How do I love me? Let me count the ways.
Ask anyone who’s been in a long term relationship what the secret to success is and they’ll likely mention two things: You have to work at it every day and you have to make your partner feel special on the regular.
That’s sound advice, but it’s advice we rarely do in our relationship with ourselves.
Do you work on making yourself feel special every day? If not, why not? We all need to take time to celebrate and love on ourselves daily. It’s important because if we’re only relying on other people to make you feel special and loved and it doesn’t happen, it can trigger self-critical thoughts of being undeserving.
You (yes, YOU) deserve to have something happen each day that reminds you of how lovable, worthy, special and awesome you are. You are a beautiful ball of sentient stardust (shout out to @domesticblisters for that description) and you absolutely should be reminded of this, daily.
Let me tell you a trick for how I started doing this for myself. First, if you don’t already know your love languages go here to find out your top two or three. My top three are acts of service, words of affirmation, and receiving gifts.
Next, figure out ways that you can do these things for yourself! You’ll have to get creative here. How can I perform acts of service for myself? Well, I can hire someone to clean my house every few weeks. Or order food delivery once per week. What about words of affirmation? I can make a list of all the things I’m proud of myself for that week. Receiving gifts? Easy – I make sure if I see something I like when I’m out, like flowers or a yummy smelling candle, that I either buy it at the moment or add it to a list I have on my phone of stuff to get myself later.
If I find that it’s been a few days since I’ve done any of these things, I make a point to do it. And when life is especially sucky, I make a point to schedule them in. After my last break-up, I scheduled weekly flower delivery for myself for a few months and wrote myself encouraging notes to be included with the delivery. Every damn time I looked at those flowers, I smiled.
Now, I want you to pay very close attention to your inner critic when you start to do this practice. If I’m at the supermarket and I see something I’d like as a treat (a gift for myself) and I think, “Oh, that’s a nice thought, but I don’t really neeeeeeed it,” then I stop and take stock. If I saw my best friend’s favorite candy bar in the whole world at the market right before I was about to meet up with her, would I buy it for her? Of course I would — I would be so excited to do that for her! So, why wouldn’t I be equally as excited to do that for myself? If there’s any part of you that tells you you’re not “worth it”, there’s some shadow work to do, right there. I recommend bringing in your inner caregiver or protector to help you work through feeling undeserving or not worthy.
Because my friend, I promise you that you are worthy of that and so much more.
I hope you try this out and let me know how it goes. Like any change to our belief systems of self-concept you may have to “fake it till you make it” and almost force yourself to do small acts of love for yourself at first as the inner critic “I’m not worthy” voice comes up. But once you make it part of your routine, and part of who you are, then your daily practice of letting yourself know how special you are becomes one of the best parts of your day.
If you want to know more about how exactly to translate your love languages into things you can do for yourself, then check out my group course starting on April 25th, Unconventional Tools for Healing. We go into this in-depth and you can get personalized coaching from me on how to do this to make the most positive impact on your well-being.
One of the most insidious aspects of growing up with emotionally unavailable parents is that I didn’t have models of how to be cared for. I didn’t grow up with examples of what it’s like to be comforted when I felt vulnerable, sad, afraid, or ashamed. I also didn’t have examples of what it was like to have a cheerleader, someone who became happy and proud on my behalf when I worked at something important to me.
Without external models of how to be cared for in these ways (comforted and encouraged) I couldn’t internalize these models into my own self-concept. This meant that in times when I was feeling upset or needed validation or encouragement, I didn’t have an inner voice that could give me these types of messages, because I didn’t even know what these messages sounded like.
This didn’t just happen in response to external circumstances, either. When my inner critic would start spouting off, there was no competing voice in my head. Without any other narrative, my inner critic would run rampant and I’d end up feeling awful.
I decided to create another voice in my head, one that was supportive, validating, kind and encouraging. I didn’t want to call it my inner parent because the word parent doesn’t have the best connotation for me. So, I called it my inner caregiver. I used polysensory mental practice to create a new voice in my head that said all the things I needed to hear, all the emotional nutrients I needed but never got when I was growing up.
I soon realized there was a big problem. Sure, it was a great idea to have a part of me say all the right things, but what were those things?
Like I said, I never had a model. If I didn’t know what comforting and loving language sounded like, how could I start to talk to myself this way? I looked to parenting books, positive psychology research, and nonviolent communication and restorative justice models for their language.
I knew my inner caregiver needed two ways to respond to my inner critic, as the comforter and the protector. The comforter says things like, “I am proud of you,” or “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. I’m here for you.” The protector keeps my boundaries with my inner critic and says things like, “You don’t get to talk to Megan like that,” or “No. I don’t receive that message.”
I’ve used this model with clients as well. Each of us has different needs for who this new voice needs to sound like, and even for its name. Inner caregiver works for me, but for others, they need an inner nurturer, inner mentor, inner big brother or sister, inner parent, or an inner protector.
The messages we need to hear are all different too. I was raised by a narcissist, so I need to hear that I am valuable and worthwhile. Others may need to hear that they are prized for who they are, or that no matter what they do, they will never become unlovable.
Your inner caregiver (or protector, nurturer, etc) is a powerful way to develop self-compassion. But discovering what it is you need this voice to say can be hard for all of us who never heard these things from our own parents. We need to look elsewhere.
I invite you to gently and lovingly start to look for messages that feel good to you. They may be loving messages, anti-bullying messages, messages of worthiness or lovability. You may hear them in real life as you watch your friends parent their children, you may hear them in a movie as one character comforts another, or you may sense them deep down as that thing you always wanted to hear from your parents or caregivers, but never did.
You’ll know them because when you hear them, you’ll have strong sensations/feelings in your body and emotions will bubble up. These are the messages that are speaking loudly to you — they want to be part of your inner self-talk and your self-compassion routine.
If you don’t know where to begin finding them, here’s a place to start.
I’m still working on developing my inner caregiver, and now have both a woman and a man’s voice in there helping me feel worthy, loved and safe. If you like the idea of having this loving and protective voice in your head and want some help and guidance through the process, this is one of the things we do together in my Unconventional Tools for Healing group program. I’m running it again, starting in a few weeks on the 25th April 2022. If you think this course is something that would give you the information and support you need right now, I invite you to join us.
Mindfulness is one of the bedrocks of mind-body healing. Without it, you can’t accomplish any significant healing on a physical, emotional or spiritual level. I want to look at what I mean by mindfulness and then give you some examples of how it integrates with other healing tools.
Mindfulness is really two different things: the ability to be in the present moment AND metacognitive observation of this moment.
Being in the present moment means you are only experiencing what is going on right now in your environment, body and mind. Mindfulness is our natural state when we are feeling calm, relaxed and connected. When you are mindful, you don’t get swept away in thinking of a conversation you had earlier today, or lost in worry about how things may turn out in the future, you stay grounded in what is actually happening right now.
Metacognitive observation is the gentle, nonjudgmental acceptance of what’s going on in the present moment. It’s observing the situation and our reaction to it without adding any mental chatter about why it may be “right” or “wrong”. When you are mindful, you notice thoughts come up and say to yourself something like, “Ah! It’s worry. I’m worried about how my presentation will go tomorrow.” In this way you are not getting lost in spiraling thoughts about the worry, but rather you observe the worrying thoughts in a nonjudgmental way.
Mindfulness is a prerequisite to almost any other type of healing work because without the ability to be present and observe what’s going on and our reaction to it, we won’t be able to identify or change harmful thoughts, belief systems, or patterns of reactivity.
Mindfulness is the tool we can use to self-diagnose our own maladaptive patterns.
Without mindfulness, we’ll continue to engage in these patterns unconsciously, and the true nature of our difficulties will remain hidden from us. Doing healing work without the foundation of mindfulness is like going to the doctor and asking for treatment without having identified any specific symptoms other than “I don’t feel well”.
Mindfulness is the basis for the best healing tools for stress and trauma. For example, thought work is based on being aware of both our thoughts and our emotions at any given time. Cultivating our inner caregiver can only happen if we can catch our inner critic when they’re in action. You can only develop your intuition in a present and open state. Even physical healing from illness or injury only happens in the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system state. (Note: if you’re curious about any of these tools, I’ll be talking about all of them in the next few weeks!)
Not only that, but mindfulness is incredibly healing on its own. Observing your own emotions, thoughts and reactions from a place of gentle, nonjudgmental acceptance can be the key to undoing years of bullying, emotional neglect and other trauma. Being in the present moment allows us to look around and see what’s good, safe and inspiring right now in both our internal and external worlds.
However, if you’ve experienced chronic stress or trauma, mindfulness may be much harder for you. You may feel pulled out of the present moment by anxiety, depression, hypervigilance or dissociation. For people with anxiety or depression, it can be challenging to observe our thoughts and feelings without internal mental commentary. People who dissociate may not even be registering what’s going on at all, and it’s impossible to observe experiences that you aren’t even aware of. In fact, people who have experienced chronic stress or have C-PTSD may spend most of their time in these other states, which can make both mindfulness and all of the other healing tools that stem from it that much harder to access.
If you’ve tried mindfulness or meditation before and it hasn’t worked for you, then I’d like to invite you to join me for my upcoming group course “Unconventional Tools for Healing” where I’ll teach you my trauma-informed take on mindfulness, and teach how to finally be able to get to that calm, relaxed and connected state even if it’s eluded you in the past. And from that state, miraculous healing can occur
Click here to learn more and feel free to reach out if you have any questions about the course or if it’s right for you.
“When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change” ~Wayne Dyer
Recently, I wrote about neuroplasticity and how to use polysensory mental practice as a way to change the structure and function of your nervous system. Today I want to talk about another way to literally change our minds through thought work.
Thought work is the process of consciously changing our thoughts and thought patterns in response to our emotions or circumstances. Thoughts become automatic in ways that we don’t even realize. Research from the National Science Foundation has found that 95% of the thoughts you think each day are the same every day.
According to an article on NPR, “the human brain can process 11 million bits of information every second. But our conscious minds can handle only 40 to 50 bits of information a second. So, as a result, our brains sometimes take cognitive shortcuts.” These shortcuts can cause us to revert to the same thought patterns or the same reactions without ever bringing them to the conscious mind.
Thought work is a deliberate method that helps to bring those unconscious thought patterns to our conscious minds so that we can decide if the thoughts are helpful or something we’d rather change.
Now before I go on and explain how to do this, I want to make sure to make something very clear. There is a BIG difference between thought work and pushing thoughts down or spiritual bypassing.
Pushing thoughts down or pushing them away does not disrupt the unconscious thought patterns and in fact, can help to cement them in place. Pushing thoughts down is a pattern in and of itself, and often comes from believing that you or your thoughts are not valid or appropriate.
Spiritual bypassing is the idea that people who are on the spiritual path or working towards enlightenment should strive towards finding only joy in life and that having “negative vibes” is a sign of an unenlightened mind. I call bullshit on that. We all experience joy, sadness, anger, fear and grief at different points in our life and that is normal, healthy and part of the human experience. Yes, it’s always possible even in the darkest times to find something to be joyous about or grateful for – your child’s smile or some pet cuddles or a beautiful tree – but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t absolutely be experiencing anger, fear, hurt or pain when the shit hits the fan.
Okay, end of rant. Back to thought work!
So, how do you start to do thought work? The first step is to start to observe your thoughts or feelings as they happen. Developing a mental non-partial observer who can witness the thoughts or feelings without judgment is key here. If you find yourself reacting to the thought or feeling, like “I shouldn’t be feeling that way” or “Why do I always get triggered around this?” then you’ve already gone on to the next thought. The trick is to catch the thoughts as they happen and be open to looking at them without judgment.
Here is my step-by-step process to doing this work:
- Identify a feeling, thought, or physical sensation you are having.
- Write one down of those three and then figure out the other two. For example, write down the physical sensation and then figure out what feeling that is and what thought you’re having about that. Or write down the thought and then observe how that makes you feel and where you feel it in your body.
- Look at the thought. Ask yourself if it is true. Would 100% of people on Earth agree that this is true? Can you think of a way of looking at it that would make it not true?
- Ask yourself — is there a stress-free reason to keep this thought?
- Reframe: what’s another thought or belief system I could adopt that would be kinder, healthier or more inspiring?
- Check in with your body and emotions again. Does this thought feel better?
Let me give you an example from my own life. Recently I wanted to ask a family member for a favor. Now, this family member has not been the most generous person in the past and I’ve been hurt by some of our past interactions. My first thought was, “they’ll never say yes and I’ll feel let down, once again.” The body sensation that went with this was tightness and heaviness in my chest, which I identified as hurt and anxiety.
I asked myself if I could be certain that my thought was 100% true. I couldn’t. Perhaps this interaction would be different, or perhaps they’d grown, or I’d grown, and our conversation wouldn’t be the same as it was before. I realized my thought was just one possible outcome and it may or may not have been true.
Then, I asked myself if there was a stress-free reason to keep this thought. The only good reason I could think of to keep the thought was to protect myself from potentially being disappointed again by this person, but that certainly wasn’t stress free. In the end I couldn’t think of a stress-free reason.
I reframed my thought as this, “I am scared of asking for this favor because of past interactions, but I know that if I offer a chance to connect, perhaps it will be different this time. I’ll never know if I don’t ask. And if they don’t say yes, I’ll be okay. I have support systems in place to be able to feel disappointed and make it through.”
Do you see how I didn’t make it all roses and moonbeams? I didn’t push it down as invalid or try to make it full of joy. I still acknowledged the reality that I had been disappointed in the past, but I created a new thought that felt more supportive and caring for myself. I checked in with my body and instead of feeling fear and hurt, I now felt braver and stronger.
And guess what? In the end, they said yes and agreed to do me the favor. Woo hoo!
If you want to know more about how to do each step of thought work and get some practice implementing it with me as your guide and coach, it’s a big part of what we cover in the first module of the Unconventional Tools for Healing group program. If you want to know more, click here and check it out for yourself!
I’ve spent a lot of time worrying the past few days. My worrying always tends to be about the same, familiar topics and it feels involuntary — I’ll be fine one minute and then suddenly I’ll start with a familiar spiral of worrying thoughts. Like a well-worn path in the woods, my neurons have forged paths through my white matter where they trigger the same fearful thoughts over and over.
Most of my worries are about safety and security. I worry about my business being successful. I worry if I will have enough money when I retire. I worry where I will live in 20, 30 or 40 years. And I worry about my health and if I will have people to take care of me when I get old and frail.
But I’m sure if my life circumstances were different, I’d find different things to worry about. If I had kids, I’m sure I’d be worried about them. If I owned a house, I’d probably worry about a big repair that I couldn’t afford. Even if I had millions of dollars, I might worry about never finding love.
Worry does that. It finds something to latch on to, regardless of our life circumstances.
But I know better than to let my worries completely take over. I know that they have a sneaky way of amplifying themselves and consuming my day if I let them drive the narrative.
So today instead of letting worry take over or trying to forge ahead by forcing myself to push aside the worry, I took a walk in the park to have a conversation with my worry.
The worry started its chatter, “Why are you in the park? You should be working on marketing right now. How are you ever going to be successful if you don’t start doing more?”
“Yes,” I answered, “I hear you. What are you really scared of?”
“I don’t want to be destitute and alone,” said my worry “I don’t want to feel like I have to keep pushing and working and struggling when I’m 80 and too tired to do it anymore.”
“But I’m pushing and struggling now,” I replied, “I’m not marketing because you’ve put so much pressure on me and my success that I can’t possibly be lit up and excited about it. What if I didn’t worry about what I was building for the future and instead just did what I enjoyed, right now?”
I reminded my worry none of us know what will happen in the future, life is quite unpredictable, so trying to live there is actually a bit silly. All we can do is live in the now.
“I’m scared,” my worry said.
“I know,” I replied.
“I want to feel taken care of,” said worry, “I want to feel connection and warmth and like I don’t have to do this alone.”
Ah, there it is. My core wound coming up again.
You see, as a small child and all through my adolescence, I had to do some really hard things with little to no support. My mother had a severe personality disorder and if I expressed any need for help or care, it was met with anger, blame, and vitriol, so I learned to do everything on my own. I still struggle with this today, and when I worry, it’s that I’ll be alone on my own again, with my heart broken and no one around to hold me or help me through.
I’m not actually scared of any particular circumstances, I’m scared to feel that heartbreak again.
But I’m not 7 anymore, and I know if I feel heartbreak, I will make it through. It won’t be pleasant, but it also won’t kill me.
So I ask my worry to show me where that heartbreak is in my body. It’s a tightness in my chest and heavy like a stone. I walk through the park and I simply feel it. I don’t make a story about being alone and unsupported in the future, or let it take over my thoughts about work, I simply let the physical sensations arise in my body.
It hurt. I felt so, so alone and so desperate for connection and care.
Then, I turned to my inner caregiver, that part of my awareness that I’ve cultivated over the last few years as a source of love and care, and I asked her to show me what care feels like.
I felt warmth, connection, laughter. I saw times with friends where I’d felt so comforted and loved. I saw the world as a welcoming place. I saw future relationships with people that I don’t even know yet that fulfil me in new and amazing ways.
Suddenly, I heard the birds in the park and I stopped to listen. Had they been singing this whole time? The grass had been freshly mowed and felt like soft velvet under my feet. There were two girls on the swings screaming and laughing their heads off.
“Right now, this world is safe,” I thought, “and I am not doing this alone. I am connected and cared for by my friends, this planet, and even by people I haven’t met yet.”
I could almost feel my brain chemistry change in that moment. Like one set of neurotransmitters had been reabsorbed while another came flooding in.
I felt safe. I felt connected. I felt like all was going to be okay.
I know it’s different for those of us that grew up in severely dysfunctional or abusive situations. I know how our brains developed differently under the constant stress, I know our nervous systems do their best to try to navigate the patterns of extreme highs and lows, and I know that all of that is now a part of my physiological makeup, and why when my worry comes along, it feels so invasive and involuntary.
But you can get to a place where you can feel comfort, safety, connection and care, even with no one else there. You can change the way you perceive the world, and when you do that, it no longer seems like such a scary place.
It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes a willingness to do some shadow work and let some intense feelings arise, but it can be done.
If you want some support in this, a sherpa to help you climb this mountain, then please reach out. You deserve to feel safe and comforted. You deserve to look at the world and see connection and care.
One of the most difficult things I’ve done is learn how to love the person who abused me.
When I was 26 years old, I made the incredibly difficult decision to cut my mother out of my life. In child abuse survivor circles, this is often called going “no contact” or NC and it was not a decision that was made lightly. In fact, it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.
I’d tried everything I could think of — writing her letters, talking things through, therapy for myself, and family therapy with her and my sister. I desperately wanted a relationship with my mom, and I didn’t want to go through life without that type of support. The idea of not having a mom in my life felt so freakish and lonely, so I was trying anything I could to salvage a workable relationship so that I could have her in my life.
Finally, after a typical abusive episode at a restaurant where she loudly told me what I was wearing made me look fat, repulsive, hideous, and disgusting and she couldn’t imagine how I could let people see me in public like that (for the record — it was a nice skirt and blouse that I often wore to the office), I decided I’d had enough.
I was at a loss. How do you go about divorcing your mother? How do you deal with the guilt, the anger, the loss, and the intense emotional pain?
When I asked people who I thought of as older and wiser, the response was often, “But she’s your mother! You can’t cut her off. I don’t care how horrible she was to you, she’s still your mother.” I was told by so many well-meaning people that once I’d had my own kids, I’d understand how you simply CAN’T cut your own mother off. Then, they’d give me suggestions for how to work things out that I’d tried 1000 times before.
No one I knew seemed to have any answers.
And while I know they didn’t understand the depth of the abuse, and the lengths to which I’d gone to salvage the relationship, they were right about one thing. She was still my mother. I needed to figure out a way to relate to her in my own psyche, even if she wasn’t in my life. So what could I do?
About a year later, I found myself at my first meditation training. The instructor was B. Allan Wallace, a Buddhist monk who seemed like he may have some answers. One day I asked if I could eat lunch with him and talk to him about something I was wrestling with, in my life. I gave him a brief account of my childhood, my mom, and all the things I’d tried to do to repair our relationship. To my surprise, even after that brief account, he didn’t try to suggest new ways to repair it or even question my decision to go no contact. He paused for a minute and then said, “Sometimes the only way to have people in our life is to send them compassion from afar. And that isn’t nothing — sending someone the energy of compassion can be very healing.” At the time I thought he meant healing for my mom, but I’ve now come to realize he meant healing for me, too.
So I practiced sending her the Buddhist prayer of Mettā each time I thought of her (which was still many times per day).
“May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.”
I repeated this over and over, through tears, through rage, through confusion, through grief, and through loneliness.
Finally, I started to understand. I could be furious at how she treated me and also have compassion for her suffering. I could be brokenhearted and also have compassion for how miserable she clearly was. I could hate her for what she did to me and also have compassion for what had happened to her to create such psychological instability in her own mind.
And I could do the same for myself. I could feel broken and depressed and also have compassion for myself. I could feel shame and also have compassion for myself. I could hear her abusive voice in my head, now my own inner critic, and also have compassion for myself.
Compassion can exist at the same time as anger, grief, hatred, and shame. Fondness or affection is not a prerequisite for compassion. In fact, seeing someone in their wholeness, both the “good” and “bad” parts of them, is a huge part of compassion.
And beyond that, once you feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, even love can exist at the same time as anger, grief, hatred, and shame. You can love the part of them that hurts, the part that is suffering, and in this way, you can move towards healing the pain.
“I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion–and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.”
― Ram Dass
What Ram Dass is saying here is essentially the same thing that Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” It is possible to have love in your heart, no matter what someone has done to you.
It took me YEARS to get to a place where when I thought of my mother, I was able to send her love. Now, don’t get me wrong — I was still angry, sad, confused, and traumatized (sometimes all at once) but at the same time I was feeling all of that, I was also able to feel compassion for her suffering, and then from there, eventually, I could feel love for her.
My mother died earlier this summer. I hadn’t spoken to her in over 15 years, but when I heard she was dying, I went to the hospital to say goodbye. It took 30 minutes of meditation in the hospital parking lot to regulate my nervous system so I wasn’t about to have a panic attack, but once I felt centered, I went in.
I told her I loved her, and I meant it. She asked what had happened, why we hadn’t spoken in so long. I looked at her and said, honestly, “Our relationship caused me too much anxiety. I couldn’t handle it, so I pulled away.” She said she wished it had been different. I cried and told her I did, too.
And then I held her hand and told her all the things I loved about her. And I told her all the things I knew others loved about her, too.
She denied it all. She said, “Oh, come on” and waved me away.
I know mom. I know you never felt worthy of love. I know that’s why you tormented me, and I can see that through the eyes of compassion now. Hurt people hurt people, until we break the generational cycle.
So, I’m here to break that cycle. I’m here to “be a statement of love and compassion.” In many ways, mom, you were the hardest place to do that work. You were the person who did the most damage to me and so you were also the hardest person for me to love. But I thank you for that lesson because you know what? Now that I know how to feel compassion for you, I can feel that same love for everyone I meet.
I understand that loving someone has nothing to do with agreeing with their actions, their beliefs, or their words and, instead, has everything to do with seeing them in their wholeness and that simple Mettā prayer of compassion:
“May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.”