can default to self-blame and self abuse rather than neutrality. People can be in the habit of walking around unconsciously berating themselves (or blaming others). If people feel badly about themselves, then this emotional tone can run through their automatic thoughts, can come like a knife in the dark whenever consciously directed activity stops.

 

The DMN: When it Becomes Toxic and Savage  

The main problem with such a savage DMN is connectivity. When certain brain regions are not corrected as they should be, negative thoughts and interpretations of life and the sense of self can grow. The more emotional pain and neglect a person has survived, the more likely it is for the DMN to be toxic and savage and for a harsh inner critic to take over. What is needed to correct these faulty connections and change the tone of a ruthless DMN is warm, responsive nurturing. It is often not what has happened to us, it is how it has been reacted to by those around us. If we receive a warm and nurturing response, we are more likely not to experience such disconnection and disintegration in the brain and nervous system. When people are in the grip of their own savage self-dislike, they can’t believe that they cared for by others, so they cant reach out to people and isolation is more likely. Changing the tone of the automatic way people speak to themselves is essential to making the mind and body a safer space to inhabit.

It is possible that part of the ongoing stream of distraction in our world helps people to manage the traumatised and unkind self-talk that starts as soon as they are quiet. This can happen unconsciously, which is why it is important to learn about and understand the DMN.

 

The DMN: Compassion & Meditation

The life that we live when we have integrated self compassion (when we can be gentle and warm with ourselves and others) feels very different from one lived inside a savage DMN.

It is important to know that, though mindfulness meditation is supposed to integrate the brain, the network used for meditation and the DMN can remain distinct. It can explain how somebody with years of meditation practice can still have a savage DMN that comes into play when they come off the cushion and why it is important to focus on both these aspects of the brain to heal a toxic and savage DMN.

Even If that inner critic is still trying to convince you that it is selfish to start caring for yourself, consider this: the ongoing self attack of living with a savage DMN is a sign that we may be living with PTSD. Research is showing that the different names we give to anxiety, social anxiety, general anxiety, PTSD, OCD and panic each have their own way of taking over our DMN and giving us a hard time.

The important thing to remember is that our brains don’t develop easily when we are not able to see and treat ourselves with affection. If no one we know has ever really held themselves with warmth, then we don’t have a model of how to do this. However, no matter how old we are, we can turn our compassion for others back towards ourselves and follow the invitation to self-care.

Below are links to more information on the DMN 

Science Direct Articles

Neuroscientifically Challenged

The Meditation Blog

Dan Harris, The Big Think

 

A woman’s need for fierce Self-Compassion

Compassion isn’t always soft and gentle; sometimes it means being forceful and fierce.

Article Written by KRISTIN NEFF

In the recent Senate confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stood up to tell the world about her memories of the humiliating and sexually aggressive way that she said Judge Brett Kavanaugh violated her as a teenager.

Her act took incredible bravery. What really struck me, however, was the demeanor of Dr. Blasey Ford herself. While she spoke with confidence when discussing her area of expertise—the psychology of trauma—at other times she spoke like a young girl who needed to placate all the powerful men around her so they would like her. This doesn’t undercut the courage she showed for being there—it was tremendous—but she clearly felt she had to be soft and sweet to be heard.

And she was probably right. If she had shown her righteous indignation at Kavanaugh for derailing her life, she probably would have been discredited. While Kavanaugh’s anger at being “wrongly” accused was celebrated by many male senators and arguably led to his confirmation, Ford was allowed to show her pain at being victimized, but no more than that.

The fact is that women are not allowed to show anger in order to stand up for themselves. When women encounter pain and suffering—in others and in ourselves—we are expected to respond with gentleness, tenderness, and warmth. But today, we need a different response: fierce self-compassion.

Compassion is aimed at alleviating suffering and can be ferocious as well as tender, “yin” as well as “yang”—the mother gently comforting her crying child or the mother bear fiercely protecting her cubs. Feminine ideals need to include anger and resolve if we want to successfully care for ourselves and each other, move beyond male dominance, and make a difference in the issues facing our world today.

The yin and yang of self-compassion

According to my work, the three core components of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness of suffering. These manifest in “yin” self-compassion as loving, connected presence. Self-kindness means we tenderly care for ourselves when in pain. Common humanity involves recognizing that suffering is part of the shared human condition. Mindfulness allows us to be with and validate our pain in an open, accepting manner. When we hold our pain in this way, we start to transform and heal.

When most people think of self-compassion, they imagine the yin version. But self-compassion also has a “yang” form. With yang self-compassion, the three components show up as fierce, empowered truth. Self-kindness means we fiercely protect ourselves. We stand up and say, “NO! You cannot harm me in this way.” Common humanity helps us to recognize that we are not alone; we don’t need to hang our heads in shame. We can stand together with our brothers and sisters in the experience of being harmed and become empowered as a result. Me too! And mindfulness manifests as clearly seeing the truth. We no longer choose to avoid seeing or telling in order to not rock the boat. The boat needs to be rocked.

When we hold our pain with fierce, empowered truth, we can speak up and tell our stories, to protect ourselves and others from being harmed.

In yin self-compassion, we hold ourselves with love—validating, soothing, and comforting our pain so that we can “be” with it without being consumed by it. In yang self-compassion, we act in the world in order to protect ourselves, provide what we need, and motivate change to reach our full potential.

Research indicates that both aspects of self-compassion lead to well-being. Self-compassion allows us to “be” with ourselves tenderly (yin) but also to take action (yang), so that we can support ourselves and thrive. For instance, yin self-compassion reduces depression and anxiety by replacing self-judgment with self-acceptance. When we soothe and comfort ourselves in the midst of difficult emotions, we no longer get lost in the rabbit hole of shame and inadequacy, but take refuge in the safety of our own warmth and care. We become happier and more satisfied with our lives as a result.

At the same time, yang self-compassion allows us to actively cope with life challenges. Whether it’s combat, divorce, cancer, or parenting a special-needs child, self-compassion provides us with the resilience needed to stand strong without becoming overwhelmed. Yang self-compassion motivates us to keep going even after failure and setbacks, providing grit and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Balancing tenderness and fierceness

Traditional gender roles allow women to be yin, but if a woman is too yang—if she gets angry or fierce—people often get scared and call her names (the b-word comes to mind). Men are allowed to be yang, but if a man shows too much vulnerability, he risks being kicked out of the boys’ club of power. In many ways, the #MeToo movement can be seen as the collective arising of female yang. We are finally speaking up to protect ourselves, our sisters, our daughters, and our sons.

If we are yin without yang, we will continue to be silenced, to be abused, to be disregarded and disempowered. If we are yang without yin, however, we are at risk of becoming self-righteous, of forgetting the humanity of others, of demonizing men. Like a tree with a solid trunk and flexible branches, we can stand strong while still embracing others as part of an interdependent whole. We need love in our hearts so we don’t perpetuate a cycle of hate, but we need fierceness so that we don’t let things continue on their current harmful path.

It is challenging to hold loving, connected presence together with fierce, empowered truth because their energies feel so different, but we need to do so if we are going to effectively stand up to patriarchy, racism, and the people in power who are destroying our planet. We need both simultaneously, as advocated by great leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do we do this? I’m just figuring it out for myself. In the past, I’ve tended to be yin in some moments and yang in others, but I have found integration difficult. My self-compassion practice helps me to not care what other people think of me, because I can provide myself with the validation and support I need. But when my yang is in full force, sometimes I don’t think enough about other people and the effects of my behavior on them. I’m working hard to honor and integrate both energies.

I find it’s helpful to recognize which is being activated in the moment, then take the time to make sure the other energy is also present. When I’m being tender toward myself or others in a yin way, for instance, I consciously ask whether the force of yang is needed. And when I feel yang energy arising, it try to make sure that I have enough yin, to remind myself that the use of force is more effective when it is combined with tenderness. I make a lot of mistakes and often don’t get it right, but I know that this is the only way forward.

I hope that soon women such as Dr. Blasey Ford are allowed to be fully empowered, to temper their sweetness with steel. I hope that we are all able to call upon the tenderness and fierceness that is our birthright. If we are going to have any chance of achieving equality, women will have to wake up, say no, and give up on receiving the approval of men. We will need to embody fierce, empowered truth. Many won’t like it, but that’s okay. We can heal our wounds with the salve of loving, connected presence, giving ourselves what we need.

While it is crucial that we take action to change the political system, the first place to start is with ourselves. The next time we are at the grocery store with a rude checkout person, or in a conflict at work, or confronted with a difficult life challenge, we need to turn inward and call up both yin and yang self-compassion in a balanced manner. We need to learn to use caring force to change ourselves and our world. The time is now.

This article was expanded from “Why Women Need Fierce Self-Compassion” on Self-Compassion.org.