AN AUSTIN TRAUMA-INFORMED, IFS APPROACH TO HEALING INDIVIDUAL THERAPY
"New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore, o man, increase your necessity so that you may increase your perception." ~Rumi 13th Century
How do we invite necessity into our lives? Generally, we don't. It finds us. Yet it appears that this elementary force impels us to reexamine, struggle, and transform in a way that nothing else can. All too often, we avoid, resist, that which is hard or doesn't feel good, and who wouldn't? Who wants to experience sadness, anxiety, depression or a sense of shame? Not to digress, but I want to say here that virtually all of us carry shame, a natural response to helplessness.
Unwittingly, we manage to tug a sackful of misguided perceptions from our trauma through life until one day, something gives out. Panic. Collapse. Rage. Darkness. Despair. Suicidal thoughts or actions. I believe that these devastating experiences are Rumi's necessity, and they are the seeds of change. We become open to examining ourselves and our lives in fundamentally new ways. As for new organs of perception, our intrinsic capacity for insight, self-awareness, and conscious living emerges and fosters a deep sense of inner worth, acceptance, and kindness. We find the true peace that lies within.
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“Carefully Selected: Just notice.”
Some (many, most?) people go through their entire lives on automatic. We ricochet from one thought, feeling, circumstance or state to the next, like the little silver ball in the pinball machine that goes ping, ping, ping, as it collides from one bumper or spinner to the next. That’s us… one minute something good happens, and we are happy and at peace; before long, something bad happens, and we are frustrated, angry or sad. Then we create stories around our experiences that structure how we perceive the world and ourselves, and we trust that our perspectives are real and valid. Or are they?
What if we could take a step back and become aware of our inner condition, witness our thoughts and feelings, and opt for another way? That is, we can choose not to buy into our initial perceptions and reactions but rather, simply observe and explore them. In Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), we discover that thoughts are just thoughts, not who we are. “Wait, are you telling me that I am NOT my thoughts,” clients ask. Yes. And just to mention, Descartes’ statement, “I think. Therefore, I am,” that our thinking equates with our self, contributed to one of the greatest errors in human self-perception. Eckhart Tolle writes that Descartes identified the ego, not the self, with this statement.
So imagine what it would look like to just notice how we think, feel, act. Get more aware. And here is the really important part: we always want to observe from a place of acceptance (or at least neutrality) and curiosity. I am reminded of brain research confirming that novelty turns on the learning centers of the brain; experiencing newness excites different neural networks when we are curious. We go off automatic. We pay attention in a new way. We reflect instead of react (like the little silver ball). We choose.
Just noticing does other amazing things too. Have you ever experienced the inner critic, that little voice in your head that frequently comments about what is wrong, namely you? Or maybe others around you are the problem. These negative thoughts can either take us into a downward spiral of self-ridicule and doubt or falsely elevate us into a sense of superiority. In either case, we can simply notice these thoughts and remember- I defer to Steven Hayes, one of the founders of ACT, at this point- “Thoughts are just thoughts. Notice them and then do what works, not necessarily what they say.”
“Thoughts arise. A thought can arise. Just on their own and in the normal course, we follow them. We then build on that thought to the ten thousand thoughts. But if we recognize that a thought is arising—it’s not right, it’s not wrong—we have a choice in that moment to just open and let that thought disappear back to where it came from.” Gangaji
“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.” Marcus Aurelius
"It is a big step toward reclaiming our lives when we realize that, no matter what their content, good, bad or ugly, we do not have to take our thoughts personally." Jon Kabat-Zinn
“Carefully Selected: Acceptance.”
I say to group members that, in the end, all of the work we do in therapy comes down to enhancing self-awareness. (For more on this, please see last month’s column.) This leads to our next opportunity: acceptance. I am not speaking about a universal giving in to our internal struggles or external woes, throwing our arms into the air and declaring, whatever or I give up! Rather, I refer to how we decide to relate to experiences, particularly those that challenge us. Throughout history, spiritual teachers, poets, philosophers and scientists have inspired us to align with what is. Let’s take a look at some of these perspectives…
Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher born in 55 AD stated, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” We can accept, even when it isn’t pretty. I would add that if we are able to change an unwanted situation, by all means do. But sometimes things are out of our control. Not getting the job we want. Losing a loved one. Being shipped to a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Yes, that was Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz after losing his father, mother, brother and wife during the Holocaust. His subsequent chronicle, Man’s Search for Meaning, is considered by many to be one of the most influential books in America. Despite the unimaginable, Frankl wrote, “When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” That is acceptance.
Krishnamurti was an Indian-born mystic who traveled the world to speak about spiritual matters during the 20th century. One afternoon, while talking to an audience and in the middle of his lecture, he suddenly paused and leaned forward to ask, “Do you want to know my secret?” A hush fell over the room as the listeners, many of them longtime students and devotees, held their breaths in anticipation of his response. At last they were going to learn the secret to true happiness. After pausing briefly, in a soft voice, Krishnamurti said, “You see, I don’t mind what happens.” That is also acceptance.
More recently, we look to radical acceptance from psychologist and author of a book by the same name, Tara Brach, PhD. She writes, “In our lives we often find ourselves in situations we can’t control, circumstances in which none of our strategies work. Helpless and distraught, we frantically try to manage what is happening… The more we fear failure the more frenetically our bodies and minds work. We fill our days with continual movement: mental planning and worrying, habitual talking, fixing, scratching, adjusting, phoning, snacking, discarding, buying, looking in the mirror.
“What would it be like if, right in the midst of this busyness, we were to consciously take our hands off the controls? What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience? Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal…
“Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience. We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises. Like awakening from a dream, in the moment of pausing our trance recedes and Radical Acceptance becomes possible.” This is acceptance that we can all practice!
From awareness to acceptance to next month: curiosity.
“Carefully Selected: Curiosity- The Virtue of Inquisitiveness.”
The topic of curiosity is everywhere these days and for good reason. It stimulates the reward system in the brain with the production of dopamine and other pleasure-enhancing neurotransmitters. It has been identified in the field of Positive Psychology as a key attribute of happy people. Daniel Siegel, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, posits that it is a fundamental aspect of love while neuroscientist and developer of the polyvagal theory, Stephen Porges, links curiosity to a balanced emotional state. How great that we are becoming curious about being curious.
The title of this month’s column (see above!) comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love” and “The Signature of All Things.” I have to admit that I was not bowled over by her staggeringly successful memoir, and I have not read her subsequent novel despite its glowing reviews. However, I happened upon her interview on Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being, where Gilbert spoke at length about curiosity. Most notably:
“Terrified people make terrible decisions. We can see that collectively in the way that societies behave and we can see that very personally in our own lives… Terror and fear make you irresponsible, they make you not think very clearly and they make you willing to do almost anything to get rid of that awful feeling… so one of the most very powerful ways to end up not being controlled by that is to remain more curious than you are afraid.”
Gilbert’s perspective is supported by brain research that shows how fear activates our limbic system to create a cascade of hormonal and somatic responses known as the fight/flight/freeze state. We react instantaneously, as our ancestors would attest when spotting a crouching leopard on the African savannah. Gee, let us sit here and imagine what that leopard is about to do results in their becoming the cat’s lunch unless they act fast. Today, we need this response when we step into the street, see an oncoming bus, and jump back onto the curb. It is a survival thing. But it is not a reflection thing that guides us in reasoned and deliberate thinking.
Curiosity, on the other hand, is mediated by the prefrontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of the brain that fosters positive qualities such as emotional balance, response flexibility, fear modulation, attuned communication, and empathy. In this state, we consider the options, see two or more sides to the story, look at the continuum of possibilities beyond black and white thinking… and allow ourselves to be curious. Next month: a holiday gift list for the inquisitive followed by a New Year’s look at how curiosity informs a transformational approach to our problems.
In the meantime… want to get more curious?
Curiosity.com to learn why teacup pigs don’t exist, how you’ve got ancient virus DNA in your genome, and the identity of the kingpin of cocaine before Pablo Escobar.
TED.com to hear stories from some of the most extraordinary individuals on the planet, like the #1 TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity; the #2 TT by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the brain scientist who experienced a stroke; and the #3 TT by Pranav Mistry on the thrilling potential of SixthSense technology
Curiositystream.com to watch Jason Silva’s The Road to the Singularity, Alan Stern’s Close Encounters of the Plutonian Kind, and Karen Gomyo’s Stradivarius: Mysteries Of The Supreme Violin
Until next month, stay curious!
“Carefully Selected: A Holiday Gift… Radiolab”
With the holidays upon us and in keeping with our ongoing theme of curiosity, I humbly gift a fountainhead of endlessly fascinating, exquisitely curious tales from RADIOLAB with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. You can listen to episodes on the downloadable podcast or google radiolab.com. I highlight some of my very favorites below- no small task- but feel free to stream them all. I did. (Show airdates are in parentheses.)
REBROADCAST: Detective Stories (7/11/11)- from digging up a 10-year-old hot dog at Freshkills Park, Staten Island, formerly the largest garbage dump in the country… to uncovering 1,000 years of ancient Egypt’s “most literate” trash heap to reveal lost sayings of Jesus Christ and early records of porn… to a 12-year search for Ella Chase, inspired by a goat standing on a cow’s back.
Antibodies Part 1: CRISPR (6/6/15)- science writer, Carl Zimmer says, “It’s big.” From the study of DNA in E. Coli to a breakthrough in genetic engineering that allows scientists to selectively cut and paste sequences of DNA code in living things. Could we kill cancer cells or recreate the wooly mammoth or engineer designer babies? And should we?
Darkode (9/21/15)- one Massachusetts woman’s nightmarish tale of racing against the clock to pay a $500 ransom after her computer is hacked by Russian criminals; the story takes us to a broken down bitcoin ATM in Brooklyn and time is running out… then we meet one of the co-creators of Darkode, the largest, English-speaking criminal cybercrime forum in the world.
UPDATE: Eye in the Sky (9/12/16)- a peek (pun intended) into one of the most extraordinary advances in technology that begs the question: what do we want our future to look like? The invention of a secret plane during the Iraqi war that “goes backwards in time” could possibly be the most powerful weapon against crime or the greatest threat to our privacy and security.
Parasites (9/7/2007)- from the movie script: space, vast empty space, the stars shine cold and remote. Think Sigourney Weaver. Think “Oh my God!”… then, a spirited debate about parasites: are they good or are they bad? Parasitic wasps that turn cockroaches into zombies, monogamous blood flukes and more… how outhouses saved the Southern U.S. economy, hookworms cure allergies and toxoplasmosis “programs” us to love cats.
Patient Zero – Updated (11/13/2014)- the enigmatic story of Mary Mallon, the New York Public Health Department and the countless victims of Typhoid fever that spanned nearly a decade… then we are walked through an extensive search that spans several continents to find the very first AIDS carrier… and the lyrical journey back in time to discover the earliest high five!
Mau Mau (7/2/15)- “Miles and miles” of never before revealed documents at secretive Hanslope Park outside of London rewrite the history of the British colonial authorities’ treatment of the Mau Mau in Kenya during the 1950’s; a 2009 law suit against the British government initiates records requests that go well beyond the Mau Mau to 37 former colonies… sort of.
ALSO…. UPDATE: Famous Tumors (10/12/13) ~ Emergence (8/14/07) ~ From Tree to Shining Tree (7/30/16) ~ 60 Words (4/17/14) ~ Black Box (1/17/14).
I hope that Radiolab peaked your curiosity, and warmest wishes this Holiday season! We will begin the New Year with a look at how curiosity offers hope to heal shame, fear, anxiety, depression & anger… really.
“Carefully Selected: IFS… From a Place of Curiosity & Acceptance”
I am so pleased to begin the New Year with an introduction to a profound therapy that is a path to healing, not just for those with mental health diagnoses but for everyone. Richard Schwartz, PhD, began his career as a family therapist and noticed that the parents and children with whom he worked often spoke about parts of themselves that felt one way or another. He observed that these parts appeared to take on roles in a way that family members choose roles in the family system. Schwartz subsequently determined that each of us has our own internal family system of parts, ergo the name, IFS therapy.
Having aspects of ourselves that form our whole self is not new in psychotherapy- think Freud’s id, ego and superego. From Dr. Robert Ornstein’s 1986 book, Multimind: “Stuck side by side, inside the skin, inside the skull, are several special purpose, separate, and specific small minds… We are not a single person. We are many.” (pgs 8-9) The achievement of Dick Schwartz was to realize that these internal parts can become wounded and burdened by adverse childhood experiences, the pain of which they carry throughout our lives, reeking havoc with our potential to be mindful, integrated and balanced human beings. And he learned how to help his clients connect with these parts.
This is where being curious comes in. Dick discovered that we can identify parts, approach them with acceptance and curiosity, build trust, witness their stories, validate their hard work and good intentions, and help them to unburden negative beliefs and emotions they have carried for years. In a relatively short time, parts release shame, sadness, helplessness, fear, anger and other problematic emotions while developing a new sense of purpose in our psyche. A part that has carried rage from childhood bullying decides to help its owner become a more vocal self-advocate. An inner critic part learns that the exile it protected has healed, and it chooses to just relax for now.
In addition to our parts, there is an entity within each of us called the Self that has qualities Schwartz describes by eight c’s, including compassion, calm, clarity, creativity, courage, and yes, curiosity. Many people describe this Self as their true essence or spiritual center, a core presence that fosters openness, worth and authenticity. This aspect of us cannot be hurt or burdened; it is an inner resource that, when trusted by our parts, is a healing presence for them while also grounding us. From Schwartz’s website:
“Even during a crisis, when a person’s emotions were running high, there would be a difference because of the presence of Self energy. Instead of being overwhelmed by and blending with their emotions, Self-led people were able to hold their center, knowing that it was just a part of them that was upset now and would eventually calm down. They became the ‘I’ in the storm.”
Curious to know more about Internal Family Systems therapy? Not to worry. I will say more about this transformative treatment next month and share an IFS experience of my own. If you are thinking about getting to know your own parts, I will also provide you with guiding resources. In the meantime, A Very Happy New Year!
“Carefully Selected: More on IFS ”
Please feel free to read the introduction to Internal Family Systems therapy in my January column. What I love about IFS is that it takes a non-pathological approach to the challenges that we face, free from labels, diagnoses and stigma. And I do believe that virtually any of us can benefit by adopting a compassionate approach to aspects of ourselves that we do not particularly care for. “I hate it when I blow up at my kids,” or “I can’t seem to do anything right,” or “Why do I always choose abusive relationships?” These thoughts are not who we are; they come from parts of us that carry the burdens of our past or want to protect us from future pain.
A brief overview of parts…
Exiles are typically young parts (literally) that carry difficult emotions, memories or sensations from childhood when we felt hurt, rejected, abandoned, humiliated or shamed. They are misinformed and hold distorted beliefs that prevent us from discovering our true potential. In IFS, as we unburden these parts, we heal ourselves.
Protector parts are afraid that we may further hurt the exiles if we connect with them, or they fear that the exile parts will overwhelm us with pain if we get too close. Protectors consequently find strategies to hide the exiles or distract us from introspection. Our goal is to gain protectors’ trust so they will allow us to access our exiles.
Now for an IFS story of my own and a note that this may be pretty intense (if not unbelievable) for some…
While doing IFS work on myself recently, I closed my eyes to better attune to my parts. I envisioned an ashen fetus in a shriveled amniotic sac, suspended within a black void. (Sometimes our parts speak to us, and sometimes they provide us with images or body sensations.) I instantly knew that this unborn child was me. In that moment, I received the message: my mother smoked cigarettes throughout her pregnancy, so I must not be worthy of life. I felt deep compassion for my unborn self and offered unconditional love. “Is there anything that you need?” I asked, and it replied, “I need to be hugged.” Continuing with eyes closed, I literally raised my arms into the air as though embracing my unborn self, and I began to cry. I cradled it while uttering the words, “it’s okay, she didn’t know back then (about the danger of cigarettes).” I also whispered, “forgiveness, it’s all about forgiveness; she didn’t know. And you are so worthy of life.” After a time, I felt its sense of worthlessness fall away, and my unborn self transformed into a healthy newborn surrounded by white light.
I want to say that most IFS work involves exiles from our childhood, not from pre-birth. While my story is fairly dramatic, this is not always so. Some parts just need to step us through images or stories until they feel listened to and validated. Some will provide us with details that explain why we think, feel or act in harmful ways. Parts will absolutely tell us what they need to unburden and always know what new roles they want to play. All we need to do is remain open, curious, listen and validate.
Next month: Resources for IFS work.
“Carefully Selected: Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy Resources ”
I invite you to read my two previous columns about IFS therapy, a gentle approach to healing that helps unburden a challenging past while fostering a life of openness, worth and authenticity. Richard Schwartz relates that “it is the nature of the mind to be subdivided, that we have all of these parts for good reason.” To learn more about your own parts, please read on…
A good place to begin is with Parts Work: An Illustrated Guide to Your Inner Life, by Tom Holmes, PhD and his wife, Lauri Holmes, MSW. Sharon Eckstein’s drawings capture the essence of the shifting states of mind we call “parts,” that are beautifully introduced in this book. You will learn about the “living room of our consciousness,” the present state of awareness described by Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. You will learn the basics about Exiles, Protector parts and the Self; how parts develop and interact with one another; and how to heal through parts work and bring balance into your system or psyche. There are exercises at the end of each chapter to help you get acquainted with your parts and develop strategies to enhance your relationships from a parts perspective.
If you are inspired to go deeper, I recommend Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy by Jay Early, PhD. In addition to learning about parts in greater detail, there are numerous transcripts from therapy sessions and detailed exercises that will teach you how to interact with your parts. You will learn how to unblend from a part, identify and develop a trusting relationship with a Protector, get permission to access an Exile, and go through the process of unburdening and transforming an Exile. Please note that you should seek professional therapy if this work causes overwhelm or thoughts of self-harm.
Another wonderful book is Freedom from Your Inner Critic: A Self-Therapy Approach, by Jay Earley, PhD & Bonnie Weiss, LCSW. It addresses that little (or big) voice in our heads that says you are not good enough, you are going to fail, you are not worthy of love or joy or anything good that life has to offer! We get to know our Inner Critic and its point of view, its fears and its intentions for protecting us. Remember: ALL parts are highly committed to their roles and believe that they are helping us in some way. This book teaches us how to befriend our Inner Critic, heal our Inner Children and transform this Protector part into one of our greatest fans.
If you become an ardent fan of the IFS work and want to learn even more, I kindly suggest that you visit Dr. Richard Schwartz’s official website: www.selfleadership.org for many more resources. Please note that many of the books are tailored to professional mental health practitioners, but many are not. There are even a few children’s books like Polly & Her Parts by Alison Biggs that help kids to learn about and love all of their parts. An inspiration for us to do the same…
Next month: Happiness!
“Carefully Selected: Happiness.”
Marcus Aurelius, considered one of the five good emperors who ruled Rome during the second century AD, wrote: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” He was not far off. The my.happify.com website, which explores the science of happiness and how we can get it, basically concurs with Aurelius. It states that roughly fifty percent of our happiness comes from our genetic makeup but approximately forty percent relates to our thoughts, actions and behaviors, factors that we control. (Only ten percent of happiness is determined by external circumstances.)
University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, has collaborated with the Dalai Lama to study the brains of meditating Buddhist monks and has contributed to the science of happiness. In his June 2012 interview with Krista Tippett in her podcast, On Being, he states, “The mind underlies all that is important for flourishing and happiness.” He provides evidence that meditation promotes a greater activation of the left prefrontal cortex associated with happiness, openness and positive emotional expression. He also posits that most people think of happiness as a trait when it is actually a skill that can be enhanced through training and practice.
Matthieu Ricard, French molecular biologist from the Pasteur Institute turned Tibetan Buddhist monk, collaborated with Davidson and has written numerous books, including Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. In his 2004 TED Talk, Ricard states that “happiness, or wellbeing, is not just a mere pleasurable sensation. It is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment.” Like Aurelius and the Happify website, Ricard describes a more enduring conception of happiness, an underlying mental state that is not dependent on external circumstances.
From an interview with the Business Insider at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “To Ricard, the answer comes down to altruism. The reason is that, thinking about yourself and how to make things better for yourself all the time is exhausting and stressful, and it ultimately leads to unhappiness. ‘It's not the moral ground,’ Ricard says. ‘It's simply that me, me, me all day long is very stuffy. And it's quite miserable, because you instrumentalize the whole world as a threat, or as a potential sort of interest [to yourself].’” He suggests that with mental training, we can build benevolence, attention, emotional balance and resilience that together contribute to the skill of happiness. Davidson concurs, reporting from his studies that meditating just 20 minutes a day “can make people much happier overall.”
A brief look at a few strategies for cultivating happiness:
“Mind transformation is the very meaning of meditation,” says Ricard, “It means familiarization with a new way of being, a new way of perceiving things.” Not sure how to meditate? Jumpstart your own practice with three of the highest rated meditation apps: Headspace, Buddhify or Sattva.
Happify’s S.T.A.G.E. framework builds five important happiness skills. Visit their beautifully designed website to learn more about Savor, Thank, Aspire, Give and Empathize. Countless online activities, games, inspiring videos and a community forum are available, and you can create your own personalized track toward happiness.
Loch Kelly’s book and CD set called Shift Into Freedom: The Science of Open-Hearted Awareness is a training guide that teaches us how to “unhook” awareness from our chattering minds to foster inner peace, clarity, love and an inner mental state of happiness. Visit lochkelly.org for simple tools for meditation and awareness inquiry.
Next month… the “M’ word!
“Carefully Selected: The ‘M’ Word… actually, two ‘M’ words”
In the words of Jon Kabat Zinn, an MIT trained scientist, author of numerous books and creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an evidence-based strategy to reduce stress, pain and illness: “There are a lot of different ways to talk about mindfulness, but what it really means is awareness.” As a practitioner of meditation for nearly half a century, Kabat Zinn speaks of presence as a fundamental experience of awareness because “We are only alive now.” He states that the coming together of science and meditation has revealed that the practice of systematically paying attention fosters neural rewiring and changes brain functions to enhance wellbeing, clarity and multiple intelligences.
Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now and The New Earth, explores one of the valuable benefits of awareness when he writes, “To realize that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken spiritually…To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.” He offers the Deep Lake metaphor where we can choose to drop below the ever-changing surface of external experiences, “our life situation,” to reside in the calm and unchanging depths of the lake, “our life.” He reminds us, “Boredom, anger, sadness, or fear are not 'yours,' not personal. They are conditions of the human mind. They come and go. Nothing that comes and goes is you.”
Other perspectives on mindfulness and meditation…
From his 1890 book, The Principles of Psychology, American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote: “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will.”
The Dalai Lama, Co-Founder and Honorary Chairman of the Mind & Life Institute that seeks to integrate science and contemplative practices, notably stated, “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”
In his TED Talk, Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, a specialist in mindfulness for addictions like smoking, related that simply having people drop into their own sensations “breaks the spell of smoking,” with lasting results. Those who practiced mindfulness were twice as likely to refrain from smoking again as compared with those treated only with medication.
In his 60 Minutes interview about mindfulness, Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio states, “I’ve seen it transform classrooms, I’ve seen it heal Veterans, I’ve seen what it does to individuals who have really high chronic levels of stress... I wouldn’t be willing to stick my neck out this far if I didn’t think this is THE thing that can really help shift the country.”
Returning to Jon Kabat Zinn: “Mindfulness is a way to live your life as if it really mattered.”
Next month… Like two bookends.
“Carefully Selected: Like Two Bookends”
The late John O’Donohue described himself as a poet philosopher and penned numerous books of poetry that venerate vulnerability and challenge our addiction to perfection. David Whyte, a self-described philosopher poet “writes at the frontier between deep internal experience and the revelations of the outer world.” Of their deep friendship, Whyte states that they were like two bookends. This month, I have chosen several passages from the minds of these exquisite authors to compel curiosity and invite us to re-imagine who we are and can be in this world. Enjoy.
“…Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness
to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”
~ Sweet Darkness, David Whyte, The House of Belonging
“When our eyes are graced with wonder, the world reveals its wonders to us. There are people who see only dullness in the world and that is because their eyes have already been dulled. So much depends on how we look at things. The quality of our looking determines what we come to see.”
“Sometimes you have to make a complete disaster of your life in such an epic way that it will be absolutely clear to you what you've been doing.”
~ David Whyte
“The beauty of the true ideal is its hospitality towards woundedness, weakness, failure and fall-back. Yet so many people are infected with the virus of perfection. They cannot rest; they allow themselves no ease until they come close to the cleansed domain of perfection. This false notion of perfection does damage and puts their lives under great strain. It is a wonderful day in a life when one is finally able to stand before the long, deep mirror of one's own reflection and view oneself with appreciation, acceptance, and forgiveness. On that day one breaks through the falsity of images and expectations, which have blinded one's spirit. One can only learn to see who one is when one learns to view oneself with the most intimate and forgiving compassion.”
“Those who will not slip beneath the still surface on the well of grief, turning down through its black water to the place we cannot breathe, will never know the source from which we drink, the secret water, cold and clear, nor find in the darkness glimmering, the small round coins, thrown by those who wished for something else.”
~ David Whyte, The Well of Grief
“TO COME HOME TO YOURSELF May all that is unforgiven in you Be released. May your fears yield Their deepest tranquilities. May all that is unlived in you Blossom into a future Graced with love.”
Next month… Letting Go.
“Carefully Selected: Letting Go”
I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite websites: tinybuddha.com, “simple wisdom for complex lives.” Just a “tiny” sample of topics includes: common fears that don’t have to control us, limiting beliefs that prevent you from getting over your ex, the three stages of a new relationship, how to cope when people are cruel, and rethinking what really matters: the four most important things in life. The article that resonates with nearly all of my clients, written by Lori Deschene, founder of Tiny Buddha, is called Letting Go of Attachment, from A to Zen. It begins with the Dalai Lama: “Most of our troubles are due to our passionate desire for and attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities.”
Our brains like enduring entities. The known and predictable offer security and control. But, Lori writes, “When you stop trying to grasp, own, and control the world around you, you give it the freedom to fulfill you without the power to destroy you.” She invites us to define ourselves in fluid terms that do not depend on possessions, roles or relationships that breed attachment. Think about it…we are better able to let go of people, circumstances and material things when they do not identify who we are. Lori writes that pain from loss is inevitable, but we can choose to acknowledge our feelings, express them and commit to working through them to transcend anger, sadness or frustration over time.
I shared Lori’s article with group members numerous times without understanding the A to Zen in the title. It was about a year before one of my clients noted that Lori’s little gems of wisdom followed the alphabet: “Practice letting things be… Question your attachment… Release the need to know… Serve your purpose now… Teach others... Understand that pain is unavoidable…” Duh! I now understand why there is a paragraph titled, Xie Xie. Pretty hard to come up with an “X” word related to letting go, but Lori managed to do it: “It means thank you in Chinese. Fully embrace your happy moments—love with abandon; be so passionate it’s contagious. If a darker moment follows, remember: It will teach you something, and soon enough you’ll be in another happy moment to appreciate. Everything is cyclical.”
I give clients end-of-session handouts with famous quotes related to our topic of the day. Associated with letting go…
Hermann Hesse: “Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.”
Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
Eckhart Tolle: “Accept whatever arises in this moment as if you had chosen it, and your whole life will be miraculously transformed.”
Concluding with Mandy Hale’s quote, also from Tiny Buddha… “TRUST THE WAIT. Embrace the uncertainty. Enjoy the beauty of becoming. When nothing is certain, anything is possible.”
Next month… Who’s to blame?
“Carefully Selected: Who’s to blame?”
We gaze into the eyes of innocent babies, full of life and potential, and sense their inherent goodness. How is it, then, that so many grow up to become bad…lying, cheating, stealing, taking the lives of others? One explanation is that individuals who perpetrate harmful acts must possess substantial character flaws that are simply revealed with time. I would like to offer another explanation through the work of British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst, John Bowlby. His Attachment theory, no longer conjecture, has been validated by neuroscience since its introduction in the mental health field over sixty years ago.
Bowlby’s extensive research on delinquent and affectionless children in Europe and his work for WHO, the World Health Organization, advanced an understanding about the importance of consistent love and affection for the healthy emotional development of infants and young children. This radical shift in the psychoanalytical field from believing that babies’ internal lives consisted of fantasy to realizing that infants actively seek out and respond to real life events was controversial for decades to come. So what do we know now about the relationship among childhood experiences, brain/mind development and adult outcomes?
We will take this and the next several monthly columns to consider what it means to become a good person versus a bad person. We will explore several perspectives that include John Bowlby’s Attachment and Dr. Bruce Perry’s neurosequential model of the brain, with a story from his book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. We will then return to Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems therapy (I encourage you to revisit the January through March 2017 columns), which may provide the ultimate understanding of how we become who we are.
Back to John Bowlby, his childhood separation from his mother, who typically spent one hour a day with her son for fear of spoiling him and from his father, who served in the First World War, fostered the doctor’s later interest in the consequences of separation. Bowlby initially mimicked his surgeon father’s career but gave up his training in the medical field to study developmental (child) psychology. Over the course of many years, Bowlby worked with and researched maladjusted, delinquent and homeless children in numerous settings, leading him to conclude that separation and neglect correlate with dysfunctional child behaviors and negative developmental outcomes.
Bowlby’s position on the importance of the caregiver-child relationship was met with caution at best and outright rejection at worst by the psychoanalytic and mental health community. However, mounting research and clinical evidence ultimately resulted in our current understanding: 1) a child seeks safety through its proximity to a primary caregiver, mother or father, as a means of survival; consistent, predictable care fosters a sense of safety and trust while a lack ensures insecurity and mistrust, and 2) how we see ourselves and how we interpret the world and relationships, called our “internal working model,” is determined by early childhood experiences beginning in infancy that inform our perceptions in adulthood.
We will spend time with John Bowlby’s four Attachment categories in the next column, and I offer you the same words that I give to my clients: “You will never look at yourself or your relationships the same way again.”
Next month… Secure, Insecure or No Attachment?
“Carefully Selected: Secure, Insecure or No Attachment?”
For an introduction to John Bowlby’s Attachment model, I invite you to read (or reread) my August column entitled, Who’s to blame? Bowlby’s observations and the research of his colleague, Mary Ainsworth, produced four general styles of attachment that describe the relationship between a one-year-old and its primary caregiver, usually but not always the mother. Longitudinal (over the course of time) studies show that the attachment established in the first year of life remains consistent based on retesting the individual at the age of 21. Our attachment styles determine how we view ourselves and how we interpret the world and others throughout life.
If your mother was unconditionally loving and affectionate, consistent and predictable, you developed a Secure childhood attachment. You learned very early that you could trust others, and it was safe to be vulnerable. It was okay to express the full range of feelings, including anger and sadness, as you explored your inner, emotional world. All behaviors, even making mistakes, were an opportunity to learn, and your parents supported this learning process. You developed an early sense of worthiness, and as an adult, you generally find other secure individuals who share your sense of self-worth and optimism. You are an empathic, resilient and reflective Securely attached adult. (approximately 58% of the North American population)
If your mother was consistent and predictable but NOT emotionally attuned to you, that is, offering little or no empathy, love and affection, you developed an Insecure/Avoidant childhood attachment. You learned that it was unsafe to make mistakes, show the full range of emotions or be vulnerable because the result was punishment or neglect. You developed a sense of “I am not good enough,” and you could not rely on or trust others so you learned to take care of yourself. As an Insecure/ Dismissive adult, you have the belief that you are strong, independent and can handle anything on your own, but you are emotionally barren. If others want your love and affection, you do not know what that looks like because it was never modeled for you. (23%)
If your mother was emotionally inconsistent and unpredictable, she adored you one minute then ignored you the next, you developed an Insecure/Ambivalent childhood attachment. Your young brain learned very early that you had to do, say or be whatever your mother or father wanted you to do, say or be in order to receive their acceptance and love, even if only temporarily. You sacrificed your own emotional wants and needs to create an identity and a false sense of worthiness through the expectations of others. As an Insecure/Preoccupied adult, you have no idea who you really are, and you perpetually try to appease others to get their approval. Your relationships are often co-dependent, or enmeshed, where you give much more of yourself than you receive, and you tend to be clingy. (19%)
The Insecure/Disorganized child has NO attachment with its primary caregiver who is highly abusive and/or neglectful. These children have no experience of connection and often exhibit confusion and apprehension in the presence of the parent(s). As you become an Insecure/ Unresolved adult, your brain has no capacity for empathy or compassion, and you may be a sociopath (or psychopath). You only care about yourself and may be highly manipulative. You look at others and ask, “What can I get from them, or how can I use them to my benefit?” (18%)
Next month… The intergenerational nature of Attachment & how we can end the cycle
“Carefully Selected: The intergenerational nature of Attachment & how we can end the cycle”
You may have noticed in my last column that John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth created an attachment category for the child and an associated category for that individual as an adult. For example, they observed that a Securely attached child who received unconditional love from his or her primary caregiver, usually the mother, developed into a Secure adult who feels worthy and trusts others. An Avoidant child who experienced little to no love and attunement became a Dismissive adult who has minimal access to their own emotions and discounts the emotional needs of others. The Ambivalent child whose parent was sometimes emotionally available, sometimes not, developed into a Preoccupied adult who fixates on getting unconditional love and approval. And the Disorganized child who couldn’t make sense of his mother’s chaotic behaviors became an Unresolved adult who has no capacity for attachment.
Then what? Most of us will have children of our own.
This brings us to a Sufi story about Jesus. The Christian prophet was traveling with his disciples one day when some townspeople began to call him names and throw sticks and stones. All the while, Jesus blessed them as he and his followers moved on. His disciples, perplexed, asked Jesus how he could bless those who openly scorned him. Jesus’ reply: “I can only give what I have in my purse.” Setting aside our individual beliefs, the story illustrates that Jesus could only offer love and blessings because these were all that he possessed. Now, take this story and reverse it… if, as children, we experienced a lack of attunement, inconsistent or no love, judgment, ridicule, abuse, neglect, violence, chaos… these are all that we know. We then impart these negative qualities on our own children. This is the intergenerational nature of Attachment.
An example: an Ambivalent child learns that he receives love and approval only when he plays rough, doesn’t cry, gets straight A’s, is popular, becomes a football star. He sacrifices his own feelings, wants and needs to serve the expectations and demands of his Preoccupied parent(s). He forever seeks unconditional love, “I will love you no matter what,” but it is never forthcoming. He grows up with a sense of lack; he doesn’t know who he is because he couldn’t explore his own interests, take healthy risks or make mistakes to learn; and he still obsesses about getting that elusive unreserved approval. As a parent, however, he can obtain kudos through the accomplishments of his children. Like his parent(s) before him, he places demands on his children to fulfill his own need to feel worthy. With the creation of a new Ambivalent child, the cycle continues…
Fortunately, all is not lost in the Attachment world. Remember that experience, moment-to-moment, rewires the brain. If the child interacts repeatedly with one or more people who have a Secure attachment, maybe a grandparent, teacher or minister, new neural networks develop to create a genuine sense of self worth and healthy interpersonal behaviors. Or the adult goes into therapy to process and heal from adverse childhood experiences. This individual develops an Earned Secure attachment over time.
Next month…What about the brain?
“Carefully Selected: What about the brain?”
Please revisit my August through October columns if you would like to get a refresher on Attachment. We now take one look at how differing attachments influence the brain.
Numerous studies including those at McGill University looked at rat mothers who frequently licked and groomed their babies and those that did not. Think of these behaviors as the mother rodent’s way of attuning to her rat pup. Rats whose mothers nurtured them a lot grew up to be calm and have a high level of social standing while those that were neglected appeared highly anxious, had a low social standing and were at greater risk for diabetes and heart disease. Genetics was ruled out because this correlation was the same whether the rat pups were raised by their biological mothers or by other female rats.
A baby rat’s neglect by its mother activates a stress circuit that involves the production of cortisol, a chemical that helps to free up energy when the animal goes into fight or flight. A receptor in another part of the brain helps to shut off the stress response, and this brings us to a key outcome from the rat study: highly nurtured young rodents had more receptors to eliminate stress than those that were neglected. These rats were able to manage stress more effectively. The same goes for us humans because we share the same basic brain structures and neurochemicals as our furry friends. So what if we have neglectful parents, like the avoidantly or ambivalently attached children in John Bowlby’s model? Or worse yet, we have a parent(s) who is abusive, chaotic or violent, like children with a disorganized attachment?
Let’s take a look at the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) conducted between 1995 and 1997 by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the health maintenance organization, Kaiser Permanente. For the first time, this landmark research unequivocally correlated adverse experiences in childhood such as neglect; physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; witnessing violence; household substance abuse or mental illness; and incarcerated parent(s), with negative adult outcomes. These outcomes include social, emotional and cognitive impairments, addictions, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses; eating disorders, obesity; violent and other high-risk behaviors; suicidal thoughts and self-harm; countless health conditions and early death.
We return to the question I asked in my August column: Who’s to blame? While I am not suggesting that we condone the behavior of people who do terrible things, I do invite us to expand our understanding of why people behave in ways that are destructive to themselves and to others. I ask: Are there conversations we can have around how to look differently at children who act out and/or continually fall behind in school? How might we advocate for restorative justice in the criminal justice system where punishment is replaced by “repairing the harm caused by crime.” Regarding repair, another quote from the restorativejustice.org website: “When victims, offenders and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational.”
Next month… The neurosequential model of the brain & the story of Leon
“Carefully Selected: The neurosequential model of the brain & the story of Leon”
WARNING: this column has a graphic description that may not be appropriate for children.
Dr. Bruce D. Perry, child psychiatrist and Senior Fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, TX, presented at the annual Cross Discipline Trauma Conference here in Austin in 2015. He described the neurosequential model of the brain that, simply put, develops from the bottom up. In the simplest terms, the most primitive and lowest parts of our brain regulate basic body functions like breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, and they develop first. Next going toward the top of the head is a region associated with motivation, emotion, learning and memory. The most recently evolved part of our brain at the top moderates the executive functions such as attuned communication, response flexibility and emotional balance. The brain works like this: Regulate, Relate and Reason, in that order.
Why is this important? Perry states, and we have already explored, how it takes an attuned parent to help a child develop regulatory and relational capacities for later in life. A caregiver who is anxious, overwhelmed or neglectful creates a disorganizing regulator of stress in the child. (Remember the rats in last month’s column?) Based on the neurosequential model, if you can’t regulate, you can’t manage your emotions, and if you can’t manage your emotions, accessing reason is out of the question. Ever remember a teacher saying, “Sit down and be quiet!” when a fellow student (or maybe you) was feeling emotionally distraught and acted out? Or maybe you have demanded the same of your own children when they appear out of control. (No judgment here.) I ask the rhetorical question: “How’d that work for them or for you?” It doesn’t. You cannot reason with someone who is emotionally triggered.
Let us turn to chapter 5 of Perry’s fascinating book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog to see how the neurosequential model can play out in a child’s life and direct their later behavior. Frank, the older son of Allen and Maria, was a respected member of the community, held a successful plumbing job and was a loving husband and father of two children. Allen and Maria’s younger son, 16-year-old Leon, sadistically murdered two teenage girls and raped their dead bodies. Dr. Perry was asked to testify for the sentencing phase of Leon’s trial for the purpose of examining the young boy’s culpability and to answer the question: how could two siblings raised by the same parents turn out to be so different? Was Leon born evil and wholly responsible for his unspeakable acts? Had he not exhibited aggressive behaviors since preschool, bullied classmates and committed petty crimes like shoplifting at a young age?
Perry’s interviews with Leon revealed other violent behaviors for which the boy had not been charged due to lack of evidence. A young teen had been hospitalized with life-threatening injuries after his bike was stolen; the bike was found in Leon’s possession. Without witnesses of the assault, Leon was only charged with possession of stolen property. He also bragged about additional sexual assaults “with the same cold disdain with which he discussed the murders.” Perry observed that Leon had no capacity for empathy. When asked what he might have done differently about the two teen girls now that he was facing serious charges, the boy reported, “I don’t know. Maybe throw away those boots… it was the boots and the blood on the boots that got me…”
Next month… “The next part of Leon’s story.”
“Carefully Selected: The next part of Leon’s story
This is a continuation from last month’s column, so please read or reread my December article, thanks!
Dr. Bruce Perry considered, “Was he an archetypal bad seed, a genetic freak of nature, a demonic child incapable of empathy?” If genetics could play a role in Leon’s sociopathic behaviors, there would be evidence among other family members, but this was not so. Research indicates that the boy’s extreme behaviors are more likely among individuals who have experienced some form of emotional or physical neglect in childhood. Yet, Leon’s older brother, Frank, raised by the same parents, was a model husband, father and citizen. Perry interviewed the brothers’ parents, and Leon’s story unfolded…
Maria dropped out of school and worked as a maid while Allen graduated from high school and obtained a factory job. They married shortly thereafter, and the birth of their first child brought great joy. Maria was able to quit her job and was surrounded by the loving support of parents, aunts, cousins and friends who helped whenever Frank became fussy and she felt overwhelmed. Perry learned that Maria was very kind-hearted and polite, but she was cognitively impaired. Allen described her as “a little slow in that way” when Perry asked if she had liked school.
Allen lost his factory job and after 6 months with no work, he felt compelled to take a similar job 100 miles away. They moved to an inner-city neighborhood plagued by high rates of violence and crime and no family or friends. Maria became pregnant with Leon, but this time there was no postpartum loving attention and assistance. Maria had been in the habit of taking Frank out for the day when it was just the two of them, and she continued to do so now that she had two sons. She left baby Leon alone in his crib in the dark while she and Frank played at the neighborhood park, visited free museums, had lunch at a local church and grocery shopped before heading home to prepare dinner.
Yes, that’s right. Leon was colicky and Maria did not know how to calm him, so she and Frank left the house for the day. Like all neglected babies, Leon became mostly despondent, and Maria interpreted this as a sign that his distressed behavior had been solved. Dr. Perry writes, “An environment of such intermittent care punctuated by total abandonment may be the worst of all worlds for a child. The brain needs patterned, repetitive stimuli to develop properly. Spastic, unpredictable relief from fear, loneliness, discomfort, hunger keeps a baby’s stress system on high alert.” Perry adds that Leon never developed the normal association between human contact and relief from stress, so he quickly learned to rely solely on himself.
Throughout his childhood, Leon’s attempts to reach out for much-needed love made him appear cold, aggressive, too needy of others, and he was rejected or ignored. In anger, he began to lash out, taking and destroying property, bullying others in school, and he became rageful about healthy relationships that he found repugnant. Leon also learned how to mimic socially appropriate behaviors to manipulate people and get what he wanted. In Perry’s words, “For him, people were just objects who stood in his way or acceded to his needs. He was a classic sociopath.”
Next month… “The conclusion to Leon’s story”