The “Inner Detective” inside of each woman

The other morning, I decided to cut through a nearby park on my way home from a workout. As I was strolling along, a man approached, clearly staring me up and down. When we crossed paths, he said to me, “You’ve got the face of an angel!” I smiled politely and he continued on, “Do you know that you’ve been kissed by God?” I responded with another smile and kept walking. I felt myself exhale as I saw that he continued walking in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until the interaction ended that I even realized that my subconscious had been hard at work for the duration of the 15-second exchange, evaluating threats and calculating the most “appropriate” ways to react. I took in his appearance, body language, tone of voice, and physical size.  There was an automatic analysis of his likely intention (to hit on me? to be friendly? to give me his input on my identity as an angel?) and my wisest response (to laugh? to nod? to ignore him?) and never once did I consider what I felt like doing because the focus was on keeping him non-threatening and getting on with my day.

Someone recently shared with me a piece in the Huffington Post by Gretchen Kelly, titled “The Thing All Women Do That You Don’t Know About.” She points out the various ways that women de-escalate and shrink our everyday experiences to avoid confrontation. As soon as I read it, I felt validated and shared it with several of my female friends, colleagues, and clients. It resonated with each of them. I realize as I write this that I conveniently “didn’t think about” sending it to any men. Perhaps on some level, I assumed they wouldn’t be interested, or wouldn’t find it as powerful as I did (which would feel invalidating and make me question whether my reaction was “right”). As social creatures, we naturally look to others for external validation, and when we don’t get it, we naturally question whether our perceptions were accurate. That’s why groupthink is a thing. We like to “belong,” to feel like people agree with us and believe that what we bring to the table is important.  So I guess I played it safe by sharing the article with people I could count on for validation– fellow women.

I share Kelly’s worries when it comes to discussing women’s issues. I worry that I’ll be accused of exaggerating or overreacting, or being “sensitive.” In another part of my brain, though, there’s a voice that says “It doesn’t matter. I’m a person, and dammit, all human experience is valid!” It’s a newer voice, probably fueled by my training as a psychologist, but I sure am grateful it chimed in. The fact that this voice is not the most familiar message my brain gives me tells me that as human beings, we need to talk about what’s happening, so that we can stop invalidating each other and start connecting more authentically.

As a woman, I’ve been programmed to do the type of split-second assessment I did at the park the other morning everywhere. It’s something that happens as automatically as blinking. Nobody ever sat me down and taught me to dissect the environmental, social, physical, and emotional elements of my daily interactions with men, but I still learned how to do it. I learned the necessity of de-escalating, as Kelly calls it, to keep myself functioning in the world.

I know that regardless of gender, anyone can commit or become a victim of sexual assault and other forms of violating interpersonal behavior. I also know from experience that when we feel attacked or accused of something that feels “icky,” we become defensive. You could ask me about the race of the man who approached me in the park, and argue that had something to do with my fear. I can already feel my defenses gearing up to “prove” that my fear response was not based on the man’s race, because “Oh my gosh, what if I seem racist?” You could tell me I should have been flattered by his compliment, and I feel myself start to question down another self-doubting road, “Oh my gosh, what if I’m overreacting to something harmless and he was just being friendly?” Those reactions are there because there’s some truth underneath.

Here’s the thing, though. As I mentioned in my post last Thanksgiving, I know that I have biases. I make implicit associations based on race, gender, age, appearance. We all do.  We can’t possibly know about all of them, but when we discover them, we can try our best to acknowledge and own them instead of denying them. It’s an uncomfortable process that nobody is ever truly “done” figuring out. But here’s the other thing. I don’t think it helps anyone to pin this womanly “detective work” on racial or any other type of bias. I have had this feeling in response to looks, gestures, and comments from a diverse range of men. Maybe race plays a role, maybe age plays a role, maybe my mood that day plays a role in how I perceive someone… but these are not even close to being the only factors at play. I learned to assess and respond to men to keep myself safe, to prevent a scoff and a muttering of “bitch” under a stranger’s breath, to avoid angering or provoking.

I’ve worked with many clients who struggle to heal from trauma. What I find hardest about treating people who have been abused, assaulted, and raped is that there is this larger-scale minimizing that works against them. We can sit together and validate like there’s no tomorrow, but it often feels like just a drop in the bucket. We still live in a world where de-escalation is the norm. At the society level, we are denying, distorting, and invalidating people’s experiences. I get it; this type of stuff isn’t exactly fun to acknowledge. It’s much easier to say to someone (or to yourself) that “he was just joking around” than to say to someone (or to yourself) that what he just said was inappropriate. It’s much easier to blame the recipient of unwanted advancements (“if you don’t want to get hit on, don’t dress in a tight shirt”) than to turn inward and acknowledge that we said or did something that made someone uncomfortable. Plus, these exchanges often happen so automatically that it isn’t always possible to recognize them before they’re over.

Peel back one more layer of the onion and it’s clear that many of us choose not to bother speaking up, often until things “cross the line” and get dangerous. The shaming/ blaming/ dismissing responses that tend to come from calling out inappropriate and intrusive behavior makes it easier sometimes to just shame/ blame/ dismiss it within ourselves before even acknowledging that something bothered us. We’ve done it a billion times. It often ends up being seen as “overreacting” if we say that someone’s behavior felt scary, creepy, or hurtful. And who wants to be labeled as “dramatic” or “blowing things out of proportion” or “playing the victim?”

Here’s my challenge to all of us: speak up, let yourself speak up, and let others speak up without dismissing.  If you’re a woman, admit that something didn’t feel okay to you and let yourself get pissed off. Teach your children that their experiences are always valid, and that if something feels threatening, they aren’t overreacting. If you’re a man, let yourself consider that what I’m saying might be accurate. Notice if you become defensive and think, “it’s not fair to blame us for your reactions,” or, “I’m a nice guy/ social worker/ philanthropist/ feminist/ mensch, don’t try to make me feel guilty about this stuff,” or “men can be victimized, too.” Then, see if you can get to something else, below your automatic reaction. I’m not saying men can’t be victimized, and I’m not saying all men have done this type of thing. I’m just asking for everyone to listen and take it seriously.

I’m not pointing fingers at anyone; this isn’t about casting certain people as villains based on their gender or any other demographics. It’s about getting one another to start listening openly and without defenses. Asking yourself if you’ve invalidated someone is not an easy thing to do. I hate having to admit when I have minimized someone else’s experience, because I feel guilty and ashamed, but I also know it’s the only way to change things. And I know from the number of people I see, day in and day out, who bravely share the pain of their experiences, that we need to make this change.

Why is language so trippy?

Have you ever done that thing where you start saying a word over and over and over again until it sounds sort of singsongy and you forget what it even means? When I was little, I used to do this a lot  with random “simple” words, like “awhile” and “because.” Yes, I was apparently born a word nerd. I don’t recommend doing it in public unless you really want to annoy everyone around you, but try it out and you’ll see just how nonsensical and strange words become when you repeat them. Language is trippy, and the unconscious process we have for interpreting language can be fucking weird. Think about how right now, your eyes are automatically scanning the shapes on this screen and making sense of the shapes based on how they are structured and combined with one another. Really, stop reading and think about that…

It’s kind of mind-blowing, right? We have these intricate webs of connections between words and what they represent, and our minds are constantly on autopilot interpreting those connections. It’s the process that lets us communicate with each other, and the reason we can remember something that happened years ago. We do this without being guided to do it. Okay actually, we are guided early on, but it quickly becomes second nature.   While we aren’t born with the ability to read written language, we are born with innate “reading” abilities that then get shaped and developed as ways for us to survive in a language-based world.

Unless you’re a word nerd like me who grew up thinking words and letters were just as fun to play with as Legos and dolls, you probably don’t notice language doing its thing on a regular basis. If you start to think about it and notice yourself thinking in words, and notice the associations you make with whatever the words bring up for you mentally, you get sucked into kind of this “meta” space.

The Lemon Exercise is a great way to illustrate the power of verbal associations and sensory experiences. Close your eyes and picture a lemon.  The bright yellow color of it, the bumpy, textured peel, the round, footballish shape… imagine slicing into it and noticing the way it looks, the pinwheel design with seeds in the middle, picture the juice dripping onto your fingers as you hold a slice, inhaling the fresh, citrusy lemon scent… now imagine yourself putting the slice in your mouth, feeling your mouth salivate as the sweet, tangy tartness of the lemon hits your tongue…

Without the presence of a physical lemon, you can conjure up a “lemon reaction” in your brain and body just by visualizing its properties. If you had never heard the word lemon or seen a lemon, let alone tasted a lemon, it would literally just be a sound to you when you heard the word, and this exercise wouldn’t be possible. That’s why foreign languages sound so, well, foreign (duh); we don’t have any context for interpreting the sounds we’re hearing until we attach a meaning to those sounds. Collectively, we give words meanings, and then based on our life experiences, those meanings become implicitly fine-tuned to the degree that they can even evoke strong reactions inside of us without us realizing it.

What does this have to do with mindfulness? EVERYTHING. I like to use my little repeating game with clients who have a hard time recognizing that thoughts are just words in the brain. Usually, the culprit is a thought along the lines of “I’m worthless/ not good enough/ not smart enough/ can’t do it/ never going to get what I want.” Most of the time, we don’t notice our thoughts because they act like a continuous inner dialogue, our brain’s voice sort of narrating things as we live life. We don’t usually stop to reflect on this narration– we just take it at face value, as a fact of life, and keep going on with our days. This isn’t always a big deal, but it can get messy when our brain’s little narrator voice is saying stuff that’s bullying, judgmental, or not serving us in some other critical way.

When we have a particularly troubling or unpleasant thought, we sometimes get “hooked” on it.  For many of us, it’s usually fears, worries, areas of insecurity, or that growing to-do list. When thoughts of this flavor come up and start to bug us, that’s where the mindful pause is helpful. If you can slow down and go to that trippy “meta” place where you notice yourself interpreting the words your brain is saying to you, you can step away from all of those subconscious associations between words and their meanings and instead see them as just words.

This is an example of what happens when a thought is mindless: the brain-voice says “You look stupid today,” and you instantly, automatically react, sometimes in the form of a flurry of additional thoughts (“ugh, I always look like such a mess,” and “I hope I don’t run into anyone I know”), feelings (self-conscious, embarrassed), and/or memories (of a time when you felt more confident in your appearance, for example).  Here is what happens when a thought is mindful: the brain voice says “You look stupid today,” and we start to react but then notice what we’re doing and SLOW DOWN for a second. Maybe you say back, “that’s an interesting thing to say, brain, what’s up with that?” or maybe “that’s one thought, what’s another one? What else do you have for me?” And see if the brain gives you anything else. If the brain voice doesn’t come up with any new material, we can start to more intentionally repeat it over and over until it loses meaning. If you say “I look stupid” enough times, you realize you’re just saying words, and okay, so what does it really mean then, if the words are true? How can you be SURE? Why do you care? What do you want to DO about it?

As a side note, mindlessness (and mindFULness) applies similarly to how we experience emotions and behaviors, but I will save that little ramble-fest for another time.

Given all of this, that old playground chant of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” seems incomplete. Of course words can be hurtful, who are we kidding here? But only in certain contexts.  Stupid is just a word. And words are just sounds that we put together to mean something. But when we slow down, we don’t have to mindlessly go with those meanings. Perhaps we should be teaching kids that sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me because I choose how much I buy into their intended meaning.  Less catchy, but more accurate! What does your brain-voice say about that?

 

New Year, Same Fear (Part 2)

In honor of the New Year, I’ve been reflecting on the passage of time and the ways that time becomes distorted by our perceptions. In my last post, I talked about some of the ways we (humans) unintentionally (yet oftentimes, very determinedly) keep ourselves feeling stuck. The key to freeing ourselves from our “control agendas” is acceptance.  So Part One was about how we are all, to some degree, plagued by avoidance, and Part Two is about swallowing its antidote, acceptance.

“Acceptance” means making space for all of the feelings and experiences that are natural parts of life, without trying to change them or make them go away. It means opening up to the feelings of fear that naturally arise. It means acknowledging that we can’t predict the future or change the past. It means owning that we are imperfect and messy. It means that we will sometimes feel rejected, inadequate, or unlovable, and it means that we are REAL and ALIVE. It takes courage to practice acceptance, because you have to be willing to sometimes feel like crap.   Perhaps you already try to do this, or perhaps you think it’s a load of BS. After all, why would you choose to “just feel crappy?” Keep in mind that you don’t have to want, enjoy, or welcome an emotion in order to be willing to have it.

The idea is that our efforts to change or fix the “problem” of unpleasant emotions only serve to amplify and intensify those emotions. If I hate broccoli, I can choose not to buy it at the grocery store and refrain from ordering it on a menu. That’s a great way to deal with the problem of “I hate broccoli,” because broccoli is an external stimulus. If I hate feeling guilt, I might try applying the same strategies that solved my “I hate broccoli” problem to the “I hate guilt” problem, by trying to make the guilt go away. Clearly, this does not work, because guilt is a transient and subjective internal experience, rather than a concrete, external object. We naturally try to solve our internal problems in the same ways we solve our external problems, but the strategies that are successful in the external world are pretty ineffective when applied to the internal world. Our efforts can get discouraging and just plain exhausting. Acceptance is about letting go of the struggle to “fix” everything, and learning to see what’s inside of ourselves not as “things that need fixing,” but just as “things that are there.”

What gets in the way, usually, is fear. Fear that if I let myself feel the joy of a new relationship, I’ll be vulnerable to more sadness and disappointment if it doesn’t work out. Fear that if I let myself feel worried or scared or cry, I won’t be able to handle it. I will sink into crappy feelings that will last forever, and it will be awful. The man who felt anxious at work had a bunch of different choices in how he related to his anxiety. One choice, besides drinking, would have been to feel his anxiety, say to himself “I’m feeling anxious,” and still go to work and survive his day. He just didn’t realize that letting himself be uncomfortable without trying to make the discomfort go away was even an option, because he was caught in what Tara Brach calls “the trance of fear.” The trance of fear is what sends us into problem-solving mode, and it can happen so quickly that we don’t even know we’re doing it. As a therapist, I’ve seen this time and time again, and in my own life, I’ve experienced it time and time again. It’s in our nature as humans to want to change, fix, or solve things we don’t like. We like to control, but it is our very efforts to control that draw us into struggle and suffering.

What’s so fulfilling about accepting all of the yucky stuff going on within ourselves instead of trying to make it go away (and yes, “yucky stuff” is the clinical term) is that it makes more space for the full spectrum of emotions to exist. Life includes pain, insecurity, and self-doubt, but inevitably, it also includes the pleasant and pleasurable, the warm and joyful, the loving and compassionate.

It is NOT easy to practice leaning in to the full spectrum of emotional experiences. When we get stuck, we can take comfort in the fact that we are working through what is a natural human process, because it means that we never have to walk the journey alone.

If you find yourself needing support in your efforts to open up to in fear in 2016, I may be able to help. Call or email me and we can work together toward a greater sense of support and balance.

New Year, Same Fear (Part 1)

It’s 2016! When did this even happen? Time seems to pass at weird rates.

How often have you asked someone about their day at work, and they replied, “Ugh, it was so LONG” or have you been asked about a trip and you responded, “it went by so FAST”?   The passing of time can feel excruciatingly slow or dizzyingly fast, depending on a million other internal and external factors.

Not to go all Literal Lucy here, but time actually moves at the same rate, no matter what. A minute is always sixty seconds. The reality is that this is 100% our perception and experience of time.

If we can recognize that the passing of time is only quickened or slowed down by our perceptions of it, we become better equipped for living fully in each moment. Time doesn’t have to be this slippery, elusive element that never seems to do what we want it to; time simply passes, and we can watch it, ignore it, lament what could have been, anticipate what is to come, or, trickiest of all, simply live in it.

What makes us wish time slowed down (or stopped) during the joyful moments is the same thing that makes us wish it sped up when our day feels sucky. It’s the phenomenon referred to in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as experiential avoidance or control, which is the attempt to control or alter the form, frequency, or situational sensitivity of internal experiences, such as thoughts, feelings, sensations, or memories, even when doing so causes us behavioral harm (Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette, & Strosahl, 1996).

Okay, I’ll chill on the psych jargon and give it to you straight. Basically, we use all kinds of conscious and unconscious strategies to try to avoid, suppress, or ignore the things that we don’t enjoy (the long line at the supermarket, the obnoxious sound your partner makes when he chews his cereal, the throbbing pain of a sinus headache, the painful memories of a traumatic experience, the feeling of grief when we lose a loved one, the feeling of rejection when we get dumped). When we perceive something as crappy, we want to make it STOP or GO AWAY. On the other hand, we do the opposite and try to cling to, prolong, or drag out the things that give us pleasure (vacations, eating cake, having an orgasm, getting a good night’s sleep, feeling important or special when we get a promotion at work, feeling loved when our children climb into our laps with a book).

For example, try to recall a time you have felt a positive feeling (such as pleasure or delight) and an experience that went along with it. For me, an easy example is when I’m eating a delicious ice cream sundae on a hot summer afternoon. With my first decadent bite, I can count on a slew of enjoyable feelings and internal experiences to pop up. I’ll think the thought, “this is delicious!” accompanied by my mouth watering when I taste the refreshing sensation of cold, creamy sweetness. Then… the moment I have these enjoyable experiences, my body and brain automatically go into experiential control efforts. No more than a few bites in, I may start to think, “I wish this bowl was bigger.” I start trying to eat very slowly and make it last longer, or I think about what else I can get to satisfy my insatiable sweet tooth after I finish. Sometimes I feel guilty over my indulgence, or I feel annoyed that it’s melting faster than I want to eat it. All at once, my experience of pleasure becomes tainted by my own reactions, my “control agenda” and the effort to hold onto ice-cream-induced pleasure forever and ever.

The same goes for avoidance efforts. Addiction often develops because of experiential avoidance. For example, a 35-year-old man feels self-conscious when socializing in groups, but he works in an office culture where the expectation is to attend work-related social functions. He finds that after a few drinks, his nerves are calmed and his anxiety is dulled. He starts to rely on this strategy more and more, to take the edge off. Over time, this behavior gets reinforced. He learns that when he drinks, the unpleasant feelings go away. His body builds tolerance to alcohol, and he must drink more and more to get the same effects. When he sobers up, he feels guilty and ashamed, on top of the anxiety he already was feeling. He starts drinking before work in the mornings, trying to prevent the unpleasant feelings before they overwhelm him. It’s easy to see how the man’s efforts to control his feelings lead to his feelings controlling him, as his daily life becomes focused on “not feeling anxious.”

As Brene Brown mentions in her popular Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, we cannot selectively numb. We can’t choose to not feel anxiety ever, because anxiety is part of life. On a related note, we cannot selectively cling. We can’t choose to only feel joy all the time. Knowing this, it’s futile to tell someone (or to tell yourself) to “just stop thinking about it” or “perk up!” If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these well-intentioned pieces of advice, you know how unhelpful they can feel. We don’t get to choose WHAT our thoughts, feelings, and internal experiences are. What we can choose is HOW WE RELATE to those experiences. We have a choice in how much attention we give to the thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations that we experience, and how much we allow them to dictate our behaviors and control our daily lives.

Next time you feel like time is slipping through your fingers, or find yourself impatiently watching the clock, see if you can turn inward and tune into what else you’re feeling, not just what’s driving a sense of urgency.  And then, see if you can let go of the urgency and connect to the experience itself.  If you’re not sure how to do this, you’re not alone. It’s much easier said than done.

Stay tuned for a sequel to this post in the next few days, and as always, feel free to contact me for help or support.

 

Wishing everyone a warm and healthy new year!

Get REAL This Thanksgiving

Warning: this post may seem harsh. “Thanksgiving” is a sly and misleading name for the part of American history it commemorates. It has a dark side, but it’s so hidden by turkey and stuffing and family drama and football that most of us can easily forget it’s even there. With Thanksgiving, Americans have created a holiday that connotes all things wonderful, gratitude and family and patriotism and perseverance, but Thanksgiving is also a holiday commemorating our exploitation of the land, resources, and people who were here before us. As explorers, intruders, colonizers, Americans came to a land that was already populated, and made up and imposed rules on this country. The people and culture who were exploited continue to experience oppression and marginalization to this day. Like anything with a dark side, we came up with reasons for why this was necessary, even helpful, rather than recognizing such oppression. Celebrating Thanksgiving as purely positive, without mentioning the genocide that ensued, is a whole lot of ignorance and denial.

Go ahead, call me cynical or a downer. React however you’re going to react. At the end of the day, I’m giving voice to something real.

Confession time: I did not know anyone who identified as Native American while I was growing up. I generally consider myself to be a pretty flexible, open-minded, accepting person, and I appreciate diversity in all aspects of the word. But as I’ve mentioned before, I started this blog as a challenge to myself to practice what I preach. To uncover blind spots and biases, to bring them into awareness, and to move through them in the most honest ways that I could. So while I am embarrassed to say this, I’ll put it out there and deal with my consequences: I used to love Pocahantas. Okay, I said it. I even dressed as her for Halloween once. I have lived in multiple cities with sports team mascots derived from Native American symbols and that portray Native peoples (think Redskins, Blackhawks, Braves, Chiefs) in completely racist and dehumanizing ways, and I often did not notice.

When I was 26, I moved to Minneapolis for a year to complete my pre-doctoral training at a chemical dependency treatment center. Minnesota has a much larger Native community than anywhere else I’d ever lived, and I began working with colleagues and clients who were Native. If I’m being honest (which, let’s face it, I’ve kind of signed myself up for Honesty Boot Camp here, being both a writer and a psychologist) it was almost as if Native Americans weren’t real to me until I met people who were Native American. The ignorance I had muddled through for much of my life began to dissipate as the Native American story slowly became more real and alive to me. I struggled with feelings of sadness, shame, and the residual “white guilt.”

Oftentimes, when we (humans) realize we were racist, ignorant, or naive in some way, we feel such overwhelming shame that we get defensive. We react to those uncomfortable feelings by denying that we were ever so off-base, or making up excuses for why we had a right to do what we did and think what we thought. I’d be full of shit if I didn’t admit that I was tempted to do that, too. The thing is, once you learn something, it really does more harm to un-learn it than to incorporate it into awareness. I have developed more empathy related to what Native American people have experienced. Recognizing that I had this unconscious bias, working through my initial guilt and defensiveness, and then allowing myself to become a more respectful and compassionate person has been uncomfortable, but guess what? It’s been fine. I didn’t spontaneously combust. I know I’m not going to rewrite history, so denying it is pretty useless. The systematically-induced shaming and ignoring of Native Americans in this country has been happening for centuries and it blows my mind that before I went to Minnesota, I was never exposed to it. It was glossed over in my textbooks.  All that I can do today is give the history some validation here.

While I understand how offensive and insensitive it is to dress in costumes of another culture for amusement, or to turn other human beings into mascots, I also know that it’s unproductive for me to get stuck feeling shameful, guilty, and pissed off at myself for being so ignorant. I truly did not know any better, and now I do, and so I’m choosing to change my attitudes. Simple… but not easy.

We all can relate to and connect with others, however different we may appear on the surface, and I think we need to get better at recognizing that. I was ignorant, and in many ways, I still am ignorant and don’t even know it (which is kind of the definition of “ignorance,” right? It’s not conscious). When I realized that I had been unwittingly, blindly, albeit innocently following traditions and practices that dehumanized Native American people, I felt horrible. I also realized that I have a choice, and I choose to own up to it, apologize for it, and become a more accepting and compassionate person.

Confession, Part 2: despite my awareness, I still celebrate Thanksgiving. I think there are many wonderful things about Thanksgiving, as it can be a lovely opportunity to connect with loved ones and enjoy a meal together. As a big fan of mindfulness, I also really like the idea of taking some time to be thankful, to intentionally recognize what we appreciate in life. However, it’s necessary to paint the whole picture for ourselves. We can make space for both the dark and light sides of history.

I encourage you to take a look inward, and recognize whether you, too, have been unwittingly, innocently following along with views that are unbalanced or ignorant of other human beings. Try to resist the urge to disown your experiences and instead, let yourself feel uncomfortable for a minute. Nobody is built completely bias-less, but everybody seems to want everybody else to think we are. Let’s get real.

I believe that through continuing to be vulnerable at different levels, we can learn to strike a balance between accepting ourselves, accepting others, and feeling accepted by others. This Thanksgiving, and every day, I think we owe it to ourselves as human beings to let ourselves get called out on our biases, and instead of reacting with defensiveness and denial, instead of trivializing or sinking into shame, respond with clarity and acceptance.

I wish everyone a safe, healthy, and meaningful holiday.