The Good Stuff

Good therapy doesn’t mean we just dive headfirst into our problems. When most of us walk into a therapist’s office we fully expect to list our problems and discover what is “wrong” with us, the marriage, our relationships, our habits-you name it. We anticipate that we will dredge up all the painful events of our past and mine them for gold nuggets of truth. The problem with this approach is that it can be overwhelming and not very helpful.

In Somatic Experiencing, powerful approach to healing trauma, we look for positive experiences that people are less likely to bring up in therapy. During therapy sessions, clients spend time paying attention to and experiencing pleasurable, satisfying moments in memory, not just the painful ones. Whether it is the recollection of our dog’s eager greeting or last night’s soft pastel sunset, there is good reason to spend time in therapy recounting some of the warm-hearted moments of our lives. No matter how small, recalling and spending time in less emotionally charged events helps balance and rest the nervous system.

Why does this matter? Herbert Benson, M.D., coined the term relaxation response to explain the physical state of deep rest that changes our physical and emotional responses to stress. Essentially, it is the opposite of the fight, flight or freeze response. Benson explains, “Repeated action of the relaxation response can reverse sustained problems in the body and mend the internal wear and tear brought on by stress”. It may seem hard to believe that we have to find ways to intentionally practice relaxation, but this conscious awareness helps to reduce impulsive, automatic reactions and bring about healing from trauma.

Of course, the relaxation response does occur naturally, as when you hike in the woods and appreciate the fluttering Aspen leaves, but the hectic pace of our world doesn’t give us much of a chance to take in enough moments of relaxation. We actually have to intentionally create relaxing experiences to steer our nervous system in the right direction.

Rick Hanson, M.D., author of Buddha’s Brain, calls this practice “Taking in the Good”. He outlines three conscious steps to keep the spotlight of attention on positive experience:

  1. Let a good fact become a positive experience
  2. Savor the positive experience by sustaining it for 10-20-30 seconds, feeling it in your body and emotions, and intensifying it
  3. Sense and intend that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body-registering deeply in emotional memory

With this practice, we can deliberately use the mind to change the brain over time for the better.

Little by little we can develop resilience and build inner strength from the practice of boosting positive experience and emotions. This is not to avoid the hard things we face, but to balance the scales and overcome a bias towards negative experience rooted in our biology. There isn’t much downside to giving this practice a try!

If you’d like to hear more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpuDyGgIeh0

 

Something Found

Something Found When I was a young girl, my mom urged me to repeat the prayer, “Dear St. Anthony come around something is lost and must be found”, whenever I had misplaced something. Even now, as a full- grown woman, I have friends who swear by St. Anthony. They suggest I call on him to help me find my keys or my purse in hiding. I shake my head in disbelief when they suggest I ask him for help. I grumble, “he never helped me before, why would I ask now?” In fairness, there must have been times when I found the lost shoe or toy, tucked away in a bedroom corner while saying the prayer. But that isn’t what I remember. I remember the time this mythical saint did NOT deliver. The time that the stakes were high, and I really, really needed help. Saying that prayer over and over didn’t make it happen; St. Anthony held out a false promise. I gave up hope in St. Anthony when I was eight years old. I had just started wearing glasses and wasn’t happy about it. For reasons that are still unclear, I took the glasses off while making mud pies, placing them on an outdoor windowsill. I must have been afraid to muddy them, right? Searching for hours, I frantically said the prayer over and over. My mom’s voice still rings in my ears: “How could you lose your glasses? Why did you take them off? Don’t you need them to see?” Reasonable questions, for sure. The glasses weren’t found until months later, long after ordering and paying for a new pair. When St. Anthony didn’t deliver that day, it wasn’t just disappointment that I felt; I was ashamed because I believed I wasn’t good enough. In my mind, if I prayed hard enough and was good enough, then he would perform his magic and save me from trouble. From that point on, my memory was that St. Anthony NEVER delivered. I was always losing things, always in trouble for it, and always carrying an extra load of shame for being the girl who couldn’t keep it all together. If St. Anthony didn’t “come around” to help me find my lost items, I must be bad, I must have too little faith and I must be lazy with my bedtime prayers. To my dismay, 40 years later, I sometimes slip into the shame of that little girl when I lose my keys, cell phone, important papers, etc. I still carry a small resentment towards “St.. A”, but it has become a funny joke, rather than an angry rant. I have declared a truce with St. A and more importantly, with the critical, blaming parts of myself. I didn’t just arrive at this truce-it took a lot of help and guidance from a trusted therapist, wise spiritual teachers, compassionate friends and carefully chosen family members. It has also meant developing a lot of self-awareness through meditation, yoga, writing, dance, and It is my belief that many of us are in recovery from something, but we are all in recovery from shame. My work with clients almost always includes rooting out the voices that carry the shame messages to find understanding and self-compassion. I love this work! Realizing those voices are only a part of you is the beginning of the amazing journey in recovery from shame. Once the voices are recognized, the heart of this life-changing work begins. Compromise, agreement, negotiation, discussion and quieting the blaming and shaming parts becomes possible and we recognize that the voice is NOT WHO WE ARE. We don’t have to be run by the shame tapes! Gradually, we hold our heads higher, speak with more confidence, trust our decision making, appreciate our relationships, and even laugh with ourselves. I still lose things and there are times when I don’t find them. What I can find now, though, is the voice that says “Oh, honey. We all lose things. You’re human!”.

When I was a young girl, my mom urged me to repeat the prayer, “Dear St. Anthony come around something is lost and must be found”, whenever I had misplaced something. Even now, I have friends who swear by St. Anthony and his ability to find lost keys or a hidden purse. I shake my head in disbelief when they suggest I ask him for help. I grumble, “it hasn’t helped before, why ask now?”

In fairness, there must have been a time when I found the lost shoe or toy, tucked away in a bedroom corner while saying the prayer. However, that isn’t what I remember. I remember the time this mythical saint didn’t deliver. The time that the stakes were higher and I had lost my valuable eyeglasses. Saying the prayer over and over didn’t make it happen; St. Anthony held out a false promise to my eight year old self.

When St. Anthony didn’t deliver that day, it wasn’t just disappointment that I felt; I was ashamed because I believed I wasn’t good enough. In my mind, if I prayed hard enough and was good enough, then he would perform his magic and save me from trouble. From that point on, my memory was that St. Anthony NEVER delivered. It seemed I was always losing things and carrying an extra load of shame for being the girl who couldn’t keep it all together. If St. Anthony didn’t “come around” to help me find my lost items, I must have too little faith or be lazy with my bedtime prayers. Worse still, perhaps I wasn’t a “good girl”.

To my dismay, 40 years later, I sometimes slip into the shame of that little girl when I lose my keys, cell phone, important papers, etc. I still carry a small resentment towards St. Anthony but it has become a funny joke, rather than an angry rant. I have declared a truce with this saint and more importantly, with the critical, blaming parts of myself. I didn’t just arrive at this truce-it took help and guidance from a trusted therapist, wise spiritual teachers, compassionate friends and carefully chosen family members. It has also meant developing self-awareness through meditation, yoga, writing, dance, and self-expression.

It is my belief that many of us are in recovery from something, but we are all in recovery from shame. My work with clients almost always includes rooting out the voices that carry the shame messages to find understanding and self-compassion. Realizing those voices are only a part of you is the beginning of the amazing journey in recovery from shame. Once the voices are recognized, the heart of this life-changing work begins. Compromise, agreement, negotiation, discussion and quieting the blaming and shaming parts becomes possible and we recognize that the voice is not who we are. We don’t have to be run by the shame tapes! Gradually, we hold our heads higher, speak with more confidence, trust our decision-making, appreciate our relationships, and even laugh with ourselves.

I still lose things and there are times when I don’t find them. Though, what I hear now is a voice that says “Oh honey, we all lose things. You’re human!”.