HEALING PANDEMIC GRIEF:  WHO AM I NOW?

Now that the pandemic has entered a new phase, I am contemplating how to heal pandemic grief.  I am asking myself many questions:  What will my life look like as things get back to “normal”?  Can I really go back to the way things were?  What have I learned from this loss that I can carry forward in my life to be of benefit to myself and others?

As grief educator Ken Doka has said, “Whenever we experience a loss…it helps to recognize that loss and grief have changed us.  We cannot go back to the way we were before. Our situations are different.  We are different as well.”

Instead of pondering what is widely called the “new normal”, perhaps it is more beneficial to contemplate the “new me.”  Indeed, who am I now?

I have been learning so much about myself during this pandemic, spending more time with myself without my usual distractions.  On the one hand, I see my neuroses more clearly, and I don’t always like what I see.  On the flip side, I have learned to be more patient and compassionate with myself, neuroses and all.

I am also seeing more clearly what is important to me now, and what I want to bring forward into my life, both for myself and others, as I move into the post-pandemic world.   As Zen teacher Vanessa Zuisei Goddard says:

What we need is the willingness to look honestly at our wants and our choices and ask ourselves, does this make sense—not just for me, not just for now, but for everyone and for our future?”  What sort of “normal” do we want to return to when the worst of the pandemic is behind us? Stepping forward from this point, what kind of world will we co-create?”

At the beginning of the pandemic, I made all kinds of grand plans: to read those 1000 page dharma books, meditate for three hours a day, and on and on.  After berating myself for a while for not living up to those expectations, I’ve decided to let myself be.  Spending time with my cat purring in my lap, looking at the birds in my backyard, pulling weeds in my garden…This is all practice too, and has been so freeingIntentionally sitting and letting myself be bathed in all of my senses is the best meditation practice of all.

Practices for healing pandemic grief:

There are times when I am afraid that I will drown in profound grief and anxiety, hopelessness and despair.  I’ve also found ways out of these intense emotional states that have lifted me up me when I am afraid of drowning in them.   Here are some practices you can use:

  1.  Connect with gratitude. If you are finding this difficult because of your grief and despair, at the end of the day, write down five things you are grateful for that happened that day.  The little things count most, like hearing a beautiful birdsong, seeing a plant bloom, smelling a delicious meal before tasting it.
  2. Connect with your senses. Intentionally tune in to all of your senses – touch, sight, smell, sound, taste, with whatever you are doing.
  3. Contemplate interconnectedness. We often feel that we are a single identity, alone in the world.  The truth is that we and everything around us is interconnected.
  4. Express your appreciation. We often take the people in our lives  — including ourselves — for granted.  Letting them know you appreciate them opens our hearts to ourselves and to them.  After all, we are all truly interconnected.
  5. Memorialize your self-discoveries and new intentions. Use this time to notice how this time has changed you.  Journal, paint or draw about who you are now, and the world you want to create for yourself and others going forward.

 

© 2020. Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NAVIGATING PANDEMIC-INDUCED GRIEF

I’ve been wondering why this second month of the Covid-19 pandemic feels so much harder than the first month.  As a grief counselor, I’ve observed that the second month of grief after a loss is often much more intense than the first month.  Does pandemic-induced grief fit this pattern?  The answer is yes.

In the first month after a loss, the bereaved are busy with making funeral arrangements, visits from friends and family, receiving telephone calls, sympathy cards and casseroles.  There is also a lot of busyness with wills, death certificates and the like.

Similarly, in the first month of sheltering-in-place, we were busy buying toilet paper, making disaster plans, finding or making face masks, figuring out how to stay connected via Zoom, and navigating grocery shopping.

After the first month following a death, the phone is quieter, the cards and casseroles have stopped coming and we are somehow expected to be back to “normal.” The bereaved are left to navigate this new land without their loved one. They wonder if they are handling their grief in the “right way”, and may be feeling anxiety in the face of not knowing what their new life in the “new normal” will look like.

Likewise, in this second month of pandemic shut downs, much of the doingness of the first month is over.  We have stocked up on toilet paper and grocery staples.  We have figured out how to stay in touch with our friends and community via Zoom.  Like after a death loss, we are left with the question “now what?” We wonder when, and how, things will change in the post-pandemic “new normal.” We are fearful and anxious, with more questions than answers.  It feels like a big void, where we are seeking ground in utter groundlessness.

The Tasks of Mourning

William Worden’s task model of grief[a] provides a useful road map for navigating pandemic-induced grief. There are four tasks in this model, the first two of which are relevant now: (1) accepting the reality of the loss, and (2) working through the pain of grief.

Task 1:  Accepting the Reality of the Loss:  The first task of grieving is to accept, both intellectually and emotionally,  the reality that a loss has occurred.  The task in working with pandemic-induced grief is to acknowledge the reality that life has changed.  I find myself reminiscing about life in the “good old days” before the pandemic – the ability to come and go as I pleased, getting together with friends, hugs and freedom from fear. Although I am confident that much of my prior life will be restored, I am coming to realize, both intellectually and emotionally, that it won’t look the same.

Task 2:  Working Through the Pain of Grief:  I imagine that most of us would prefer to skip this task, for fear that our pain will overwhelm us.  Nonetheless, working through the emotions of grief is critical for healing from pain.  Failing to do so may manifest itself as physical illness, substance abuse to numb the pain, or result in depression or complicated grief.

 Here are some tips for working through the pain of pandemic-induced grief:

  1. Take care of your body.Eat nourishing foods (with the occasional indulgence), limit caffeine and alcohol, enjoy a soothing bath or shower.  Exercise.
  2. Remember to breathe, deep diaphragmatic breaths.
  3. Allow yourself to cry (and drink lots of water as crying is dehydrating).
  4. Express your feelings through journaling, art or movement or talking with others.
  5. Appreciate nature. Listen to the sound of a bird, notice the trees and flowers blooming this spring.
  6. If your feelings are overwhelming, speak to a trained grief counselor or psychotherapist.

“Tragedy holds the seeds of grace.”

In the words of author Stephen Levine, “tragedy holds the seeds of grace.”  Through experiencing the pain of own unique grief, we can tap into grief’s universality, lessening our hopelessness and isolation, and deepening our connection with others and our world.

 

[a] Worden, J. William (2002). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy:  A Handbook for the Mental Health Professional. New York:  Springer Publishing Company.

 

(c) 2020 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

WAITING FOR A HURRICANE: ANTICIPATORY TRAUMA IS REAL

As I wait for Hurricane Dorian’s arrival and observe the “cone of uncertainty” about where it will land, I’ve been wondering if there’s such a thing as “anticipatory trauma.” So, when the going gets tough I go googling.  My research shows that anticipatory trauma is indeed real.

“One writer has said[i]some people are already experiencing the fallout [of the impact of climate change] – in the form of what’s being called pre-traumatic stress reactions.”

Coincidentally (or not), while writing this article, I  received a link to a Ted Talk by science writer Britt Wray, on how climate change affects our mental health: https://www.ted.com/talks/britt_wray_how_climate_change_affects_your_mental_health

Wray notes that that “we …need our actions and policies [regarding climate change] to reflect an understanding of how our changing environments threaten our mental, social and spiritual well-being.”  Wray says some of the psychological effects of climate change include anxiety, grief, depression, increased PTSD and existential distress.  She also includes pre-traumatic stress in the list.

As a trauma therapist, I have come to understand that the brain acts like a binary computer.  It links different experiences together as if they were the same and creates what I call “knots of association.”  For example, my brain has now linked Hurricane Dorian with Hurricane Irma and all the memories I have of that powerful storm two years ago.

I remind myself that  “This is not that”  as I untie those knots of association. In fact, in remembering that this is not that, I recall positive memories of my volunteer work in a hurricane shelter with those left homeless by Irma’s destruction.  I remember their remarkable resilience, optimism and strength. I learned that their resilience came from caring for each other, rather than isolating themselves in despondency and despair. (See my blog article “Resilience in a Hurricane Shelter” for more of what I learned:  https://bethspatterson.com/resilience/).

I have offered my “mantra” that this is not that to others experiencing anticipatory trauma.  Here are some other tips that may help as we grapple with hurricanes and other environmental disasters:

  • Practice self-compassion. It doesn’t help to judge yourself for your reactions.
  • Focus your attention on your body instead of your thoughts. For example:
    • Inhale deeply through your nose, from your diaphragm to your collar bone. Then exhale slowly through your mouth.  Imagine cool, nourishing air coming in through your nose as you inhale, and warm, stale air leaving as you exhale.
    • Place one hand on your heart center and the other on your solar plexus, Notice the rise and fall of your torso, as you feel the connection between these two chakras or energy centers.
    • When disturbing thoughts and images arise, simply notice them and return your attention to your breath and body.
  • Become an activist to bring attention to climate change or other issues that may have a negative impact on your wellbeing.
  • Volunteer your time to help those impacted by natural disasters.
  • Journal about your feelings. This helps get those swirling thoughts out of your head and so they become more workable.

Most importantly, avoid any tendency to isolate yourself.   You are not alone in feeling distress and anxiety about the “cone of uncertainty” as we await Hurricane Dorian’s arrival.

_______

[i]S. Colino, “Fearing the Future: Pre-Traumatic Stress Reactions,”  US News, May 24. 2017.

 

© 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

DIGITAL DISTRACTION:  HOW WE USE OUR DEVICES TO AVOID DIFFICULT EMOTIONS

Digital distraction is everywhere these days.  I have started paying attention to how I also use my devices to avoid difficult emotions. Checking my emails and surfing the internet consume more hours in my day than I’d like to admit. So, I have started looking more mindfully at my digital device habits.

How We Use Our Devices to Avoid Difficult Emotions

I have noticed that when watching the horrific news of the day, I often pick up my tablet to play a game of Solitaire.   With this mindful view, I now understand that I often play Solitaire to avoid feeling anxious and worried.

Similarly, when I’m taking public transportation, I tend to fritter away my time on my cellphone. As a result, I miss human interactions and the beautiful scenery around me.  I see how digital distraction distances us from others, and from our environment.

I have been weighing whether my digital device use truly connects me to others. Many close friends and family members prefer to “talk” via text, rather than by phone or in person. I have picked up this habit as well. I believe that much of the divisiveness, violence, confusion and lack of empathy in today’s world can be attributed to an over-reliance on social media for connection.

Digital Distraction As a Defense Against Being Hurt

Many of the clients in my therapy practice admit that they surf the internet to avoid difficult emotions, such as anger, fear or anxiety.  For example, “Donna” has a history of complex trauma, primarily due to her mother’s emotional abuse.  As a result,  Donna has used distraction as a coping mechanism throughout her life to avoid painful emotions.

Donna told me that she has long been “disconnected from life” to avoid anxiety and fear. She worries that if she connects with those in her life, they will disappoint and hurt her, like her mother did. Likewise, Donna avoids connecting with herself because when she does she is filled with negative self-judgments.

Due to her anxiety and fears, Donna often stays up until 2am or later, surfing the internet and playing computer games.  She understands that this habit allows her to avoid her fears and other difficult emotions.

How The Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan Can Help Create Healthy Relationships with Our Devices…And With Others

Donna and I have been working with the book Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers Youby Dzogchen Ponlop[i]We recently applied Ponlop Rinpoche’s Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan to Donna’s digital distraction as a way to avoid feeling her emotions at bedtime.  As a result, Donna is beginning to let go of her digital device urge, and instead, has begun reading or knitting to help her relax into sleep.

I offer the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan here to help you create a mindful and healthy relationship with your devices and understand the triggers that make you turn to them to avoid difficult emotions.

The first step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Mindful Gap.   When you feel the urge to distract yourself with your devices, simply stop, take a breath and notice the urge without taking action. Breathe and feel what’s going on in your body without judgment.

From this internal focus, expand your awareness to your environment.  This is Clear Seeing,  the second step of the Emotional Rescue Plan.  Take a look and see what your body is telling you when you have the urge to digitally distract yourself.  For example, do you feel a fluttering in your chest or tightening in your stomach when you feel anxious? Do you start fidgeting when you’re bored? Is there a pattern to mindlessly picking up a device when you feel certain emotions?

The third step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Letting Go.  Allow your body to relax. Breathe in compassion for yourself, and breathe out compassion for all others who feel the need to digitally distract themselves to avoid difficult emotions.

Letting go gives you the chance to choose whether or not to pick up a device at that moment.  My aspiration is to choose connection and aliveness over distraction and numbness.

 

________________________

[i]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016). Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You.  New York: Tarchin/Perigree.

(c) 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

PRACTICING COMPASSION AND EQUANIMITY IN THE AGE OF TRUMP

Practicing compassion and equanimity with difficult people in our lives can be challenging.  However doing so greatly increases our capacity to care for all beings, including ourselves.  It also helps release us from getting caught up in negative emotions.

The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen,  translated as  “sending and receiving,” is a powerful compassion practice. In practicing tonglen, we take in others’ suffering, and send them healing and compassion.  Each time you breathe in, you take in others’ pain and suffering. You take it into your heart, where it is transmuted, transformed into compassion. Then you breathe out, and send them healing and love.

Tonglen is practiced in stages:  first for ourselves, then for a loved one, then for a neutral person, then for someone we dislike, and finally for all sentient beings everywhere.  Tonglen can be done as a formal sitting practice or “on the spot”.[b]  For example, I practice tonglen on the spot when I pass a homeless person, instead of looking away.  I breathe in the suffering of that person, and send him or her healing with my out-breath.

Tonglen became a mainstay of my healing from the trauma of witnessing firsthand the horrors of 9/11. It was fairly easy for me to practice compassion for myself, those who died and their loved ones, and all others who witnessed the planes crash, whether in person or on the news. What truly healed me was practicing tonglen and developing compassion for the young hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center.  I saw them as confused young men who abandoned their lovingkindness and basic goodness in the name of religious zealotry.

The transformative power of tonglen lies in directly experiencing that we are all born with basic goodness, and that our suffering, borne of clinging to a solid sense of self, obscures our basic goodness and lovingkindness as we move through life’s challenges.

Practicing equanimity is another transformative practice. It is a powerful way to let go of negativity and an “us versus them” mentality.  Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Han says that equanimity involves seeing everyone as equal:  “We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others.  In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides.”[c]

I have recently been practicing compassion and equanimity for Donald Trump. Bear in mind that compassion does not mean approval. Without getting into a political discussion and simply based on my observations, I do not condone Trump’s lies, inflammatory language and divisiveness.

When I find myself getting caught in negativity listening to the news, I take a breath and step back.  I’ve made it a practice to look at Trump’s eyes and practice compassion and equanimity on the spot.  I am then able to see the fear and suffering in his eyes.  Behind his tough guy façade, I see a scared little boy.  Sometimes Trump’s eyes seem eerily empty, a reflection of a person who has been called “an existence without a soul.”[d]

Observing Trump’s pained eyes, I wonder how his soul became so damaged.  As a psychotherapist, it is tempting to diagnose him.  I prefer to try to understand, based on my understanding of trauma and attachment theory, how Trump has become the person he is today.  His mother has been described as emotionally distant and frequently absent.  His father has been described as a “tyrant.”

It is thus no surprise then that Trump is so sensitive to criticism.  His bluster and boastful arrogance are likely a mask to hide his deep insecurity and fear of being seen as weak or unworthy.  As Dr. Justin Frank notes:

One of the things that you do when you’re feeling ignored and abandoned in some way is develop contempt for that part of yourself. You have the hatred of your own weakness and you then become a bully and make other people feel weak, or mock other people to make it clear that you’re the strong one and that you don’t have any needs.[e]

Fear seems to be a driving force in Trump’s life. As Zen teacher Ezra Bayda says:

 “[F]ear makes our life narrow and dark.  It is at the root of all conflict, underlying much of our sorrow.  Fear also…disconnects us from the lovingkindness that is our true nature.”[f]

Understanding Donald Trump in this way helps me practice compassion and equanimity, not only for him, but for all others who have suffered because of difficult upbringings.  May they all discover the “lovingkindness that is [their] true nature.”

 ________________________________________

[a]Please note that this article is not intended as a political statement, but rather, an essay about how to work with compassion and equanimity for all beings, including those who challenge our ability to be compassionate.  Also see my blog article “How To Be a Mindful Activist…And not lose your mind: https://bethspatterson.com/mindful-activism/

[b]Pema Chodron, (Summer 2002). “Tonglen on the Spot.” Tricycle.

[c]Thich Nhat Han (1997).  The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.  New York: Broadway Books, p. 162.

[d]Dan McAdams (June 2016).  “The Mind of Donald Trump.” The Atlantic, quoting Mark Singer, who interviewed Trump for a profile published as “Trump Solo” in The New Yorker (May 19, 1997).

[e]David Smith.  “Mommy Dearest:  A Psychiatrist Puts Trump on the Couch.” The Guardian. (September 29, 2018).

[f]Ezra Bayda (Spring 2009). “The Three Things We Fear Most.”  Tricycle.

HOW TO BE A MINDFUL ACTIVIST…AND NOT LOSE YOUR MIND

There has been an enormous rise in social activism in the last few years.  However, if we are not mindful activists, we may harden our hearts, isolate ourselves, and get swept away in the contagion of negativity, hatred and aggression all around us.  We may experience depression, anxiety or trauma observing the divisiveness, misfortunes and confusion in the world.  We may wonder if we can make a difference, and may experience hopelessness, helplessness or profound fear.

Current events can reawaken our feelings about prior struggles we have endured. Public allegations of sexual misconduct can trigger memories of abuse or harassment.  Racism or gender inequality can trigger memories of discrimination. These memories can become so intrusive that they interfere with our lives and relationships.

These turbulent times also provide an opportunity to open our hearts and develop compassion for ourselves and all other beings.  As the Dalai Lama has said:

“When people say that I have worked a lot for peace, I feel embarrassed. I feel like laughing. I don’t think I have done very much for world peace. It’s just that my practice is the peaceful path of kindness, love, compassion, and not harming others…. I am simply a follower of the Buddha, and the Buddha taught that patience is the supreme means for transcending suffering.”[i]

 According to the Buddhist teachings, patience is the antidote for anger and aggression, and as the Dalai Lama notes, it can help us overcome suffering.  One way to practice patience is what Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book Emotional Rescue,[ii]calls “Mindful Gap.” Taking a Mindful Gap allows us to slow down and pause Instead of reflexively acting angrily. When the first burst of anger’s energy arises, take a moment to breathe and feel the experience of anger in the body. Then, hold the experience, staying in the present moment. This allows us to look and see what the feelings are telling us.  By taking a Mindful Gap, we can choose the most beneficial course of action, whether it be speaking or acting compassionately, or refraining from doing anything at all.

Seeing the world in terms of “us versus them” increases suffering.  If we realize that we are all together in this boat called life, we can cultivate compassion for everyone – even those with whom we profoundly disagree.  In the words of Zen master and social activist Rev. angel Kyodo Williams:

When I sit with a sense of the human being there, I don’t actually feel hatred at all. I feel a kind of grief for their circumstance and for the society that allows injustice to happen. They’re just as caught up in it as every other person who allows this to be the social order. It’s hard to accept, and it’s a really, really deep practice, but I haven’t discovered anything else to be true and actually workable.[iii]

 Finding compassion for all being helps us realize that we all suffer. With this realization, we can approach others with a sense of curiosity and concern, rather than prejudice or aggression. Knowing we all suffer helps us feel less alone, and can alleviate anxiety, depression, anger or fear.

Balance and self-care are also keys for mindful activism. Activists may experience overwhelm, stress or burnout.  If we are not mindful, the stress of activism can cause changes in the brain, increasing cortisol and adrenaline and the fight or flight response.  This in turn can result in anxiety or trauma.  Becoming familiar with our early warning signs of undue stress is important to prevent it from escalating.  For example, when I become really forgetful, irritable and/or clumsy, I know it’s time to take a break and relax.

Here are some tips for being a mindful activist and not “lose your mind”:

  • Take care of your physical well-being, including healthy eating, getting enough sleep and exercise.
  • Reach out to fellow activists and friends to talk about your feelings.
  • Maintain a sense of humor.
  • Do something you enjoy every day, such as walking, listening to music, getting together with friends, reading a good book
  • Be mindful of your thoughts.Let go of negative thoughts and negative self-talk, like leaves floating down a stream.
  • Practice being in the present moment, moment by moment. For example, when you are washing the dishes, experience how your hands feel in the warm water, the sound of the water, the smell of the soap. When thoughts arise that take you away from the experience, simply come back to washing the dishes.
  • Take breaks from the news, social media and your devices. Turn off all devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and take that time for quiet reading, journaling or meditation.
  • Practice gratitude. Take time to appreciate the beauty of nature, others’ generosity and compassion, the song of a bird, the purr of a cat.
  • Maintain a healthy balance between alone time and time with others.
  • If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout, or increased anxiety or depression that are interfering with your daily life, seek guidance from a spiritual advisor or psychotherapist. Professional support can be helpful in alleviating your personal suffering, so you can go on being of benefit to yourselves and your world.

_____________________

References:

[i]HH The Dalai, Lama (2018).  The Bodhisattva Guide:  A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva (p. 140). Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[ii]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016).  Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You.New York: Tarchin/Perigree.

[iii]Sharon Salzberg & Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Love Everyone:  A Guide for Spiritual Activists.  Lion’s Roar, August 18, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

THE ART OF MINDFUL LISTENING

“Do your best to practice compassionate listening. Do not listen for the sole purpose of judging, criticizing or analyzing. Listen only to help the other person express himself and find some relief from suffering.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindful listening is so important in times of trauma and grief, so prevalent in our world today.  Mindful listening, also called active or compassionate listening, is about connection and validation. When we feel heard, we feel loved, cared for and understood, just as we are.

We may think that it is easy to listen, but true listening from the heart requires openness, courage and vulnerability.  Mindful listening helps us stay open with another and be able to sit with the expression of intense emotions.  Mindful listening is active listening.  We do not passively sit there, but convey to the speaker that he or she is heard and understood, whether by paraphrasing, reflection or nonverbal acts, like sitting forward in your chair, maintaining eye contact, and nodding our head.  Roshi Joan Halifax beautifully expresses this as follows:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely that the person who is speaking can actually hear themselves through our stillness.It is a quality of radiant listening, of luminous listening, of vibrant listening, but it is also very still.  It is listening with attention, with openheartedness, without prejudice….We listen with our being.  We offer our whole listening body.[i]

Listening is not about giving advice, trying to fix the situation or agreeing with the speaker.  What the person who is suffering needs most is someone to compassionately bear witness to what he or she is feeling.    Mindful listening requires empathy, not sympathy.  As shame and trauma researcher and writer Brené Brown has said,

“Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection….  Empathy entails the “ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth…. Empathy is I’m feeling with you. Sympathy [is] I’m feeling for you.[ii]

Suffering is a universal part of the human condition. However, despite the universality of suffering, we are unique individuals, and our suffering has unique qualities.  Therefore, responding “I know just how you feel” (i.e., “feeling for you”) is unhelpful and even hurtful. If you identify so completely with another’s suffering, you no longer hear him or her as an individual.  Instead of saying “I know just how you feel,” you might instead say something like “That sounds so difficult.  Tell me more.”  Notice how different the two responses feel.

It is easy to be triggered when someone is describing an experience of abuse or loss.  Out of our own anxiety, we may say something unhelpful or damaging.  For example, I remember listening to a client tell me about her multiple miscarriages at a time in her life she was experiencing substance abuse and homelessness.  I felt my anxiety rising.  Instead of responding right away, I allowed myself to breathe and stay present with my client.  Pausing and breathing allowed me to resist the urge to say “maybe it’s a blessing” or another cliché.  At one point, my client actually said to me “…and if one more person says ‘maybe it’s a blessing” I’m going to strangle them!”  Phew – Mindful listening saved the day!

Mindful listening includes becoming aware of our habitual patterns. Noticing our habits as they arise is the key to changing them.  We all have listening habits, or “listening traps” that create barriers to compassionate listening. It is worthwhile to contemplate the listening trap questions on this linked list, and identify which ones you tend to engage in when you are not being mindful: https://www.smp.org/dynamicmedia/files/f61aa314d326aefcc87af335025a930f/TX004482_2_handout_9A_Listening_Traps.pdf[iii].

For example, when I was interning as a hospice bereavement counselor, I realized that one of my listening traps is #7 on this list:  “Do you get caught up with insignificant facts and details and miss the emotional tone of the conversation?” I became painfully aware of this when I was working with a woman whose son had recently died in a car accident.  As she was describing what had happened and the pain of her loss, I interrupted with the question “How old was your son?”  This mindless question broke our emotional connection in that moment.

We have all experienced the hurt of not being heard, and being responded to with unwanted advice, a cliché or pat response. Some examples:

  • “I know just how you feel.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “The same thing happened to me.”
  • “Well, you can always have another [child, pet, relationship – fill in the blank]
  • “At least he’s in a better place.”
  • “Maybe you should….”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Let me tell you about the time when….”

Responding with a cliché does not mean that the listener does not care; it simply means that the listener was not mindful in responding.  Mindful listening is like a dance, where most of your attention is focused on the speaker and moments of attention are focused on yourself to make sure you are actually listening. The following are some tips for mindful listening:

  • Notice your physical and emotional responses as you listen to another’s suffering.
  • Notice where you feel your tension or anxiety in your body:Is your heart beating faster?  Are you feeling tightness in your chest? Fluttering in your stomach?
  • Take a breath before responding.
  • Be curious.
  • Listen not only to the speaker’s words, but also his or her body language and emotional tone.
  • Remove distractions such as cellphones or paperwork that may prevent you from fully being with the other person.
  • Pay attention to any judgments that arise and set them aside.
  • Check in with yourself during the conversation and make sure you are still present and listening.

Sometimes the best response is sacred silence, meeting the other with love and understanding. The key is to be present, breathe, and through your verbal and nonverbal responses, let the speaker know her or she is heard.

_______________________________

[i]Joan Halifax, in P. Zaleski & P. Kaufman (1997). Gifts of the Spirit

[ii]Brené Brown (2013).  RSA Talk, The Power of Vulnerability. YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=sXSjc-pbXk4

[iii]© St. Mary’s Press.

THE INSIDIOUS FORCE OF MISOGYNY

 

Misogyny is an insidious and often subtle force that brings many women to therapy. The demeaning of women in the workplace, gender inequality at home, rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and other emotional and physical abuses against women result in symptoms ranging from depression and anxiety to PTSD.

Many of the women in my psychotherapy practice have experienced a significant increase in their symptoms due to the misogyny pervading our society since the election of Donald Trump.   Indeed, it has been widely reported that there has been a significant increase in existing, new and returning clients seeking help with post-election anxiety. As the Seattle Times recently reported (3/25/17) ,as many as 80 percent of potential new therapy clients are seeking help for post-election distress.

What makes misogyny so insidious is the unconscious acceptance — by women as well as men — of behaviors that demean women. For example, if a woman is attending a business meeting with male coworkers, she is more likely to be asked to take notes or fetch the coffee than one of her male colleagues. Even if the woman feels this is wrong, she may feel powerless to do anything but acquiesce. She may even offer these “traditionally female” services out of her own unconscious conditioning. Compounding matters, women simply are not used to saying no or being assertive with male peers.

Women who are ambitious and successful are often seen as unlikeable “bitches.” Hillary Clinton recently said, in her interview with journalist Nicholas Kristof at the Women of the World Summit, “Certainly, misogyny played a role [in my loss of the presidency]. That just has to be admitted.” In his summary of the interview, Kristof wrote:

“[Clinton] noted the abundant social science research that when men are   ambitious and successful, they may be perceived as more likable. In contrast, for women in traditionally male fields, it’s a trade-off: The more successful or ambitious a woman is, the less likable she becomes (that’s also true of how women perceive women). It’s not so much that people consciously oppose powerful women; it’s an unconscious bias.” (New York Times, 4/9/17).

The constant barrage of bad news about the mistreatment of women in our society has caused significant re-traumatization in clients with a history of sexual abuse.   Events like the surfacing of the video of Trump with Billy Bush bragging about grabbing women’s genitals and the disclosures of Trump’s history as a sexual predator are triggers for anxiety and trauma. News of the culture of sexism at Fox News and elsewhere has re-triggered women who, like Hillary Clinton, have faced painful challenges in traditionally male fields.

One of the most disturbing aspects of misogyny is its unconscious acceptance by women, as Hillary Clinton noted. In fact, when I worked as a corporate attorney and executive, women were more apt to call me a “bitch” than men were (although sexism by my male peers certainly existed).

Women’s unconscious bias also spills over into heterosexual marriages. As a broad generalization, women tend to look to their husbands as the decision makers and tend to take on traditional roles of homemaking. In addition, women are generally expected to make less money than men (which is borne out by statistics of income inequality). This expected income inequality may also lead to marital conflicts, including resentment by women who earn more than their husbands, and self-esteem issues by men whose wives are the chief breadwinners in the family. While these gender-based norms and attitudes are changing, my clients report that they still pose significant challenges in their marriages.

The good news is that the recent presidential election and upsurge of reports of misogyny and sexual harassment by men in powerful positions has raised awareness of sexual oppression. As a child of the anti-war and feminist movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I am optimistic that the resistance and consciousness raising that have begun will continue and will reap positive results, as it did in ending the Viet Nam War, Nixon’s resignation and more equality for women in the ‘70s. The Women’s Marches the day after the inauguration in January augured a renewed sense of solidarity and confidence that we can all make a difference.

This renewed awareness of misogyny, sexism and inequality has already reaped positive results. Male clients have reported more understanding of and sensitivity regarding the challenges their female partners and colleagues face, and are willing to be more open and vulnerable with them. Women are less willing to ignore sexist behaviors and are speaking up more and more.

In addition, the onslaught of news in the media of sexual inequality and assaults provides an opportunity for women to look at their own assumptions and prejudices regarding men. As James Gordon, a psychiatrist and founder of the Center for Mind Body Medicine, wrote in The Guardian (2/9/17), Donald Trump represents the archetypal fool or trickster, who holds a mirror up to our own foibles and failings. Gordon aptly states:

“[The fool] performs a vital social function, forcing us to examine our own preconceptions, especially our inflated ideas about our own virtue. Trump was telling all of us – women and minorities, progressives, pillars of the establishment, as well as his supporters – that we were just like him.”

Ultimately, the fool is not there to taunt us, but to teach us to look at our conscious and unconscious preconceptions and prejudices. As Gordon concludes:

“The joker who is now our president has served an important function, waking us up to what we’ve not yet admitted in ourselves or accomplished in our country. He is, without realizing it, challenging us to grow in self-awareness, to act in ways that respect and fulfill what is best in ourselves and our democracy.”

The time is ripe for awakening and the dawn of an enlightened society. Instead of shunning and demonizing the Trumps in our lives, it is time to look at them with compassion for their ignorance and self-destructive aggression and arrogance. And, it is time to look at ourselves and work to promote understanding, healing and equality for all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved

NAVIGATING LIFE TRANSITIONS

Supporting clients as they go through major life transitions has been a significant part of my psychotherapy practice. I am now going through several major life transitions of my own. This challenging time has given me the opportunity to contemplate where I’ve been in my life and what may lie ahead, and to use the tools I’ve learned for navigating major upheavals in life.

I have been noticing my intense emotions as I go through the challenges of getting ready to leave our home of ten years, anticipating a move to a new city, and redefining my livelihood as I make this move. What I notice clearly is that this is a grief process (using my grief counselor and psychotherapist lens), and that it is a challenge to the ego and the process of letting go and trusting, rather than trying to control the outcome (using my mindfulness and Buddhist practitioner lens).

Buddhist teachings emphasize that change and impermanence are always happening, moment to moment. However, knowing this intellectually does not help us avoid painful and confusing emotions. In fact, working with those emotions is necessary for navigating life’s changes in a healthy way.

 

The Three-Step Emotional Rescue Plan

Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Heals You, offers a helpful and effective “3-Step Emotional Rescue Plan” for working with and navigating difficult emotions.

Mindful Gap

The first step of the Emotional Rescue Plan is called “Mindful Gap.” In this step, we zoom in to fully experience what we are feeling. As I experience the emotional ups and downs of my current transition process, I first zoom in on what I am experiencing in my body. It might be a tight clenching in my chest or stomach, or a fluttery feeling around my heart. I can then identify the emotion associated with that direct felt sense. That emotion is often fear. I then hold the feeling and breathe into it, giving it some space and letting go of the thoughts that are needlessly intensifying the experience of fear.

Clear Seeing

This leads directly to the second step of the Three Step Plan: “Clear Seeing.” In this step, we zoom out to get a panoramic view of what we are experiencing. In my current groundless state of uncertainty, when I zoom out, I see that my fear relates to not knowing what is coming next for me, as well as a sense of helplessness in knowing that I cannot control the vicissitudes of my current situation. Zooming out to clearly see the whole picture helps me let go of feelings of isolation, knowing that we all, at one time or another, experience the roller coaster of life transitions. Knowing this, I can have greater compassion for myself and less resistance to experiencing the intense emotions that accompany transitions in life.

I also realize that I am experiencing sadness and grief as I navigate my transition process, and let go of many of the trappings of my old life. I remember, based on my knowledge and experience of the grief process, that all transitions and changes entail grief, even those transitions and changes that are positive. We need to say goodbye before we can say hello again.

Letting Go

Saying goodbye to an old way of being is an example of the third step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan, “Letting Go.” In order to move into the next chapter of my life, I need to let go of some of the trappings and self-identification of the current chapter of my life. Letting go is also a process of accepting what is. In my case, this includes accepting that I have no control over many aspects of relocating and redefining my career.

A Road Map for Navigating Transitions

William Bridges, in his seminal book Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes, talks about the transition process as a three step process: an ending, the neutral zone and a new beginning.

Endings

Our society does not respect and acknowledge endings the way that many other cultures do. Other than funerals and retirement parties, we have few rituals for acknowledging endings. We are told to “get over it” and not to “cry over spilt milk.”   Bereavement leave is often just a few days, and the bereaved must then put on a happy face and return to work. Our death defying medical culture values cure over comfort and dignified end of life care. The attitudes of our Western society do not encourage us to give ourselves the needed time to experience the fullness of the endings in our lives.

Bridges says that it is important to experience endings in order to fully move on to the next chapter in our lives. He states “the new growth cannot take root on ground still covered with the old habits, attitudes and outlooks because endings are the clearing process.” This clearing process allows us to relax into the neutral zone, the bardo space between the ending and new beginning, with a sense of spacious curiosity rather than anxiety and fear.

The Neutral Zone

It is a common human urge to avoid anxiety and fear by jumping from ending to new beginning. The “neutral zone” is the groundless space of not knowing, and is the most important phase of the process of navigating major life transitions.  Fully experiencing the endings in our life and grieving with appreciation what we are leaving behind can make the neutral zone a fertile time for self-inquiry. “For many people, the breakdown of the ‘old enchantment’ and the old-self image uncovers a hitherto unsuspected awareness,” says Bridges.

The “great emptiness of the neutral zone” provides us with an opportunity to examine our values and discover what is truly important to us now. Although most of us don’t have the opportunity to go on a solo vision quest, as do many American Indians, we can create a personal vision quest, taking time to be alone in silent retreat. Using time alone to meditate, journal or pray allows us to turn away from the outer world, turning inward to contemplate and ultimately discover what we want the next chapter of our life to be.

The New Beginning

Bridges describes the gap between the old life and the new as a process of disintegration and reintegration. Through this process we are renewed. Through renewing ourselves, with patience, equanimity and grace, we can discover what we want to create in the next chapter of our lives, our new beginning, with a sense of satisfaction and peace of mind.

 

References:

Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee.

W, Bridges, (2004). Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. www.bethspatterson.com. All rights reserved.

OVERCOMING THE NEGATIVITY BIAS: A MINDFULNESS APPROACH

As neuropsychologist and mindfulness teacher Rick Hanson says “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but like Teflon for positive ones.”[1] What Dr. Hanson describes is known as the “negativity bias.” The negativity bias is hardwired in the human brain. Early humans needed this brain bias for survival purposes. The negativity bias allowed our ancestors to learn behaviors that became hardwired in the brains of their descendants in order to avoid danger and stay alive. The negativity bias remains part of the human brain today, and impacts our wellbeing in many ways.

The Impact of the Negativity Bias in Daily Life

Research in neuroscience shows that the brain reacts more strongly to negative stimuli than positive ones. We hold on to negative memories much longer and more strongly than positive ones, like what Dr. Hanson describes as Velcro.  This hardwiring stimulates the brain’s fight, flight or freeze hyper-vigilant responses to perceived threats, and affects us physically, cognitively and emotionally.

On a physical level, hyper-vigilance affects our adrenal and cortisol systems, resulting in sleep disturbances, fatigue, shortness of breath and numerous other physical issues. Emotionally, we may experience anxiety, fear, confusion or anger. Cognitively, we may develop strong negative beliefs, such as “I don’t deserve love”, “I cannot trust others”, or “I am not safe.”

For example, if someone has experienced the sudden death of a loved one, she may react with great fear and anxiety each time she is unable to reach another loved one. If someone is judged or ridiculed at work for suggesting a novel approach to working with a challenge, he may be less inclined to offer suggestions again. And, if one grows up with an abusive parent, she may come to believe that she is unlovable and that no one can be trusted. These associations the brain makes are like tangled knots in a ball of thread that link new experiences with old negative experiences.

Overcoming the Negativity Bias through Mindfulness

The good news is that the negativity bias can be overcome through mindfulness, and the tangled knots of association can be loosened and untied. The first step is to become aware of the brain’s negativity bias and that the brain links different events and experiences together, like the 0’s and 1’s of a binary computer. This awareness helps us then determine if something we are experiencing is truly a threat to our safety or wellbeing. If it is a threat, we can take appropriate action. If it is not a threat, we can learn to let go of the impact of a perceived negative experience, seeing it for what it is.

Mindfulness can actually rewire the brain to hold on to positive experiences in a productive and healthy way – more like Velcro than Teflon. The practice of mindfulness meditation teaches us to be present, moment-to-moment, and not just live in our thoughts. The irony is that through mindfulness meditation, we become more aware of our thoughts. The difference is that we no longer need to get carried away by our thoughts, and expand a single thought into an epic novel. We learn to let thoughts go and return to the experience of the present moment.

Being mindful also makes us more aware of the negative and self-limiting thoughts that have kept us from being fully and joyfully alive. Mindfulness is not limited to sitting on a cushion and watching our breath. In fact, in addition to sitting meditation, I often “prescribe” mindful walking, mindful dish washing and mindful driving to my clients as ways to learn to be present with whatever it is they are experiencing. The key is to notice the thoughts and come back fully to whatever it is you are experiencing.

Without mindful awareness, our negative thoughts are the omnipresent background noise of our lives. Becoming aware of our negative self-talk and thoughts allows us to separate ourselves from them, to challenge and even eliminate them. Cognitive therapy, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, offers another way to do that, and works well with mindfulness practices.

The more present we are, moment-to-moment, the more we can experience the small joys of being alive.   We are more able to fully savor positive experiences and make them a part of who we are, without judgment. We come to realize that joy and presence is our birthright.

A highly effective way to rewire the brain to respond more to positive experiences is the “gratitude exercise”: Every night before you go to bed, write down five things you are grateful for that happened that day. When I assign this exercise to depressed clients, I may hear the complaint “but I have nothing to be grateful for.” I respond to this by pointing out positive things in the environment they can experience directly, such as a sunny day or a bird singing outside my office window.

The gratitude exercise and learning to be mindful in the present moment allow us to short circuit and rewire the brain’s negativity bias. We can then open our eyes and hearts to life, with all of its joys and sorrows, and fully appreciate who we are.

 

[1] R. Hanson, “Take in the Good”, www.rickhanson.net, June 2015.

 

 

© 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.