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How the most radical change of your life can be as quiet as a whisper

file0001363797321When you think about making changes in your life, what do you think of? Is it a flash forward to yourself twenty pounds thinner, or twenty grand richer? Do you picture yourself living on the beach, maybe with a new partner, or finally living the dream you long ago laid to rest?

Often, when we imagine great changes in our lives that reflect our deepest values and dreams, images like those above are conjured in our minds. We generally think of how the situations around us would be different, even seeing the future “us” as an entirely different person from who we are now. Living the life of our dreams can seem so out of reach from this perspective. Not only that, when we do make attempts to get ‘there”, we often experience setbacks and failures, further discouraging us so that we stay stuck where we are, as we are, with feelings of general discontent. It is an ongoing challenge to balance wanting to make positive changes for a better future, while also appreciating what life brings us in each moment.

Detailed visions are very important to construct because it helps our neurons fire and wire together in ways that help us change. I like to consider these visions as “sensory visions”; I encourage my clients to use their five senses when describing their vision to begin laying down new neuronal circuitry that will facilitate change. This is an important step because it prepares the brain for what comes next…which is essentially a series of incredibly small changes that my clients never really factored into their grand vision in the first place. It is not unusual during the coaching process for these small changes to take a client by surprise, especially when they occur after a client thinks he or she has “failed” at some task. I love when that happens. As is the case in life, when we don’t get what we asked for, we often get something better.

For example, by working toward a healthy weight for your body, you find you have somehow developed the deep capacity to love yourself unconditionally. By committing to a daily 30 minute walk, you renew your connection with the natural world and express gratitude for its beauty. Or by deciding to improve communications with your partner regarding your health efforts, you infuse your relationship with vitality that it hasn’t seen since you first got together.

Sometimes, the changes that have the most radical impact on our lives are like gentle whispers in our ear. We make an almost imperceptible shift in our behavior, that is in line with our higher values, and see the effects echoing loudly in other areas of our lives. While the coaching process is about setting and attaining realistic goals, the biggest growth occurs when we realize important things about ourselves we were previously unaware of. These are the little insights, the “Aha!” moments, that connect us deeply to ourselves and each other. Our vision is a dream, that we can only work toward by becoming awake.

Dream your wildest vision for yourself, and then when you are done, wake up to the life you have. Wake up to who you are. Commit to small changes you can stick with, as if you were listening to a lover whisper in your ear. I promise you, these whispers will change your life.

Why your cards are stacked against feeling good (and how to reshuffle the deck)

file0001393493040In my previous post, “Is it natural to be negative“, I introduced you to the concept that the mind is primed toward a negative reality as a survival advantage to us. Basically, we can’t slow down and smell the roses if we are dead. So the ability of our minds to predict, identify and warn us of threats, even those that aren’t real, is an evolutionary advantage despite coming at what is supposed to be a short-term cost. The cards are stacked against noticing the pleasant in favor of the threat.

The problem with this mechanism today is that we are much more likely to act based upon our fears, than on love. In particular, our perception of suffering or loss is more strongly motivating than our perception of joy or gain. Studies show that when it comes to losing money, we view the loss of a certain sum as 2.5 times greater than if we gained that exact sum. Other studies have shown that when it comes to relationships, counteracting a single negative interaction with a person requires an average of five positive interactions following it. No wonder it stings so much when we find we overspent for some product, or feel let down by a loved one. We might even rationalize that the situation isn’t as bad as we think, yet we still feel the way we feel.

Said another way, comparable negative and positive experiences don’t carry the same weight in our minds. This means we suffer far more than what it seems we logically should. Not only do we not attribute the same degree of meaning to positive experiences as we do to negative ones, but we also are less likely to even notice the positive experiences happening in our every day lives. Even though we have evolved reward mechanisms to prompt us towards positive situations that also enhance survival (the flood of dopamine when we bite into a sweet apple, for example), our minds view the need to identify, and avoid, negative threats as more important. Basically, we notice negative experiences more frequently than positive ones, and negative experiences carry more weight than positive ones do. The end result is a stressed out, unhappy, unfulfilling life that leads to disease of the mind and body until the sweet release of death.

Okay, that is probably too dramatic, but it is certainly how some people feel. And it is how many live their lives, whether they realize it or not. But where do we go from here, knowing this information about how our minds work? How can we use it to our advantage?

It takes practice, but it is possible to gradually shift your reality from a negative to a positive one. The first step is cultivating mindfulness. This means paying attention in a non-judgmental manner to what is happening around you. You know that you will automatically seek out the negative during your day, because this is what your mind is skilled at. By being mindful, you will also notice more positive, providing a balance. When you do encounter an experience in your day you would call positive, focus on it! The second step is to express gratitude in that moment, whether it is for the first snow of the season, a tasty and healthy lunch, or catching up with an old friend. By experiencing the good mindfully, you experience the good more. This will help offset the natural negative tendencies of your mind. Need a reminder to feel grateful? Then try setting one! Leave yourself post-it notes, or set an alarm on your phone that will prompt you to take a few minutes out of your day to be appreciative.

A third step is to come up with a list of activities you enjoy, and rate them on a scale of 1-10 in terms of how fun they are. The number is the “fun quotient” for each activity. Since it’s easier to feel grateful when we are enjoying ourselves, pick at least three days this next week to do something that has a fun quotient of 7 or higher. (Be careful that you aren’t picking “numbing” behaviors, as explained here.) Engaging in an activity you enjoy will help calm the threat sensors in your brain, allowing your viewpoint to shift, even if just for a few minutes or hours.

Knowing that negative experiences carry more weight in your mind, you have your work cut out for you. For every one thing that disappoints you, you might have to find four or five things that you feel grateful for. You might even have to have fun more often! But if you start, from today, with just noticing one more positive experience and really feeling it, you will be well on your way to changing your reality. Ultimately, your reality is a subjective experience, as is mine. So why not design it so that each day is filled with hope, love and blessings? I can assure you that you will never lose the survival mechanisms that have so successfully gotten us where we are today. But you will make the switch from surviving life, to truly living it.

The importance of emotional rest

file0001218052971Monday’s post on emotional numbing resonated with many of you. One of the gifts of life is being able to feel both pain and joy. The two stroll hand in hand, like lovers, down whatever paths we take them on. It is only our perception and conditioned beliefs that label one as bad and the other as good. Those two, however, have never known each other this way.

The reason we have labeled feelings like disappointment, grief or sadness as negative is partly because we don’t like how it makes our bodies feel. Emotional pain can be very physical, and since we have decided that certain physical sensations are “bad”, we then label the emotional counterpart in the same way. This is completely understandable, but if we can change our perception of what is “bad” and “good”, we might find a much greater value in accepting all emotions as they are. By throwing those labels out the door, we might stop resisting those feelings we don’t want to feel, which ultimately limits our ability to feel those we do.

I believe it is these darker emotional states that carry the most potential to fuel our personal growth. These are times when often we find our lives in conflict with our dreams, or our actions in conflict with our words, or our choices in conflict with our best interest. No matter what the circumstance is that triggers painful emotions, there is an immense possibility of growth if you are willing to see it. But equally important as allowing yourself permission to feel these emotions, is allowing yourself the time to recover from them.

Imagine you are in the gym, lifting a heavy weight. You know that the burn in your muscle, the burn that makes you want to quit, is necessary to feel if you want to get stronger. While many people quit when they feel the burn, the ones that continue to lift the weight often gain the benefit of those “golden reps”, the ones that carry the most potential for growth. These reps are creating small tears in the muscle tissue, which then initiates inflammation and repair mechanisms that ultimately lead to muscle growth. But the key is that the muscle cannot grow stronger unless the period of work is followed by rest. It is the weight that breaks down the muscle, and the rest that grows it stronger. Without adequate rest before the next workout, you risk temporarily, or even permanently, injuring your body.

In the same way, when you allow yourself to fully feel your painful emotions, it’s as if you are lifting a heavy weight that is breaking down some part of your ego. Likely, you are being forced to let go of something that you had an attachment to so that you can show up in life in a different way. Whatever it is, know that you are doing very important emotional work that is necessary for improved emotional health. When you start to feel the emotional “burn”, you are in the golden zone. See the process through, and then follow it up with emotional rest.

Emotional rest is a period of time after having acknowledged strong, painful emotions where the true growth actually occurs. I believe it occurs naturally after intense emotions, and is characterized by an emotional landscape that is calm and even. It’s when we absorb the experience we just went through, and it becomes integrated in our system. Micro transformations occur during these times, a subtle evolution in our life experience. If we are engaged in numbing behavior, we can never fully take advantage of emotional rest. And if we manage to avoid numbing, but never allow ourselves the time to recover from the painful emotion, we might miss out on the full potential for growth that is available to us.

One way to ensure you are resting emotionally is to rest physically. Get more sleep, take time out for yourself, and do something that centers you. Take a walk in the woods, meditate, or listen to soothing music. Try to avoid any intense emotional encounters if you can, and avoid negative people at all costs. Simply be, and allow life to gently sink into your soul, into your bones, and into your heart. You’ll know when you have had enough rest and can move forward.

My hope is that by allowing yourself these rest periods, you will adequately recover from any painful experience you might have so that your perspective on them can slowly change. It’s not always easy to love those things that help us grow the most. But it is easy to love the rest we can find afterward.

Numbing the pain is the antidote to joy

file1701347712205I want you to think about your vices. What do you turn to during times of discomfort, that have become habits in your life? These are things that generally provide temporary pleasure at the cost of your long term goals. It might be eating “comfort” food, shopping for something you don’t need, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, or spending hours in front of the TV. Your rational mind tells you these things aren’t a good idea, but some other, stronger, force takes over and you engage in these behaviors anyway. Usually, after you are done, you don’t feel too good about yourself. And what’s worse, the emotional discomfort you tried to run away from not only sticks around, but it often gets a lot worse.

“Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Why do we repeat this pattern over and over again? The answer is that we are engaging in emotional numbing. Emotional numbing is a concept that Dr. Brene Brown discusses in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. She describes this action as something we all resort to as an attempt to escape emotional pain. Think about your vices again. Can you identify triggering events that lead to the behavior? Maybe it was a stressful day at work that you coped with by going on an online shopping spree. Or it was being cut off in traffic and nearly getting in an accident that preceded going home and ordering a pizza, that you ate by yourself. Our numbing behaviors are mechanisms we have developed in order to cope with difficult emotions. This, in and of itself, isn’t the problem – it’s the behavior we choose that becomes the problem, often leading to long term unfavorable outcomes with no resolution to the original pain. Not only that, the process of emotional numbing limits our experience of joy in our lives.

This last point is especially critical to understand. Dr. Brene Brown’s research has shown that we cannot selectively numb our emotions. If we numb the bad, we numb the good. By trying to escape our feelings of being overwhelmed, scared, hurt or fearful, we also end up escaping joy, love, fulfillment and passion. We become numb to life. Emotional numbing is a vicious cycle we get caught up in. It’s a positive feedback loop for the destructive numbing behaviors. We feel bad so we numb with a behavior; we can’t feel as good as we want when something good happens, so we supplement the experience with the behavior as well. Pretty soon, our lives are the ebb and flow of our numbing addiction.

Emotional numbing is not something over which to be critical of yourself. We all do it. It’s the mind’s way of coping with extreme discomfort. The thing is, usually what is triggering the numbing behavior is an area of your life that needs your attention, ultimately for your greater good. Emotional pain, like physical pain, is meant to be an awareness mechanism for deep healing, and if you are open to it, spiritual growth. If you sustain a physical wound, you know that you need to take measures to make sure that wound heals and doesn’t become infected. Small wounds can heal on their own. Larger wounds need your help, otherwise you risk much more damage to your tissues. Similarly, emotional wounds need to be addressed and cared for, otherwise they will fester. Ignore a bad gash on your leg, and you might need an amputation. Ignore a bad gash on your heart, and you might amputate your ability to feel love and joy. We must understand that pain of all types has a higher purpose.

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. 
It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” 

C.S. Lewis

The first step in stopping the numbing cycle is to be aware that it is happening. When you find yourself engaging in your numbing behaviors, stop and consider what event triggered your feelings of discomfort. That emotional pain is demanding your attention for a reason. Use your tools of self-compassion to heal the emotional wound. Figure out what behaviors you can engage in that would actually make you feel better about yourself, not worse. Acknowledge your feelings, and even though your instinct is to escape, be with those feelings intimately. Breathe. Accept what the moment is giving you with courage, knowing that what you are feeling are growing pains. It is by feeling these difficult emotions that joy can become a greater presence in your life.

Emotional intensity as a gauge for staying still

file0001755540776Most of our lives are so hectic that it is a struggle to devote time to staying still. It can feel like we are actually wasting time, when there are so many things that need our attention. We might agree in theory that stillness would actually help us accomplish the tasks on our to-do list by making us focused and efficient, but in reality it rarely feels this way. When you only have 30 minutes to run to the grocery store, pick up the dry cleaning and get to the post office before it closes, being still isn’t even an option. Days can blend together without our realizing that we never managed to find stillness once.

Being still is being mindful. It is quieting the body so that we can take a breather from our surroundings and connect inwardly. It’s not about thinking anything, or doing the work of stillness. It is simply being fully present, who you are, in the moment. Even one conscious breath taken in this way can be transformative. Scheduling time to be still is one great way to make this practice a lasting habit, but it can be hard to stick to the schedule when life gets really busy (although that’s likely when you need the practice the most). One way to incorporate stillness regularly without a defined schedule is to link it to your emotions.

For me, one benefit of practicing mindfulness on a regular basis is that I have become much more in tune with my emotions. I have always considered myself a sensitive person, but my mindfulness practice has dramatically increased my awareness of my sensitivity. This means that my experience of being moved by a song, for example, is several fold what it used to be. We all feel our feelings on a spectrum of intensity. By getting to know your own spectrum of emotional intensity, you can get a better sense about what triggers your feelings, and in turn, where you find the most meaning in life. The way you can enjoy that meaning even more would be to practice stillness when something triggers strong emotion.

Think of a scale, where 1 is being dead and 10 is the height of emotion (extreme grief, or extreme ecstasy). Most emotional states that fall on the low end of the spectrum are likely not within our conscious awareness when we experience them. On the other hand, emotional states at the high end of the spectrum can completely consume us until we are aware of nothing else. Figure out where your 5 is, and what that feels like for varying emotions. What is your middle of the road emotional intensity? This would be a sense of feeling at which point you are clearly aware that you are experiencing emotion, but it’s not so overpowering that it forces an interruption of the moment.

When you go throughout your day, try to pay attention to your emotional states. When you find that you feel something at a 5 or higher, pause for a few seconds and be still. Take a deep breath and just be with that emotion. Experience it. Stop any extraneous movements, close your eyes if you prefer, and tune in. What this does is connect your conscious awareness to your emotional state at a threshold level of intensity. At this level, your day is likely affected by these level 5 feelings, but you might not be aware of it or appreciate in what way this happens. So if you are feeling a positive feeling, it will feel richer and can be a source of gratitude. If you are feeling a negative feeling, you can acknowledge it and release it right then.

This doesn’t take more than a few seconds, but using your emotional intensity as a gauge for finding stillness can be as beneficial as an hour of meditation trying to quiet your mind.

I love feedback! If you have tried this technique, please comment below and let me know how it worked for you.

Inner Balance: Meditate like a video game

If you are new to meditation, you might be finding that it’s not as easy as it looks. It seems great on the outside, sitting in lotus with your eyes closed, but on the inside there’s a wild monkey rattling the cages of your brain, wanting your attention. For some reason, the quieter you get, the louder he gets, until you give up in frustration.

Or, you might find that meditation is an excellent practice….for falling asleep. The minute your body relaxes, you zonk out, snoring and/or drooling slightly until you fall over and the floor wakes you up.

These experiences are normal, and part of the process for many meditators. There is no goal in meditation. You aren’t any more successful on a day when you find perfect stillness compared to a day when your whole practice has been spent worrying. With that said, I do understand the feelings of disappointment and struggle that arise, because I have often felt them myself. I encourage you to keep up your practice, but I also want to share with you a tool I have used to supplement my meditation practice, developed by the Institute of HeartMath.

The Institute of HeartMath (IHM) is an internationally recognized research and education organization focused on understanding the role of the heart’s electrical activity in our overall emotional and physical health. The heart generates its own spontaneous, measurable, electrical field that has been shown to be affected by our internal emotional states. The term “coherence” describes the state in which our positive emotions affect this electrical activity, which in turn is associated with a beneficial physiologic state in the body. This is a relaxation state, associated with stress resilience, improved hormonal balance, and a variety of other health benefits. You can learn the quick coherence technique here, which I highly recommend for everyone, whether you meditate or not. You can use the technique to develop stress resilience, as preparation for meditation, or as a meditation itself.

If you want to go a step further, you might be interested in the devices IHM makes that provide biofeedback information about your level of coherence. (The sign of a true nerd is if the word “biofeedback” gets your heart racing with excitement, like mine does). Inner Balance is my favorite tool to use to practice coherence. I find the visual display to be stunning. It’s about $100, which is pricey but not as expensive as the other devices IHM makes. Right now it is only compatible with Apple products like the iPhone, iPod and iPad, but when I talked to IHM’s founder, Doc Childre, last year, he said the eventual plan would be to adapt it for Android products. The device itself is a heart rate sensor that plugs into your Apple device, with an app that you can download from iTunes. It’s extremely simple to use, and portable (which for me is a huge plus.)

You begin each session by calling to mind a positive thought, feeling the accompanying emotions, and then focusing on this state for as long as you can. As you can see below, the colors are vivid and the graphics are very pleasing to the eye, which definitely helps when trying to stay in a positive state. You can see your real time heart rate variability, and each session’s data is recorded so you can measure progress over time. As you focus on the positive thought, the device monitors your level of coherence with the colors red (low), blue (medium) and green (high).

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There are additional views of the same information, if you prefer a different look:
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This view is more analytical, I find that I drop down a coherence level looking at the graphs - I guess this is where my nerdyness draws a line

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Your heart rate variability is recorded, along with your pulse and your level of coherence, which is translated into a numeric score and charted on a graph. Throughout the session, you receive this biofeedback information so that you can learn how to subtly shift yourself from low to high coherence. The visual display you choose to look at is up to you; I tend to prefer the very first image. While I love the graphs, I find that when I switch to the data view, my coherence drops a level. The waterfall provides a soothing image for those who would rather not see the shifting graphs and colors of the other views.

I will say that while the biofeedback is great, any tendency to criticize your “performance” is not. The biofeedback is merely to provide you with information; the information itself is neutral. If you find yourself feeling competitive or disappointed if you don’t reach the coherence scores you want to, then using this as meditation would be counter productive. But if you can remain detached from the outcome, and remain focused on a state of positive coherence, then this can be a very effective (and fun!) way to practice meditation. Five to ten minutes daily can be enough practice to help you reach a state of inner balance. Used as meditation or not, the device trains you to tune into your inner emotional states so that you can shift yourself into a positive, relaxed state more easily.

So if you are struggling to meditate, check out this device and see if it might work for you. It can help you improve your stillness and focus, which will aid in any formal meditation practice you commit to later.

 

(Disclaimer: I do not receive any monetary compensation from Institute of HeartMath for recommending their products.)

Are you ready to exercise your self-compassion?

self-compassionBefore we talk about practicing self-compassion, it is important to first get a sense of where you fall on the spectrum. On Dr. Kristin Neff’s website, a tool I love to use is the self-compassion quiz. Take the quiz, answer the questions as honestly as you can, and then write down your scores before reading on. These scores are only for you, and come with no judgement at all. Think of it as a fitness test prior to beginning a workout regimen. The only way to measure your progress accurately is to know where you started from.

Are you ready to exercise your self-compassion? Here are three exercises below that, if you commit to them over this next week, will definitely increase the strength of your self-compassion muscle.

Mindfulness:
Pick one area you tend to criticize yourself about. Whether it’s your weight, your job, your parenting skills…just pick one area and spend five minutes meditating on that thing. Bring up scenarios that you have found yourself in when your self-criticism was at its peak. Notice how you feel, and where you feel the discomfort in your body. Put your hands on the part of your body that aches the most when you criticize yourself. If you feel it throughout your whole body, or you don’t feel physical sensation at all, then simply place your hands over your heart. Take three deep breaths.

Now visualize a time when you have been your most kind to yourself about something difficult. How did you feel? What part of your body comes alive when you feel self-compassion? I often smile when I do this exercise. If you feel like it too, go for it! Become acquainted with the physical sensation of self-compassion. Put your hands on the part of your body where you feel this the most. Again, if you feel sensation all over, or not at all, simply place your hands over your heart. Take three deep breaths.

Common humanity:
For this next exercise, find a picture of yourself, and one of someone you really care about. It might be a picture of your friend, parent, child or even a well-known person you have never met like an author of a book you love or a religious figure. Set the two pictures upright, side by side, where you can see them. Now, I want you to write down on an index card the most common self-critical things you say to yourself (“I’m too fat” or “I’m ugly” or “I can never do anything right”). After you have written down at least three statements, I want you to set this card next to the picture of the other person. Visualize how you would respond to them if you heard them say these things about themselves. What would you tell them? Write your response on another index card, and set this one down next to your own picture. As you look at the two pictures and two index cards, recognize that everyone feels upset or down on themselves at some point in their lives, and that we are all worthy of self-compassion. See the two beautiful people in the photos, linked by a common humanity. And then, take the index card with the critical statements and tear it up. Place the other index card with the compassionate statements between the two pictures and leave this up for at least a week. Throughout the week, when you catch yourself being self-critical, look at the pictures and read the statements.

Self-kindness:
Set aside about 15 minutes a day for the next seven days for this letter writing exercise. Think about something that happened during the day that you struggled with. Maybe it’s something that happened at work, maybe it’s anxiety about upcoming plans, or feelings of insecurity for no reason at all. Write a letter to yourself as if you were yourself from the future. This future you has already overcome the challenge and wants to help you. What advice would the future you give to the current you? What would he or she write about the process of going through something difficult, and coming out the other side? Start off each of your letters with this statement:

“Dear (Your name here),

I know what you are going through today, and I want you to know, you are not alone.”

Continue the letter with anything that comes to mind, and write as long as you would like. They key here is to stick to a daily writing schedule for seven days, so if writing a shorter letter helps you stay committed to the exercise, that’s perfectly fine.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, self-compassion is an important trait to develop not just because it makes us feel better subjectively, but because it is associated with numerous objective benefits. We are more likely to be resilient to stress and to stick to positive health behaviors, which means we can enjoy healthier lives. Practicing self-compassion is rewiring your brain for the better! So commit to at least one week of the exercises, and revisit them as often as necessary. Retake the quiz to see how you have improved, and be sure to let me know what changes you have started to notice in your life!

If your self-compassion and self-criticism were in a boxing match, who would win?

box_ringI’m imagining a boxing ring. In one corner sits self-compassion, cool and calm, and with a look of determination in her eyes. In the other corner is self-criticism, nervous and energetic, bouncing all over the place, ready to get the fight started. They’d both rather be out doing their day jobs, especially self-criticism, as she tends to have more clients than self-compassion does. But here they are, in the boxing ring of my own mind. For me, all my bets are on…yup, you guessed it. Self-compassion.

I wouldn’t have always bet on self-compassion though. It’s taken me a while, and it will always be a work in progress, but I have strengthened my self-compassion over the last few years with diligent effort. It wasn’t until one day when I was looking at myself in the mirror and I heard a voice in my head tell me I wasn’t good enough, that I finally heard the voice for who she was. She wasn’t my voice. She was the internalized message I had been taught my whole life, from every arena. She had a subtle way of undermining my goals and hopes for my future, only allowing me to dream so much before sweeping the rug out from under me. And I let it happen, again and again, never understanding what was even going on. Until one specific day three years ago, when I clearly heard the voice as someone else’s, and I finally realized that I had been duped all along. That is not my voice.

Since then, I have done a lot of work on self-compassion. The definition of self-compassion I like best is put forth by Dr. Kristin Neff, who has identified three core components: kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Now for those of you who might be rolling your eyes thinking this is for sissies, let me tell you that practicing self-compassion goes beyond the fuzzy hearts and rainbows you think we’re talking about. This is about the neurologic wiring of your brain. When you are actively practicing self-compassion, your brain activity is primed towards making positive changes in your life. You are able to navigate stressful situations better. You enjoy better health. You give back to your community, in turn helping other people. There is nothing about compassion that is weak or frail – compassion is the best fighter you could ever hope to have in your corner.

Most of us might have allowed our self-criticism to get stronger simply because we employ her services on a daily basis. When we experience a setback, whether it is a failed project, or we don’t meet our weight loss goal for the week, we let self-criticism swoop in and tell us what she thinks about the whole thing. She’s strong only because we keep feeding her and exercising her. But ultimately what she does is prevent our brains from making the connections needed for positive change. She keeps us stuck and feeling bad. Which is great for her, because she always has a paying client.

I want you to imagine a boxing ring of your own. Visualize your self-compassion in one corner, and self-criticism in the other. When the bell rings, who would win that fight?

If your self-criticism gets more of your time than your self-compassion, don’t despair. There is good news! Self-compassion can be trained and developed. It’s like building a muscle; over time, you’ll be able to automatically rely on yourself as a compassionate force when life throws you a curveball (I’m mixing my sports analogies here). I mentioned above the three components to self-compassion. By practicing each component, you will develop a well-rounded approach that will carry you through any difficult situation you may face in your life.

Compassion is inner strength. Criticism is inner weakness.

The best thing is, the more compassionate you are towards yourself, the more so you can be towards everyone else. This is what common humanity means. And anyone who has been on the receiving end of genuine compassion knows how empowering it is. It infuses a person with the strength to overcome any obstacle. To me, there is nothing fuzzy-hearted or rainbowed about that.

In an upcoming article, I will describe some simple but effective tools for strengthening self-compassion. Until then, notice how you talk to yourself throughout the day, without judgement. Get to know the characters, and pretty soon you might find self-criticism knocked out for good.

10 ways to reduce your work stress (and you don’t have to quit your job!)

file00046276047I am sure most of you have heard “when you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life”. Probably fewer of us have actually lived that phrase, and experienced what it is actually like to love our work to the point where it doesn’t feel like “work”. While it would seem beneficial for everyone to follow their dreams, it’s just not possible. The truth of the matter is that we need people fulfilling different roles in society for our society to function. We need garbage collectors, we need postal workers, we need accountants and (insert any job here you would personally not want to do). While there are some in every profession who probably genuinely love their work no matter what it is, many people eventually fall into their line of work as a means to support themselves and their families as best as they can. There is no shame in doing a job for these reasons. With much of the modern day focus on following your dreams, there is a burgeoning sense that by not doing that, we are somehow acting against ourselves and our ultimate happiness. For some time now, we have known that stress in all its forms is a major contributor to disease, and for many of us, the single biggest source of stress is our careers. Feeling stressed out and unfulfilled in our jobs is the whole reason we invented happy hour, after all. It’s why we spend months looking forward to vacation, and then experience the dread of that first day back at work. Job stress is a huge problem. If it’s possible for you to change careers, to take a leap of faith in the Universe and in yourself and pursue your dream, then by all means go for it. Don’t live out your life wondering what if, especially if you know that your skills and talents are exceptional. But, if you have a passion for something and lack the skills for it (like me and art, for example), it would be ill advised to leave a steady job with a regular income to make it in another field. So what about all those people who are working in jobs they don’t particular care for, who aren’t following their passions? Are they doomed to stress themselves into an early grave?

The answer lies in examining what stress actually is. In reality, stress is more of an internal perception or belief than anything external. Our reaction to situations and events determines whether or not we activate the stress response in our bodies. When it comes to job stress, there are several factors that play in to our reactions. We might feel taken advantage of, without autonomy, or be stressed by doing boring, monotonous work. We might get looked over for a promotion, or be dealing with unpredictable and varying workloads. The nature of our work itself might just be high-stress, even if we like who we work with and feel in control most of the time. How do we reduce our work stress if changing jobs is not an option? By changing our perception and experience of stress. Below are ten ways to accomplish this:

1. Cease resisting. Despite how wonderful it is to believe that we are all meant to be doing what we love as our jobs all the time, its stress-relieving to accept our current situation for what it is and that for now, this is the job we have to do. Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up, or losing hope. It just means that in the current moment and situation, we will stop resisting what already is.

2. Cultivate gratitude. It doesn’t matter what the job is, but in any given moment, there is at least one thing that you can be grateful for. If you can’t think of one, try harder. It’s there. Whether its that one co-worker who has a nice smile, or the window you can look out of, find as much as you can to be thankful for.

3. Connect inwardly. Learn what your core values are in life, and identify how you are developing them in your current job. Are you learning patience? Are you learning how to stand up for yourself, or where your boundaries are? Use your job to learn more about yourself, this will come in handy no matter what comes next.

4. Calm down. This might seem obvious, but learning to manage your stress response in other areas of your life will affect how you handle your stress at work. Practice meditation, take long walks, and get adequate sleep. Figure out how to be calm away from work, and it will pay off multiple times over.

5. Cancel out. Like noise canceling headphones, start developing a laser like focus on your work rather than paying attention to every little thing that goes on in the office. Often, we let other people’s job stress affect us, even when we have nothing to do with it.

6. Chime in. Sometimes the biggest source of stress at work is feeling like we aren’t being heard. To hold something back that we so desperately want to say because we are afraid of the repercussions can feel like a physical burden that weighs us down. Start finding your voice at work while being respectful of other’s opinions and most importantly, let go of the fear of what others will think of you.

7. Catch up. If you have any lingering projects or deadlines, take care of those so they aren’t hanging over your head. Tackle any nagging tasks, because even if you aren’t consciously thinking about them, they are always hanging around in the back of your mind ready to stress you out the minute you remember them.

8. Check out. Do you have enough time away from your job, and everything that reminds you of your job? Are you checking email or messages, or feel like you have to in order to be seen as a good worker? If so, STOP! Completely check out, and enjoy your time off. This may feel like it actually adds stress at first, but eventually you will be able to rejuvenate yourself and come back to work refreshed.

9. Clean up. Not that you have to be an OCD neat-freak, but keep your work area clean and organized. Too much clutter and mess can add to an already stressful day. Maintain your workspace, whether its a cubicle or an office, in a way that relaxes you and allows for improved productivity.

10. Crack up. Depending on where you work, what your job is, and who you work with, it might not be easy to crack a few laughs during your day. But if you can, try to find at least something once a day you can laugh at. Watch a funny video, read a funny story, or take a few minutes during lunch to call your outrageous friend who always gets you to laugh at something silly.

To illustrate the last point, I once called a friend in a panic after getting to work and realizing that my cat had peed on my pants. He had a sneaky habit of hiding in my closet and marking anything I left on the floor (those of you with male cats know what I am talking about…) I hadn’t been able to figure out why I was getting whiffs of that pungent musky odor on my drive to work. Turned out, after sitting down at my desk, I saw on my pants a very small spot with a very big smell. I immediately called my friend (for moral support? advice? I wasn’t sure), who proceeded to guffaw loudly over the phone at my predicament. She helped turn my panic into humor, which allowed me to better navigate the unfortunate situation.

Sometimes, all you can do is laugh, take a deep breath, and do the best with what you’ve got.

A healthy mental diet

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou have to guard what enters your mind just as carefully as what enters your body. And like packaged “health food”, sometimes what seems mentally or emotionally healthy, might not actually be. It might be those very things that are actually making you sick. That are not allowing you to move forward. Maybe they are certain words of inspiration, or images of what we want to achieve in life, but these very things might just reinforce our current attachments and false beliefs that we are not enough as we are. Maybe what we feel as motivation or inspiration, is just an influx of energy coming from that egoic place that makes us feel like “yeah, ok, let’s do this!” and yet, somehow we fail yet again. Why is that?

If you want to lose weight, and you view images of healthy toned people as inspiration, it might give you the motivation to exercise in the short term. It might help you visualize your goal, which is very important; except that often your brain interprets the “you” who has reached the goal as a person different than who you are right now. This is where the problem arises. When you think of yourself in the future as a different person, you become even more detached from the present moment. Inspiration to make positive changes is great; inspiration to be another person is not.

Allow inspiration to come to you in a form that supports where you are right now. If you create vision boards, or collect inspiring images and quotes to help you achieve your goals, be aware of how they make you feel in the current moment. If they make you feel worse about yourself now, with the hope of feeling better later, then likely they will keep you stuck. But if they foster appreciation for who you are now, while also motivating you to reach your goals, you can use that positive momentum to grow into your better self.