Have you ever tried to eat a doughnut without licking your lips? In my experience it is quite a fun challenge but it significantly alters the experience of eating a doughnut. What is usually a comforting experience for me – a warm cup of tea with a sticky doughnut, becomes a challenge that I need to succeed at.
How do you feel when you see or hear the word challenge or comfort? What feelings or images does each word bring to mind? Are you aware of what challenges you in life and what brings you comfort? Do you feel you need more of one than the other? Or get more of one than the other? I have become aware in the last couple of years that the more challenges I am facing in life the greater my longing for comfort. Life seems to provide challenges very regularly, but in my experience, comfort can be harder to find but it is something I find I need and long for.
Alan Watts writes that ‘We should stop trying to finalise our comfort and security somehow, and instead find a radical acceptance of the endless, unpredictable change that is the very essence of this life’. Reading this led me to ask myself the question ‘do I just need to let go of my longing for comfort?’ Sometimes there is deep longing in my soul for the comfort of knowing ‘it will all be ok’ or that a certain situation will end well. I want the comfort of knowing the end whilst I am in the confusing middle – and that is perhaps a sort of comfort that he is referring to. Living with uncertainty is part of life.
However I think that there is a ‘sustaining’ type of comfort that does not protect us from the challenges of uncertainty and change but resources us for it. Finding comfort in a piece of cake or glass of wine is ok sometimes but it can be unhealthy or unhelpful to turn to these too often. So I have found myself asking what else can provide comfort? I have realized that there can be a great comfort in being listened to, doing something familiar, seeing something from a fresh perspective, realizing I am not always responsible for the outcome, watching the changing seasons, connecting with nature, a home cooked meal, a roaring fire, reading a psalm, singing a hymn. I have realized that these things provide comfort because they somehow soothe my anxious self amidst all the challenges and uncertainties of life and help me to keep going. It can be a challenge to find time to do these things but my soul lets me know when I have neglected my need for sustaining comfort for too long. Perhaps challenge and comfort can walk hand in hand.
Comfort, comfort everywhere, yet not a drop to drink.
It is all a mirage and I am on the brink.
Where is this thing I long for?
The thing i know I need
To satisfy my thirsty core
The part of me that does plead
‘Will it all be ok?
Am I safe?
Do you see me?
Do I just chafe?
Please wrap your arms around me;
Please hold me oh so tight.
However much I squirm
And fight and fight and fight.
I resist your soothing words
And the reassurance you give.
Why can’t I absorb it?
I am like a sieve!
What is wrong with me?
Why does my soul resist ?
Thank you for your patience
I am so grateful you persist.
You are slow to anger
You are gracious and kind
You are full of compassion
Too wonderful for my mind.
This thing is so much deeper
Than my rational thought;
Her embodied presence
Was the comfort that I sought.
I need a warm embrace
And to look in to your face
To feel your delight
Even in this dark night.
of the soul.
Last winter I decided to plant some winter aconites to brighten up the front garden in late January and early February. This year I eagerly anticipated their blossoming, but sadly they have not appeared. Something has clearly got in the way of their flourishing. When giving a talk to the Mothers Union last month I spoke about some of the things that can get in the way of us flourishing as human beings. In my work as a counsellor one of the factors that I find often holds people back is the inner critic.
The ‘inner critic’ is a term in popular psychology to personify the negative thoughts we have about ourselves. Most of us have an inner critic: a part of our psyche that likes to bring us down, criticise our best efforts, and even bully us into believing we’re not good enough. It carries out a running commentary on our lives, putting a negative spin on our achievements and our aspirations. Its impact can leave us feeling hurt, demeaned and powerless.
When I am working with those who are depressed or anxious it can involve helping them identify, become more conscious of and move away from this type of inner voice.
Getting to know the inner critic is normally the starting point. It is often more like an App running in the background at a fairly unconscious level than a loud radio broadcast, so learning to ‘tune-in’ to its messages is a necessary first step. After that it can be very helpful to externalize it. By drawing an image of your inner critic or writing down its messages you are allowing yourself to see the inner critic as something separate from you that you don’t have to be ruled by. It can then be helpful to try and depict an alternative contrasting figure; a compassionate, kind other that will encourage you rather than criticize you.
I believe that strength grows through tenderness and courage through encouragement. Developing a warmer and more encouraging inner voice requires some perseverance and practice but it provides better conditions for flourishing.
Shadows and Shelter
In his shadow I feel scared I might have transgressed and will be punished.
Under the shelter of your wings I find forgiveness and a fresh start.
In his shadow I feel dread and fear; uncertain if he is pleased with me and I am getting it right.
Under the shelter of your wings I find comfort and reassurance that I am known and welcomed.
In his shadow I always need to be busy and active; he doesn’t approve of rest.
Under the shelter of your wings I find rest and restoration when I am weary and heavy laden.
In his shadow I must prove my value and earn his approval.
Under the shelter of your wings I feel sure that I am loved and can stop striving.
In his shadow I doubt myself and my ability.
Under the shelter of your wings I have confidence in your ability and strength.
In his shadow I am afraid of living and dying.
Under the shelter of your wings I find security that gives me courage to live and die.
Emotions – I wonder how they make you feel? Are they an inconvenience or a blessing? Not only do we experience a whole range of feelings on a daily basis we also often have strong feelings about our feelings! This can create lots of confusion and distress.
Whatever your personal experience of emotions I think that it would be fair to say emotions are powerful things. They can be used for good but can also cause harm. Therefore I think it is important to develop awareness of our own emotions and relationship to them for our well-being and the well-being of society. Do they rule us or do they have no place in our lives? Or do we ignore them and then suddenly find them spilling out in unhelpful and unexpected places?
For many years I was not very good friends with some of my own emotions and tried to ignore them. I recognise now that for a period after having my fourth child I was very anxious but I also felt ashamed of this. This led me to hide away rather than acknowledge or talk about the anxiety. Unfortunately this only made things worse because the anxiety was actually signalling to me that I needed some support with my growing family but the hiding meant I could not get this.
Hearing that emotions can be described as signals or sign posts was very helpful for me. Siegel says “Emotion is a deep process that not only gives us the subjective sense of our feelings, but also orients our attention and lets us have a sense of ‘This is important.’
Making friends with our own emotions is a process and when they erupt powerfully or damagingly we can be at a loss to know how to handle them. Whether we are dealing with our own or others emotions – a compassionate rather than judgemental attitude is a great place to start. I hope the concept of being open and curious to what these emotions are signalling might be helpful. Rather than ignoring their presence as a blot on the landscape it might be kinder to allow ourselves time to explore and own them. By doing this it is possible to learn to respond to their message in helpful and healthy ways rather than react in potentially unhelpful or harmful ways .
With regard to helping others understand their emotions an acronym I find helpful is MATS:
Mention – I notice you seem to be feeling …….(angry, sad, ashamed…)
Ask – I wonder what is making you feel like that?
Touch – Appropriate touch can be reassuring and a sign of your acceptance – perhaps a hand on a shoulder.
Stay – stay with them for a while if they need to talk.
It’s all fallen out – oh God, oh no!
It’s such a mess and it’s all on show!
If only it was all in a nice neat row,
then it would be ok for people to know
what’s inside of me.
A mess on the floor – oh what a pain!
Pick it up; stuff it back; it is the main
thing – keeping things nice and not allowing a stain
on the landscape that might show the pain
and confusion of life.
Or we could take some time to look at it there.
Stop. Look – as you stand and stare;
What sort of feeling is in your glare?
Are you a harsh judge or do you care?
Maybe the mess inside of me;
Spilled out on the floor for all to see,
is a cry from my heart – a plea
for you to engage with the complexity
! When life is challenging and we are struggling it is often our nearest and dearest that feel the brunt of our frustrations. Talking to those we love about the stress we are under is often very helpful – but in order to do this we need good communication skills. Communication provides a link between the internal and external worlds!
Relationship experts divide communication styles in to four categories: Passive, Aggressive, Passive-aggressive and Assertive.
Those who use a Passive style tend to defer to everyone else and never make any decisions or have any strong preferences. At some level they end up communicating an often unconscious message; you matter and I don’t.
Those who use an Aggressive style tend to enforce their opinions or desires and leave no room for negotiation or difference. They can unwittingly leave you feeling that they matter and you don’t.
A Passive- aggressive style is a confusing mixture of the two – the message communicated is that you sort of mater but you sort of don’t. This is difficult to understand.
An Assertive style of communication enables individuals to express their own wishes, desires, feelings, and needs but also to leave room for you to communicate and own yours. They leave you feeling you matter and so do they.
Did you recognise these different styles in yourself, and others, over the festive season? Under stress we often resort to one of the less helpful options because stress activates our ‘fight or flight’ response and we don’t think – we just react.
We often think of communication in terms of the words we speak but some studies have suggested that only about 7% of communication is through our words. They say that 38% is through other vocal elements such as tone and 55% through non-verbal elements such as gestures, posture and expressions. Whatever the exact percentages I think it is helpful to remember to think of how and what we are communicating through these different elements.
I expect that we would all like to be Assertive in our communication but it can feel quite hard. Strong emotions and unconscious, or unacknowledged, baggage can get in the way.
Learning the art of Assertive communication takes time and practise and a willingness to be objective and observant of ourselves. Some days we may find it easier than others but self-awareness combined with compassion and a willingness to challenge ourselves can reap great rewards when it comes to communication. Good communication is vital for good relationships because we all need to know we matter.
In order to help people understand how to find a greater sense of well-being Professor Paul Gilbert simplifies the complex workings of the mind into three brain systems that regulate three different types of emotion:
For me, the mind is the hardest part of myself to still. Whatever activity we choose to help turn on the contentment system, an awareness of our thought patterns will be important. An anxiety provoking, negative or over stimulating train of thought will probably diminish the beneficial effects of our contentment seeking efforts. Sometimes we need help to sort out what is going on in our mind. Sometimes we need a support group to help us engage in contentment seeking activities. I think that seeking out the support we need for our well-being is courageous and worthwhile.
Expectations are powerful things. Some people are more naturally optimistic and have mainly positive expectations. Others err on the side of pessimism and tend to expect very little. Whether you are a glass half full or glass half empty type of person I wonder how you respond when your expectations are not met? How do you deal with disappointment? The space between what we would like to happen (our ideal) and what actually does happen (the real) has been described as ‘the disappointment gap.’
Ideal Disappointment Gap Real
People usually respond to this disappointment gap in one of four possible ways:
Sadly we might also face much, much bigger disappointments in life that are much harder to get over. There is no easy answer to these and it is important to emphasise that disappointment is not something that can be explained away or dismissed. It needs to be acknowledged and felt. But recognising when you have become stuck in a ‘disappointment gap’ can enable you to choose to respond to your situation:
i) with acceptance and kindness rather than attack and blame (what would I say to a friend struggling with this? What would I like someone who cares for me to say to me?)
ii) with some thinking about what your ideals are and what beliefs they are based on.
iii) with observation of your thinking style – (am I discounting positives? Am I going in for all or nothing thinking? Am I overgeneralizing?)
iv) by developing small achievable targets for ways to move forward.
Finally I would like to emphasise a small but clever trick the mind likes to play called ‘personalisation’ - experiencing disappointment does not make you a disappointment!
Dart to the heart;
In it goes.
On it goes;
In and through.
Now it’s out,
Time to heal.
Mull and muse.
Express yourself so that
New meaning can emerge;
Then hope to soar again.