Thursday, July 24, 2008

Practicing Self-Acceptance

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” — Carl Rogers, psychologist

I don’t speak baby talk very well, so I can’t claim to know what babies think about the world, much less about themselves. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect they DO NOT have thoughts like “What a loser I am. I must be the worst crier in the nursery” or “Boy, I really suck at crawling. What’s wrong with me?” much less “I really hate my body.”

Where, then, do the negative feelings we harbor about ourselves come from? I would say it’s from fear that we learned starting when we were small and dependent. Children are mostly socialized by the granting or withholding of approval. We quickly learn to equate acceptance with survival, which, given that we are social beings, holds some truth.

Why do we fear? Paradoxically, in order to feel in control. We learn that we can’t trust ourselves to be OK unless we’re threatened with negative consequences if we don’t follow the rules. Is that really true? Are we only good because we fear being punished if we’re bad?

I’m sorry, I just don’t believe that. If that were true, why are there more people in prison that ever? It’s just not my experience that I’ve ever been successful in beating myself into becoming a better person.

What I do know is that I’m basically good, albeit unskillful at times. I suffer when I forget that and fall back into what Tara Brach in her sweet book Radical Acceptance (2003, Bantam Books) calls “the trance of unworthiness.”

It’s late and so I’m going to cut to the chase here, even though there is a lot more I could (and will) say about this. Join us for one of the discussion groups this Sunday either in Asheville or Hendersonville if you can and we’ll talk more.

Practice exercise:

Looking for the perfect relationship? Start here!

Describe how you would feel, what you would receive, how you would be treated if you found your perfect love. Do you long to be known, accepted, appreciated, honored, inspired? Maybe even worshipped a little bit? (It’s OK. Really!)

I know you see this coming: be the lover you want to find, as much as you can, to everyone you encounter, including that person you meet in the mirror. Move from waiting to receive to giving freely and your cup will fill as you experience the fullness, the goodness of who you really are. Simple as that.

Copyright 2008 Eugene Y. Smith, III. All rights reserved.

Facing Fear: Engaging What Limits Us

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” — Marie Curie

What if I said that fear could be your friend? Well, OK, not friend exactly (you don’t have to like it), but it could be your ally. Let me explain.…

Fear offers information that something needs your attention. Its purpose is to help you survive, either physically or psychologically. Unfortunately, what starts out seeming like a fortress can end up becoming a prison, shielding us from potential pain while at the same time making our worlds so much smaller. What we want to do, then, is to look deeper at the fear to discover what response is going to move us toward freedom and out of bondage.

So, what are you afraid of? Pick an issue that, if it were resolved, would substantially improve the quality of your life. Take a few minutes if you need to mull this over and then write a brief statement in your journal describing the fear.

Here are some further questions to ask yourself:

1) In what circumstances does this fear arise?

2) What other emotions, if any, accompany this fear? (anger, shame, despair, etc.)

3) When did you first experience this fear?

4) Is the fear based on an experience you had or were you taught to have this fear?

5) Is the fear in response to what is happening in this moment or to an imagined/projected event?

6) Is this fear about your physical survival (that bear chasing you through the woods) or to your sense of self (like fear of how well you will perform a task)?

A handy model I was taught about emotions is this: first there is a stimulus (situation or experience), followed by a thought about what the stimulus means, followed by an emotional reaction. Got that? Stimulus> thought> emotion. The part that is often overlooked is the one in the middle—the thought. With awareness, that’s where we can learn to choose and exercise control.

Here’s an example: A dog walks into a room. There are two people there, one of whom loves dogs and another who is afraid of dogs. These people are having entirely different reactions to the dog, but the dog is the same. Why? Because, of course, they have different beliefs about dogs and we tend to filter our experiences to confirm what we already believe.

In my workshops and coaching sessions I often begin by saying, “Don’t believe anything that I tell you.” This usually gets a chuckle. I then go on to encourage people to examine what I say to see if it really is true for them and also to see whether what I’m saying is actually useful. If my ideas don’t meet both tests, please disregard them. That’s Part A. Part B is—are you ready?—don’t believe what you tell yourself either without administering the same tests. Ah!

Invite your fear in and ask these questions: What am I telling myself this stimulus/situation means about me? What evidence do I have that what I believe is really true about this situation? How does this fear benefit me? What does my current response to this fear cost me? Is it worth it?

Compassion and a sense of curiosity are a must. A sense of humor helps, too. What, you’re a human being having a human experience? Welcome to the club!

Practice exercise:

Who is the fear inviting me to be? In other words, what qualities am I being asked to develop in order to meet this fear? Look past the discomfort and aversion. Find out where your fear is directing you to create more balance in your life and develop new capacities. There is much energy there, waiting to be set free.

Copyright 2008 Eugene Y. Smith, III. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Living from the Inside Out

I’ve been thinking about life change a lot recently—what drives it, what directs it, what sustains it—and I keep coming back to a phrase I heard a friend use some time ago: “living from the inside out.” She meant she wanted to live her life as an expression of who she truly is instead of trying to be someone she was taught she was supposed to be. To be driving her life instead of just being a passenger. Sound familiar?

Almost without exception, we were raised to look outside ourselves for validation and approval. As adults, it’s no wonder then that so many of us don’t really know who we are or what we want. We are not used to being asked that question in a fundamental way. Even considering it can bring up fears of not surviving (psychologically if not physically) if we don’t conform to what we believe is expected of us. And yet …

Remember an event in your life where you were in the “flow,” where you felt happy, excited, peaceful, powerful. Where time expanded into a limitless Now. Close your eyes and revisit that experience. Notice what you are thinking, if you are thinking of anything. What sensations are present in your body? How would you describe your emotions? Is there a sense of connectedness, of rightness, of being home?

Want to spend more time in that place? Want to feel more alive? Of course you do. Me, too! So, why don’t we? One hindrance is what I call “Yes, but.” The tape goes something like this: “Yes, I want to live more fully, but if I do … I will let down the people who depend on me … the world would fall apart if everyone did that … that would be too selfish … people won’t like/love me … eventually I’ll end up under a bridge and die.” Fill in your own variation of this script. What’s significant here is the “either/or” (dualistic) thinking this represents. There’s the trap.

How do we know we can’t be true to ourselves and also be happy, loved, successful, prosperous and, yes, responsible? I have been telling people recently that I noticed my house started getting cleaner after I began taking regular afternoon naps. Now I know that when the house gets untidy I need to pay more attention to taking care of myself BEFORE I pull out the vacuum. Being “selfish” increases the likelihood I will be “responsible.” Hmmm.

Because other people have projected their own fears onto us and then withheld their love and approval when we did anything that triggered those fears, we have been inhibited from exploring past the DANGER! signs they posted. I’m not suggesting you blindly and reactively do everything you were told not to do. I AM inviting you to stop and look deeply to see what is TRUE for YOU and then, as best you can in this moment, to act upon that information.

This week’s experiment

For the next week, here’s something to play with: pay attention to how you feel—mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually—as you make decisions moment by moment on what you say yes or no to. Do you feel alert or dull, enthusiastic or resistant, energized or tired, clear and decisive or conflicted? Do you feel differently when you say yes or no to the same thing at different times? Just notice—don’t try to change anything yet. You may want to write your observations in a journal. This is a great first step toward drawing a map of who you really are and what you really want. We’ll explore facing the fears that hold us back in a future session.

As the proverb says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the next step.” Let’s get moving! As you embark on this expedition of discovery, may the road rise up to meet you.

copyright 2008  Eugene Y. Smith, III. All rights reserved.