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Quieting the Crtitical Inner Voice that Shames You

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from my article in the Huffington Post

Imagine making a mistake that holds the threat of negative consequences for your family or your work. As you sit there alone, aware that it’s your mistake, and it must be disclosed, what is your internal dialogue? What are the words you’re likely to call yourself?

If you’re like most people, the words you’ll direct at yourself will be condemning. These harsh words spring from shame, which is the moral condemnation that guilt becomes when you believe something you did wrong means something is wrong with you.

Shame is at the bottom of that critical voice in your head that follows you everywhere, waiting for the chance to berate, criticize, and blame you, whispering its insults in your ear or shouting them in your face. This voice grows out of all the times when the people who were supposed to love and encourage you, or teach and mentor you, admonished your efforts instead.

But don’t despair; there’s a cure to shame and it’s simpler than you might think.

I’ll get to the cure in a moment, but first let’s briefly look at the problem.

Freud defined shame as the fear of loss of love,[1] which leads to being controlled by what others think and say about you. “[It’s] the fear of disconnection,” says Dr. Brené Brown, “… of being perceived as flawed and unworthy of acceptance or belonging.”[2]

And it’s very stressful. Margaret Kemeny’s research found that “stress caused by how others view you is extremely powerful, as much or more so than [that] caused from . . . working too hard.” [3] Her research found that “acute threats to our social self increase stress hormones and proinflammatory cytokine activity occurring in concert with shame.” [4]

In short, shame is a condition that can seriously compromise the brain function that enables you to succeed and  the immune function that keeps you healthy.

Albert Ellis, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, found that there are two shame-based sentences that people tell themselves.

(1) The first sentence is I made a mistake; I made an error, and I got it wrong. This may invoke feelings of guilt or frustration, but if we were to stop here, the crisis would only represent an error to correct or a lesson to learn, extending the opportunity to grow or advance.

(2) The second sentence is This mistake I made . . . This event that turned out badly . . . This thing I got wrong . . . This way I behaved . . . it means that there’s something wrong with me. This is guilt or frustration becoming shame. It has us saying to ourselves I’m not good enough; I’m not smart enough; I’m not worthy enough; all of which calcify into the belief that I deserve whatever punishment is coming. And it’s this sentence – this belief – that does the damage.” [5]

Shame is psychologically painful, which makes us afraid to make a mistake, more because of the emotional punishment we inflict on ourselves than for anything the world might do to us. Eventually, a shame-based mind represses its mistakes to avoid feeling bad, preventing the possibility of learning from a mistake, which only increases the likelihood of repeating the blunder. Thus, mistakes can’t teach us anything. We become afraid to take risks, which limits our growth.

The problem with repression is that it isn’t selective. We can’t numb ourselves to difficult feelings, such as shame, without numbing ourselves to empowering feelings, like joy, passion, and peace, and this lessens our sense of self. We form facades and pretenses to compensate, which of course makes us feel even more inauthentic. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. Research shows that people struggle at naming a few good points about themselves, but easily fill two pages of things they perceive as faults. [6]

So, here’s the cure.

The cure is found in the words of Carl Rogers, arguably one of America’s greatest psychologists.  Rogers said, “What you are is good enough if you would only be it openly.” Does that sound too simple and too small to effect something as large as shame.

Becoming good enough begins with the simple step of accepting yourself exactly as you are, which is not easy, at least at first. It entails closing the gap between “I am” and “I should be;” which is the gap between the authentic you that’s true and realizable, and the ideal self that’s illusion. The ideal self is the image of the person you think you should be that is always out of reach, imposing an unrealistic  standard you can never meet. It becomes a measuring stick that says you’re failing in some way, even when you’re doing well.

Transcending the ideal self begins with awareness. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses your ideal self fabricates, so you can let them go. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses, so you can let them go. It’s understanding that it doesn’t help to act one way on the outside when you actually feel another way inside. It doesn’t help to pretend to know the answer when you don’t.

It’s being open to your experience, listening to yourself with acceptance. It’s learning to identify clearly what you’re feeling. The more you’re able to experience all of your feelings, the less you’re afraid of any of your feelings, including shame.

This facilitates the courage to accept that you’re not perfect or infallible; that you make mistakes, that you don’t always function in the best way or always achieve the best result. No one does. Ironically, the courage to be imperfect opens the way to experiencing the whole of you. The critical voice of shame no longer negates the better angels of your nature or blocks your strengths and talent. This quality of undefended openness is what leads to the realization that what you are is good enough.

In this way, your experience gradually becomes your authority. Other people’s ideas, judgments, and perceptions, while considered, cease to over-rule or control you. By definition, that’s personal power. Your relationships also become more meaningful and alive because your deepening sense of connection with yourself increases your regard and empathy for others.

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[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: Norton, 2005), 123–24.
[2] Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough,” (New York: Gotham Books, 2007), Kindle edition, Kindle location: 638–39.
[3] Amy Maxmen, “Secret Shame: Do You Fear What Others Think of You? How Shame Can Hurt Your Health,” Psychology Today, October 26, 2007, http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200710/secret-shame
[4] S. Dickerson, T. Gruenewald, and M. Kemeny, “Shame, Physiology, and Health,” Journal of Personality 72, no. 6 (December 2004): 1191–1210.
[5] “Albert Ellis—On Guilt and Shame—RARE 1960 recording, part 2,” uploaded by ProfessorMystic to YouTube, June 4, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuNWeI_l0F4.
[6] Herbert Arthur Otto, A Guide to Developing Your Potential (North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Book Co., 1977), 172.

Take Your Vacation. It Will Rebuild Your Brain.

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More than one in three of us are forfeiting our vacation time.  Instead of taking time to renew, most of us are working harder than ever, an average 49 hours a week. We are putting in 100-200 more hours per year than our parents.  We sleep less than our parents did; one to two hours less.  Those are averages; you might be working more and sleeping less than that.

Two million years of lost vacation time

We talk about vacations, plan them, dream about them and then fail to take one. As much as a half billion vacation days will go unused this year.  Surveys reveal that we don’t take vacations because we fear an adversary will get ahead of us, or that work will pile up while we’re gone.  If we do take a vacation, we take work with us.  A survey found that 92% of those away on vacation frequently check in with the office.  That’s really not a vacation.

The Reward for Taking Vacation Time

A proper vacation can repair and expand higher order brain function that a stressful year has debilitated and even damaged. The reward for the time you invest in a vacation is a brain humming with the creative intelligence, emotional balance, and physical energy that sustains you at the top of your game. When you return from vacation, neurologically you will be ahead of the person you worried would get ahead of you.

Here’s How to Take Your Vacation

Think of your vacation as an intensive care unit for your brain, where no one from the outside is allowed to enter your personal space who might stress you. That means that before you leave for your trip, put your email account on auto-responder.

When you arrive at your destination, put your Blackberry in a drawer. If you have to use it, be disciplined about letting non-urgent business calls go to voice mail.

Here’s a simple approach to making your vacation rejuvenate your brain.

(1)  Start your day in quiet in a place where you won’t be disturbed and follow the process below:

  • Close your eyes or take a downward gaze.
  • Tilt your head toward your heart. Follow your breathing. Imagine each breath softening your heart and opening it wider.
  • Take a few minutes to frame the day in a positive light.
  • Feel appreciation for the gift of another day of life.
  • Feel appreciation for another day to be with the ones you love.
  • Set the intention to have a relaxing, happy day.
  • Make your goal to succeed at love, peace and joy.

(2) During the day,

  • Practice being present, right here, right now.
  • Practice letting go of worries and judgments.
  • Commit to tuning into your loved ones. Rediscover them all over again.
  • Hold the intention to listen better, judge less, and forgive more. In fact, practice judging nothing that happens while on vacation, from traffic jams to unpleasant people.

 

 

 

Is Your Creativity Blocked? Get Unstuck In Just 30 Seconds

What makes a person highly creative?  It has a lot to do with how much two parts of our brain talk to one another.  Researchers have found that when the logical, analytical, linear left hemisphere is in dialogue with the intuitive, imaginative, brainstorming right hemisphere, it predictably produces highly creative, yet practical outcomes.   The greater the cross-talk, the greater the likelihood innovation will follow.

How do we get the two parts of our brain to talk to one another?

A study published in the prestigious journal Brain and Cognition (1) reports on an incredibly simple method researchers tested that appears to do the trick.   In the study, sixty-two subjects performed a task that required creative thought. They were given one-minute to dream up as many alternate uses for everyday objects like newspapers, brinks, paper clips, pencils, and shoes.

After performing the task, researchers asked half of the subjects to move their eyes horizontally right to left for 30 seconds.  The remaining subjects were instructed to stare straight ahead for 30 seconds.  The researchers hypothesized that horizontal eye movement would stimulate cross-talk between the hemispheres.  Why?  Prior research has suggested that people who have one hand that is dominant, so-called “strong-handers”, have less cross-talk between their brain hemispheres compared with people who are ambidextrous or “mixed handed.”

Following the eye exercise, all the subjects performed the creativity exercise again.  The results were astonishing.  Subjects who’d performed the horizontal eye movements showed significant improvement in their creativity.  They were more original and more prolific.  In contrast, subjects who’d stared straight ahead showed no improvement in creativity.    The beneficial effects of the eye movement exercise lasted nine minutes for originality and six minutes for variety.  It’s just enough time to get you unstuck and begin to build a head of steam, if your creativity has been blocked.

I first experimented with the eye exercise to push through writer’s block.  I had a book to write and although I had a vision of it, I couldn’t find a way to get started.  My efforts invariably turned into the proverbial wads of half written pages scattered about the office.   I had stumbled on this study while researching for a paper on creativity but didn’t try it.  It felt far fetched, even though it was based on research.  The pain of writer’s block made me receptive to giving it a try.

I stepped away from my desk, sat in a comfortable chair across from my bookcase and began move my eyes right to left and back again for 30 seconds.  When I was done I came back to my study, sat at my desk and for a few moments stared out the window.  My vision for the book came to mind as before, in its rough, organic and unformed state.  Then a moment later images of a coherent narrative began to spin in my head.  I turned to the computer and began to capture the flow.  An hour later I had written the first chapter of the book.  It was a chapter that not only laid out a clearer sense of the direction the book could take but also the style that would carry it.

The research shows that, if you’re one of the 3% of people who are ambidextrous (mixed-handed), the eye exercise is probably of no benefit.  But if you’re of the 97% who are strong-handed right or left, consider giving the eye exercise a try.    Especially if you creativity is blocked.

(1) Shobe ER, Ross NM, & Fleck JI (2009). Influence of handedness and bilateral eye movements on creativity. Brain and cognition, 71 (3), 204-14 PMID: 19800726

The Target Few Can See

I am writing a new book, entitled “Dear Genius,” and it’s intended to speak straight to you. It’s not hype. You possess your own brand of genius; it’s waiting for you to establish the environment within your brain so it can be realized.It’s the intel inside.

The great philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defined genius best. He said “talent is the ability to hit a target few can hit. But genius hits a target few can see.” How do you see that target?

Through a process called neuroplasticity. You rewire your brain to lead from higher order brain function and then place that brain power in the hands of your higher mind. It’s simpler than you might imagine. It does not matter how old you might be. A simple practice performed each day gradually opens your eyes to see the bull’s eye your genius is meant to hit.

Take a moment and try to imagine your brain at full power generating the creative and emotional intelligence that not only succeeds at life but flourishes.

It’s achievable and it all starts with the brain.

Pregnancy and The Brain

New research has wonderful news for pregnant women but unfortunately it also has news that is no so good. The wonderful news is that pregnancy increases brain power in expectant moms. The not-so-good news is that stress can take mother and child in the opposite direction.  Stress hormones can cross over into the fetus and affect the brain of the child.  Additionally, stress hormones can shrink the mother’s neural networks that generate the higher order brain function that make her smart.  Happily, there is something that can be done about it to insure that all goes well for mother and child.

The Good News

It was once thought that pregnancy caused a woman to lose brain power.  Not so.  A new research study involving more than 2,500 women over ten years has found that brainpower not only doesn’t decline during pregnancy; it appears to actually increase, producing a permanent improvement in brain function. The study found significant increases in mental acuity and memory in women during pregnancy and after childbirth. Even husbands show increased mental performance and empathy, although not to the same degree (Kinsley and Lambert, 2009).

Pregnant women have long been the butt of a demeaning stereotype. It paints a picture of a hormonal mess of a woman, charmingly stupid and erratic, turning every day into an episode of  I Love Lucy.  “Placenta brain” is the common term used to describe this stereotype; some in medical science call it “maternal amnesia.” It’s another in that long list of stereotypes that doesn’t hold up to examination. When researchers challenged the stereotype they found evidence of cultural prejudice toward a pregnant woman. Sara Corse at the University of Pennsylvania had MBA students interact with a manager they were told was pregnant. In reality, she was really a research assistant pretending to be pregnant.

The students who related to the ‘manager’ as pregnant gave her more negative ratings than the control group that had no notion of her being pregnant. The deceived students viewed the “pregnant manager” as passive or erratic, not as a leader deserving respect.

The Not-So-Good News

Stress is bad news for mother and child during pregnancy.  When large amounts of the stress hormone cortisol reach the fetal brain, it can cause structural and functional changes that are not good. New research (Weinstock-Rosin, 2008; Monk, 2010) shows that the offspring of stressed mothers during pregnancy were later shown to have impaired learning and memory abilities, attention-deficit, less capacity to cope with adverse situations and symptoms of anxiety and depressive-like behavior, as compared to unstressed mothers.  There is evidence that stress during pregnancy may even be a factor in autism and schizophrenia.

Here’s What You Can Do About It

It turns out that, biologically, a peaceful attitude is the path to the best outcome. The more peaceful you are during pregnancy, the more your child’s brain will grow in the positive ways that assure the good life you envision for him or her.  As a number of studies have shown over the last decade (Davidson, 2001) a dynamically peaceful attitude is a prescription for an amazing brain – for mother as well as child.

Click here for the full article that also contains a set of tools that can help expectant moms and dads sustain the dynamically peaceful attitude that grows a healthy baby.