Dear Dr. Rettger,
I’m a 65-year-old mother of two, grandmother of five, and wife of 44 years. I am very blessed and grateful for all that I’ve been given and had the opportunity to work for in life. And yet, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I care to remember. I’ve been in therapy to address the “issues that live in the tissues.” I am told that I am very self-aware, empathetic, authentic, good-natured and kind by my teachers and friends.
I do yoga, garden, cook, eat well, volunteer and also manage to have time for myself. I’ve been told time and time again that I look peaceful and serene and that I give off a calm, yet vibrant vibe. However, I experience my own energy differently. To me, I am in a constant state of unrest. I feel consumed, all too often, by negative self-talk, worries, fears and insecurities. Often, I feel as if I’m besieged and overwhelmed by too much input from the world around me. Anticipating all the possibilities of the “shoulds,” “woulds,” and “coulds” have left me feeling ill-equipped to engage in the present moment.
I find peace when I’m on my yoga mat. Through breath and movement, I am able to sense that my essential nature is good, pure and whole. And yet, when I’m off my mat, which is the better part of each day, I easily unravel and find myself tied up in the knots and “nots” of self judgement, procrastination and fear.
I feel most connected when I am spending time with our grandkids ages five months to seven years old. We take time to stop and notice the beauty that surrounds us. We play, have fun, laugh and hug a lot. I’m mindful to meet them where they are and I encourage them to share with me. I can easily sense their discomfort, sadness or resistance to pressures and expectations or demands to behave in a certain manner that is put upon them by others. I can also readily gauge other people’s frustration and pain.
What can I do to conserve my energy so that I am better able to experience and live my life in a healthier manner?
Thank you for writing in and sharing a bit about yourself with me. Your questions highlight a few areas that I think many of us on the yoga path wrestle with even in light of having a dedicated practice. Things such as worry, negative self-talk, and feeling insecure are central challenges in the human experience. The amount of energy we expend on them and on working with the stress they cause is vast. In my response, I will bring together mindfulness and psychology to address your concerns.
In my view, working with negative self-talk first requires the ability to monitor and catch the negative thoughts as they arise. The next step is to inquire with kindness and curiosity into the accuracy or truthfulness of the thought. It turns out that most of us, at times, tend to negatively skew our perceptions. In fact, cognitive therapists give this topic a good deal of discussion and have listed different types of automatic, negative thoughts. A few examples include “shoulding”, self-blaming, and “catastrophizing.” These kinds of thoughts are considered automatic because they can pass through our awareness without our putting much effort into generating them or paying much attention to them. Their negativity pulls our mood and energy down.
Mindfulness training can work toward correcting these biases by giving us skills to notice and set aside negative biases and connect to our experience more directly and compassionately. By taking the time to settle and quiet things down in meditation, one can gain a deepened sense of familiarity with one’s thoughts, body sensations, emotions, values and spiritual quest. Self-knowledge is the key to gaining freedom from worry and insecurities. Sonima.com offers a wide variety of guided meditations to help you get started (check them out!).
The path to working with insecurities begins with the realization that your humanness, by itself, is already enough and your belongingness in this world is a form of perfection. I recognize that statement may sound spiritually lofty and may not feel that available. Let’s admit that this kind of realization does not come easily; nevertheless, it is worth the effort to attain. It is one that you have to set your heart’s intent on achieving. It requires staying present and connected to yourself, to your practice, and it also requires you to stay alert to the tendency of the mind to slip back into judging mode.
Put another way, the path to this intention requires ongoing self-inquiry, meditation focused on the cultivation of self-love, and training yourself to see through negativity and into the beauty of yourself. Self-compassion is a powerful practice to help you achieve this. One of the pioneering scholars in self-compassion studies is the educational psychologist, Kristin Neff, Ph.D. She describes self-compassion as involving self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity (or community). Neff’s work implies that these three aspects of self-compassion can serve as antitheses to self-judgment, over-identification, and isolation.
Let’s discuss how to extend these practices beyond the yoga mat? A mindfulness strategy that I suggest you try in moments of unraveling is to “S.T.O.P”, which involves literally Stopping what you are doing. Taking a deep, slow, mindful breath. Observing your present moment experience (reconnect to the five senses and get out of the judging mind) and when you are emotionally balanced, Proceed.
Negativity and interpersonal stress are energy drains. There is help in dealing with interpersonal stress in the form of interpersonal effectiveness skills. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), developed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., there is an acronym, DEAR MAN, that gives specific pointers. The first task requires you to be able to Describe situations with clarity for the other. They need to understand your perspective. Next, Express your emotions, wants, and needs gracefully. Human beings are not always so skilled at mind-reading, so we need to communicate. Expressing feelings flows naturally into Assertiveness. An authentic emotional expression may also involve saying “no”, which is often totally acceptable. Reinforce the other person for meeting your wholesome requests and perhaps for not meeting unhealthy ones. Explain to them the mutual benefits of your needs, and offer gratitude to those who support you. Mindfulness is a resource in this process because you need to maintain intent and focus on your goal. It is easy to give up, so stay present and Appear confident—it helps! Lastly, learn and use Negotiating skills. It is wise to compromise and work collaboratively when you cannot agree.
For further coaching and support, I recommend working with a licensed counselor or other qualified professional who can assist you in developing these skills. Thank you, Ilene, for writing in with your questions and sharing your inspiring story!
Many blessings, John
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By John Rettger