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Effective Communication

The last three essays have been a summary of the information about attachment models in adult relationships from the book Attached. In this essay I’ll continue to explore this dynamic.

To summarise the three types of attachment:

1. Anxious people are often preoccupied with thier relationships and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.
2. Avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and commonly try to minimise closeness.
3. Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving.

Effective Communication

A few weeks ago I was with a friend having dinner. We were talking about relationships and the dynamics of attachment. My friend made a comment about how he would seek to talk with someone if something seemed amiss in the communication or their behaviour. It seemed quite clear to him that the way to deal with a conflict was to talk and arrive at an understanding of what was going on rather than withdraw  and blame the other or take the blame and fear being abandoned. Not surpassingly, when he took the test latter he came out as securely attached!

What about those of us who do not have as a first recourse the belief that we deserve to be heard, that our needs matter or that conversation will clarify the position? What if we either go in to protest behaviour of being silent, ignoring our partner due to a perceived slight or withdrawing from what we see as their demanding and needy attempts to talk to us? The hardest dynamic of any relationship is the avoidant/anxious, as they will cause each other to go into their coping mechanism: the distance of the avoidant partner will cause the anxious partner to become more eager to get reassurance that they matter – texts, calls, attempts to meet or talk. In contrast the avoidant partner will want space and solitude, and will withdraw from their anxious partners attempts to create intimacy.

The final chapter of the book Attached is devoted to Effective Communication. This is a summary of what is discussed there.

What is effective communication? It is a way of speaking that communicates our needs, rather than leaving our partner to guess what is bothering us. It is an important tool in dating as it will help us to choose a compatible partner. An anxious person will often feel they need to be other than how they are. Relationship advice may tell an anxious person “play it cool, don’t be needy, appear confident and strong to attract a mate”. Whilst it may be true that a self confident secure type who does not need another’s reassurance in order to feel valid is an attractive quality in a partner, if it is not who we are then we will risk attracting someone who is not then able to hold us when we finally reveal our true vulnerability and need.

In contrast, if we are ready to show our vulnerability when we date and name our needs those who withdraw from this would never have been able to give us the support we need, and thus leaves us free to focus our dating attention on those who can. The same applies in friendships.

An example given in the book is of turning a perceived weakness into a strength. If you know you need to be reassured a lot that your partner loves you and is attracted to you, instead of trying to conceal this out of a fear of appearing needy you state it as a given. This will paradoxically make you appear self-confident and assertive, rather than relying on covert means of trying to get this reassurance without being direct about your need for it – sending texts asking how your partner is when really you just want them to reply and ask how things are with you. In using effective communication from the start you also set the tone for the relationship as one where you can both be honest and share responsibility to look out for each other’s well being.

The difficulty of expressing one’s needs as an anxious person is that we often don’t know what they are! Instead we tend to get overwhelmed by emotion and lash out. Ask my ex, I had very un-Buddhist moments with him! Followed by shame for having got angry. In contrast people with a secure attachment style don’t react so strongly, don’t get overwhelmed as easily, and can thus calmly and effectively communicate their own feelings and needs. Secure people also believe they are worthy of love and affection and expect thier partner to be responsive and caring. With these self beliefs they find it easier not to let negative thoughts take over.

What to do then if you are anxious?

Unlike a secure person you’ll be easily flooded by emotions, will fear that the relationship is fragile and easily broken and don’t expect your partner to to respond positively. Fearing the fragility of the relationship you’ll find it harder to express your needs effectively. When you do try to talk, if you have an avoidant partner, rather than giving you the reassurance you seek they may well withdraw. This is  one reason why effective communication in dating is important. As an anxious attachment person one will quickly decide that the person we have met is the one we have to have. It will feel that we stand no chance with anyone else and we will do all we can to make it work with this person, even ignoring the red flags that might make another question a person’s suitability. When we do communicate our needs, if it results in the person backing of or loosing interest it will be easy to feel that we have ruined things, “if only I had played it more cool, I’ve lost the only one who could have made me happy”. In truth it has just saved us from a relationship in which we would have always been trying to be right for our partner, or fearing their loss of love.

The author suggests the following for anxious and avoidant types:

Anxious: turn to effective communication when you  feel you are starting to resort to protest behaviour (needing to text, going silent on your partner in the hope of drawing them in, not answering calls, threatening to leave etc – these were covered in last weeks email). Instead of this, feel into what your needs are right now that are not being met. Once you have calmed down, find a way to effective communicate your needs to your partner.

Avoidant: whenever you feel the need to run this is a sure sign you need to use effective comunication. Explain to your partner that you need some space and that you would like to find a way of doing so that is acceptable to them. Suggest a few alternatives, making sure the other person’s needs are taken care of.



The Five Principles of Effective Communication

1. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Be genuine and honest about your feelings.

2. Focus on your needs. This includes your need to take your partner’s well being into account as well – comunicating in a way that hurts them will hurt you. When expressing your needs, it’s helpful to use verbs such as need, feel and want, rather than talking about your partners short comings.

Another book called Non-Violent Communication explores this in much more detail. The author, Marshal Rosenberg, describes a model of  communication based on expressing objective facts, feelings, needs and a request:

“When I sent you a text yesterday morning and you did not reply until today at lunch time I felt upset, because I need to be confident that you can make time for me. In future I would really like it if you reply when you see my message, even if its a few words to say you will reply fully later if you do not have time to text right then, would you be willing to do that?”

This is very different to saying something which blames the other or makes them wrong. Rosenberg’s central premise is that when others hear a feeling and a need they will hear what you are asking for. I used this when I was mugged 10 years ago. Luckily I remembered it all in the moment after a single punch to my face had sent me to the ground. As the man straddled me with his fist in the air time slowed down. I knew he was going to hit me more – he was so pumped with adrenalin his aim was to immobilise me without any concern for how much I might get hurt. I didn’t have time to formulate a perfect feeling/needs want statement! Bur I remember as I looked him in the eyes I said “I’m feeling scared, please don’t hurt me”. I think I forgot to express a clear need “I want to feel safe” but it worked nonetheless. In a moment his fist went down and it was the strangest experience: he spoke to me as if he were talking to a frightened child. His voice was almost reassuring as he said “It’s ok, I won’t hurt you, all I want  is your money”. He then went though my pockets and took all he could and left me laying on the pavement. I had lost a wallet and mobile phone, but I do believe it could have been worse if I had not internalised the importance of using effective communication, so that it came naturally in the moment of extreme need.

3. Be specific. This relates to Rosenberg’s encouragement to state an objective fact rather than emotive statements. Rather than “You are so inconsiderate for keeping me waiting for half an hour” which may just trigger the other person to defend themselves, rather than feel the upset you feel. Rosenberg  suggests instead we express this in a factual way: “When we arranged to meet at 1pm and you arrived at 1.30pm I felt really annoyed as I need to know I can trust people to value my time. In future please arrive at the time we agree or text me so I know you are late and I can decide what to do” You may find other ways to do this, but the principle is to keep to simple facts rather than language that suggests blame.

4. Don’t blame. Never make your partner feel selfish, incompetent, or inadequate. Effective comunication is not about finding a way to communicate your partner’s short comings or making accusations. Make sure you feel calm before trying to discuss something that has upset you.

5. Be assertive and non apologetic. As the author of Attached says: “your relationship ends are valid – period”. People with different attachment styles may not see your needs as legitimate, but they are essential for your happiness and expressing them authentically is crucial to effective communication. The author makes the point that this is especially important for people with an anxious attachment style as our culture encourages us to believe that many of these needs are illegitimate. Instead if a person feels the importance of close contact, emotional availability, loving reassurance when feeling anxious about not being wanted or valued – then these are authentic needs. Better to be honest about this and have the 99 people withdraw who cannot meet them and meet the 1 person who can, than hide them and settle with one of the 99 and have an ongoing struggle to have them meet your needs as you start to reveal them once the dating phase is over.

(The above is a summary of p.235-241 Attached)

I know from experience that knowing all of this does not make it easy to apply it! But as we practice mindfulness and being more open to our emotions and non judgemental about our thoughts and feelings it does become possible to tune in to what is going on for us and to start to take the risk to express this with honesty. The Loving Kindness practice helps us to cultivate a feeling in our heart that “I’m ok and you’re ok” so we no longer come from a place of judging ourself or the other, or of feeling we need to fix our self or the other. Instead we enter into an honest connection with how we are and how the other is. This may mean recognising that how the other is is incompatible with what we need, and rather than making it our mission to mould them into our perfect partner we leave them to find someone who loves them as they are, as we stay open to finding someone who will love us as we are.

For a detailed test taking about 15 minutes click here. To buy the book click here

Why do I always fall for the same type of man….

In 2015 and 2016 I went to Loving Men in Wales. I loved it as an event, and the feeling of community, friendship and ease. It gives a feeling of what it can be like to live in a world where we are connected, and as gay men can enjoy a playful sense of ease and company. I also left each weekend with a deep pang of unrequited love, having on both occasions met a man who for various reasons was unavailable, but for whom I built up hopes that he might be.

The result was then spending the first months of the New Year struggling with a visceral feeling of loss, of pining for what never was but I had hoped might be and shame at feeling I was being weak to be so preoccupied with a man who it seemed showed little interest in thinking of me or having any wish to have any further connection. In fact with each man we did meet in the weeks after returning from Loving Men, and with each I felt them retreat from the eagerness of my desire to have more connection.

Once again, I then blamed myself for being too keen, for not playing it cool, for wearing my heart on my sleeve and being needy, invasive of their boundaries. So this year I decided that I would avoid Loving Men and go away to a space that was just for me, a 10 day silent retreat. On my way there I saw a man on the train who looked as if he was on his way to the retreat. As we got off I asked him if he was going to the meditation retreat and he was. We struck up a conversation and shared a taxi to the venue. In the remaining time left before going into silence we had a great time chatting. He’s straight so I was not worried about any unrequited love….or so I thought!

As we went into silence I noticed a curious dynamic in relation to this man and another. Someone had arrived just as we went into silence who I did find attractive, and as fate would have it he was placed to sit immediately behind me in the meditation hall, so I saw him each time I went in to meditate. The centre divides men and women into separate rooms and men and women are seated on separate sides in the dining room. This is great if you are straight, as it reduces the impact of seeing someone you are attracted to. Doesn’t really work if you are gay!

So over the time I sat meditating and in the stillness of the silent time between meditations I was present to a familiar dynamic. With the man I had met on the train, once we were in silence I became so anxious that I would be too much in some way – that I would be making eye contact when he just wanted to be in his own space or that I would impinge on him in some way (I noticed that I am at ease looking and smiling at people I know, but once on retreat this can feel awkward as we all withdraw into a more personal space. Also I noticed a fear of not being wanted once it was no longer possible to find out through a few words that someone was feeling friendly). With the man sitting behind me, I saw how my mind wove a story of desire and hope – that at the end of the retreat we would talk, he would turn out to be gay, we would meet and realise we were destined for each other. Exactly the story that fuelled my hopes with the two men at Loving Men, a belief we were meant to be together that in the end turned out to be not an intuition but an empty dream.

The end of the retreat brought two lessons. The man behind me, who I had anticipated talking with once we came out of silence, left immediately the silence was lifted and I never saw him! The man I had met on the train and had worried I was going to be too much for, had chosen me as his meditation buddy! I had noticed we tended to be at the same table after a while and had our drinks together in the breaks. This had helped me to relax around him and feel at ease. He then told me at the end that he is a diver and when diving you have one person as your buddy who you stay close to. He chose me.

Apart from showing how my mind got distracted during the retreat, how is this relevant? It actually was a perfect example of the dynamic I had just been reading about in a book about relationships and the dynamics that can happen between people. The book is called Attached, and it describes how people fall into three broad groups when entering relationship:

1. Anxious people are often preoccupied with thier relationships and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.
2. Avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and commonly try to minimise closeness.
3. Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving.

A few people are anxious/avoidant, but this is more rare.

The following list of traits for each type are from pages 65-66 of ‘Attached’

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And a few suggestions about how to work with your type:


The book describes the different dynamics that can arise as these three types form relationships. It talks of how anxious types will often enter a relationship worrying that the other person will lose interest, that they will do something wrong to scare the other person away and take the blame if things do not work out. Avoidant’s will be concerned that the other person will become interested too quickly and so will give mixed messages – seeming to show interest whilst at the same time not replying to messages quickly and being ambivalent about committing. Secure people will not play games but be straight forward, showing if they like you, being open to commitment and ready to talk about anything that concerns them in the relationship rather than using it as a reason to pull away or play games.

What can happen is that anxious people create a template of what it feels like to fall in love – the worry, the heightened sense of uncertainty, the fear of rejection leading to the delight when the other seems to want you, but followed by fretting about why they have not replied to a text. The result of this template is that when an anxious person meets an avoidant it feels like love, because it feels like a familiar experience of what falling in love is like. Whereas meeting a secure person can feel flat – there’s no edge or drama, and so an anxious person can overlook the people who would be best able to give them a feeling of security as they chase after all the avoidant people they are drawn to.

Avoidant’s are drawn to anxious people as it fits with their script that people will become too demanding, needy and that they risk loosing their independence so in the end they need to drop this person in the hope of meeting the right person at some point in the future. It is not that avoidant’s do not want a relationship, but they can have an overly romantic idea of what their ideal partner should be like and so tend to be critical of the people they meet.

What I like about the book is that it does not make any type wrong and does not seek to fix anyone. It encourages you to be aware of your patterns and see how these interact with others, and to recognise that certain parings will be more likely to provide a feeling of security and being held by one’s partner than others. It does not say the neediness of the anxious type is wrong, just something that easily gets triggered when the partner is withdrawing or giving mixed messages, whereas with a partner who is ready to be fully present this dynamic occurs but is pacified by their willingness to hold. This can literally be the willingness of your  partner to take your hand when you want to hold there’s, rather than the avoidant’s response of shaking it off.

Avoidant’s are also looking for love, but have learnt to feel frightened of being overwhelmed. So for them if they recognise that always being attracted to anxious types will not be very likely to lead to a relationship they can relax in they can instead look to meet secure types – but they need to be ready for the challenge a secure person will offer of calling them out on their tendency to pull away. The secure person will not take the blame on themselves as the anxious person does when the avoidant pulls away, instead they will name what is happening and start a dialogue around it.

This is a brief synopsis of the points covered in the book, but if it has interested you or you recognise your type already I recommend reading it. “Know thyself” and you no longer have to live out unconscious dramas and stories. The self test form is below if you would like to find out your type. Or for a more detailed test taking about 15 minutes click here. To buy the book click here

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Tools for Self-Love

As we meditate it can sometimes feel as if things are getting worse rather than more peaceful. This is not because meditation makes us more uptight or anxious, but because we start to tune in more quickly to the worried thoughts and emotions that previously we may have been oblivious to. In the early days of meditation we may not be aware of some of this self-critical inner dialogue, but it can become more clear the longer we meditate. But just because we don’t notice it dose not mean it is not there – it’s just that the low mod or sense of upset we feel we do not associate with what we have been telling ourselves, instead we just notice we are feeling low or sad with no idea of why. In contrast, when we do start to notice the inner critic we are actually better able to stop the downward mood swing before it has become too established.

One method for understanding your self-talk is explored in the ABCD model. Each letter stands for a step in recognising and disputing negative self-talk.

A: the ACTIVATING event that initiates the self-talk. An example might be walking along a street and waving at a friend, only for them not to respond and to walk on past.

B: the BELIEF (or negative thinking) that this activating event initiates. Depending on our temperament we may take the blame for what has happened, blame the other, or be neutral. Thoughts such as “what have I done wrong”, “why do they not like me any more” will be common if we take the blame for what has happened. Whereas thoughts such as “how dare you”, “I hate you” will occur if we blame the other. Or with a more neutral mind we may consider: “perhaps they did not see me”, “that is so unlike them, I hope they are alright”, or even “silly fellow, forgot their contact lenses again no doubt!”. With all of these we have no evidence for the truth of our belief – it is presenting itself as an objective statement on the situation, but is in fact coming from our underlying way of seeing ourselves in the world at that moment: victim, aggressor or neutral observer.

C: the CONSEQUENCES of having that thought. These are the feelings that arise as a result of having the thought. If we have blamed ourself for our friend not waving back we may then feel anxiety, worry, remorse or dread. If we blame then we feel angry, resentful or resentful. Neutral thoughts may lead to the most calm state of mind, and that calm state of mind is a result of having neutral thoughts about our friend not waving back.

D: the DISPUTING self-talk that we can use to counteract the negative inner talk. If we have taken the blame for our friend not waving back we may have started to think “I’m such a bad friend” , “people always see through me”, “I’ll never manage to keep any lasting friendships”. Noticing these thoughts we can start to counter them by deliberately thinking in a way that brings in a different perspective. We may say to ourselves in this case “just because someone does not wave back does not mean they hate me…I need to find out first if they even saw me!”

Another example might be:

A: I spill coffee all over my new carpet
B: This activating event triggers the belief: “I’m always so clumsy and stupid”
C: the consequences of this belief is that I feel depressed and hopeless – lost in self recrimination.
D: to dispute the statement: “I’m always so clumsy and stupid” one might think, “No, just now I spilt coffee and it needs to be cleared up. This does not happen every time I have coffee, in fact this is the first time in years it has happened – so it is not true that I am always clumsy. If I were there would be a pool of coffee around me wherever I go and this is clearly not true!”

To fully engage with the final stage of disputing the self-critical thought one can use the process of thought stopping. Negative self-talk will often occur vey quickly when we are in a triggering situation and this will quickly lead to a downward tail spin as we are pulled into difficult emotions associated with the negative self-talk. In fact it is almost as if we go into a default mode where an event triggers a belief that then takes us to a familiar emotional landscape. In one way we feel comforted by the familiarity, but it means we can come to return again and again to a landscape that is harsh and difficult to thrive in: blame, self-deprecation, feeling guilt, sad or bad.

To interrupt this automatic cycle of events leading to familiar landscapes of belief, we first need to recognise what our habitual thought patterns are. Once we start to know the territory we can then prepare some alternative ways of thinking. You will need to work out your own according to what your habitual self-talk is, but here are a few examples:

  • “I do not need to be perfect. All humans make mistakes – and making a mistake does not mean I am a mistake”
  • “Relax and breathe. I can cope with this situation”
  • It is not helpful to think like this. I do not deserve to treat myself like this. This self-talk is just a bad habit”
  • “Even if he rejected me it does not mean I am unlovable – my friends love me, so I am lovable”
  • “I have value, regardless of what anyone says”
  • “Not everyone is looking for a cover model as a boyfriend” – useful when one thinks no-one will ever find one attractive!

It may feel hard to say these at first. We somehow feel it is natural and authentic and honest to say harsh things to ourself – but arrogant, false or disingenuous to say anything positive. In a latter email I’ll address the issue of core-beliefs and how these can make it hard to say anything positive to ourselves. But for now, explore going to your edge and recognise that discomfort may simply mean you are in new territory that does not feel familiar, but that does not mean you are wrong to be saying these positive things to yourself.

You may like to make your own list of pleasant, encouraging or positive thoughts that you can say to yourself when you notice you are caught in negative self-talk.

Interrupting the Loop: this final method is used when we feel we are in a repetitive loop of negative self-talk that keeps repeating like a needle stuck in a scratch in a record. When you recognise that this is happening gently say to yourself: “stop”, as you would to a good friend who is caught in self recriminations or blame. It is not a harsh “stop” but loving and gentle, but this may also find expression though  an assertive and firm statement, as you would to someone trying to cross you boundary. The idea is to say it emphatically enough that you interrupt the flow of thought.

If you find that you are feeling frustration building up as a result of the repetitive negative self- talk you can create an assertive “talk back” statement as a way to challenge the primacy of the negative self-talk. For example:

  • “stop blaming and catastrophizing”
  • “this negative garbage is not helping”
  • “these old messages are wrong and unfair”
  • “enough!”

Feel into what your own might be but remember, you are rebutting the old negative messages, not speaking to yourself in a punitive way. Then, after stopping the constant flow of negative self-talk you can insert an affirming statement.

If you have enjoyed this, you may like to look at the book that I am drawing from: Loving Ourselves, the gay  and lesbian guide to self-esteem, Kimeron N. Hardin

Identifying the different types of critical self-talk

Over the last month I’ve been reading ‘Loving Ourselves’, the Gay and Lesbian Guide to Self-Esteem, by Kimeron N Hardin. It has been fascinating and the latest chapter has been really helpful in identifying negative thinking patterns and how to work with them, so in this weeks email I’ll be sharing these with you.

In last weeks class I was reflecting at the start of the session that learning to meditate can bring great peace, but also make us more aware of what we had previously been ignoring. In this way it’s like the stones that rise up out of the ground as the rain slowly causes them to appear at the surface. These negative patterns of self-talk and the associated low self-esteem have been here throughout, but at times as we meditate and bring more self awareness to our inner dialogue and feelings it can seem as if things are getting worse as we all of a sudden hear our negative script much more clearly, and feel the negativity we direct to ourselves more astutely.

For this reason it can be beneficial to have some ways of working with difficult thoughts and feelings. In meditation we simply learn to note what is there, open to it and come back to the breath. There can be a process of opening to the awareness that is able to hold what is there in an open embrace and this can feel very peaceful. I certainly find meditation is a refuge for me in this regard. A chance to sit still and at peace. But there are times when the thinking mind takes over and thoughts and emotions run riot. As this happens it helps to bring a reflective curiosity to the process of the mind, thoughts and feelings.


Identifying Self-Talk

The following is a summary of chapter 10, from ‘Loving Ourselves’ by Kimeron Hardin.

As we bring awareness to thoughts in the moment we begin to notice patterns of thinking that arise without any conscious will on our part. Such thinking is called automatic thoughts. To recognise thinking as automatic thought it is useful to identify the five characteristics of such thought:

1. Brief  self statements or images: automatic thoughts often have a quality of being only a few words that express a belief about ourself that is taken as a statement of truth, such as “stupid idiot”, or “It’s too much”, “I can’t cope” or an image that has the same implication as these words – seeing yourself failing, or being told off. These thoughts arise spontaneously and with no deliberate effort.

2. Experiencing automatic thoughts as true: such thoughts often arise out of beliefs planted in our mind as children at a time when we could not evaluate the truth or veracity of an opinion. They are now heard as if they are objective truth, rather than as an opinionsimply because they are so familiar and have been part of our inner self-talk for so long. This automatic nature means they can happen immediately when a trigger event occurs. For example, if you were regularly told you were stupid as a child when you spilt something then on spilling something as an adult the self-talk is immediately ” I’m so stupid” and this is taken as true. Rather than questioning why one has such a thought as opposed to the more objective recognition: I’ve spilt something, how do I clear it up?

3. Automatic thoughts are often extreme and include rigid rules hidden in the words used: when you notice thoughts containing words such as should, must or have to this is an indication of automatic self-deprecating thoughts. “I should have learnt by now”, “I must pull myself together”.

4.They seem to have always been there: These thoughts pop up so quickly we often forget to challenge them or we forget information that contradicts them. In fact, the thoughts occur so automatically we forget to see them as opinions that have been learnt, and forget we were not born thinking in this way. 

5. Automatic thoughts often group into themes:  as we bring awareness to our thinking we may start to notice that the thoughts that arise whilst being specific to a situation actually fall into common themes that often form the backdrop to our negative self-view or ways of talking to ourself. 

Common themes for self-talk

As you read the following see which you recognise as your own self-talk themes. 

1. Overgenralizing

Words often used in this way of overgeneralising: all, none, everybody, nobody, never, always.

“I’m a failure”, “I can never get anything right”, “Nothing ever works out for me”

People who have this style of thinking often believe that they absolutely cannot make mistakes, or that they have to be perfect. When a mistake happens they feel they are a failure or that they are destined to keep repeating the same mistake forever. This way of thinking tends to take a single event and make sweeping conclusions about life form that one event,

When caught in overgeneralisation one will tend to take a negative event as a pattern of one’s life and make global, labelling statements about oneself and others, places, or aspects of one’s own life, all based on a single encounter or experience.

Sub categories of overgeneralised thinking are:

i) Polarised or Black-or-White thinking. 

Words often used in this way of thinking:

Always Never Perfect
Impossible Awful Terrible
Ruined Disastrous Furious

People who think in this way tend to limit their perspectives of a situation to two alternatives. This way of thinking ignores any element of grey, and instead sees life as consisting of opposites: right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no. This type of thinking is very common in depression and is related to the fight or flight mode of survival. Grey thinking requires an ability to hold uncertainty: “maybe this, maybe that”. When faced with a life or death situation we cannot have a maybe, we need a clear decision to fight or run. Uncertainty would create  hesitation and increase the risk of being killed. Hence, when we are under stress we feel the need to make a clear either/or decision rather than hold the uncertainty of a maybe. 

“The more we polarize our thinking the more likely we are to become depressed because extreme either/or thinking stimulates the emotions much more. Statements like “I’m a terrible person!” or “She’s perfect; she’s a saint!” or “I’m just a failure!” oversimplify life and cause massive emotional swings. Few marriages, holidays or jobs were ‘complete disasters’ but had different elements within them.” Ref

As a child we might fail in an exam and then think: “I’m so stupid, I’m never going to get anywhere”. Or we could think “Maths is not my strongest subject, but I have done well in English”.  Or we might have a pattern of being attracted to unhealthy partners and think: “I’ll never meet anyone who is good for me”. But if we have some supportive friends we could think “I’ve met three boyfriends where it ended badly, but I have been able to make some good relationships with my friends”.

The following gives an outline of situations where we might fall into black and white thinking and offers another perspective on how one might think:

  • Can I be basically an intelligent person and still do something stupid?
  • Can I love my children and still get angry with them sometimes?
  • Can my partner love me but sometimes be insensitive?
  • Can one part of my life be difficult and other parts be easier and more enjoyable?
  • Can a part of my life be difficult now but in the future get easier?
  • Can some parts of an experience (such as a social engagement or vacation) be awful and other parts of it be OK? Ref

ii) Filtering

People who think in this way tend to see life through a filter or lens that distorts their perspective known as selective abstraction. This refers to a way of thinking where we pay attention only to the negatives in a situation rather than seeing it in its entirety, which might enable us to also see some positives. This type of thinking leads to feeling overwhelmed in a situation because you only see the downside and not the resources you may have to help you out of the situation. The words we use in this form of self-talk suggest that the situation has no solution, and that one has no control over it. 

An example would be someone with low self esteem going out one evening to a club or to a party and not meeting any one. The self-talk might be something like: “I’m so unlovable/ so completely unattractive”. Whilst overlooking the people in one’s life who do like one, or dismissing past relationships that have meant something even if we are no longer in them now.

At the end of a relationship this type of thinking will often manifest as: “Now they have left I have nothing” , which then initiates strong feelings of loneliness and heartache. Rather than seeing that you have your friends, social network and your own qualities to attract a new partner when the time is right. 

iii) Magnification or minimisation

This involves exaggerating the negatives and understating the positives. So instead of looking at your positive accomplishments, which you minimize, you magnify your perceived failures. An example would be if someone offers you a compliment, you vehemently deny the positive and focus on the negative. Ref

iv) Disqualifying the positive

Here you only look at the negative even if someone tells you differently, you continue to deny it. Here’s a possible conversation between two people showing this distortion:

John: “I’m no good at sports.”

Sam: “What about the time you scored the winning touchdown?”

John: “Oh that was just luck”

Sam: “But even the coach said you displayed skill.”

John: “He was just being nice” Ref

2. Catastrophising or Fortune Telling. 

This is the tendency to predict the worst possible scenario for any possible outcome. A catastrophiser will tend to focus on worst-case scenarios, however unlikely they are to actually happen, leading to a state of perpetual anxiety and worry. 

Catastrophizing can generally can take two forms:

The first of these is making a catastrophe out of a situation. For instance, if you’re a salesperson and haven’t made a sale in awhile, you may believe you are a complete and utter failure and you will lose your job. In reality, it may only be a temporary situation, and there are things that you can do to change this situation. Another example is believing that if you make one small mistake at your job, you may get fired. This kind of
Catastrophizing takes a current situation and gives it a truly negative “spin.”

The second kind of Catastrophizing is closely linked to the first, but it is more mental and more future oriented.This kind of Catastrophizing occurs when we look to the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong. We then create a reality around those thoughts (e.g. “It’s bound to all go wrong for me…”). Because we believe something will go wrong, we make it go wrong. Ref

3. Must and shoulds

Must and should modes of thinking arise out of applying absolute rules for living on oneself and others. This may happen without one even being aware of the process. When we or another does not follow the rules, by mistake or intentionally, it can make one irritated, angry and judgemental. The rules were often learnt as a child and may be irrational or unreasonable but were accepted by the child without question.

For example one may have learnt the belief: “good boys are quiet and don’t cause any disruption”. As a child and in one’s family unit this may have resulted in behaviour that was in line with this rule receiving praise and love. But as an  adult, being at a party where one is quietly causing no offence, but wanting attention, one might become intensely irritated with the “loud” and “arrogant” man who is the centre of attention as he jokes, is mischievous and breaks all of one’s rules for what is required to be good and liked. 

To find your must and shoulds, consider what type of people most annoy you and reflect on what it is about their behaviour you so dislike. What did you learn as a child that may have made you feel that such behaviour is wrong?

4. Personalising

This way of thinking makes everything always about oneself. This might be through always comparing yourself to others: “She’s so much more intelligent than me”, or “my body is nothing compared to him”. Another way of personalising is to always assume that you are the source of other people’s problems, or the cause of a negative event. 

An aspect of this way of thinking is mind-reading: thinking we know what other are thinking and that it is all to do with us.

A friend of mine had a powerful experience of seeing through this way of thinking. He was in a store about to pay for some items. He saw the cashier looking him up and down in a way that he took to be critical or with dislike. He reflected that he did not know what the other person was thinking and even if they were feeling negative he did not have to respond in the same way. Their negativity might have nothing to do with him, and he was aware his thoughts were his own subjective perception of the situation.

In the past he might have made a caustic comment or put the person down based on believing the truth of his perception of the situation but this time he just smiled and said hello. The cashier then chatted and in talking revealed that she had been wondering where he had got his coat as it looked perfect for her son and she would like to buy one. What had looked like a critical looking up and down was someone’s thinking face! 

The hydra of self-critiscm

Continuing with last week’s theme of the inner critic I return to an image I’ve spoke of before in the class: the Buddha surrounded by Mara’s army. 

To be precise it is an image of Prince Siddartha in the moments before he attained full enlightenment and became the Buddha. As a Prince he had left his home in search of awakening and his journey finally led to sitting underneath the Bodhi tree contemplating the nature of existence: that it is impermanent and devoid of any eternal self or soul and that the nature of all phenomena is that they arise upon conditions and have no essence separate to their part in the flow of life. 

As he contemplated thus and approached a point where his mind was ready to let go of its dualistic perspective of self and other and realise the ‘thusness’ of existence he was confronted by Mara and his army. Mara represents all of the unwholesome states of mind and ways of thinking that keep us lost in delusion and pain. It is said that Mara’s army attacked the Prince and shot flaming arrows, but that as they reached him they turned in to flowers and fell around him without causing harm.

After his enlightenment Mara still appeared to the Buddha, but the Buddha would always smile and say “I see you Mara” and Mara would then disappear. 

This is a beautiful image. It suggests to me a mind that has found peace in the middle of all the negative thought processes. They are still there but no longer touch the enlightened mind as it is no longer fighting them or believing in them. Thus, the enlightened mind is not a state separate from the world, it is an ability to be at peace in the middle of the world. 

In this way the first stage of releasing from the inner critic is to be able to turn and face it and say “I see you”


The 7 inner critics that were listed last week are like Mara’s army. They turn on us, ripping apart our inner peace. But they only have the power we give them. If we can start to sit in a place of calm self-awareness in the middle of them all perhaps these two may turn into flowers falling around us. 

Listening to our stories we may find a time comes when they suddenly loose their power – we have heard them so often we really can’t take them seriously any more. But for this to happen we have to attend fully to them and listen, and notice the repetitive nature of them. Otherwise they beguile us with an apparent newness and uniqueness each time. 

I realised a while ago that my central dilemma was anxiety. Not any particular thing but just the tendency of anxiety itself. At any one time there would be some thing that seemed so overwhelming. It seemed that if only this could be dealt with then a weight would be removed from me and I could be happy. Then I realised that if this anxious thought were to be magically removed another would arise to replace it, like the head of a hydra: as soon as one is cut off another two grow to replace it.

Cutting the heads off does not work, but keeps one busy with the hope I will one day be fixed if I keep cutting off enough heads – but they just grow back! Instead, by taking a step back it can be possible to look and see what is really there: the pattern of attaching to the struggle. Then I saw it was not the individual problems that were my dilemma, but the attachment to the hydra of anxiety itself. In fact I did not want the monster to die, for it give me a sense of the familiar and was a life pattern I identified with! I just wanted to keep cutting off heads as this gave me a sense of purpose. 

Learning to stop the fighting and frantic cutting off of heads of perceived problems and instead stepping back and taking in the whole issue of the tendency itself to be attached to anxiety helped me to stop struggling with myself. Now when these worries arise I am better able to recognising them as the hydra of anxiety and can remind myself of the Buddha’s example: “I see you”. At other times I talk to friends about my problems….. and they remind me to recognise what is happening!! Or talking things over with my therapist this becomes more clear. 

Over this next week see if the things you struggle with are your own hydra heads, growing to replace whatever you had thought you had cut off through some previous exertion to improve or deal with an issue of addiction or negative self-talk. Then see if you can take a step back, centre yourself and breathe. What is it like to simply acknowledge what is here: “I see you addiction”, “I see you fear”, “I see you pride”. Feel the power of these negative scripts, but instead choose to rest into the stillness of knowing it for what it is: a product of the mind seeking to create a sense of its own identity, importance and permanence, a coping mechanism that was learnt early in life as a way of trying to make sense of things. Recognise instead that all of this theatre of the mind is impermanent, has no fixed centre of self and is always in flux.

To do this we ned to bring deep compassion to ourselves, and have the support of friends and a network of structures such as therapy or supportive groups. Notice if you are struggling on your own and see how you can reach out to others. 

Meeting the Inner Critic

When I pay attention to my inner dialogue and how I talk to myself I’ve sometimes thought that if I spoke to others in the way I do to myself I soon would not have any friends! Who wants to hang around with someone who after a minor incident turns to them and says “idiot”, “how can you be so stupid!”, “what’s wrong with you?”, “when will you learn?” etc – fill in your own favourite you use with yourself!  This inner critic is the mind’s attempt to guard against danger, having stored previous examples that were registered as mistakes and are therefore to be avoided again.

The problem is, that when the brain was being formed the examples we internalised would often be statements from exasperated parents who would snap at us out of their place of wounding, rather than talking to us as mature adults. You spill coffee in the back seat of the car. A parent shouts at you “you stupid boy”. If we could reason with the parent we might say, as one little girl did in an example I heard, “I’m not stupid, I’ve done something stupid.” Most of us don’t have the perspicacity of this girl to challenge the statement, instead we take in the meaning that spilling coffee marks us out as being stupid. In future any similar incident will be flagged up as a danger to be avoided and if we do once again spill coffee the inner critic will immediately supply the criticism.

Looking on line for more on this issue I found the following webpage which outlines seven types of inner-critic and gives a simple definition of it: “The Inner-Critic is the part of you that judges you, demeans you, and pushes you to do things. It lowers your sense of self-worth and makes you feel bad about yourself.”

Jay Early, PHD goes on to define seven types of Inner-Critic:

1. Perfectionist
This Critic tries to get you to do things perfectly. It has very high standards for behaviour, performance, and production. Sometimes it prevents you from creating anything for fear it won’t be good enough. Sometimes it makes you work forever trying to perfect something.

2. Inner Controller
This Critic tries to control impulsive behaviour that might not be good for you or others, or might be dangerous. It tends to be harsh and shaming when you slip up.

3. Taskmaster
This Critic tries to get you to work hard or be disciplined in order to be successful or to avoid being mediocre. It can cause over-striving and workaholism.

4. Underminer
This Critic tries to undermine your self-confidence and self-esteem so you won’t take risks that might be dangerous, or so you won’t try and fail, or so you won’t get to big or powerful or visible and therefore be attacked or rejected. It makes you feel worthless.

5. Destroyer
This Critic makes pervasive attacks on your fundamental self-worth. It shames you deeply. It believes you shouldn’t exist.

6. Guilt-Tripper
This Critic attacks you for some specific action you have taken or not taken in the past or for repeated behaviour that has been harmful to others or violates a deeply-help value. It makes you feel guilty and will never forgive you.

7. Moulder
This Critic tries to get you to fit a certain mould or be a certain way that comes from your family or culture—e.g. caring, aggressive, polite. It attacks you when you aren’t and praises you when you are. If the mould doesn’t fit who you are, it constantly makes you feel inadequate.

Jay Earl goes on to say: “Despite the pain they cause, each type of Inner Critic is actually trying to help you or protect you from pain, in its own distorted way. By determining which types of Inner Critics you have, you can more easily get to know them and find out what they are trying to do for you. This makes it possible to develop a cooperative relationship with the Critic and transform it into a positive resource for you.”



As I sit in meditation it becomes a place to experience all of this. When I went back to visit my Abbot at the monastery in Northumberland where I spent my first three years of training we spoke about this. He talked of how the practice is about learning to be with the chaos of our inner world. Mindfulness is not about getting calm and making the mind quiet. That is to mistake the final flowering of practice with the early stages of practice. Mindfulness can help calm the mind and its story telling – but to see through the story teller completely means sitting in the eye of the storm as it plays itself out. 

Learning to be with the inner critic but not to believe it is part of this process of being with the chaos. 

Loving-Kindness practice gives us the chance to bring some kindness to our experience and to explore wishing ourself well whilst mindfulness practice offers the chance to sit with bare attention, experiencing the storm winds of ego identity, but with the opportunity to let go of this identity and recognise it for what it is: “a story told by an idiot, signifying nothing”. Perhaps Macbeth’s words are a bit harsh, but we can recognise that these inner worlds of thought identities have been created by the meaning making machine of the mind and only have the power to harm if we believe them to be objective truth and take them on as a legitimate criticism of who we are. 

The first stage is to be able to name the inner critic rather than take it as just an objective inner commentary. So looking at the list above, see if you recognise any as your own habit patterns of thought.  Then as they arise see what it is like to start naming them rather than believing them. 

We’ll return to this list next week to continue to explore this theme of naming the inner critic and defusing it: no longer letting it stick to us with the belief it is who we are, but recognising it as a habit pattern in the mind that gets triggered to play its familiar refrain, but just because it feels familiar this does not mean it is true or even relevant. 


Loving ourselves…with a little help from our friends

Last week I was away in Spain on a dance retreat so was not able to send a group email. Thank you to Andy Butterfield for taking the class. I hope those of you who were there enjoyed the different perspective he was able to bring by teaching from his experience of practice.

Whilst on the retreat I was exploring in my meditation and through the dance the feeling of being connected to friends.  This ties in with a new approach to the Loving Kindness meditation that I read about recently and will be exploring in the group on Mondays over this month.

One of the things I have heard consistently over the 27 years that I have taught meditation is the difficulty some people feel in being able to connect with wishing themselves well in the Loving Kindness meditation. It can feel forced or artificial to make this wish for oneself, or the inner critic that says one is being self-indulgent or selfish can arise, making it hard to feel a real sense of self-care.

On the retreat I had a chat with someone who told me how grateful he was for the practice, as he had been  able to use the reflections as a recitation during a time of emotional turmoil, repeating the phrases over and over as a wish for himself:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to me.

Connecting with the phrases as a wish for oneself can allow the heart to find its own way of opening to this feeling of self-care. I know someone else who has said that when in a depressive episode she cannot practice mindfulness as it is too much to sit with the intensity of her thoughts and feelings, but she can practice loving Kindness, wishing herself to be well, telling herself she cares for herself and wishes for her happiness.

Hearing this I realise how important it is that we have a feeling of being able to turn to the Loving Kindness practice as a resource rather than dismiss it as the practice we cannot do. Over this month the theme of the emails will be around self-care and self-love so that we have a consistent opportunity to explore this aspect of the practice.

Rather than always feeling we have to move away from the broken person we feel we are, how would it be if we stepped towards being the whole being that we are? We were not born broken or self-sabotaging. We learnt not to like ourselves. A baby does not feel it does not deserve to be loved, it does not hold back its cries feeling it should not bother anyone or that it should wait to be seen. We learn the belief that “I do not matter”, or “my needs are not important” or “I should not be a bother” or “I can only be worthy of love if I am serving another/ am funny enough/ have a good enough body….” or whatever our inner script may be.

Over the dance retreat I was able to feel how strongly I feel my needs do not matter, feel the fear of reaching out to connect, the belief I am too much and will only swap the other if I do try to connect, the fear of being rejected and the hope of being noticed. In one exercise we danced with rejection. Our partner had to ignore us as we danced. It was so painful. At first I danced with freedom and ease, in the flow of my dance. Then seeing that my partner was ignoring me I tried to attract his attention, dancing closer, my movements becoming more exaggerated. But still he looked at his nails or looked thorough me.

Then, without any thought about what I would do next my dance suddenly changed. My movements became small, timid, afraid of causing offence. I came close to my partner, trying to be in contact with his body as he ignored me. My hands coming to rest on my chest in a self embrace that did nothing to mitigate the feeling of panic at not being seen. I then stayed in this slow, small, constricted dance hoping if I were quiet and good enough my partner might then choose to notice me. In the space of five minutes my body was able to relive my experience of being a child who was not seen, and I felt the impact of making myself small in the hope that whatever it was I was doing wrong would no longer cause offence and I would once more be loved.

Over the rest of the retreat I stayed with this sense of making myself small and also of seeing how I could connect out to others. In one session I lost any feeling of being able to dance freely and was standing, with my arms around myself, my eyes closed, my head hanging down. My legs wrapped around themselves. Stuck to the spot. Feeling alone. Isolated. Not wanted. Incapable of connecting out……..

Then the most amazing thing….the sensation of fingers brushing against my head, neck and back. Then a hand giving support, then two hands resting on my back, coming down to my waist, inviting movement in my hips and back. And like a tightly curled bud my limbs released and moved and opened and expanded from their tight constriction until I was once again in the flow of my dance.

The dance facilitator then said “now leave your partner and return to your own dance”…I had not even heard that we were to go into pairs, and realised that someone had come to me as I stood in my paralysed state, daring to reach out to someone who looked so alone and cut off. I looked around and it was the friend I was on the retreat with and I felt such a rush of gratitude and love for him in that moment. If I remember nothing else from the retreat it will be the feeling of his touch waking me from a place of constriction and being closed down.


I then took this into my morning meditation. Using the new method I had read about recently I imagined myself between two friends. Rather than trying to start by wishing myself well I connected with the feeling of wishing my friends well. For so many of us it can be easier to wish another well rather than ourself! But it starts to open our heart to that felt sense of wishing a being to be happy and well.

Once this was connected to I then returned to myself. Feeling myself between these two friends who wish me well. Starting to turn this loving attention to myself. I can be so hard on myself: feeling I will only be worthy of love when I have worked on myself, sorted out this or that defect. Become a better person. But my friends love me right now. Your friends love you right now – as you are. They may see faults, after all we all have our quirks, but they are not saying “I will love you and be a friend in a years time once you have sorted out your addiction/quirk/behaviour trait” They are your friend right now because they embrace you as they find you. Opening to this in the meditation gives a chance to let go of the narrative that I will only be worthy of love in the future, and recognise that right now I am loved as I am, which is the unconditional nature of Loving Kindness.

You may like to try this approach in your own meditation. It need only be ten minutes: five minutes of sitting imagining yourself with a friend on either side: expressing your love and care for them in your own words or using the phrases:

May you be well
May you be happy
May you be safe and free from harm
May you be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to you.

Then when you feel ready have a sense of your friends at your side, wishing you well. See if you can feel a sense of your friends loving you as you are right now, warts and all. Starting to wish yourself well, using your own phrases or the Loving Kindness phrases, feeling them in your heart rather than thinking them:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to me.

I’m looking forward to sharing and exploring this in the class over the coming weeks.

If you would like to explore the Five Rhythms movement practice that is led by Bodhi who co-led the dance retreat I was on in Spain details are below: 

Click here for more info

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