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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.

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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

Anxious, avoidant and secure: common thoughts, emotions and reactions

The last two 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.

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

As I’ve read this book it has been like a map of my inner world laid out. Theories which might be abstract resonate so much with my experience of intimacy and I have recognised patterns of behaviour that feel so personal but from the perspective of this theory are simply how a person with anxious attachment will respond to intimacy. In Buddhism a central reflection is that the sense of being a unique and fixed individual is a misconception. Our sense of self arises from the interaction we have with stimuli from the world around us and from how we interact with our thoughts, which creates our perception of the world.

Recognising that the patterns of mental activity that feel so personal are in fact a pattern shared with many others helps to lessen the belief that this is somehow uniquely my experience. Certainly it is what I am experiencing, but it is not unique to me. Seeing this helps to lessen the emotional charge that makes it feel so much like a personal failure to have these ways of responding to a situation.

One area that particularly struck me was the description of typical thoughts, emotions and reactions for each type. See if you recognise yourself here!

Common thoughts, emotions and reactions for the anxious type

Thoughts:

  • Mind reading “that’s it, I just know they’ve had enough of me and will never want to see me again”
  • I’ll never find anyone else.
  • I knew this was too good to last.
  • All or nothing thinking: I’ve ruined it all, there’s nothing I can do to mend this.
  • I knew something would go wrong: nothing ever works out right for me.
  • I have to see him/her right now.
  • S/he’d better come crawling back asking for forgiveness or they can forget about me forever.
  • Perhaps if I look really gorgeous or act seductive things will work out.
  • S/he is so amazing why would s/he want to be with me anyway?
  • Remembering all the good things your partner has ever done or said after a fight
  • Recalling only the bad things your partner has ever done or said during a fight.

Emotions: sad and/or fearful, resentful, frustrated, depressed, hopeless, jealous, despairing guilty, self-loathing, rejected, uncertain, misunderstood.

Actions:

When an anxious type fears a loss of intimacy they will seek closeness and this may well manifest as acting out to try and get the reassurance or attention they long for. These are protest behaviours, similar to a child having a tantrum to get its parent’s attention. These behaviours are automatic and are not considered actions but a knee jerk response to the fear of abandonment. They occur when your anxious attachment has been triggered by your partner’s real or perceived withdrawal of affection or availability:

  • Excessive attempts to re-establish contact: Calling, texting or emailing many times, waiting for a call or text
  • Withdrawing: sitting silently “engrossed” in the paper or some other activity, turning your back on your partner
  • Keeping score: noting how long it took for them to reply to a text and leaving it exactly the same amount of time.
  • Acting hostile: Rolling your eyes as they speak, getting up and walking away while they are talking.
  • Threatening to leave: “we’re not getting along, I don’t think I can do this any more”. Rather than being a true expression of a wish to separate this comes from a place of wanting your partner to say how much they love you and will never leave. You’ll be devastated if they actually agree with you!
  • Manipulations: acting busy or unapproachable, ignoring phone calls, saying you have plans when you don’t.

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Common thoughts, emotions and reactions for the avoidant type

Thoughts:

  • All or nothing thinking: I knew s/he wasn’t right for me, this proves it!
  • Overgeneralising: I knew I wasn’t made to be in a close relationship!
  • S/he’s taking over my life, I can’t take it!
  • Now I have to do everything his/her way; the price is too high.
  • I need to get out of here, I feel suffocated.
  • If s/he were “the one” this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.
  • When I was with (the idealised ex) this wouldn’t have happened.
  • Malicious intent: s/he’s really out to annoy me, it’s so obvious…
  • S/he just wants to tie me down, this isn’t true love.
  • Fantasising about having sex with other people.
  • I’ll be better off on my own.
  • Ugh s/he’s so needy! It’s pathetic.

Emotions: withdrawn, frustrated, angry, pressured, unappreciated, misunderstood, resentful, hostile, aloof, empty, tense, contemptuous, scornful, distrustful.

Actions:

When an avoidant type feels their partner is too demanding of their attention they will seek distance. They require solitude and a sense of their own autonomy in order to feel comfortable. If they are dating an anxious person this need for space will often be pressed in on by the anxious type’s need for reassurance: wanting to text, to hold hands, to cuddle up. In response to this perceived neediness of the partner and to re-establish their own space avoidants will use deactivating strategies to keep their partner at a distance or to disengage from them. One thing the author says is that avoidants do want intimacy, but they find it hard to admit as for them intimacy means being overwhelmed by the other so their actions are intended to allow for just as much connection as they feel comfortable with, whilst maintaining a feeling of distance and independence. For this reason avoidants rarely date each other as there is nothing to bring them together.

  • Saying (or thinking) “I’m not ready to commit” – but staying together nonetheless, sometimes for years.
  • Focusing on small imperfections in your partner: the way s/he talks, dresses, eats or…..and allowing it to get in the way of your romantic feelings.
  • Pining after an ex-girlfriend-boyfriednd, thinking that they were the one you should have stayed with and comparing your present partner unfavourable to them – (the phantom ex)
  • Flirting with others – a hurtful way to introduce insecurity into the relationship.
  • Not saying “I love you” – while implying that you do have feelings toward the other person.
  • Pulling away when things are going well (e.g. not calling for several days after an intimate date).
  • Forming relationships with an impossible future, such as with someone who is married.
  • “Checking out mentally” when your partner is talking to you.
  • Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy – to maintain your feeling of independence.
  • Avoiding closeness – e.g. not wanting to share the same bed, not wanting to have sex, walking several strides ahead of your partner.

The emotional advantages of dating a secure partner

For the sake of brevity I am not listing the traits of the secure type. Basically they will not take on the blame for what happens and stay open to the other rather than becoming critical or acting out. I was talking to a friend who took the test and come out as secure. As we talked about the different dynamics of the anxious type he said that if someone comes across as needing contact to reassure them after a few dates: holding hands, texting etc, then his response is to find it endearing and sweet. Very different to the avoidant who will see it as an imposition and will disengage. This short conversation with my friend confirmed the author’s assertion that an ideal partner for an anxious type is a secure:

As an anxious type you:

  • want closeness and intimacy  and a secure person is comfortable with this and will not push you away.
  • are very sensitive to any signs of rejection and a secure person is very consistent and reliable.
  • find it hard to tell your partner directly what you need and what’s bothering you whilst a secure person sees your well being as a top priority and do their best to read your verbal and non verbal cues.
  • need to be reassured and feel loved and a secure person feels comfortable telling you how they feel, very early on, in a consistent manner.
  • need to know exactly where you stand in the relationship and a secure person is very stable, they also feel comfortable with commitment.

Anxious and avoidants find it difficult to create a relationship that nourishes them both as there is a conflict between what they are both looking for. As an anxious person you:

  • want closeness and intimacy whilst avoidants want to maintain some distance (emotional or physical)
  • are very sensitive to any signs of rejection whilst an avoidant sends mixed signals that often come across as rejecting.
  • find it hard to tell them directly what you need and what’s bothering you whilst the avoidant is bad at reading your verbal and non verbal cues and don’t think it’s their responsibility to do so.
  • need to be reassured and feel loved whilst an avoidant tends to put you down to create distance.
  • need to know exactly where you stand in the relationship whilst an avoidant prefers to keep things fuzzy.

Last week’s essay looked at actions avoidants and anxious people could take to work with their tendencies. The main one for an avoidant is to find a secure partner, as a secure person will be comfortable with exploring the dynamic and talking things through rather than going into protest behaviour as the anxious type would do. Alternatively, if an avoidant and anxious person are dating, for it to work both the avoidant and anxious partner need to become very self aware and recognise their dynamic and how that impacts on the relationship, and to then reach a compromise that works for both partners.

Working with the challenges of being in an anxious-avoidant relationship

The final chapter in the book covers how people can work with being in an anxious-avoidant relationship. It may be you have identified that your current relationship is this type of dynamic and want to work with it. The key points the author suggests are:

1. Clarity: write out a list recurrent patterns in your relationship and the situations that trigger them. Write down your reactions and thoughts. Identify if your actions and those of your partner are secure, anxious or avoidant and reflect on how you loose out by going along with your habitual strategies (if you are not secure). Use effective communication with your partner to resolve any conflicting desires you both have in the relationship.

2. Using effective communication to choose the right partner or to communicate with your current partner. As this is a chapel in itself, I’ll leave it to be the topic of next week’s essay.

If you have not yet taken the test it is below, or for a more detailed test taking about 15 minutes click here. To buy the book click here

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Anxious, avoidant and secure: the three relationship styles anyhow to work with our type.

I posed the question last week “why do I always fall for the same sort of man”, or rather, why do I always end up having a familiar experience: chasing after someone who is not interested or running from someone I feel uncertain of but who is interested in me? As I’ve read more of the book I recognise both elements of the avoidant and anxious in my romantic encounters. Secure seems to show up in how I navigate friendships and difficulties within these, unless I get triggered by the other person being unavailable to talk and I go in to anxious.

One answer the book gives to why we go for familiar types is that it enables us to perpetuate a certain view of ourselves and of life.

Avoidant’s tend to date anxious people because it confirms their belief that people are going to be more demanding than they want and that they need to remain strong and hold people away in order to maintain their independence.

Anxious people often feel an excitement on meeting an avoidant as it triggers a feeling they have come to associate with falling in love. An avoidant will give subtle signals right from the start that they are not fully available and this will trigger the heightened worry and flutter of wondering if the other person is going to want them in the anxious person. In contrast meeting a secure person there is none of this avoidance and the secure person is making it clear they are available, like you and want to go further. This can feel so unfamiliar that the lack of feelings of anxiety about being not wanted can be interpreted as there being “no spark’, or that the person is handsome but dull.

Secure people are more likely to enter into and sustain relationships whereas avoidant people are more likely to leave relationships.  This means the number of secure people in the dating pool is lower and the likelihood of an anxious person meeting an avoidant is much higher. Avoidant’s tend not to date each other.

The book gives a detailed description for each type and how to bring awareness to their pattern. The following is a brief summary.

What I found most helpful was the author’s clear belief that none of the types have to feel wrong or need to fix themselves. There is a very compassionate attitude of recognising what one’s pattern is, how it serves one and how to recognise when situations are triggering one to act in ways that do not lead to our deepest fulfilment.

Tips for the anxious attachment type

1. Acknowledge and accept your true relationship needs.
This does not mean sending 100 texts a day or trying to move in on the second date! It means recognising that as a person with an anxious attachment style if your needs are not met you cannot be truly happy in the relationship. This means not allowing people to make you feel guilty for being “needy” or “dependant” but instead recognising your need for intimacy, availability and security.

2. Recognise and rule out avoidant prospects early on
Growing out of this recognition of our own needs, rather than chasing after avoidant people and trying to adapt to be attractive to them, the author suggests we learn to spot the signs of an avoidant and then recognise that a relationship with them will very likely consist of us trying to push closer as they try to hold us away.

To help with this recognition the author gives the following ‘smoking guns’ that indicate someone is avoidant:

  • Sends mixed messages about commitment and their interest in you
  • Longs for an ideal relationship – but gives subtle hints it will not be with you
  • Desperately wants to meet “the one” – but finds fault with the person they are with
  • Disregards your emotional well-being
  • Suggests you are “too needy”, “sensitive or “overreacting” – invalidating your feelings and making you second guess yourself
  • Ignores things you say that inconvenience him/her
  • Addresses your concerns as in a “court of law” – responding to facts without taking into account your feelings.
  • Your messages don’t get across

3. A new way of dating: be your authentic self
Express your needs. In talking of the anxious type the author says it is important to recognise that an anxious person has a need for intimacy and deep connection with their partner. Recognising this means you can show your need for connection early on and do not need to try to adopt a false persona of being aloof and independent in the early stages of dating, pretending that you do not want to reach out and connect in the name of playing it cool! All that will do is give a false message to a potential partner which will then result in you developing a relationship with someone who may not be ready to respond when you eventually show your real desire for greater contact and intimacy.

4. The abundance philosophy
A classic thought of the anxious attachment type is “this is the only one for me” or “I had better accept them as no-one else will want me”. It means shifting from the belief that meeting a suitable partner is unlikely to a belief that there and many potential partners out there. Rather than focusing all of your hope on one person, which will trigger the fear of loosing them and consequently make you act out more on your anxiety the author suggests you recognise there are many people you might potentially meet and to date a number of people at any one time so you do not fixate on one person. If someone then starts to go cool, rather than this triggering your attachment system which will make you want them even if on a logical level you know they are not right for you, if you have other dates at the same time you can more easily let go of the person who is distancing themselves.

5. Give secure people a chance
As mentioned earlier, secure people can seem dull to an anxious type as they do not trigger the feelings that are associated with the early stages of falling in love that come when dating an avoidant. Rather than making an impulsive decision to ditch someone because it feels too flat, give it time, perhaps it is just that you are not getting the usual mixed messages and avoidance behaviour that usually makes you long for someone.
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Tips for the Avoidant Attachment Type

In contrast to anxious types who will activate their attachment system when faced with an avoidant to try and get closer, avoidant’s will deactivate their attachment system and keep their partner at arms length.

1. Recognise when you are turning to deactivating  strategies

  • saying “I’m not ready to commit” but staying together
  • focusing on small imperfections in your partner
  • pining after an ex (seeing them as the lost love of your life in hindsight, even though when with them you saw all of their faults)
  • flirting with others – to introduce uncertainty into the relationship
  • Not saying “I love you”
  • Pulling away when things are going well
  • Forming relationships with an impossible future – ie someone who is married
  • “Checking out mentally” when your partner is talking to you.
  • Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy – to maintain your sense of independence
  • Avoiding physical closeness – not wanting to share the same bed, have sex, walking ahead of your partner.

2. De-emphasise self-reliance and focus on mutual support
Giving your partner a secure base will make them feel more secure and thus leave you free to have the independence you want when they can rest in a sense of trust that you’re there fo them. An example of this was a man who resented his wife texting him at work. He felt too busy to respond. But his lack of response led to her feeling more anxious and sending more texts and then being angry or silent when he got home. They talked about this and recognised their patterns. The husband reassured her he did think of her often, but did not have time for a conversation by text. The agreement they reached was that he would send a standard text each time he thought of her: “thinking of you”. Receiving these reassured her and reduced the need to text him.

3. Find a secure partner
An anxious attachment type will exacerbate the avoidant’s desire to escape. Being with a secure person will reduce the behaviour that would trigger this, resulting in less defensiveness, fighting and anguish.

4. Be aware of your tendency to misinterpret behaviours
Recognise your tendency to assume a negative intention behind your partner’s behaviour and instead learn to trust that they have your best interests at heart. In the texting example, the husband was convinced his wife was trying to undermine his performance at work by stressing him with texts all day, rather than recognising it was her way of asking if he was aware of her because she loved him and wanted to matter to him.

5. Make a relationship gratitude list
Recognise if you are tending to think negatively of your partner on a daily basis. This is not to blame yourself, it is simply how the avoidant style works – to create distance from intimacy through finding fault. To work with this tendency of your mind, start to make time at the end of every day to think back over the day and recognise at least one way your partner contributed to your well-being that day, however small that might be, and reflect on why you’re grateful they’re in your life.

6. Nix the phantom ex
When you find yourself idealising that one special ex-partner stop and acknowledge that you found faults in them as well when you were together.

7. Forget about “the one”
The author distinguishes between the unattainable ideal of “the one” who meets all the criteria on our check list, and of meeting someone in their imperfections but finding that they are a match for us and become special to us.

8. Adopt the distraction strategy
As an avoidant it is easier to get close to your partner if there’s a distraction – taking a hike, going sailing, preparing a meal together etc all allows you to let your guard down and makes it easier to access your loving feelings.

The book contains a lot more detailed information on this and a chapter for secure types – but as they tend to have balanced and easy ways of relating there is lesss to say!

If you have not yet taken the test it is below, or for a more detailed test taking about 15 minutes click here. To buy the book click here

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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! 

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. 

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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

Saying no to the inner stories, so we can say yes to our life

Last week I was reflecting on the power of saying no to external events and a text conversation with a friend this week has reminded me of the power of learning to say no to the stories we tell ourselves.

The 8 week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course has a theme of ‘propaganda’ – the stories we tell ourselves so often that we come to believe them as objective truth rather than a subjective opinion. As the cartoon above suggests, it is so easy for us all to be going around with the same propaganda undermining us: the thought that it is only me who is not together, is broken and failed….whilst thinking that everyone else is together, purposeful and living to their full potential.

Having the privilege of talking to so many people in my role as monk and then mindfulness teacher, and reading the emails that some people send me in response to these weekly reflections I have been privileged in my life to see behind the public mask so many of us present to the world. Behind that mask what so many of us share is a sense of confusion, fear and struggle. Often this is rooted in negative scripts that tell us we are in some way defective or lacking, or do not deserve the success we have, or will be seen to be the fraud we feel ourselves to be.

Some people will have other more egotistical scripts, believing themselves to be amazing and wonderful, but this is still a fragile place to inhabit, as the moment this belief gets threatened the fragility of their identity easily cracks. People who have based their worth on being a high flying, high earning achiever can be the most  hard hit by loosing their job or position as they also loose everything that confirms their story of who they are. Rather than believing in themselves they believe in what their position says about them and loosing that position it can feel as if they have been destroyed. Unfortunately the number of suicides after executives or highly placed bankers have lost their position testifies to this. In contrast people with a low self-view are relatively comfortable with the world conforming this through a perception of failure!

It does not matter then whether our inner script is one of lack or superiority, believing in the script and the stories that get generated by it can be destructive for anyone and learning to say no to the story teller is the first step in finding a deeper freedom.

 

 

Reading self-help books and attending workshops can be a useful way of becoming aware of the scripts – but can in themselves become part of the story: the one who is seeking, who is broken, who needs to find the right person or book or teaching to fix them. The people I know who have found their own freedom have all at some point stopped looking outside and instead taken the teaching they have and turned inside to fully explore the implications of that insight.

The thought “I’ll read just one more book”, or “I’ll visit just this one more teacher” and then I can start to explore the implications of their teaching is all a way of the storyteller delaying the deeper investigation of what is keeping one trapped: one’s own addiction to the drama we have become familiar with. The friend I have been chatting with about this said it so well when he observed that he was addicted to his story. I’ve felt that with my own sadness at times, it’s as if I am addicted to a state of being and make choices that perpetuate that experience. Partly it feels comfortable to rest in the familiar. But there also  seems to be a feedback loop where feeding the familiar emotional drama is like any other addiction in the way it gives rise to a dopamine hit that gives a sense of reward, even if the addictive emotion itself is an unpleasant one.

The following information outlines this process, relating it to our ancient reward centre in the brain that assists in learning thorough giving a pleasurable experience through the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine when we experience something which seems beneficial to our learning or survival:

 

As the brain experiences a dopamine hit from turning towards this addictive behaviour it reinforces the feeling that this is a reward which encourages it to return to this behaviour more and more to get the reward again and again. So if our addiction is porn or food or buying shoes or feeling sad or self-blame the process is the same: our brain has learnt through a ‘pathological learning’ to identify that stimuli with a dopamine reward.

Thus we return to the principle of learning to say no to the story teller: the urge to return to a familiar experience, whether it be an addictive sense of feeling sad, or and external addiction of shopping, food or porn. The story will be that when I have this I will feel better. Even though that may then be followed by a feeling of shame at having fallen into a pattern again that we feel does not really serve us. But that remorse passes and soon we are back in the loop again of seeking the dopamine reward for our familiar pattern.

In this way these negative scripts have a double barb: they give rise to shame or a sense of not being fulfilled, yet by giving a false dopamine hit of reward they also mange to trick the brain into thinking they are beneficial by giving a brief experience of fulfilment followed by the crash of shame, and so we return to these activities again, in part to get away from the low feelings associated with the shame they have caused to arise.

Logically I can look at my addiction to sadness and see that it serves no purpose other than to keep me sad in a world that is perceived as half empty. But if by returning to this familiar place I get a dopamine hit that briefly tells the brain this is a beneficial experience then there is an encouragement to keep returning.

The benefit of mindfulness in this process is to learn to urge surf. This is a manfulness based approach to craving, where instead of trying to resist an urge one instead turns toward the experience of the craving with curiosity, and learns to sit in the experience, attending to it as one watches the breath and the body whilst meditating. In this way there is a beautifully paradoxical process of saying no by saying yes! We say “yes” to being present and allowing without judgement the urge or desire to be as it is, but this requires us to say “no” to acting on the urge in habitual ways so that we are able to sit with it and fully feel what it is like as an experience. In this way we can feel the discomfort within it, and also watch as it passes, without needing to get the hit of the familiar addictive behaviour to make the discomfort go away.

 

 

 

 

As I write this email I am hailing to apply the principles to my experience right now. I had a date today, someone I met on the Tube a few weeks ago. This was to be our second date, after spending three hours together last Thursday. But he canceled yesterday, saying he is too busy with work. This immediately took me into the familiar story: “I’m not wanted”, “why do I only find men who cannot commit”, “what’s wrong with me….what did I do wrong”. The discomfort of all of this then just makes me want to find a way to escape the pain: either through indulging in the comfortably familiar place of melancholy or in some porn as a simulated experience of connection and sensuality. But this is the old story playing out and putting its shadow over the events. He’s not said we will not meet, only that he is too busy today. It may be we never meet again, or it may be we have a date in a weeks time once I return from Queer Spirit.

My brain finds it so comfortable to go to the place of melancholy it immediately reads this as a rejection and a failure and bang, there is the dopamine hit of going to the familiar place of melancholy. Instead, by applying the urge surfing method in conjunction with Ajhan Chah’s teaching “unsure uncertain” I can stay with this as an experience and recognise that the catastrophising that makes me feel so bad is not based on what is happening, but my fear of what will happen. I can be with the sadness of a canceled date: that is real. But the feelings of failure and of calamity are based on a familiar story of lack being projected into the future and creating a certainty that is not yet born out by any events. A similar story played itself out last month with a new friend whom I was convinced had lost interest in becoming friends. Now we text every  few days and are intermittent workout buddies. The story bore no reality to what was to happen but created a week of feeling dejected and a failure. Then when I dropped the story and sent him a text he replied and we carried on from there, so in fact there was no rejection…it was just he had not sent a text and needed me to do so to pick up the conversation again. 

I hope this helps you reflect on your own stories and how to relate to them as stories and not truth.

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